Related to my current interest in contemplative spirituality, I’ve been pondering some foundational questions about Protestant worship. In particular, I’ve been questioning the wordiness of our worship services and the centrality of the sermon in Reformed (and other) worship traditions.
To be sure, I love a good sermon. I enjoy writing and preaching sermons myself. But given the fact that Sunday worship is the only spiritual practice for the majority of Protestants in North America, and my persistent suspicion that mainline Protestants talk about God as an idea more than they actually experience God’s presence, I wonder if listening to a 20 minute lecture is really the best use of this precious time. While teaching and preaching has been a part of Christian worship from the beginning, it took on a different significance during the Protestant Reformation and in the subsequent development of Protestantism. The sermon as we know it developed from particular circumstances and served particular purposes. But I wonder if there are more pressing needs we should be attending to today.
It’s no accident that the final worship service I officiated at Fourth Presbyterian Church did not have a traditional sermon. Instead, I offered a brief reflection on the scripture passage and invited people to engage each other in conversation at their tables. I’m much more interested in this type of interactive and communal participation. Colleagues have also pointed out that my approach to worship is more sacramental than homiletic.
As I’ve pondered what kind of worship service my family and I will attend here in Richmond—especially since I will likely be doing a variety of things at churches throughout the Presbytery of the James as part of my work—I’ve been captivated by two more contemplative services in the area.
The Gayton Kirk is a Presbyterian church that offers a Celtic worship service at 8:30 AM on Sunday mornings. It features traditional hymns and Celtic music, moments for silence and contemplation, and communion every week. Instead of a sermon, the congregation works their way through a book of the Bible and discusses it together. It’s like a Bible study with music and communion. I loved it.
After attending one of these services, I was made aware of the Celtic service at 5:30 PM on Sunday evenings at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. I had to visit it after reading a ringing endorsement from Diana Butler Bass. You should read her entire review on the St. Stephen’s website, but here’s what really caught my attention:
It wasn’t “programming.” It was an experience. Weaving an environment when the Spirit is welcome, and creating the possibility for openness and transformation throughout the entire community. And you could tell that the clergy love it — that it fed them, too. This is what I’ve been talking about in all my books.
I am freaking moving to Richmond just to go to church! It was the single most powerful, symbolically meaningful, Christianity-of-the-future, give-me-hope, the awakening is real church service I’ve been in for a decade (and I have been to some amazing worship services). And the teenager even liked it — she was most taken by the poetry and the inclusion of other religions, as well as the invitation to open communion.
I’ve been twice now and I love it. I think my family might actually like it as well. Even though the silence and stillness is a challenge for our six-year-old son, it’s no surprise that he gets into the candle lighting and communion. In addition to communion (I know it’s not very Presbyterian, but I love that the entire congregation says the words of institution together), beautiful music, and opportunities for contemplation, I think it’s great that instead of a sermon there is a reflection that is essentially a testimony, often delivered by a lay person. The first one I heard was powerful. You can listen to it here: Mary Via Reflection
Services like this aren’t for everyone. But for those of us interested in something other than three hymns and a lecture—a caricature, I know—these are wonderful alternatives to the status quo of mainline Protestant worship.
As Diana Butler Bass concludes her review of the service at St. Stephen’s:
Tell me that people aren’t starving for a new kind of church. I’m done with convention. Nothing is going to evolve unless we risk for the sake of the future. Bring on the revolution.
Bring it on indeed.