Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final in a weekly Lenten series on the body and blood of Christ by Church History Professor Kelly Pigott.
Even though the Reformation became an era when people were killing each other over, among other things, Eucharistic theology, at least the reformers made it so that the bread and the wine were once again offered to the average sinner in the congregation. But Martin Luther changed other elements of worship as well that put this early reemphasis of the Lord’s Supper into jeopardy. For the Wittenberg scholar felt compelled (and rightly so) to completely renovate worship to make it more understandable. He translated the Bible into German, took bawdy bar songs and turned them into hymns. And significantly, he elevated the role of preaching. This was considered necessary to combat the perceived heretical theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Later, a pulpit would be moved by many Protestants to the center of the stage where it was considered the place to combat not just the Catholics, but everyone else who thought differently from “us.”
Now, as worshipers entered the room, an ornate pulpit stood front and center. This sacred piece of furniture will eventually be wired for sound and plugged into a transmitter so that not only the people in the room, but also everyone in radio and TV land can hear the sermon. In many traditional churches, the table was moved to the foot of the pulpit, a not-so-subtle shift establishing the Word (and let’s face it, the preacher) as the focal point of the worship because he/she is now the guardian of the truth. And along with it, the pressure for pastors to wow the audience. Consequently, members in these churches often walk away evaluating the service by how well the pastor preached.
Jump to today, where in many new churches the pulpit has been removed. In most cases, it has been replaced with a drum set, microphones, guitars, a keyboard, and mic stands. When the service starts, a band kicks things off, with flashy software projecting the words of the most recent praise song. There is still preaching. But hour-long sermons, like in the “old days,” have now been whittled down to about twenty minutes. And people are more likely to walk away afterwards judging the service by how well the praise band led them into the “presence of the Lord.”
Other churches have replaced the pulpit and even the praise band with more creative devices. Recently, I read about one church in Houston that utilized car crashes, cooking demonstrations, and live elephants in an attempt to wow the audience.
My guess is that the table is nowhere to be found.
I want it known that I believe that worship ought to be relevant and understandable. I love creative worship, including contemporary. But I wonder if we’ve placed so much of an emphasis on attracting audiences in our market-driven society that we’ve done them a great disservice. We’ve created a type of spiritual co-dependency, where the preachers and the worship leaders want to be wanted. And the crowds that follow these men and women feel that they cannot grow spiritually without these leaders.
But here’s the scary thing: remove all references to Jesus from the preaching and the music, and my guess is that people would still show up, Sunday after Sunday. Remove the preacher and the worship team, and suggest to the crowd that they just show up to read Scripture, pray, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, one wonders how many people would still be around after a year?
Worship is hard work for the worshiper, not just the worship team. And I think it is at the table that some of the most difficult and rewarding work is done. For here, Christ invites us to a deep and sometimes disturbing union with Him and with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. And this experience elicits all kinds of emotions, not just happy ones. Sometimes it is extremely uncomfortable, like a Thanksgiving with vegan relatives.
St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite monk who lived in the sixteenth century, and he was deeply concerned about helping people to do the work that resulted in intimacy with God. He wrote the following words sensing a great danger in worship designed to lead people to experience merely a “sensory sweetness,” what I call the “warm fuzzies.”
They [novices in worship] think prayer is all about finding pleasure and sensual devotion. Through great effort, they struggle to acquire that sweetness, exhausting their energy and confounding their heads. When they cannot find what they hunger for they become discouraged, convinced they have accomplished nothing. In light of this yearning, they lose true devotion and spirituality, which lie in humble and patient perseverance, in self-doubt, in the desire only to serve god.
Such souls give everything over to the pursuit of spiritual gratification and consolation. Beginners like these never get tired of reading sacred literature. They dedicate themselves to one meditation and then another, in constant search of some pleasure of the things of God. Justly and with loving care, God denies them this kind of satisfaction. If indulged, their spiritual gluttony and attachment to that sweetness would lead them into countless troubles. Those who are inclined toward gratification are generally lazy and reluctant to tread the rough road to union. A soul in search of sensory sweetness will naturally turn her face away from the bitterness of self-denial. (John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, trans. by Mirabai Starr, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002, p. 54.)
The problem is that today, it’s quite easy to find another exciting church service, or CD, or book, or radio program to feed our addiction for the “sensory sweetness” that John of the Cross speaks of.
In other words, we’ve become addicted to spiritual junk food.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, to maintain our faith, we need spiritual food. And some of the most nutritional stuff he gave us He introduced to his disciples at the last meal. For here, He held up the bread and wine and commanded, “Take, eat, and drink,” proclaiming these elements to be His flesh and blood.
But finding God here is challenging. And it is made more difficult when communion is demoted to a table next to the coffee and donuts in the entryway, or to a once a quarter tack-on at the end of the service where the bread and wine have been changed to stale crackers and fruit juice. My hope is that in our quest for relevance, we do not dismiss the vital and necessary role of mystery in worship, especially as it is expressed in the bread and the wine at the altar.
As C.S. Lewis explained,
I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood Our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood….
I hope I do not offend God by making my Communions in the frame of mind I have been describing. The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand. Particularly, I hope I need not be tormented by the question “What is this?”—this wafer, this sip of wine. That has a dreadful effect on me. It invites me to take “this” out of its holy context and regard it as an object among objects, indeed as part of nature. It is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.
 C. S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977, p. 82.
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