Liturgical Order and the nature of the church

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. 


John said…

In our bulletin the service is divided into the service of the word and the service of the table. But isn't it all the service of the Word?

I suppose we need to ask ourselves why we attend a worship service and what purpose(s) is it designed to serve, and does that intention and that purpose square with each other?

Our service is composed of a reading of Scripture, a sermon, tithes and offerings, and communion, all punctuated and woven together with prayers spoken and sung. To effectively communicate a sacramental emphasis, I think that the elements need to be related to one another thematically, and the centrality of the communion regularly underscored and highlighted. In a Disciples service where those participating in the worship design their inputs independently, there is a great risk of loss of focus unless each participant is attentive to both the specific thematic emphasis of the service and the centrality of communion to the service. All a part of elder-education.

Robert Cornwall said…

As I read Keith -- and in my conversations with him over the years -- the question is where does worship culminate? Is the purpose of worship evangelistic, so that what we're moving toward is a decision for Christ? If so, then churches place the sermon and invitation hymn at the end of the service? Or, is the intent one of moving toward an encounter with the living Christ in the midst of the body of Christ? If the latter then worship is moving toward the Eucharist. But Eucharist without the Word tends to be an encounter without substance. And I dare say, the Word without the Table ends up being an intellectual exercise without an encounter with the living Christ. That last statement will sound harsh, I know, but my Disciple theology as well as remnants of my own Episcopalian background make the Table extremely important to my worship.
Unknown said…
Having worked at a Catholic institution for over 14 years, and despite the fact it is a hospital, I have had an ongoing conversation with my Catholic chaplain colleagues about the liturgical order and nature of the church and what the role of the Eucharist is in many contexts.

A few things have rubbed off on me. My belief in the presence of Christ at the Eucharist has been strengthened. The teachings I grew up with in a Disciples congregation in Idaho now seem bland and understated. Although communion was always spoken of as the central feature of worship, our theology and Christology was by rote. We took communion every Sunday because that is what Disciples churches did based on the teachings of the founders of the Restoration Movement more than a sacramental moment that had some transcendent and grace-filled presence in worship.

Another Catholic characteristic I have picked up is the presence of the sacramental outside the time and place of worship. My priest colleague lives each day inside a bubble of the sacramental reality. It does not keep the world out, but provides a clarity and focus for each task he does. Does that make him somehow appear to holier-than-thou? Not in the least. Is he able to connect with the Holy, the Grace of Christ at any moment? Without question.

When I put these two things together, the sacramental becomes real in a manner it never has before, and some thing I cannot remember being taught in the church of my childhood. My Christology has been quite transformed.

A few years ago, when I was serving as an elder at Northwood Christian Church in Springfield, Oregon, I presented this communion meditation. It is titled simply, "Welcome to the Table."

One of the hallmarks of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is that we believe that all who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior of the World are welcome at the Communion Table. This is the table of the family of God, the Body of Christ.

We come at Christ’s invitation: “Do this in remembrance of me.” We come to remember his blood shed for us, his body given for us for the forgiveness of our sins. We come to celebrate our being the Body of Christ, a community of believers who seek to live according to His teachings and commandments.

So come. Here you will find no fence, no barrier, physical or doctrinal to share in this holy meal. Here you are welcome to share in the Lord’s Supper with believers of all denominations, all nations. Here you will find the Presence of Christ.

Listen to His words from the Gospel of Luke:

“And when he had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood…and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom…’” (Lk 22:19-20,29-30, NASB).

Rev. David Waggoner, PhD
Keith Watkins said…
Bob, Belatedly I have read this post and comments. I continue to affirm the ideas in the excerpts from my published work that you have posted recently. They are foundational to some of the ideas that I will be presenting in my own blog dealing with an alternative way of worship for progressive churches. The comments from your readers underscore the importance of these ideas. Thank you for posting them.

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