Essay / Theology

Worship as Gift

I was recently directed towards Andrew Jones’ blog entitled “A Gift Economy,” where the author was reflecting on Christian worship and the concept of gift. Jones’ main contention is that much Christian worship is passive, in that most worshippers are expected to receive during the worship time as opposed to giving something of themselves. I would affirm that this is true in many churches, especially Evangelical churches, though the charismatic/Pentecostal forms of Evangelicalism would be strong exceptions to this generalization. For example, I was recently in a church where the service lasted exactly one hour, no more and no less. The first seven minutes of the service were led by one of the church’s deacons who opened the service in prayer and then led a hymn. He then stepped aside so that the pastor could welcome everyone, make a few announcements, call the ushers forward and pray for the offering. The offering was then collected. At the eleven minute mark, there was some form of “special” music, followed again by the aforementioned deacon leading another hymn. At the twenty minute mark the sermon began and ended abruptly at the one hour mark. The next week, it all happened again.

Now, I am not really critiquing this worship, especially since I am an Anglican and could be accused of doing the same thing week in and week out. However, what is different about this church that I visited was how passive I could be in the service. Sure, I was invited to sing along with the congregation and place an offering in the plate but in all other respects I was, in fact, a passive listener. I am sure that it was this kind of service that Jones had in mind when writing his brief blog. What he failed to consider, however, is that there are many forms of Christian worship, many of which do, unfortunately, fit his description. The form of worship that does not fall under his rubric, however, is what can be called “liturgical.”

Now there are many different understandings of what “liturgical” may mean but at its most basic it is that form of worship which is written and prescribed, usually printed in a service book. As an Anglican I am in a liturgical church. With the aid of the Book of Common Prayer we have a prescribed Eucharistic liturgy. Therefore, each week most of the actions and words that I do and say in a service are the same ones that I did last week, and the week before, and the week before that, etc. However, to claim, as Jones does, that this somehow equals that I do not give the gift of myself each week is to grossly miss the point. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” he is expecting to hear a hearty “And also with you” in response. When the lector concludes the Old Testament and Epistle readings and says, “The Word of the Lord,” she is expecting to hear “Thanks be to God” in response. At the end of the service when the deacon says, “Go forth to love and serve the Lord,” he awaits the people’s “Thanks be to God.”

If this were merely a passive liturgy there would be no responses and, in time, the versicles and responses would simply disappear from the liturgy and everyone would simply show up to watch. Oh wait, that is exactly what happened in the Middle Ages! Jones may be right, especially about much of Evangelical Christian worship but he is certainly wrong about liturgical forms of worship. As the three examples above show (and many more Anglican examples could be cited, not to mention other liturgical traditions), liturgical churches need both pastors and people in order to worship properly. This was one of the greatest contentions of Vatican II, that the church is made up of both clergy and laity and, therefore, to worship rightly there needs to be both clergy and laity present (this is now referred to as “communion ecclesiology”). Thus, out with the private Mass. Despite its genesis in a Roman Catholic milieu, this insight must not be overlooked by Evangelicals.

Worship must never be allowed to become a place where the bulk of the people merely sit as observers — that’s a sporting event, not church. Yet, how can Evangelicals avoid this hazard? Are church services like the one I described above (and the ones that Jones must be referring to) a necessary result of a “low” church ecclesiology? Can gift giving only happen in liturgical worship services? Is it time for the Evangelical church to reconsider its ecclesiology and theology of worship? Though the answers to these questions may be uncertain, it is time to give them some serious thought.

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