Pagan Christianity on Worship

Chapter 3 of Pagan Christianity is the dismissal of the traditional "order of worship." Barna and Viola cite no true "pagan" background for this order, but simply call it "pagan" (75) and assert that it can be traced back to the middle ages and the Roman Catholic church. They lay out the pagan, traditional order of worship as generally consisting of: Prayer, and/or the reading of scripture Some sort of worship in song Offering The sermon Communion, or some other feature (altar call, etc). Benediction

However, the earliest order of worship recorded outside of Scripture is found in Justin Martyr's Apology (circa A. D. 140), and consisted of a gathering on Sunday that typically followed this way:

1. The reading of Scripture 2. An address/sermon 3. Corporate prayer 4. Communion 5. Collection for the poor. (See Martyr's Apology Ch. LXVII, or Christian Worship by Franklin Segler).

This is pretty close to what we are doing today.

Viola and Barna skip over this piece of history, and then assert the Protestant Reformation did not bring about the change that was so necessary to our worship. "The protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical and unspiritual" and "it does not lead to the spiritual growth God intended." (pp 75, 77)

The authors have a number of concerns about the "traditional order of worship."

1. It is predictable and boring. "For many Christians, the Sunday service is shamefully boring. It is without variety or spontaneity. It is highly predictable, highly perfunctory, and highly mechanical. The order of worship is so ingrained in protestant churches that even if the liturgy is unwritten it is "just as mechanical and predictable as if it were set to print." (48)

I would argue that predictability is the unavoidable outcome of any regular gathering where the same people assemble for any period of time. This is especially true when certain things are expected to happen (reading of Scripture, prayer for leaders, teaching, etc.). Whether in a home without an established order that encourages spontaneity, or in a traditional worship gathering, people will begin to anticipate what is going to happen. They will know what to expect.

Having said that, I also believe variety is valuable and that it's important to allow for spontaneity and change in our gatherings. We work at this at Redeemer, though we clearly follow the traditional order of worship and Barna and Viola would argue consequently we are doing spiritual harm to our members (see below).

2. It silences the body and demands passivity from the majority of the church. The "Protestant order of worship represses mutual participation and the growth of the Christian community. It puts a choke hold on the functioning of the body of Christ by silencing its members. There is absolutely no room for anyone to give a word of exhortation, share an insight, start or introduce a song, or spontaneously lead a prayer. You are forced to be a muted, staid pewholder." (75)

I genuinely appreciate the authors' desire to see every member functioning, and I agree that the church should gather in such a way that allows for mutual exhortation. I would also go so far as to say that if a local church only allows for the Sunday morning gathering, Christians are probably missing out on very important aspects of the Christian life. But I think the authors are again overstating the problems and missing another option.

In the first century the church gathered in the Temple, in the synagogue and most often in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 9:2, 20). Why? Because it no longer mattered where they met! They went to the Temple to gather in large groups, they met in the synagogue to hear the Scripture read, they met in homes for intimate fellowship, community and service - and to avoid persecution. As time passes, context and cultures change, and the meeting places of the church develop as well. That doesn't mean that anything goes, but I am not convinced that the specific gathering place of the first century church is necesarilly prescriptive. At best, I would argue it is prescriptive on the level of principle, not exact practice.

3. It stops spiritual transformation. [The protestant order of worship] hinders spiritual transformation. It does so because (1) it encourages passivity, (2) it limits functioning, and (3) it implies putting in one hour per week is the key to the victorious Christian life." (77)

Part of the problem here (besides the ridiculous 3rd point that is so over the top I get images of Sly Stallone turning his hat around in preparation for some arm wrestling) is a misunderstanding concerning the nature of preaching, hearing and the context for ministry and service.

First, I am convinced by Scripture that the word of God, used by the Holy Spirit, is the means by which God sanctifies his people (Jn 17:17, 2 Thess 2:13; Rom. 12:1, 2; ). Where the word is preached, spiritual transformation should be happening. Second, hearing the word should never be considered a passive experience. It demands the active engagement of the heart and mind, the will to search our actions and lives, and the discipline to apply what we hear to our own experience with great specificity. Here are some treatments of the subject of active listening to the word preached (George Whitefield, Philip Ryken). Third, since when is the body of Christ limited to ministering and serving in one setting? The church of Jesus Christ functions in different ways in different gatherings, in a variety of contexts throughout each week.

The relevant concerns for me are that we continue to push the church forward in active listening to the word preached, active service to the body and community, and of course that no one believe that any event or gathering - regardless of how it happens - is seen as the key to the "victorious Christian life."

4. It is pulpit-centered. They take issue with the word preached as the center piece of the gathered church. I want to save most of my interaction with their ideas for the next chapter.

5. It strangles the headship of Jesus Christ. "The entire service is directed by one person. You are limited to the knowledge, gifting, and experience of one member of the body - the pastor. Where is the freedom for our Lord Jesus to speak through his body at will?" (76)

I do believe that many churches err in creating a celebrity, or elite, culture of leadership, and that many pastors are often too "jealous" for their pulpits and refuse to allow other preachers/teachers from their own fellowship to teach. There is much to say on this topic, but it'll have to wait for the later chapters. These are all things to work against, but really - I just don't view Jesus as a little brother whose freedom to move hinges on my willingness to let him out of a head-lock.

In the end, this is another chapter where I, and everyone in the Reformed community, share some of the concerns raised by the book, but the authors go too far by mis-diagnosing the problem. The problem is not the order of worship. In my estimation the greater problems are what fills the order order of worship (content), and how often, and in what ways, the church creates contexts to share our lives and gifts together. I also want to caution others to be careful when looking to at first-century examples of the church's practice. We have to work hard at discerning between that which is descriptive of the first-century church, and what is prescriptive for all churches. After all, while the church primarily met in homes, it also forbade women from speaking at these gatherings. That which is descriptive is often implicitly prescriptive in principle, but not in exact practice.