Who is the primary actor in the church service?

Reformed theologian Michael Horton offers a remarkably clear-sighted and biblical view on how the “worship wars” often miss the real issue:

Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?

I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.

Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.

Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?

Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.

Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.

In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.

In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.

In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”

It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.

However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.

* * *

There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ?

* * *

How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word? If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ!

* * *

Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.

White Horse Inn: Why Do We Go to Church?

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