Finding the Balance in Worship – Part 2 of 4

Continued from part 1

WORD-CENTERED WORSHIP

Some Christian bodies characterize their worship as “word-centered.” I frequently worship with a congregation that is word-centered in a conservative, evangelical way. Two things stand out to me in service after service. First, Scripture references inform every part of the worship hour. They sound forth from the songs sung either by congregation or choir, they shape the prayers, and they richly season the sermons. Across a lifetime of ministry the pastor has stocked his memory with the Scriptures and hymns of the church until they shape a whole service.

But, secondly, I note the attentiveness with which the sermons are received. On a Sunday morning there are 500 or so in service. The congregation seems remarkably alert and engaged. I’ve had the opportunity to observe while the sermon is being delivered. There is a dynamic quietness as we listen, broken by moments of laughter. It’s as though the whole body is knit together with this common conviction that the Bible is the foremost authority to the people of God and when its truth is being delivered it is to be received with great respect. Whatever the layout, services like this are Word – centered.

All this is consistent with the example of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. His printed sermons left with us are richly scriptural. But, even more distantly, this emphasis reflects a light that shines from the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Among the most significant features of that God-blessed movement were its rediscovery of the authority of the Bible and the Bible’s power to renew worship. Imagine Martin Luther in his cloister, quill in hand, working painstakingly to translate the Bible into German, sentence by sentence, so the common people could hear it in their own language. Or recall William Tyndale, hiding from place to place in Europe to translate the Scriptures into English for his fellow countrymen, and eventually paying for his diligence by death at the stake in Holland.

There are other historical pictures that we dare not let fade from the Christian memory: John Knox and other Reformation greats preaching from the Bible with vigor and clarity; or Bibles chained at several locations in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, while illiterate people crowded around to hear its timeless passages read; or the early Presbyterians of Scotland waiting for the sexton to carry the big Bible to the pulpit, signaling that worship could now begin; or John Wesley mounting his portable pulpit in the out of doors, and preaching from a selected text to a sometimes roistering but soon subdued crowd. To the present, wherever the traces of the Reformation are evident, the Christian Scriptures are given a central place in worship.

We should not be surprised at my wife’s sense of shock when she attended an “evangelical” service at which the Scriptures were hardly mentioned until two-thirds of the way through the pastor’s seeker sensitive talk. That was not Evangelical. It was not Protestant. It was not Biblical. It was some sort of folk religion that had seeped into that church.

To be sure, word-centered worship can have its perils. Once, while in Colorado, I searched out a church within walking distance from my motel. For the church I found, the setting could
not have been finer — well coiffed shrubs, immaculate lawns, a modern and splendid sanctuary, a pastor in robes, a special reading desk for the Bible. But there was no sense of joyful community, and I left the meeting feeling as alone and unnourished as when I arrived. Word-centered leaders may assume that to explain some portion of the Bible is enough. It can thus become merely the practice of cold orthodoxy, a duty carried out faithfully but without the warmth of God’s quickening Spirit. In true worship, Word and Spirit are intended to enhance one another.

Nevertheless, in Christian worship the emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures is fundamental. When a service of worship opens with a few verses from the Bible, an authority is established under which the whole event is to be carried out. When later, portions are read from both Testaments as a separate act of worship, this declares the worshiping body’s confidence in the Scriptures as both revealed in history and illuminated by the Spirit now. When everything about the service builds toward the preaching of the Word, the way is prepared for the Spirit to give understanding. Word-centered worship can be transforming.

Conversely, where the centrality of the word of God is neglected, the words of man may be counted on to multiply and, however cheery, leave a void unfilled. Spirited worship is not the same as spiritual worship. Worship that does not give the word of God a central place does tend to lean toward folk religion. Just as a lack of calcium over a long period of time weakens the bones, so a lack of anointed Biblical content in worship leaves Christian worshipers eventually spiritually weak and even deformed.

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