Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Worship – Public or Private?
It is very interesting to me how worship has transitioned from a private activity of the baptized to the very public activity and even the ordinary face of the Church in the world. Dom Gregory Dix, among others, pointed out the tension between nearly all Christian thinking today on the public nature of worship and the practice of the early church. Nearly everyone today (on all sides of the church growth debate) sees worship as the public face of Christianity. Though there is great disagreement about what this public face ought to look like, we have come to instinctively think of worship as a public activity and to expect that people not yet of the faith will be present for the Divine Service. We have deep and vehement disagreements over who should commune (open or close[d]), over what music should be used (traditional hymnody or contemporary Christian music), and over what liturgy (or not) to follow – but we all assume, expect, and even hope that unbelievers will and should be in the congregation on Sunday morning.
This is in stark contrast to the early church. Prior to 313, Christian worship was almost uniformly closed to those not yet baptized, chrismated, and catechized. Christian worship was corporate and communal but it was deliberately private. Today we are more apt to describe worship as personal and individual but uniformly public. Whether we follow a traditional liturgy and have all the smells and bells or the most generic and non-denominational Christian seeker service with only contemporary music, we all advertise the times of worship to those outside the Church – hoping and expecting that they will come and become a part of the congregation.
It seems to me that maybe we need to rethink the idea that worship is the primary public face of Christianity. It is certainly true that the change in legal status of Christianity had something to do with this but I am not at all sure this is the only or real reason why worship was private prior to this time. Nor am I convinced that the legalization of Christianity resulted in open doors and the prototype of “y’all come” greeting we give to the world today.
Part of the reason surely had to do with the understanding that worship was the privileged activity of the baptized wherein God delivered to the people of His promise the gifts of His promise. In fact, the heritage of the temple and the synagogue setting surely influenced the early church but again this was not the only or the primary justification for the private nature of early Christian worship. Rather the weight of it all rests upon the inevitable conclusion of the New Testament that only the baptized believers can worship God in Spirit and truth (an early term for what we Lutherans call the means of grace).
So if worship was not the face of early Christianity, what was? Scripture gives us a clue. What was it that drew those outside the Church to the faith? “See how they love...” The public face of early Christianity was not worship but mercy and compassion accompanied by a bold willingness to give account of the hope within them and the source and cause for their love. It was the work of mercy (both inside and outside the Church) that became the defining mark of Christianity. Read of St. Lawrence or the real St. Nicholas and you read the story of this mercy and compassion. Read of the work of those who carried the faith to Gaul, Germany, Britain, etc. and you read of words which took the shape of works of mercy and service.
We don’t think that way today. The work of mercy is done by the government – not the Church. The compassionate service to the world is provided by for profit businesses, quasi governmental agencies, and civil servants. The great tradition of mercy has slowly been sold or ceded to others supported either by tax dollars or insurance reimbursement. Our own great Lutheran heritage of mercy and service has largely been lost to us or handed over to hospital chains or government grant. Look at the number of once great “Lutheran” hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, etc, who are now Lutheran in name only. Lutheran Hospital where my wife was born, was trained as a nurse and in which her mother died is still called Lutheran but it is owned by the same mega corporation that operates a hundred similar hospitals. What is true in Ft. Wayne is true of nearly every Lutheran hospital across America. Look at the budgets for many of those “Lutheran” Social Service agencies and you will find the major source of funds for their work is government money which comes with strings attached. Lutheran parish schools have become the private schools for children of means whose parents can afford the tuition.
Lacking these ministries of mercy and compassion, we have nothing left to offer the world but worship (still the domain of the baptized). The public face of Christianity has shifted from mercy and service to worship and worship has shifted from the place where the baptized believers receive the gifts of His promised to the primary way we witness and reach out to the world. This is why we are consumed with questions of who should (or should not) commune and whether or not what we do on Sunday morning should appeal to or be shaped primarily toward those not yet of the family of God.
The Gospel competes with motivational speakers and messages, the hymns compete with the sound of the radio or Ipod, the Pastor competes with Mcs and entertainers on the stage, and the Church competes with the mall and the food court. Any congregation which resists such radical transformation is seen as ineffective and eventually irrelevant to modern people and modern life. In order to be essential to the world we give people what they think they want or need and we end up becoming extraneous to the God who established His Church by His blood.
I wonder if maybe we should not learn something from the early church. I am NOT suggesting that we should close worship to those not yet of the household of God through baptism and catechesis, but instead of offering worship as the face of the Church in the world we might think of the first four centuries and give mercy its place in the witness of the Church. Worship is the largely private domain of the baptized people of God and mercy is the public face of Christianity... of course this would require a radical transformation in our thinking and in the work that we believe God has called us to do.... starting with me and my congregation... but I wonder if it would not clarify a great deal.... Just a thought...