Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summary: Introduction to Christian Worship by James F. White

For the Essentials Red in Worship History Certificate with Dan Wilt

Christian worship is a vast field of personalities, colors, and expressions across the world that vary from culture to culture and individual to individual.  What is it that unifies us while allowing for unique and creative expressions to emerge?  What foundational tenets of worship ground us and yet free us at the same time to reveal the image of God in us to those around us?  In Introduction to Christian Worship, James F. White discusses the history behind what we mean by worship, how time and space define our worship, and the ways we communicate our worship through word and sign.

 Christian worship is most easily explained by what it does than by what it is.  “Worship…sums up and confirms ever afresh the process of saving history which has reached its culminating point in the intervention of Christ in human history, and through this summing-up and ever-repeated confirmation Christ pursues His saving work by the operation of the Holy Spirit.” [1] Worship reminds us anew of what God has done, what He is doing, and what we can look for Him to do in the future.  We are reminded that He is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” [2], and, thus, we look to His saving acts in the Scriptures and in our lives and remember that as He has done in the past, so He is doing today and will do again.

Worship also reminds us of who we as the body of Christ are.  We are objects of His love, saved and redeemed, that we might bring this same love to those who do not yet know the Source of this love.

The worship we give God glorifies Him and in the same motion brings us into a more rightly aligned relationship with Him.  As we attribute worth to God, He reveals to us our true worth to Him.  This takes place as we worship together, otherwise known as common worship, and in private, or personal devotions. [3] It occurs in the classical liturgical families (seven within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches) and in the Protestant liturgical traditions (Anabaptist, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, Quaker, Puritan, Methodist, Frontier, and Pentecostal/Charismatic) “representing the ability of people to preserve expressions and thought forms natural and dear to them.” [4] Worship within each of these families or traditions take on both a constancy found in the various service books associated with each group as well as a spontaneous form which allows for the “using of the various gifts of differing people for the benefit of the whole gathered community.” [5]

Space and time are important components of the Christian community.  God reveals Himself to His people through time, through history.  “Without time there is no knowledge of the Christian God.  For it is through actual events happening in historical time that this God is revealed.” [6] Since the beginning of creation, time has been the structure upon which key events are hung to aid us in remembering who God is and how we are to relate to Him. 

In the Old Testament, God set up feasts that created a rhythm of worship rich with symbolic and prophetic meaning, pointing to the Messiah.  These feasts continued to be celebrated by the early church with the added understanding of the revelation of Jesus in the elements of the celebrations.  By the 4th century, following an edict by the Emperor Constantine, the early church shifted from the traditional Jewish Sabbath as the day of rest to Sunday being both the day of celebration (of the resurrection) and worship as well as rest.  Holy Week also became established as traditions began to form around the biblical dating of the crucifixion and resurrection.

It is interesting to me to note that the forming Christian calendar began to take prominence over the already established feasts upon the popularization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine and the subsequent banning of all Jewish practices. While I am thankful for the creative expressions that have arisen in the centuries since the resurrection, I believe it to be important for believers to rediscover the riches of God revealed through the feasts which the early church most definitely would have celebrated and understood. 
That said, the Christian calendar does provide a structure and a constancy of remembering that facilitate the development of spiritual disciplines that strengthen and ground us in our worship of God.  “These cycles save us from a shallow spirituality, based on ourselves, by pointing us to God’s works instead…The Christian year is a means by which we relive for ourselves all that matters of salvation history.” [7] 

As God reveals Himself through time, He also is present in our space.  In order for us to worship Him together, we must create a space, however large or small, for people to gather.  The space we choose shapes our worship, so we must be intentional in its design.  Liturgical space takes into consideration the functions and expressions of worship as a gathered body, providing both flexibility and intimacy.  It serves the community and creates and fosters beauty through art and music.

Beyond time and space, our worship is expressed through the “spoken word and acted sign.” [8] The spoken word can be found in both public prayer and the service of the word.  “Daily public prayer…is a response not just to word and sacraments but to the totality of daily experience, the sun coming up , the squabbles in the family, the tedium of work. “ [10] We come together to express our thanksgiving, our angst, our praise to God…to pray together and for each other.  

Christian worship through the service of the word is made possible through the Jewish structure of worship.  “Survival, for Israel, meant the ability to remember God’s actions that had made them a distinctive people.” [11] For the Jews, worship “became a way of teaching and transmitting the corporate memories of a people with whom God had covenanted.” [12] Throughout the centuries, the service of the word has taken on many forms - from sparse and direct to elaborate and complex.  Most often it has contained the reading of the Bible, preaching, prayer, and songs with variations of emphasis according to the tradition in which it was being celebrated.

The acted signs of worship are those “sacraments which make God’s love visible.” The word and sign “reinforce each other.  A handshake does not compete with a spoken greeting, each strengthens the warmth and meaning of the other.” [13] Taking objects and combining them with words and actions reveal the ways in which God has made, and continues to make, Himself known.  

James White divides the sacraments into three categories: initiation, the eucharist, and journeys and passages.  Initiation includes such as baptism, laying on of hands, and anointing.  The eucharist is the most common sacrament of all, celebrated daily and weekly in congregations cross the world and is patterned after the Passover supper that Jesus celebrated with His disciples just prior to His death.  Those related to journeys and passages refer to such sacraments as pastoral rites, healing, ordination, reconciliation, etc. 

These are meant to be experienced, embracing the mysterion of God giving of Himself, not creating a precise theology but rather a place for a divine experience.  They “depend upon what use God makes of them, not on human moral character, ability, or intentions.” [14] God gives Himself to us through them enabling us to give ourselves to others in more profound ways. 

James White gives a comprehensive overview of church history that helps open up understanding to the ways of Christian worship today.  I look forward to delving more into areas that peeked my interest and am thankful for the deeper understanding and appreciation I have for all of the church families and traditions as a result of reading this book.

1 James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 27
2 Hebrews 13:8
3 James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 34
4 ibid, 42-44
5 ibid, 45
6 ibid, 52
7 ibid, 73
8 ibid, 122
9 ibid, 123
10 ibid, 137
11 ibid, 142
12 ibid, 143
13 ibid, 165
14 ibid, 189

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