This is part 5 in our Survey Of American Christianity blog series. I’m continuing the conversation from my post two weeks ago. I chose to break up the post into two parts because of sheer information. So this week we will look at the order of worship and where that originated, where we got the concept of “the sermon”, and lastly, we will look at the origin and history of the pastor and the worship leader. We will wrap up this week with a look ahead, and begin to see a beam of light in the darkness of our muddled Christian culture. So stay with me because there is hope!
(I also apologize for the lengthiness of this post. Believe it or not I actually trimmed this down! There was just no way of avoiding it. So enjoy and I hope you make it to the end!)
The thoughts and opinions of this blog are that of the author, and do not reflect the thoughts, opinions, or theology/philosophy of any ministries, organizations, or people affiliated with the author. If you have questions or concerns about anything that is said; Contact the author directly!
The Order Of Our Worship
There is quite possibly nothing that gets church-goers fired up more than order of worship. We either don’t play enough hymns, or we play too many. We don’t pray enough, or we pray too much. We don’t participate in corporate reading enough, or too much. It’s either two rigid, or too loose and free-flowing. What we all find is that there is no real way to please everyone on this, and everyone thinks they know the best way to worship.
But maybe the question we should be asking is: Do any of us really know enough about worship or where our worship traditions come from to have an opinion?
Have you ever considered what the first generation of Christians did when they worshipped together? Let’s take a look at the history of the worship order.
There is a trend that has taken hold of the church at large all around the world for a great number of years now that has caused most churches to worship in almost the same way. This order consists of three main parts: (1) singing, (2) the sermon, (3) closing prayer/song/benediction. If you strip away a lot of the extra transitional fixtures, you will almost always find these three major elements that hold the skeletal structure of worship in most churches around the world. Where did this come from exactly?
I’ve noticed that pastors who often say they are a church that teaches and lives out the Bible literally and that everything is “by the Book” but still perform this common trending liturgy are just simply incorrect. I don’t think it is their intention to deceive, but most likely comes from ignorance rather than deceit. You can search your Bible from beginning to end, and you will find nothing that even remotely resembles our order of worship. This is because the first-century Christians knew of no such order. The Protestant order of worship actually has about as much biblical support as does the Roman Catholic Mass.
The corporate meetings of the early church were marked by every-member functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy, and open participation (1 Corinthians 14:1-33 and Hebrews 10:25.) The first-century church knew very little of ritual and predictability, but was rather unpredictable in its truest form. Though I wonder if it could exist in this form in today’s culture.
Many recent theologians and historians have claimed in the past that the first-century church meeting was patterned after the Jewish synagogue services, but there is too much evidence historically to suggest that the first meetings of the church were completely unique to the culture.
The Protestant order of worship stems from the medieval Catholic Mass, which comes not from the New Testament, but from ancient Judaism and paganism. Will Durant writes in his book “Caesar And Christ” that the Catholic Mass was “based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery rituals of purification, vicarious sacrifice, and participation.”
Gregory the Great (540-604) was the first monk to be made pope, and is the man primarily responsible for shaping the medieval Mass. While Gregory is recognized as an extremely generous man and an able administrator and diplomat, Durant notes that Gregory was also very superstitious. He was heavily influenced by magical paganistic concepts. He was extremely medieval-minded, which was influenced by heathenism, magic, and Christianity. Durant called Gregory “the first completely medieval man.”
Therefore, the medieval Mass reflected the mind of its creator; a blending of pagan and Judaistic ritual lightly seasoned with Catholic theology and Christian language.
Durant writes of the Catholic Mass that
“The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the church; the Greek language, having reigned for centuries over philosophy, became the vehicle of Christian literature and ritual; the Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass.”
Due to this major shift in Catholicism, we see the effects trickle down all the way into modern day Protestantism. This period in Church history forever changed the way we would worship for the next many hundred years.
From this period, Viola writes that
“In effect, the Catholic Mass that emerged in the sixth century was fundamentally pagan. Christians incorporated the vestments of the pagan priests, the use of incense and holy water in purification rites, the burning of candles in worship, the architecture of the Roman basilica for their church buildings, the law of Rome as the basis of ‘canon law,’ the title Pontifex Maximus for the head bishop, and the pagan rituals for the Catholic Mass.”
Once set in stone, the Catholic Mass changed very little over a thousand years. It wasn’t until Martin Luther came into the picture that we began to see a bit of reform. As other denominations were born, they helped shape the Catholic liturgy into something more palpable for various theological differences, but it remained rather unchanged in its basic structure.
Though many of our liturgical traditions come from pagan roots, there is also a danger in trying to recreate the free-flowing charismatic traditions of the first-century worship meetings in our present culture where there are so many personal opinions and backgrounds that bias one’s ability to interpret or even know truth. The Church had experienced similar problems in the past. When the Church entered the 1500’s, it had become so disconnected with itself and so diverse that many false and unbiblical theologies and philosophies had crept in the door of many churches around the world. It was for this reason that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, sought major English reform in the church and explored a solution to bring the Church back to being on the same page, being rooted in Biblical truths and theological unity. He eventually penned The Book Of Common Prayer, and is responsible for the first two versions. This book acted as a structure of worship for all sects of the Church of England which promoted unity among believers. This book was hugely influential in the English Reformation and helped propel the church’s growth and continuity within the structure of liturgy, theology, and scripture.
It is worth noting that much of what we know in American Christian culture today stems from Baptist liturgy and Pentecostal influence on that liturgy. Pentecostals will claim they are staying more true to New Testament worship, but if you peel away all the experiential additives to their worship, they have the basic skeletal structure of the same Baptist liturgy that is not based on Scripture, but rather the same pagan traditions, but with the twist of being heavily influenced by the evangelical period that was primarily led by D.L. Moody, and later by the likes of Billy Graham.
As a side note, you might find it interesting that the Alter call, the hymn of invitation, and the “sinner’s prayer” all come from Moody. It wasn’t until some fifty years later that Billy Graham tweaked this process by adding the practice of asking the audience to bow their head and close their eyes during the invitation, and respond to salvation by raising their hand. Moody’s theology of the salvation of the individual was so influential on our culture that it affected the very DNA of the American Church by actually redefining the church as a whole. By 1874 the church was no longer seen as a corporate body but as a gathering of individuals. Pentecostals ran with this idea with their liturgy and philosophy by creating an experience that focused not on the corporate, but on the individual experience. All of these methods have been heavily criticized as manipulative, despite their efforts of defending such methods as Biblical and centered on the Holy Spirit. The problem with this claim is the lack of evidence in the Scriptures for such an individualistic Theology.
In the end, there has been very little change made to the over all order of worship in Protestant churches. The Reformers accomplished a great deal in changing the theology of Protestant worship from the Roman Catholics, but in terms of the actual gathering itself, very little change was made and Protestant worship is still based on the same unbiblical principles of worship that miss the point that the New Testament worship gatherings had at the core of their communities. Protestant worship is still officiated by a clergyman, the sermon is central, and the people are passive.
How The Sermon Stole The Show
The sermon is a bit of a beast in it’s own right to try and tackle. Viola writes in “Pagan Christianity” that the sermon is the most sacrosanct of all Protestant traditions. If you take away the sermon, you basically have half an hour to forty-five minutes of sing-a-longs. The sermon is so overly emphasized that most people base the quality of a worship gathering on the sermon. Often times, if you ask someone how their worship gathering was last Sunday, you will most likely get remarks about how good or bad they thought the sermon was (along with their own critiques of the music as well. In the style of a singing competition judge of course). But how did the sermon become the central focus of worship gatherings?
The Earliest Sermons
The earliest historical records of sermons showing up on a consistent basis was in the late second century. Clement of Alexandria actually acknowledged and even lamented the fact that sermons were doing very little in the greater change in the Christian’s life. Yet by the fourth century, the sermon was cemented into the foundation of the Church as the primary means of spiritual growth. What we know of teaching and preaching today vs. what people from the Old Testament and New Testament periods are vastly different. Let’s take a look at the sermon as we know it today:
- It is a regular practice — A message delivered faithfully from the pulpit at least once a week.
- Always the same person— Most typically the pastor or an ordained guest speaker.
- Spoken to a passive audience— Primarily a monologue.
- It is a pre-conceived, planned, prepared form of speech— It is made up of a specific structure. Typically, it will contain an introduction, three to five points, and a conclusion.
We are all very familiar with this structure. But when we contrast this structure with the public teaching/speaking of the Old Testament, we see a very different structure. Lets take a moment to look at the structure of the Old Testament:
- Active participation— Interruptions by the audience were common.
- Prophets and Priests spoke extemporaneously— They addressed present burdens, circumstances, or issues, rather than from a set script/structure.
- NOT a regular practice— The nature of the Old Testament preaching was more sporadic, fluid, and open to audience participation. Preaching in the ancient synagogue followed a similar structure.
As we look at the New Testament, we see similar patterns that followed a sporadic structure, and was delivered more on special occasions that functioned more to address specific issues going on. It was also extemporaneous and without any rhetorical structure. It was primarily a dialogue, rather than a monologue. (Meaning it also included a place for feedback and interruptions from the audience.)
So as we look at the over all structure, you may be going back to the question:
“So why do we have a sermon then?”
If Clement of Alexandria openly admitted the failure of the sermon, but the Church adopted the practice anyway and set it in a holy concrete that was never to be broken, then where did it really come from? Well the answer lies deep in the sea of Greek pagan culture. The roots of the sermon are more intimately credited to a group called the sophists. The sophists are also credited for inventing rhetoric (persuasive speaking). They recruited their own disciples and also demanded payment for delivering their orations. The sophists were known as expert debaters. They were master manipulators that used emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to sell their arguments. Over time, the style, form, and oratorical skills of the sophists were held to a higher esteem than the accuracy of their content! From this group an entire generation of men were born who became masters of finely tuned language. The truth they preached was more abstract than practical to their own lives. When you looked at the core of their oration, you saw an imitation of form rather than that of substance. The sophists were also identified because they wore special clothing. Many of them also had a central location or residence where they regularly gave sermons to the same audience. Others traveled to other locations in a fairly regional area to give their carefully prepared orations. The traveling orators made the most money out of the sophists because of their requirement of payment to speak at each location. All sophists would wear ornate robes to speak in, and sit in a big chair that resembled a type of throne, and they would sit for a time before speaking. The orator would make his points by quoting Homer’s verses, some even memorizing the verses and speaking them from memory. Often times, if the sophist was a great speaker, his speaking would invoke the audience to applaud during is oration. It was common for members of the audience to walk away from the more well received speaking engagements calling the sermon “inspired”.
About a century later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) contributed the three-point speech to rhetoric. He was famously quoted on this saying “A whole must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Over time, Greek orators began to implement this three-point structure into their own speaking engagements.
How much of this sounds familiar to you? We see that our present-day church culture has long embraced the practices of the sophists and later philosophers. Does this make the sermon bad? Not necessarily. But does it make it effective in reaching people with the Gospel and being used by God to facilitate a true change in the hearts of those who hear it? I’d say if that is the goal, then the sermon is a flawed concept. Its interesting to me that I hear so often from millennials that “the sermon” is outdated and does not reach a younger generation. But according to history, it never really became a practice that was fully relating to its audience the way it was intended.
So why has this become the Church’s most sacred cow?
For the answer to this question, we have to look back at the end of the Apostles era. As the Apostles died off, and the disciples who were directly trained up in the ways of speaking out of a prophetic burden and spontaneous conviction began to also die off, the “mutual ministry” ideals faded from the body of Christ with them. It was in their absence that the idea of clergy seized a most perfect opportunity to rise up. Open meetings died out and church gatherings became more and more liturgical. The “church meeting” began to devolve into a “service”. As the hierarchical structure began to plant roots in the Church, this idea of Christian or religious “specialists” also began to emerge. It was during these changes that the functioning Christians had a hard time evolving with this ecclesiastical structure. There was no longer a place for them to exercise their gifts, or to serve the body of Christ. By the fourth century, the church had become completely institutionalized. During this time, many pagan orators and philosophers became Christians. When they became a part of the Church, they brought with them the pagan philosophical ideas that had so defined them throughout their life. Many of these philosophers entered the church and became theologians and leaders of the early church. Some of these men were Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine. They are known today as the “church fathers”, and many of their writings are still with us and a part of the church today.
In summation, I’ll quote the scholar Wayne E. Oates:
“The original proclamation of the Christian message was a two-way conversation . . . but when the oratorical schools of the Western world laid hold of the Christian message, they made Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation. The greatness of the orator took the place of the astounding event of Jesus Christ. And the dialogue between speaker and listener faded into a monologue.”
The Problem With The Pastor And The Worship Leader
I feel it is only fair to use my last bit of this blog discussing and shedding some light on not only the pastor (which, admittedly, was indirectly addressed above), but also of my own ministry position of Worship Leader.
Walk into any church service today and you will find that the worship service usually begins with music. The singing of hymns, choruses, or praise songs are used to lead people. This time of singing and music is often led by a single person called the worship leader (or director, or music minister, etc.), or in more traditional churches you may find a choir director leading the songs, or the choir themselves. Leading up to the sermon, those who “lead worship” select the songs to be sung, how the songs will begin, and when the songs are over. It’s important to note that those sitting in the audience are in no way, shape, or form able to lead the singing. They are led by someone else who is often part of the clerical staff (paid).
This type of leading directly contradicts the New Testament teaching and example. In the early church, worship and singing were in the hands of all God’s people. The church would collectively lead the songs, not some paid “professional”. But it all began to change with the rise of the clergy, and with the concept of the choir, which dates back to the fourth century. Shortly after the Edict of Milan (AD 313), persecution of Christians ceased. During Constantine’s reign, choirs were assembled, developed, and trained to help celebrate the Eucharist. This practice was borrowed from Roman customs, which began imperial ceremonies with processional music. The roots of the choir are found in the pagan Greek temples and greek dramas.
With the choir being introduced into the foundations of the church, singing was no longer done by all of God’s people but by clerical staff that was composed of trained singers/musicians. Clergy-led singing actually began as a way of attempting to counter the spread of heretical theology in the lyrics of songs throughout the Church. Their thinking was that if they were choosing the songs, they could stop the spread of heresy in the Church. Though this was a just endeavor in belief and in motive, this new practice was not only rooted in, but also aided in fanning the flame of the ever-growing power of the clergy as the main performers in the Christian drama. There were schools that were constructed and assembled to aid in the training and indoctrination of members wishing to participate in the choir as leaders in church services. By this point, participation in worship by the congregation was completely taken out, and it was fully rendered to a spectator event. Nothing really changed until the Reformation. One of the primary contributions of the Reformation was putting congregational participation back in worship gatherings. John Huss and Martin Luther were major proponents of member-centered participation in worship. About 150 years after the Reformation, congregational singing became a generally accepted practice again.
It is interesting to note that the organ was the first instrument to be used in worship gatherings, but that was a long and grueling battle that spanned many centuries. Leaders of the Reformation attempted to introduce the organ as the accepted instrument of choice to lead worship, which was mostly successful —except among the Calvinists, who removed and demolished all church organs. By the eighteenth century, the organ had completely taken the place of the choir in leading Christian worship, though the battle to introduce the organ as the first widely accepted instrument used in leading worship took almost twelve centuries. Once fully embraced, the organ ushered in a new era of worship for the church that would lead to the introduction of other instruments, and the beginning of the ongoing battle of attempting to bridge the gap between relevance and mainstream culture.
The “worship team” is just the next steps in evolution. In many contemporary churches, whether charismatic or not, the choir was replaced by the worship team (though some try to share the stage with choirs and try to go back and forth in a poor attempt to reach multiple generations with multiple styles of worship at once). These churches usually have a sanctuary that will have few religious symbols, save for a few banners or flags that will be hung around the room. At the front of the stage is a simple (or sometimes elaborate) podium, some plants, amplifiers, speakers, and lots of wires strewn about the stage. The dress is usually casual. Folding chairs or theater seats typically are used in place of pews. the standard worship team includes electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, drums, keyboard, bass guitar, and some special vocalists. Words are usually projected on big screens or on flat screen TVs. You won’t find hymnals or songbooks in these gatherings.
In these churches, you will find a redefinition of the word “worship” to mean following the band’s planned and prescribed songs. The “worship” time will usually last anywhere from twenty to forty minutes on average. The first songs are usually upbeat praise songs. This worship team will typically lead a lively, hand-clapping, body-swaying, hand-raising (which is deemed a scandalous act in many conservative churches) congregation into a flurry of individualistic worship. I will note that for the last few decades, contemporary worship was mostly individualistically centered (using pronouns like I, me, my), but in the last few years there has been a shift to more corporate-focused worship (using first person plural lines—we, us, our.). This is one of the few really great and positive shifts in church culture as of late.
This song liturgy is unchanging and works as a well lubricated machine week after week, gathering after gathering.
Where did this come from?
In 1962, a group of dissatisfied British church musicians in Dunblane, Scotland, tried to revitalize traditional Christian songs. Led by Congregational minister Erik Routley, these artists were influenced primarily by Bob Dylan and Sydney Carter. George Shortney Jr. of Hope Publishing Company brought their new style to the United States. These new Christian hymns were a reform, but not a revolution. The revolution came later when rock and roll was adapted into Christian music with the coming of the Jesus Movement. This reform set the stage for the revolutionary musical changes to take root in the Christian church through Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement.
Interestingly, the origin of the worship teams goes back to the founding of Calvary Chapel in 1965, which was started by Chuck Smith. Smith wanted a ministry that was dedicated to ministering to hippies and surfers. Smith gave hippie musicians a place to play their music in a redeemed context, and set the stage for a counter-culture movement of music that later became known as “praise and worship”. Chuck Smith also founded a record label called Maranatha Music in the early 1970’s that aimed to distribute these worship songs on a national level.
From this movement came another movement, led by the musical genius of John Wimber. Wimber was a pastor in the Calvary Chapel who took the lead of the Vineyard Church in 1982. Since then it is said that the Vineyard movement has had more impact and influence in the establishment of worship music and worship teams in the greater Church than Calvary Chapel ever had. This is the beginnings of what we know today as mainstream Christian music.
Mainstream Christian music has been a major proponent in effectively monetizing worship and creating it into a multi-million dollar corporate machine that produces lifeless, sterile, theologically shaky and watered down songs to the masses, thus having possibly one of the greatest negative effects on Christian faith and worship in the history of the church.
In summation, the concept of the pastor and the worship leader are primarily unbiblical. Is having a pastor or a worship leader bad for Christians? That is up for debate. I personally believe that having a pastor or a worship leader is a good thing, but there’s a fine line that must be acknowledged and understood. Clergymen are often given too much power and authority, thus abusing the people of the Church more often than not, and stifling spiritual growth among the Church. No one man (or woman) has all the answers, or are somehow more holy or closer to God than the next. While I fully believe that I am not special or more capable than anyone else to lead worship or preach/teach the Word of God, I believe that my time spent studying church history, theology, Scripture, and the theology and philosophy of worship has adequately prepared me for the task. With today’s culture we have to have people who know how to distinguish between heresy and truth and find accurate interpretations of Scripture that can speak life into today’s Christians. We also have to acknowledge the present-day need for order, structure, and most importantly, accurate theology. We have too many people claiming to know it all and have it all. In the era of being able to communicate a message to the entire world in less than a second through the internet, and our culture’s complete disregard for accuracy of the demand of sources to prove the validity of any statement, argument, comment, or message, it’s more important than ever to have someone who has studied the original texts of Scripture and understands the historical, contextual, and cultural differences of Scripture with present-day culture and learned to communicate an accurate interpretation of Scripture to today’s Christians. This isn’t always the case, but it should be the goal. The same goes with songs. There are more theologically inaccurate songs out there than songs that are theologically sound. Any worship leader should be at least moderately equipped academically to tackle hard theological issues and know how to spot flaws in lyrics in order to best serve the church. But leaders should be under the constant scrutiny and accountability of the church they are serving in, and never elevated above the people as special clergy, but rather members of a functioning body that are simply serving in the appropriate gifts that best serve that body.
It is these very issues that has time and time again had me questioning the very foundation of the Church we know today. I’ve had to wrestle with my own issues and come to some conclusion of what I believe and how I will choose to act in light of what I believe about corporate worship and the Church. You will have to make the same decisions. Where I have landed more recently is that I believe in the need for the Church and in the life of the Church, but I also believe we should be embracing the earlier traditions of the church and find ways to apply them to today’s culture in healthy and productive ways, while also being willing to let go of things that are holding us back from true relationship with Jesus (and there are a lot of things). I don’t hold a very high value on being a paid staff person in a church. I’ve actually come to a place where I am almost against the very idea of being paid by a church. Not because I believe it is necessarily wrong, but because I believe the temptation is too great for someone to impose a certain set of beliefs that are often unfounded Biblically, and because you are paid and care about income and making bills, you are forced to compromise your own convictions to adhere to someone else’s. Because of this I have decided to never again work for a church that I’m afraid to walk away from if I disagree with the Biblical beliefs and theology of the leadership. I’ve been burned numerous times by this type of situation, especially recently, and I am actively fighting to not let this happen to me or anyone I know ever again.
We must be a family, a community, that has a greater purpose than just coming to some weird cult-like social gathering once or twice a week to focus on ourselves and never care about the world or the people in it. Jesus cared deeply about the world. He cared deeply about loving people, and redeeming people from themselves. He saved them from an eternity spent in the hell they were creating for themselves. He then passed that same power and eternal impact and authority onto us, and what do we do? We chose to build great buildings, build up ourselves, and be ok with people not wanting to be in our club. We decided it was better to share our bed with greed, jealousy, slander, pride, deceit, gossip and lies—rather than sharing our clothes with the naked, our food with the hungry, our money with the poor, and our homes with the homeless.
The problem is no longer that we are looking for Jesus in the wrong places—it’s that we stopped looking for Jesus.
Next week we will look at where we go from here. I hope you will join me for my last post in this series!