By Rev. Dr. Curtis Leins
Many contemporary Christian worship services have no Confession of Sins and no Service of Holy Communion? Why? Obviously, someone has decided that these things are less important than other things. What are the other things that are so important that they take the place of confessing sins and receiving God’s forgiveness? What is more important than receiving the Lord’s Supper? These are important questions because the way we worship affects and reflects our faith. That is to say: How we worship teaches and demonstrates what we believe! So, what does your Worship Service teach and demonstrate about what you believe?
The Flow and Focus of Worship
Why is the Christian liturgy shaped as it is? It is a “dialogue” between God and humanity. The action of worship is primarily from heaven to earth; the flow is from God to us. That is to say, it is primarily about God giving us His Word (Scripture and Preaching) and God giving us Holy Communion. These primary actions of worship belong to God and the primary focus is upon His greatest gift, Jesus Christ. Only after God acts can we give Him our response. For example:
Invocation (God gathers us in His Name. His holiness shows us our Sin.)
Confession (We respond with a Confession of our Sins.)
Absolution (God gives us His Forgiveness.)
Gloria (We respond with praise for God’s merciful goodness.)
Scripture (God gives us His Word.)
Creed (We respond with a Statement of Faith.)
Sermon (God applies His Word to us.)
Offering/Prayer (We respond with Offerings and Prayers.)
Holy Communion (God gives us His own Presence, the Body and Blood of Jesus.)
Nunc dimittis (We respond with hearts filled with peace.)
Benediction (God sends us with His blessing.)
For almost 2,000 years, the Christian liturgy has formed the shape of Christian worship. The liturgy is composed of purposefully chosen portions of Scripture, for example: Kyrie (Lord, have mercy, Matt. 15: 22); Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the highest, Luke 2: 14); and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, John 1: 29). In addition, the historic liturgy includes spoken portions: Confession and Forgiveness, Scripture Readings and Sermon, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Holy Communion. The shape of biblical worship keeps the focus on Jesus as grace flows from God to us.
The Changing Shape of Worship
Today, the shape of worship has changed in many places. Especially, in the Non-Denominational churches, the liturgy has been replaced with singing. What is wrong with singing? Nothing. I love to sing. But, what components of worship are omitted in order to have 30-45 minutes of singing? As a result, is there a change in the focus and flow of worship?
Contemporary Christian worship is characterized by lots of new songs. But, who is checking to see if the words of these songs are in accordance with Holy Scripture? If the words of the songs are faulty, what message will the people take home? Is the message of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus at the center of our modern Christian worship? Here is a song whose theology you may find interesting:
All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give. I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live. I surrender all, I surrender all. All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.
The problem with this song is that it simply is not true. I do not surrender all to Jesus. I do not ever (always) love and trust Him. It is Christ who surrenders all, not I. It is Christ who is ever loving and forever trustworthy, not I. Perhaps, the song should sing to Jesus, “You surrender all. You surrender all. All for sinful, selfish people, You surrender all.”
In the original song, it seems that the spotlight is on the wrong person. It says that I surrender and I love and I trust. It is almost as if it ismy work that establishes and keeps the saving relationship between God and me. Like our culture, this song has taken the spotlight off of the Cross of Jesus and put it on my ego.
In our day, a congregation may find itself singing songs twice or even three times as long as it hears the preached Word of God. With that much singing, it is imperative that each and every song be carefully screened for true and pure biblical theology. The most glaring concern is that the focus of worship may move from Christ to the human ego, and the primary flow of worship may be reversed, from earth to heaven instead of from God to us.
Things Added, Things Subtracted
The shape of contemporary worship is not only changed by adding a large number of new songs, but by subtracting several components that were part of traditional Christian worship. For example, the Confession of Sins and Absolution (Statement of God’s Forgiveness) are often missing today. Also, the Creed (Statement of Christian Faith) and Sacrament of Holy Communion are frequently omitted. Just as a congregation’s theological understanding is shaped by what is added, it is shaped by what is subtracted. What is the net result of a congregation going week after week without making Confession of Sin and without receiving Absolution? There are many things that may result: perhaps, a belief that real Christians do not sin, a belief that God does not forgive sin, or even that a person has ceased to be a real Christian if he does sin.
What is the result when a congregation does not regularly and publicly declare its faith in the Triune God. Is it possible that people may become unclear about who God is and what they believe He has done, if they do not confess a Creed?
What is the result when a congregation does not regularly celebrate Holy Communion? Our Lord has commanded us to “do this” so that we can receive the true body and blood of Christ. He visits us, enters us, and forgives us through this Sacrament. When we do not receive Holy Communion, do we seek substitutes instead? That is to say, do we add “false communions” of our own making? I believe that people are much more apt to hunger for a tantalizing experience or a show-stopping performance if they do not have the body and blood of Christ in the Supper. Instead of receiving Communion as Christ commanded, we may seek the substitute of self-generated excitement, false euphoria, or the “spirituality” of warm and fuzzy feelings. Do we find these substitutes in congregations that suffer from infrequent Holy Communion?
I am suggesting that there is a cumulative effect upon the faith and life of a congregation when critical elements of Christian worship are omitted. Do you think that there is a negative result when a congregation seldom recites the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, infrequently celebrates Holy Communion, and rarely if ever, confesses their sin and receives God’s forgiveness?
Shaping Our Future Faith
There is an ancient axiom that states: the way we worship affects what we believe (lex orandi lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief). In short, how we worship dramatically influences our Christian faith. Adding lots of songs reshapes the flow of worship, and faulty lyrics reshape what we believe. Omitting the Confession of Sins, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, or Lord’s Supper robs the congregation of biblical truth and God’s means of grace. What we choose to omit from our worship is just as much a statement of faith as what we add.
Is it possible that a shift is taking place? Is the focus of worship moving from the all-sufficiency of Christ to the feelings of human ego? Is the flow of worship being reversed, so that it is more often about what we are doing for God rather than what Our Lord has done and is doing for us?
Whose responsibility is it to see that our songs proclaim the truth of God’s Word? Who should make sure that we confess our sins, declare our creedal faith, pray as Christ taught us, and receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion? The Pastor is accountable before God for the souls of those in his care (Hebrews 13: 17). Our worship, what is included and what is excluded, will shape the life and faith of our people for generations to come!