Posted by: dacalu | 25 February 2008

Common Worship

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven….And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  (Matthew 6: 1, 5-8)

Christians have a somewhat complicated relationship with prayer.  We are told to pray in secret and yet we know that the disciples were continually in the Temple blessing God (Luke 24:53).  James tells us that the prayer of faith will save the sick (James 5:15) and yet God makes rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).  We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and yet Jesus tells us to pray and worship together (Matthew 18:19-20, I Corinthians 11:23-26).  Those sound an awful lot like things we should do.  So we are left with somewhat of a quandary when it comes to worship.  How are we to show our love for God?

Jesus seems pretty clear in Matthew’s gospel.  Personal piety should be kept personal.  We pray to be seen by God and not to be seen by others. Why, then, should we have common worship at all?  There have been a number of answers over the 20 centuries of Christian life.  They range from community building to instruction to monitoring your neighbors.  Two of the most common have been sacrifice and instruction.

In the sacrifice model—popular in the middle ages—we say a mass in order to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our salvation. The priest is a necessary part of the common worship, because only the priest can mystically join the community to the sacrifice of Christ.  Only the priest can make Jesus present in the bread and wine.  Individuals, seeking salvation, must partake of the sacrifice in order to be in good standing with God.  Communities, seeking salvation, must reenact the sacrifice in order to be holy.  This is why it was so important to have a local priest.

I don’t buy the sacrifice model.  Mostly I don’t buy it because I don’t think a priest should be necessary for my salvation. More than that, I’m not keen on making salvation an exchange.  You do this mystical activity and I’ll let you in the gate.  I think Luther had something here.  The atonement was once and for all.  No further action is necessary.  Roman Catholic theology no longer hits quite so hard on the sacrifice angle, but the strict necessity of sacraments and priests remains (line 1129 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but see also 1257-1261).

In the instruction model—popular during the reformation (for both Catholics and Protestants)—we gather together to receive instruction from the learned teachers of the church.  The way is narrow and we need the guidance of those before us.  We also need to have the social reinforcement of neighbors looking on.  A preacher, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and trained in the interpretation of John Calvin (or Thomas Cranmer or the Thomas Aquinas) opens up the teachings of the Bible to the congregation.  The people look after one another and keep them on the path.

I don’t buy the instruction model, either.  Mostly I don’t buy it because I don’t think a teacher should be necessary for my salvation.  More than that, I’m not at all excited about salvation that comes through knowing.  That’s called Gnosticism, right?  I think the church fathers were correct when they said that knowledge was not the way to God.  And yet many prominent Reform theologians would have us believe that adherence to a creed was a necessary step for our salvation. The word is dogma.  It means adhering to certain propositions (Calvin’s five points for instance) without question.  I don’t do “without question.”

In both models—sacrifice and instruction—common worship occurs because the church institution has something that the individual does not have.  The individual needs to show up in order to receive it.  Without it, the individual cannot be saved.  (Mind you, both types of churches will claim you can get it on your own, but they reserve the right to tell you if you have it.)  So we have a dispensatory church, possessed of grace and doling it out to those who pay the requisite price.  I just don’t buy it.


I challenge you to say why you come together for common worship.  If we are to be an “emergent church” and not a random collection of emergent individuals, then we must find a way to articulate the us-ness of us.  What model, or collection of models, works for you?  And why?



  1. What works for me is perichoresis, in worship and ‘the liturgy after the liturgy’ (life).
    We are invited to ‘join the dance’ of God and participate in God, together, all the parts of the soma in action, rehearsing for the dance of redeemed life we are to live in the world, so we are not playing church, we are playing Kingdom or ‘dress rehearsing’ each week ways to live as redeemed, baptismally covenanted people, which is our participation in the Missio Dei.
    So the primary thing is not sacrifice (priest driven) or instruction (preacher driven) but participation/formaton… The Spirit forms us via the ordo of common worship, as the eucharistic euchology we live from, ‘frames the dance,’ – taken, blessed, broken, given.


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