by Ryan Flanigan
“Look, Dad! I’m making a manger,” my son innocently uttered as we knelt at the communion rail holding out our hands to receive the Body of our Lord. It was Advent, so the Nativity was fresh in our imaginations. The old woman next to us chuckled, and I could hardly contain the explosion in my brain. What an amazing picture of the Incarnation! Jesus Christ, mysteriously present in the mundane element of bread, placed into our manger hands. Could anything make the truth of the Incarnation come alive more effectively than this? No preacher could do that work in a sermon. No worship leader could do that work in a song. What we experienced that morning and every Sunday morning, was a full-sensory participation in the holy sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Right Thinking or Right Worship
I’d like to propose a practical way toward uniting our worship traditions, particularly among Western Protestants. It seems most of our divisions are rooted in differences of beliefs. By “beliefs” I mean propositional truth claims. As long as we continue defining ourselves, our groups, primarily by those ideas to which we cognitively assent (or dissent), our divisions will remain and increase.
Right thinking is not what makes us Christians. Everyone thinks his or her own group is right. By this logic, anyone who disagrees with my beliefs must not be a Christian. Also, many people who call themselves Christians, who say they believe in Jesus, have no rhythms or spaces in their lives for prayer and worship. No, right thinking does not necessarily make us Christians.
Right worship makes us Christians. By “worship” I mean leiturgia—the holistic embodiment of tried and true worship practices that direct our desires toward Christ and make his kingdom real to us. What if we returned to this pre-Enlightenment reality? Perhaps we would discover more concrete means by which we may overcome our divisions, reunite as one body, and reconcile our faith with our actual lives. My friend Aaron Niequist has just written a book on this topic called The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning.
Indeed the way forward has already been laid out for us in our great tradition. I’m proposing a recovery of Sacrament in our worship, empowered by the Spirit and based in the Scriptures.
I was born Roman Catholic, raised Pentecostal, and educated Evangelical. And I had positive and formative worship experiences in all of these traditions.
My earliest memories of worship—1980’s Full Gospel Pentecostalism—include images of the old and young pouring out their hearts together to God in praise and worship. This, along with fiery preaching, flannel graph Bible stories, and Bible verse memorization, shaped so much of who I am now and what I love about Christian worship.
As a late teenager, I traveled with an ecumenical orchestra and vocal ensemble that ministered mainly to the Roman Catholic Church. I slowly and quietly fell in love with the liturgy, sacred architecture, and the transcendent nature of God. Singing the Mass every weekend planted in me a desire for historical forms of Christian worship.
In my early twenties, I discovered the writings of the Reformers, which led me into the world of Evangelicalism. I studied philosophy and theology at a Baptist university and Evangelical seminary, where I learned to love the Lord with all my mind. Every day was another lesson in how little I knew, and yet I pursued the knowledge of God more vigorously than ever.
Each of these worship traditions—Pentecostalism, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism—is beautiful in its own way. Yet I noticed that whenever I was part of one tradition, my heart was antagonistic toward the others. There were unspoken expectations (sometimes spoken) for me to choose one worship tradition over and against the others. I feared that doing so would mean discarding all the good of the other traditions.
That fear was replaced with hope halfway through seminary when I met and studied under Robert Webber. Bob showed me that it was okay and possible to be charismatic, liturgical, and evangelical. Like Bob, I ultimately found a home in the Anglican tradition where there is room for the values of all three streams—Scripture, Spirit, and Sacrament—to find full expression and form.
It seems to me that Christians of all traditions are going after the same thing in worship—the presence of the Lord. In my experience charismatics seek the presence of the Lord primarily in Spirit, especially through praise and worship and individual expressiveness. Evangelicals seek the presence of the Lord primarily in Scripture, especially through Bible study and evangelistic preaching.
Liturgical folks seek the presence of the Lord primarily in Sacrament, especially through Eucharist and structured prayer.
Much of what we call contemporary worship combines charismatic and evangelical values. The blend of Spirit and Scripture has created new and interesting forms of worship in which participants are able to engage both emotionally and intellectually. This is a good thing, but many intuitive worship leaders have recently begun drawing from more traditional forms of worship, re-incorporating, or introducing to their congregations for the first time, liturgical practices. Here is why: Sacrament engages participants physically, creating a visible, corporate unity in worship, not just engendering individual feelings and beliefs.
I’m using the term “Sacrament” to describe the vast swath of historic worship practices. A Sacramental life includes regular rhythms of communal prayer, confession, lectionary readings, communion, etc. But let’s look at the historic sacraments themselves and see how their recovery might help tear down the dividing walls between otherwise individualist and abstract faith traditions.
“The sacraments,” according to the Anglican Catechism, “are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 857, my emphasis. (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist are two of the great sacraments through which Jesus promises to make himself present with us. More and more contemporary worshipers are turning to the “sure and certain means” of the sacraments to reconcile their faith with their actual lives.
Much of contemporary worship is good at intentionally engaging the intellect and emotions of individual humans, especially through the evangelical and charismatic values of Scripture and Spirit. But the “means” associated with these values are not “sure and certain” enough for human beings to fully realize Christ’s presence in worship. Only Sacrament can do this. When we gather for worship we do not gather primarily for a song or a sermon, but a Supper.
The “sure and certain means” of the Supper unites us and makes “sense” of the songs and sermons of our worship. The Holy Eucharist gathers all that is Christ from our (inward) emotional and intellectual worship experiences and brings it (outward) into our physical bodies through our senses. The sacrament grounds us, embodies us, and aesthetizes us. It centers our worship on the means that IS Christ—the medium is the message. And that medium is the Meal. If the sacrament is absent, we tend to center our worship on sermons and songs, trusting these means to do the work that only the Supper can do, in which case a different kind of “media” often becomes the message—technology.
John tells us that Jesus is the fullness of grace and truth. Much contemporary worship values grace and truth, especially the emotional experience of grace-gifts (charis) and the intellectual understanding of gospel-ideas (evangel). The sacraments ensure that grace and truth are not reduced to charismatic and evangelical abstractions. Grace is a Person, not merely a gift. Truth is a Person, not merely an idea. We may feel and believe something, but sacramental worship keeps our feelings and beliefs from becoming the point.
The sacraments are the concrete means by which we receive the Person of Jesus, not just gifts and ideas.
Think of my son and his manger hands. What was incomprehensible to him (and most believers) was given and received into his little body. What didn’t “do” anything for him emotionally was doing far more in him than he could feel. And unless we come to Jesus like my son, the kingdom will not be real to us. Our faith, no matter how right it is, will remain “out there,” and we will remain divided “down here.” Do we have an imagination for how formative and unitive Sacrament is?
We are liturgical folks. Our worship practices shape our beliefs and make us who we are. “I worship, therefore I am.” James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation has shaped many of my views expressed here.
May we have the boldness to recover this reality in our worship. May our faith come down to earth and into our actual lives. And may the beauty of Spirit and the brightness of Scripture intensify in our lives as we give ourselves to the tradition-uniting power of Sacrament.