By Rev’d Dr. Darrell A. Harris
When I searched “how to” on the Amazon Books website, 80,000 titles popped up! That doesn’t even include the For Dummies, Idiot’s Guide to and Rough Guide series. We apparently can’t get enough of “how to.”
That’s not a bad thing, but I think that many times we live in that primarily pragmatic place of “How?” when could we benefit enormously from asking more “What?” and “Why?” questions.
To illustrate this point in relation to the question at hand, Why We Gather, look through oodles of books and videos available on Christian worship and you will find a plethora of entries on content and how to, but typically much less on why.
I serve as Chaplain at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Because of the highly ecumenical nature of that community and because the typical student is often serving there in a worship leadership capacity, I believe it helps equip me to serve there best if I can stay conversant with how different branches of the very diverse Christian Family Tree think about and practice worship.
Sometime last summer it occurred to me that it had been many years since I had visited the Episcopal Cathedral of Nashville, TN.
That particular Sunday morning, the Dean and Rector of the Cathedral parish, The Very Rev’d Timothy E. Kimbrough, was beginning a trilogy series of homilies called Lex orandi, lex credendi. The loose translation from Latin would be something close to “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” The longer version of that concept and construct is Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” “As we pray, so we believe and so we live.”
Dean Kimbrough explained that what he planned to do over the next three sermons was to break down why the Episcopal Church does what it does in a typical Sunday liturgy. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t going to explain why a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Orthodox or any other church does what it does on a Sunday, but would only confine his comments to the why in Anglican worship – to identify the purpose of the Anglican gathering.
He voiced plenty of respect for the other branches of our broader Family Tree. That always impresses me. Of course, ideally, we all begin from the Scriptures, but we all see those Scriptures through particular lenses. He pointed out that Methodists practice is seen through the lens of and flows from the teachings of John Wesley and the Methodist Book of Worship, Reformed folk start with The Westminster Confession lens and so on. Anglicans (including U.S. Episcopalians) are informed and shaped by The Book Of Common Prayer. Then he proceeded to break down the component parts of the Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy, which follows the basic four-fold model of Gathering, Word, Table, Sending.
Dean Kimbrough emphasized that there are many key elements that contribute to the Anglican liturgical model. Some obvious ones would include worship, proclamation, and fellowship, but he declared that the why (the driving reason and primary purpose) of their Sunday gathering was “to pray for the life of the world.”
He in no way short-changed those other essential actions in our gathering, but rather emphasized each one’s importance for every Sunday gathering. However, he asserted that in Anglican worship each must take its place in the larger context of prayer for the life of the world.
In my personal Christian worship journey, I suppose I have been through several decade-plus seasons of believing differing whys for the Sunday assembly.
From the time I was four (when our family first began attending church) until sometime in my mid-twenties, I worshiped as a Southern Baptist. Although it is impossible to ignore the highly valued trio of Food, Fun, and Fellowship there, in retrospect I believe we understood our why to be Proclamation. We gathered to preach the Word, to hear it proclaimed and to share it with others. So the driving why was proclamation to others and to ourselves.
During my teen years, I had friends who were Pentecostal. I was intrigued by their faith and practice and visited their services off and on. Also during that period, the charismatic renewal movement swept through our area. By the time I was in my mid-twenties my wife and I joined an Assembly of God church that would eventually transition into a Vineyard. That began a thirteen-year sojourn where, although we emphasized Proclamation and Fellowship, we understood our why and primary purpose for the gathering was Worship itself. So my understanding and practice shifted from it being about Proclamation to others and ourselves to really being about God.
Then began a season of fifteen years in a very Evangelical Episcopal church. During that period I had not yet heard Dean Kimbrough’s perspective on the why being prayer for the life of the world. So, while the why included Proclamation and Fellowship the primary purpose continued as Worship. It was God-centered.
The good Dean’s content, right or wrong, rocked my world just a bit. If he was correct, then the primary focus of the Sunday gatherings we had been attending, though including the essential components of Worship, Proclamation, and Fellowship, were neither primarily about God nor about us. The primary focus would then be that of being swept up through being baptized into the death of Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit into the very Missio Dei – the Mission of God in the world. It became a participation (a koinonia) in the John 3:16 God-So-Loved-The-World Mission.
Perhaps Dean Kimbrough’s perspective is definitive only for Anglican Christ-followers. But perhaps it might apply in some measure to us all.
Even if the “Why” for the gathering of various Evangelical believers is Proclamation, wouldn’t those gatherings be enriched by corporate prayer beyond the usual brief pastoral prayer? Even if Worship or Fellowship or some other valuable practice and emphasis is the primary “Why” that other groups gather together, might those gatherings not be enriched and fortified by the conscious joining in with the prayer-life of our Maker-Redeemer?
Dr. Constance Cherry (The Worship Architect) wrote an article for Church Music Workshop (Abington) in 2005 entitled, “My House Shall Be Called a House of Announcements.” In her article, she published the results of a study of how many churches of nineteen different denominations allocated their time together on Sunday mornings. She included traditional churches, contemporary churches, blended worship churches, liturgical churches. She did her study with stopwatch in hand. By now you have guessed her findings by the giveaway title. The preponderance of them spent more time on their announcements that they did on prayer or the public reading of scripture. The most egregious deficits were among the contemporary churches.
Somehow it seems we may be failing to grasp the big picture the writer to the Epistle to the Hebrews tried to paint about the worship gathering . . .
“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Hebrews 12:18-24 NRSV
That is a cosmically dynamic picture of what is happening “When” we gather. In verse 25 that immediately follows that description, its author warns us not to disregard or disobey the voice of the one who is speaking. I don’t think it is a stretch to imagine that voice beckoning us all, regardless of differing worship emphases, to join him in his prayer for the life of the world.
I believe with all my being that even given the encouraging growth we have experienced and are seeing now in our Gathered Life, there is a much-needed insight to be gained in seriously and more deeply considering the “Why” of it all.