I posted a rather long piece the other day from Keith Watkins' book Celebrate with Thanksgiving (Chalice, 1991) on becoming the body of Christ in the eucharist. Continuing that discussion, I'd like to raise the question of whether the way we order worship, especially in regards to where we place the Word and the Table, says something about how we view the nature of the church. In essence Keith asks fellow Disciples whether they are a "bible-centered church, colored by eucharistic piety?" or are we a "sacramental church, braced by the Word of God?" How we structure worship speaks to which of these two options we have chosen.
He notes that two patterns have emerged among Disciples congregations, with each implying a "distinct understanding of worship and doctrine of the church." Beginning with those congregations that place the communion early, prior to the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon, with what he refers to as an "intensified communion interlude," Disciples churches expressed a view of worship that is "consistent with non-sacramental Protestantism," where the church is seen primarily as a "community shaped by revelation in the form of doctrine and ethics."
This word-centered revelation presents the gospel of salvation through Christ, and it leads to the transformation of life. Nevertheless, the main focus is what Christians are to believe and what they are to do about that belief. (p. 20).
This version of worship, is often rooted in revivalism -- we gather at the Table, because that's what Disciples do, but the most important thing is making the pitch so that people can get saved. It is a popular style of worship among congregations heavily influenced by church growth teachings.
On the other hand there is the version that places the communion at the end of the service. In this view, "worship is understood as the Lord's Supper interpreted by the Word of God" (p. 20). Keith goes on to write:
This idea is consistent with the sacramental approach to worship that marks the catholic impulse in Christianity. It emphasizes God's self-disclosure in nature and history, asserting that salvation comes from participation in a community that embodies the divine Spirit. This participation is by means of sacramental eating and drinking with God. (pp. 20-21).
Perhaps it's a remnant of my Episcopalian background, but I find myself -- as is true for Keith -- on the side of a sacramental understanding of worship. I believe that Word and Sacrament belong together. Although you don't need a sermon, necessarily, you do need the Word, even if it is the text of Scripture read, to give substance to what happens at the Table. Although Disciples aren't a creedal people and thus there is room for differing views of what happens at the Table and who Jesus is for us, the Word read and proclaimed provides the starting point for what happens in the encounter that we have with the Living Christ at the Table, an encounter that is embodied in the elements of bread and wine and the gathered community.
In the churches that I have pastored, we have always placed communion at the end of the service. Thus, if I must choose, I see us being a sacramental church not a bible church. The Bible provides the interpretation and the guidance, but we come to church not to encounter the Bible, but to encounter Christ our Lord, who meets us at the Table and then sends forth to minister in the world in which we live. I simply don't know how this happens if communion comes early on, and then the sermon and invitation.