Last week, pastor Trevin Wax posted an interesting blog entry about the way serious preaching demands serious presentation. Specifically, Wax is watching a trend of churches “focusing on the centrality of the Word in worship,” and noting that it clashes with the contemporary “chatty, street-level style of worship” marked by “casualness and novelty.” “Form and content mirror one another,” notes Wax, and when they clash, “something’s got to give.”
When the people of God are gathered to hear the word of God, the informal, “Hi there folks!” is not the right way to start a service. Wax uses the memorable analogy, “It’s like eating steak on a paper plate.”
It would be easy to miss the point, and to settle into the well-worn rut of worship wars. The gravitational pull of the old liturgical-versus-nonliturgical black hole can already be felt. But that wasn’t Wax’s intention, and it isn’t mine in bringing this up. Low-church evangelicals may or may not be trending toward more traditional liturgical forms, I don’t know. Hunter Baker thinks so, and Hunter Baker sees the future.
The big question for me is, how does a church send the signal to its Sunday morning congregation that it is serious about what it’s doing?
As a free church evangelical in suburban southern California, I participate in the general trend of casual service-openers. I think it’s a great, culturally appropriate way to start out a gathering. I suppose we could bang a gong, or plunge the sanctuary into darkness, or bring up the music to a dramatic opening. But it seems more normal and natural for somebody to go up front and say nice human things like “Hello” and “Welcome” and “Have a seat, let’s get started.” That’s how the indigenous peoples talk in my country, and that’s how church starts.
But here’s the key: At some point in the service, and it has to be a pretty early point, one of the ministers presiding over the worship service needs to get our attention and let us know that we’re doing a very serious thing. We’re going to worship God together. We’re going to hear his word proclaimed and applied. We’re going to place ourselves under the authority of that word and take the consequences of admitting we are not our own. We’re going to pray with one another, to try to say and hear the things we most need to say and hear. The prophet Isaiah is going to shout at us from across the centuries! The apostles are going to tell us what they saw and heard and touched! God himself will speak through his own holy word.
This is church! We’re not messing around.
Happily low churchy guy that I am, I am always straining my ears to hear the modern version of the ancient anaphora, the Sursum Corda, the pastor’s call to the congregation to “Lift up your hearts!” It doesn’t usually happen in the first sixty seconds in the kind of church I’m at home in. It usually waits. First we say some normal, hospitality-minded words of welcome; and then some normal, information-distributing words of announcements; and maybe even some normal, defenses-lowering words of casual friendliness. Maybe even a joke, maybe even a quick reference to current events.
But the Sursum Corda‘s coming. One of the pastors is going to do something to send the signal that we are approaching the holy. There will be some summons, some expression of an intentional elevation of our minds and hearts to consider the things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. And when that happens, we all know we’re officially having church.
Just like all the millions of believers snoozing and waking their way through a more formal Sunday liturgy, I can’t promise I’m always catching all the cues that are being sent to me. And I can’t promise that everybody in the congregation is catching the same cues I am. Sometimes I know to lift up my heart at the sound of the first serious quotation of Scripture. Sometimes it’s the opening prayer, or the tone of the first words after the announcements. Often it’s the drum or the bass guitar in the first song that gets through to me at a deeper level. My pastor is especially good at calling us to stand up together and sing, and the way to the heart is often through the feet. After more than a decade in a stable, healthy church, sometimes I get the Sursum Corda just from seeing the face of a faithful preacher or worship leader, regardless of what words he’s saying. He gets the benefit of me remembering that time he spoke the word of God to us six years ago.
I’m no liturgist or worship leader; I’m an amateur and a lay participant at all that stuff. I don’t have real opinions about it, and wouldn’t expect anybody to listen to me if I did. But here’s what I know for sure: The message we gather to hear on Sunday morning is serious business, and the medium needs to fit the message. The call of Sursum Corda sounds a lot of different ways, but it’s got to be heard every time we gather. I am always listening for it, because I always need to lift up my heart to the Lord.