Four library’s in four towns in 25 days. I am not collecting library tickets. Our car needed a service and the workshop’s in Bilston. If you are ever in Bilston, pop into the art gallery at the back of the library, there’s a brilliant exhibition on the history of steel making in the town. From the rise of blast furnaces in the 18th century to the decline of Bilston when old Elizabeth was closed by British Steel in 1979.
At my meeting with Garry Williams last week he recommended that I read Michael Horton’s A Better Way on the theology of preaching and the drama of the communion service. Horton published this work in 2002 in response to two emerging brands of Christian worship. There was (is) a routine tradition, attended by mostly elderly people, which has lost a real sense of what church is for and what God is doing when the church meets. Old habits die hard. Then there is an enthusiastic, dramatic and diverse type of worship, which despises routine and clambers for innovation. Novel music, drama, art, technology and gimmickry designed to appeal to consumer culture. Horton believes both forms of worship lack a deep sense of the truly dramatic work of God and so he outlines a better way.
Horton’s introduction and first few chapters really hit the spot where I am itching. I have been drawn to investigate Cranmer’s communion service and am seeking to teach the drama of communion, rather than dumb it down. I have felt like we have been slightly stuck in a loop in our communion services but I don’t want to turn to gimmicks to draw a crowd. I am naturally and theologically adverse to fluffy innovation for innovation’s sake.
I think my study guide has all the theological elements I need. Horton has provided the content for an extra question about the drama of meeting God on his terms and responding to God in faith and obedience. What could be more dramatic than an encounter with the living God and knowing where we fit in covenant history?
Here’s the paragraph’s I have culled from the opening chapters of Horton’s book. More next week.
A Better Way
Rediscovering the Drama of God centred worship
Michael Horton (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2002)
Across the spectrum of denominations there seems to a general vagueness about the God we worship and the purpose of worship in the first place. Do we have to settle for either dull routine or perpetual innovation? There is a better way…
I am persuaded that one of the reasons why so many churches have gone to drama and other theatrical arts in worship is because the sermon and the larger liturgical setting have failed to provide the sense that something important and dramatic is happening here, now, as we gather before God. Divine and human action easily become “choreographed” by the culture when we do not sense that it is occurring at all. The clamor for “more excitement” and “more drama” can lead to two simplistic solutions: a retrenchment of intellectualism or adding our own dramatic gimmicks to God’s worship. The goal of this book, however, is to recover the sense of redemptive drama that we not only see illustrated in Scripture but that the Word and Spirit actually bring into our communal gathering.
When God’s people understand who God is, who they are in his presence, and what is happening to them when they come into his presence, not only their minds but their hearts are transformed.
Another notable reformation of new covenant worship occurred with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The gospel having been eclipsed by humanly devised doctrines and practices, the Reformers knew that the power was in the preaching of the gospel—not only in the sermon but in the entire service. The service, they recognized, was not primarily about human action but centered on divine action. God was not only central as an object of worship but also as a subject—an actor, who reconstitutes strangers and aliens as his own redeemed people each week.
It was once the conviction of most churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, that the church was a mother who cared for her children. Now, it is increasingly the case that churches across the denominational landscape regard themselves as department stores in a shopping mall that must sell a product to choice-obsessed consumers.
If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like Him? . . . Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ. It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.
Imagine the worship service as a magnificent theater of divine action. There is the pulpit, lofty and grand—this is God’s balcony from which he conducts the drama. Beneath it is the baptismal font, where the announcement, “The promise is for you and for your children” is fulfilled. Also prominent is the communion table, where weak and disturbed consciences “taste and see that the Lord is good.” That which God has done to, for, and within his people in the past eras of biblical history he is doing here, now, for us, sweeping us into the tide of his gracious plan.
The Lord’s Supper is neither a mere memorial of Christ’s death nor a re-sacrificing of Christ (as if we preferred the shadows of Moses to the reality in Christ). Rather, it is a participation in the very body and blood of Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 10:16). “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” we read in the words of the institution. No wonder the writer who so strongly urges believers to recognize the superiority of the new covenant also charges us not to give up the covenant renewal ceremony that God enacts not once but each Lord’s Day:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:19–25
That thesis is this: God has promised to save and keep his people through the means he has appointed and through no others; the ordinary means of grace are limited to the preached Word and the administered sacraments; God’s rationale for these means is made explicit in Scripture. There are many other things that are essential for Christian growth: prayer, Bible study, service to others. However, these are not, properly speaking, means of grace but means of discipleship.
Here in the wilderness God has given us both the preached Word and the visible Word (baptism and the Supper). Here is God’s drama, the liturgy of life, in which God acts in saving grace and we respond in faith and repentance. Even our architecture is to be conscious of this mission to proclaim God’s method of grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, delivered in the church alone, through the means of grace alone.
Through this drama of the weekly covenant renewal ceremony, we are not merely playacting. It is for real: Christ here exercises his threefold office as prophet, priest, and king. As our prophet, he pronounces his judgment and announces his salvation through his ambassadors. As our priest, he stands between us and the just wrath that divine holiness entails in relation to rebels like us. Beyond mediating, he, the judge, assumes our judgment. As risen king, he has conquered sin and death for us and now rules in his church so that no alien ruler can conquer us. It is by grace alone that we are redeemed and by grace alone that we stand in this redemption. The logic of the message controls the logic of the method, rendering both unbridled “enthusiasm” and “dead orthodoxy” false alternatives.
Unlike most plays, which simply entertain or evoke various responses, the divine drama actually incorporates the audience in the overarching plot. “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.” How is it that by hearing this script and story as it proclaims God’s judging and saving action, skeptical spectators become new characters in the play? Why hearing? Is preaching the only way of creating faith in the hearts of unbelievers? Finally, how can we recover a sense of the dramatic in preaching?
there is a correlation in biblical faith between faith, hope, and a promise announced (hearing) on the one hand, and vision, sight, and a reality fully experienced on the other. Those who demand the vision of God here and now will be particularly susceptible to idolatry, whereas they would likely not be as inclined to it if they were patient in waiting for the salvation that they have in Christ as it is mediated through the broken and not so spectacular vessels of human messengers and the most common elements (water, bread, and wine). Why are these effective means of grace? Not because of the minister or the elements themselves but because of God’s promise. God has promised to deliver his grace through these humble venues.
the point is that too often preaching is primarily conceived as an event in which God is the topic but not the actor! Doctrinal lectures and inspirational how-to motivational talks dominate both traditional and contemporary approaches, but both tend to undermine the event-character of the service. It is one thing to talk about the doctrines of sin and grace and another to actually be faced with God in judgment and justification. It is one thing to hear exhortations to victory and quite another to actually experience the power of being drawn into the plotline of God’s victory over our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil). Doctrine and exhortation will be involved in all good preaching of Scripture, but preaching can never be reduced to either. If that happens, it is no wonder that people eventually sense the loss of God’s active presence and look for other means of grace, other sources of “bringing Christ down” into our daily experience that is threatened by meaninglessness and triviality.
Preaching is not merely the minister’s talk about God but God’s talk—and not just any talk. It’s the kind of talk that produces a new people.
The method of salvation that is by grace requires a method of delivery that is executed by God’s gracious work and not dependent on human decision or effort for its success. Notice the irony in saying that the message we proclaim is that sinners are saved by grace alone because of Christ’s merits alone, and then adding (perhaps in the fine print) that this supposedly free gift was actually attainable only by our discovering, striving, dragging it down from heaven, or descending into the seas to obtain it. In the incarnation, God made the trip across the great expanse and has come all the way. But that was still not enough. In order to unite us here and now to that event “then and there,” he sent a minister—an ambassador—carrying his official treaty along with its seals. And that concludes the logic of Paul’s argument: “How can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14–15).
Are we really ministering God’s means of grace? If the preaching of Christ and the place of the sacraments are unclear, it should be no surprise that people set up golden calves—their own means of grace, whether in the form of musical extravagance, emotional hype, visual drama, or any number of methods that they think will help them climb into the presence of One who instead seeks and finds us. Furthermore, God has provided baptism and the Supper as means of strengthening our faith in Christ, assuring us, and delivering his blessings. They are not merely illustrations, as stage dramas in church are, but actually convey the promised deliverance. God has accommodated to our weakness already: in Word and sacrament.
God accommodated to our weakness in the incarnation. He came down all the way to us, saved us by the death and resurrection of his Son, and continues to provide for our temporal and eternal welfare. But that’s not all: After this he still accommodates, coming all the way down to us again here and now as he uses the most everyday and common elements that are familiar to both the uneducated and the academic: water, bread, and wine. Here God even accommodates to our weakness by allowing us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” to catch a glimpse of his goodness as he passes by.