“It is only by participation in a rational, practice-based community that one becomes rational.” – Alasdair MacIntyre
It may be perfectly clear to a chef why adding unsifted powdered sugar to a hot frosting is a bad idea. But for an amateur cook, this may be the kind of rule that needs to be on a sticky note next to the stovetop at first. Domain-specific standards of reasonableness exist in every area of human practice.
Often lay practitioners cannot articulate these. The best teachers have the ability to sympathize with novices, as though they were outsiders to their own tradition, and then to bring novices along to mastery.
The structure of the church’s worship service, its liturgy, is an area of human practice designed by God to bring his creatures near for reconciliation and, ultimately, fellowship. If you have ever read the account of Cain and Abel and wondered why God accepted Abel’s gift but not Cain’s, then welcome to the challenge of understanding liturgical reasoning (Genesis 4:3-5). While the reason for God’s preference for Abel’s offering would have been clear to any of Abraham’s descendants, we postmoderns often need a footnote to explain the respective roles of cereal/grain and animal offerings in Old Testament worship.
Similarly, when something doesn’t quite “feel right” about a church service, unless we simply want to express an opinion, we need tools and concepts to help us articulate the perceived problem and describe what kind of liturgical triage might be necessary.
Examining a practice, like worship, often requires a disruptive attempt to analyze something in which one has participated without much reflection. One time I bought an instructional video about salsa dancing. I dutifully counted the steps and tried to make it through the various lessons that examined each aspect of the salsa in pieces. At one point, after all the basics had been demonstrated, I was a bit surprised to hear Gigi, the instructor, say, “Oh, we almost forgot to show you some dancing!” Then Gigi and her assistant Pedro proceeded to dance, step, and sway their hips in the perfect timing of the lessons yet with an added verve so that his leading and her responses seemed organic and pre-reflective. And here, silly me, I thought Gigi had been showing me some dancing all along in the lessons.
Participation in practices molds us and informs our instincts. If you have been worshiping in a revivalist tradition, you’ll have certain instincts about the purposes of worship and the relationship between the worshiper and the Triune God of Christianity. While the ultimate goal is the style of instinctual participation that an experienced dance partner has, if you’re just becoming aware of the Bible’s liturgical prescriptions, then some stepping back and examining the individual steps is in order. This article tackles one of the first principles of biblical, liturgical logic: God moves first and we respond.
The Triune God of the Bible is the first mover—the impetus for everything in creation. Everything that is not God is in a constant state of response to God. God speaks and fills the void (Genesis 1:3ff). He creates lions and they roar to him for their food (Psalm 104:21). He causes a baby to be born and ordains praise from the infant’s lips (Psalm 8:2). He creates worshipers and they begin to call on him (Genesis 4:26).
In all of God’s dealing with his people, he moves first to form relationships and set expectations in these relationships (covenants). He set the task of fruitfulness and dominion for Adam (Genesis 1:28). He called Noah from among a wicked generation to preserve a remnant (Genesis 6:13). He called Abraham from Ur toward a promised future (Genesis 12:1). He called Jacob to Egypt (Genesis 46:3), Moses and Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt (Exodus 6:8), and called his holy nation to be priests and kings to the entire world (Exodus 19:6).
Prior to the resurrection, God called his people near to him in worship via the way of sacrifice. They could not ascend to God except by pressing their sins onto an animal and ascending symbolically in smoke. Jesus descended, in our flesh, and now we, in union with him, have finally died and risen to God’s right hand. The entire liturgy, like the entire cosmos, is a story of God’s calling/acting and our responding.
To make the point intensely practical, if you are a pastor planning a worship service, you should be able to articulate, concerning each congregational action (singing, standing, kneeling, speaking, praying, etc.), to what motion of God the congregation is responding. Likewise, if you are a worshiper, at every point in a well-ordered worship service, you should be able to articulate God’s call to which you’re responding.
At first, this rule of thumb is of the post-it note variety, but it will become second nature to you. Take the time to think through your church bulletin, point-by-point. Ask yourself which parts are God’s calling/movement, which parts are your responses, and even, perhaps, which parts fit awkwardly into neither category. This can be a useful approach to examining and improving a church’s order of worship. It’s a bit like going over a conversation again in your mind to make sure that every response and every prompt made sense in context.
Let’s examine a few parts of the Christian liturgy to see how this works.
First comes the most obvious call of all, the “call to worship.” God issues the call to worship, usually by the pastor’s reading something like Psalm 100:1-2 – “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! Serve Yahweh with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!”
What happens next? Does a clear response become the work of the congregation at this point? It should.
When the Triune God calls us to worship, we immediately snap to, like a soldier being summoned by his commander, or like a gentleman rising when his beloved enters the room. We have no better reaction to God’s summoning us than to join the ongoing worship of the heavenly court and sing. One scriptural example of a call to worship comes in Leviticus 8 where Yahweh calls Moses to gather the congregation and the supplies needed for the various sacrifices.
Coming into God’s presence is potentially perilous. Most of the book of Leviticus is about drawing near to God in a prescribed way rather than in a cavalier or inconsiderate way. We are never more aware of our sin than when we first come into God’s presence. And so near the beginning of the service is a fitting place for a call to confession or repentance. Calls to repentance are strewn throughout the scriptures, and Jesus says that he came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).
A call to repentance is the primary responsibility that God gives to prophets, and through the prophets, God calls his people and the kingdoms of the earth to humble themselves, forsake their sin, and return to him (Jonah 3). In his prophetic role, the pastor continues this pattern by calling the congregation to repentance.
The response is a prayer—talking to God. This can be glorified talking (singing) or it can be, in unison, a spoken plea to God for forgiveness. God calls you and the congregation to repentance, you respond by repenting, and God completes his movement by scooping you up like a child and telling you that all things are well.
This second movement of the confession of sins, God’s forgiveness, is both response (to your repentance) and a new call. Just as God grants the very faith that he requires (Ephesians 2:8), he grants the very repentance that he demands (2 Timothy 2:25). And his forgiveness is a new call to action, a call to believe that you are forgiven.
This can be captured concretely by the pastor’s calling you to “lift up your heart” after telling you of forgiveness or it can simply be a simple, “let us sing to the God of our salvation” and you can respond with a hymn of thanksgiving. In both cases, God is calling you to consider yourself forgiven. You cannot hold on to your guilt at this point and respond in faith because he has forgiven you whether you feel forgiven or not (1 John 1:9).
We have observed two instances of call and response—the call to worship and the confession of sins—and his pattern of call and response exists throughout the conversation of the liturgy. One place where the richness of this pattern breaks clearly out of the bounds of the Lord’s Day worship service is in the offering.
The offering appears at various points in the Sunday liturgy in various traditions, but in most protestant churches it is a response in which a token gift is given (the tithe) of one’s self along with other offerings that exceed the tenth. The offering is a response to God’s grace of one’s industry and of one’s whole being. God gives us life, bodies, tasks, careers, hobbies, opportunities for services, etc., and the offering is the place where we respond to God’s gift by returning a portion and pledging ourselves even further to the service to which he has called us.
The offering is a response to God’s forgiveness, it is a response to God’s teaching us in the sermon, and it is a response even to the benediction that happens after you leave the house of worship (Numbers 6:24-26). God has blessed you and kept you for another week. He has shone his face upon you for another week. He has lifted you up for another week and given you grace and peace. The offering has a liturgical context yet it also has a workaday context. Your whole life is a response; each week begins with your being strengthened by Word and Sacrament, and every week you pour yourself out like a drink offering in response to God’s filling as you love and serve others.
Some of us are bakers or winemakers; we work throughout the week quite literally baking bread or making wine. In some traditions, the offertory culminates in the procession of the communion elements up to the table. The moment we present these items to God he uses them as an opportunity to fellowship with us.
Whether we baked the bread or earned the money that purchased the bread, on Sunday we return to God the fruit of our work and he takes it and transforms it into a feast to which he invites us. This connection between God’s call, God’s provision, and our response in the offering can be made very clearly in the liturgy by having the offering plates taken back up to the table along with the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper.
When the plates are taken immediately to the church office, we miss the opportunity to connect the offering to the subsequent feast. Worshipers should be unable to miss the fact that the most intense weekly moment of communion with our Lord, the Lord’s Supper, requires the fruits of human art, baking and viticulture. God calls us to work, gives us an increase, and then throws a banquet with the increase.
In the United States, where fewer people use checks and cash, some have suggested that the offertory has become obsolete or unseemly. Some ask, Why not replace the tithe with an automatic bank draft? While there is nothing wrong with organizing one’s donations in this way, the liturgical function of the offertory covers much richer territory than the merely financial. Connecting the offertory to the communion table emphasizes the connection between God’s provision of good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10) and his communion with us using the very fruits of that labor. It emphasizes that the fitting response of a worshiper to God’s instruction is to offer himself or offer herself to God’s service anew each week. Money is a token, a fitting way to ritually offer ourselves.
Finding a meaningful way to offer ourselves each week liturgically is an important area of development as we move, more and more, to a cashless society. Perhaps the collection of alms could make a return, as each worshiper brings canned goods or grocery store gift cards for the poor. Much would be lost if the offertory were removed, but it will take creativity to find something fitting, as captivating as clinking coins, to represent our work and our very selves.
God moves first, in life and in worship, and we respond. The call and response pattern of worship is only one of the aspects of “liturgical logic” that the experienced worshiper internalizes as he or she worships God each week in Spirit and Truth. As we have seen, this pattern drives the liturgy of Lord’s Day worship, but it is also the pattern of all of life lived in response to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This points to the topic of our next installment, Lord willing, that liturgical actions are ritualized, corporate versions of everyday spiritual realities.
Jonathan Barlow (Ph.D., Historical Theology from Saint Louis University) is a Software Architect in Starkville, Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @barlowjon.
For further reading/viewing: Jeffrey Meyers, The Lord’s Service (pp. 167-171; 181-187; 208-210). F. Russell Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture (pp. 43-46). “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Salsa Dancing” (DVD, 2004).
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