Making “Sense” of Modern Worship: Scripture, Spirit and Sacrament
Glenn Packiam is one of the most important voices in modern worship. In an attempt to reason with those who continually slam modern worship, Glenn posted a fantastic blog on what critics might not know about modern worship.
As Glenn argues, not all modern churches are alike, so it’s usually unhelpful to make blanket statements about what’s wrong with modern worship or to lump all megachurch worship with modern worship. He also observes that much criticism of modern worship comes from people who want to “kill” it rather than people who want to make it better. He then speaks to the good in modern worship, such as its Spiritual inspiration, missional impulse, and emotional engagement.
Glenn and I share similar journeys and convictions about worship. We were both born into liturgical traditions, have both spent considerable time in the charismatic world, have both been educated in evangelical theology and have both found our way into the Anglican tradition, where there is freedom for all three of these streams—liturgical, charismatic, and evangelical—to find full expression and form. Read my story here.
Very simply, to be charismatic means to seek the presence of the Lord through the gifts of the Spirit, especially in an environment of musical worship. To be evangelical means to seek the presence of the Lord through the Scriptures, especially in a culture of Bible study and gospel preaching. To be liturgical means to seek the presence of the Lord through the Sacraments, especially in the Holy Eucharist and ordered prayer.
Much of modern worship portrays the combination, to varying degrees, of charismatic and evangelical values. The blend of Spirit and Scripture has made for new and interesting forms of worship in which participants are able to engage both emotionally and intellectually. This is a good thing, but many intuitive leaders of modern worship have recently started inviting the liturgical to the party. Here is why: The Sacrament engages participants physically, making “sense” of modern worship, not just feelings and beliefs.
Sure And Certain Means
“The sacraments,” according to the Anglican Catechism, “are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (1979 BCP, p. 857, my emphasis). Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist are the two great sacraments through which Jesus promises to make himself present with us. More and more modern worshipers are turning to the “sure and certain means” of the sacraments to make “sense” of their worship.
Modern worship as I described it above is good at intentionally engaging the intellect and emotions of humans, especially through the evangelical and charismatic values of Scripture and Spirit. Praise the Lord! But the “means” (or “media”) associated with these values are not “sure and certain” enough for human beings to fully real-ize Christ’s presence in worship. Only the Sacrament can do this. When we gather for worship we do not gather primarily for a song or a sermon but a Supper.
The “sure and certain means” of the Supper makes “sense” of the songs and sermons of modern worship. The Sacrament gathers all that is Christ from our (inward) emotional and intellectual worship experiences and brings it (outward) into our physical bodies through our senses. The Sacrament grounds us, embodies us, and aesthetizes us. It centers our worship on the means that IS Christ—the “Meal” is the message. If the Sacrament isn’t there, we tend to center our worship on sermons and songs, trusting these means to do the work that only the Supper can do—the “media” is the message.
St. John tells us Jesus is the fullness of grace and truth. Modern worship wonderfully values grace and truth, especially the emotional experience of grace-gifts (charis) and the intellectual understanding of gospel-ideas (evangel). The Sacrament ensures that grace and truth are not reduced to charismatic and evangelical abstractions. Grace is a Person, not merely a gift. Truth is a Person, not merely an idea. We may “feel” and “believe” something, but the sacraments keep our feelings and beliefs from becoming the point. The Sacrament ensures that we receive the Person of Jesus, not just gifts and ideas.
Emmaus And Pentecost
It wasn’t until the resurrected Christ broke bread that his presence was fully real-ized among his disciples. Opening the Scriptures to them on the road to Emmaus wasn’t “sure and certain” enough for them. Not even his physical presence alongside them was enough. Their hearts burned (emotional) and their brains were going a million miles an hour (intellectual), but they didn’t come to their senses and realize it was him until he broke the bread (physical). The Holy Eucharist made “sense” of Jesus’ sermon and the disciples’ heartwarming experience of him.
It wasn’t until the Apostles in Acts baptized their converts that Christ’s presence was fully real-ized in their lives. The tone on the Day of Pentecost was emotionally flaming and intellectually stimulating. But the combination of the dynamic power of the Spirit (emotional) and St. Peter’s Christ-centered exposition of Scripture (intellectual) was not “sure and certain” enough for them. “What must we do?” they asked. “Repent and be baptized” (physical). Holy Baptism made “sense” of Peter’s sermon and their heart-cutting experience.
Then St. Luke records that the newly baptized disciples “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers." Every time the bread was broken, just like at Emmaus, the presence of Christ was fully real-ized among the disciples. The Sacrament continually made “sense” of their Scripture and Spirit experiences. Then of course St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Church of this. And now the Spirit and the Scriptures remind us.
Jesus and the Apostles show modern worshipers how to fully real-ize Christ’s presence in worship. We are like St. Thomas who, unsure of his experience, needed to physically touch the broken body of the resurrected Christ. The Sacrament is foundational to modern worship, putting flesh on our emotional and intellectual experiences of Christ. Sermons and songs are incredibly valuable to our worship, but the Supper is the “sure and certain means” by which we make “sense” of it all. The Sacrament incarnates Grace and Truth in the Person of Jesus Christ. Modern worship blends the charismatic and the evangelical and now is increasingly inviting the liturgical to the party. Scripture, Spirit AND Sacrament. Let’s not kill modern worship. Let’s make it better.
PS: This article first appeared at DanWilt.com.