Friday, August 1, 2014

Two Tragic Developments in the Public Worship of Jesus Christ's Church

This article is about two bad developments I have observed in Evangelical and Reformed worship services, which I believe are in keeping with a general trend, at least in North America.  Both developments are difficult to justify biblically, and both show a lack of wisdom.

The first development/trend is that we are jettisoning the reading of the Scriptures in our services.  Not only is this disobedience to the explicit command of the apostle (1 Timothy 4:13), it also is at odds with the practice of the early church, which was modeled after the reading of Scripture in the synagogue, where Scripture was read extensively. Our lack of devotion to reading Scripture in our services is unbiblical and a departure from the tradition of the synagogue and early church, but it is also unwise because it will do great damage to the next generation of Christians by promoting biblical illiteracy.

In his book entitled, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice, Bryan Chapell gives us five sample worship services that have characterized Christian worship through the centuries.  The five are:

  1. Rome (pre-1570)
  2. Luther (ca, 1526)
  3. Calvin (ca. 1542)
  4. Westminster (ca. 1645)
  5. Robert Rayburn (from the Reformed tradition ca. 1980)
  • The Roman service had an Old Testament reading, a Gradual (a Psalm that was sung), an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading.
  • Luther's service had a Gradual, an Epistle reading and a Gospel reading.
  • Calvin's service had a Gradual, the Ten Commandments, and the Sermon Scripture from the Gospels.  Sermons in the morning services throughout Geneva were always from the Gospels, because the Gospels were thought too important and too valuable for the people not to be read and preached from! They recognized that the high point of the reading of God's Word came from hearing Christ's words, something the other traditions recognized by reading the Gospels last.  If one wanted to hear a sermon from something other than the Gospels, one would have to go to an evening or weekday service.
  • The Westminster service had an Old Testament reading, a Gradual, a New Testament reading, and the Sermon Scripture. 
  • Robert Raymond's service had an Old Testament reading, New Testament reading, and the Sermon Scripture.
In today's church, we have abandoned the practice of an Old Testament and New Testament reading. All we have is the Scripture before the Sermon.  The idea of separate Old Testament, Psalms, Epistle and Gospel readings is abandoned usually with one of two justifications.  Some argue that people find it too dull and too long. Others argue that our services must conform to a theme, and reading through the Old and New Testaments will obscure the chosen theme for the worship service.

But these excuses do not hold up.  We are not wiser than God, who desires us to be devoted to the public reading of God's Word. Again, 1 Timothy 4:13 says, "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture."  In Augustine's church, Scripture was read for one hour each Lord's Day!  Now that is devotion, but our reading of merely the Sermon Scripture cannot be called devotion. 

Some will argue that this public reading of Scripture was necessary then, but not now, because more people are able to read now than in earlier times.  While there may be some truth in this argument, although Jewish males were almost all able to read in Jesus' day, we fool ourselves if we think we are off the hook because people can read the Bible on their own:
  1. While people may be able to read the Bible on their own, the statistics show they often do not.
  2. More people than we are aware of have difficulty reading. What a shame if these poor readers attend our churches, but never become acquainted with God's Word directly, rather than only through a sermon.
  3. Should we not set an example for our people by reading the Word extensively in church?  Much of what the worship service is intended to do is teach us how to be disciples by modeling practices of discipleship like the regular reading of God's Word, as well as prayer.
  4. If God's Word is truly a means of grace, why would we want to withhold this means of grace from people?  Unlike music (which is a large part of why we no longer read the Word as we once did!) the Word is actually a means of grace.  

The second development/trend is the lack of a pastoral prayer.  In some circles, this was called the prayers of the people, the congregational prayer or the long prayer.  I rarely see this prayer in churches today, even though it was a staple in Luther's service, Calvin's Service, the Westminster service, and the Rayburn service.

The loss of this prayer is a great tragedy.  It means that the world goes unprayed for when Christians gather together!  When we see the great spiritual need all around us, how can we sing so much and pray so little?

James says, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise."  By not praying in our worship services for our needs and the needs of the world, we act as if we and the world do not suffer and are without need!  But if we truly saw ourselves in our great spiritual need, and the world in its desperate need apart from Christ, it would be unthinkable to abandon the congregational prayer.

Brothers and sisters, and whoever might stumble upon these thoughts, let's do what we can to move the church back to the public reading of Scripture, and let's restore the prayers of the people when we gather together.  Is it unreasonable to want to hear more from God when we gather together, and less from ourselves (see James 1:19)?  Is it unreasonable to pray for the great spiritual needs of ourselves and the world when we gather as Christ's people?  Are we not guilty in this generation for getting rid of these good things in the worship of God's people?

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