This is the fifth installment of our series covering Pagan Christianity, the book by Frank Viola and George Barna. In this post we look at their chapter on the order of worship. Their basic question is: “Why have we been doing basically the same things in church every Sunday for the last 500 hundred years when they are mostly not found in the bible and also often unhelpful?” The authors claim that, despite slight variations, most Protestant Christians across the world go through the same predictable rituals every time they attend church – rituals closer to those of Roman Catholicism than they realize.
They assert that the last church service you went to probably contained most of the following elements (and probably in this order):
- The greeting
“As you enter the building, you are greeted by an usher or appointed greeter – who should be smiling! You are then handed a bulletin or announcement page.”
- Prayer or scripture reading
“Usually given by the pastor or song leader”
- The song service
“Led by a professional song leader, choir or worship team. In charismatic-styled churches, this part of the service typically lasts thirty to forty-five consecutive minutes. In other churches, it is shorter and may be divided into several segments.
“News about upcoming events. Usually given by the pastor or some other leader.”
- The offering
“Usually accompanied by special music by the choir, worship team or a soloist.”
- The sermon
“This is the highlight. Typically the pastor delivers an oration lasting twenty to forty-five minutes. One or more of the following post-sermon activities may be included: a pastoral prayer, an altar call, singing led by the choir or worship team, the Lord’s Supper and praying for the sick or afflicted.”
- The benediction
“This may be in the form of a blessing from the pastor or song to end the service.”
The authors find this incredible: “With some minor rearrangements, this has been the unbroken liturgy that 345 million Protestants across the globe observe religiously week after week. And for the last five hundred years, few people have questioned it. Look again at the order of worship. Notice that it includes a three-fold structure: (1) singing, (2) sermon and (3) a closing prayer or song. This order of worship is viewed as sacred by many present-day Christians. But why? Again, it is simply due to the titanic power of tradition. And that tradition has set the Sunday morning service in concrete for five centuries… never to be moved… you can scour your bible from beginning to end and you will never find anything that remotely resembles our order of worship” (page 50).
The reason you will find no order of service in the bible, say the authors, is that the first Christians knew nothing about such a thing. Their meetings were a fluid gathering, not a static ritual. They could be unpredictable and spontaneous, unlike most churches today. So from which eras in church history do the elements of our order of service come from then (see here for more on the eras)?
The Jewish, Greek and Roman eras
Interestingly, fixed orders of worship are such a late development in the history of the church that the first two eras contributed very little to our current day church service. According to Viola and Barna, many Christians assume church services were modelled on the 1st century Jewish synagogue – but this is simply incorrect historically. Besides, they say, synagogues have no biblical precedent and were actually developed during Israel’s exile in Babylon. Actually, during both the Jewish and Greek eras of the church there was no order of service as we know it. There may have been apostolic traditions, but there was no prescribed pattern like we have today.
Fixed church programs came as a much later development (even later than the closure of the New Testament canon) – after the conversion of the Roman Empire. The first one was what we now call the medieval Catholic Mass which originated with Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century AD. Gregory was apparently a highly superstitious man who was heavily influenced by pagan magical concepts as well as Christianity. He decided to create the Mass ‘church service’ using a blend of pagan and Judaic rituals sprinkled with Catholic theology and Christian vocabulary. It wasn’t a pattern passed down from Jesus or his apostles, it was a programmed theatrical performance steeped in Gentile mysticism and Greek drama. With the introduction of the Mass, more than half a millennium after Christ, Christianity inherited its first prescribed liturgy with pagan clothing for the priests, pagan incense and holy water for purification, candles for worship, the architecture of the Roman basilica for a venue and much more. Amazingly, this official order of service for the Roman Empire remained mostly unchanged for another thousand years during the dark ages until the Reformation led to a campaign against it.
The European era
As an alternative to the Roman Catholic Mass, famous reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulricht Zwingli and John Calvin actually wrote out strict lists and programs (like the one given above!) for their churches to follow every Sunday. Again, these changes were not derived from the New Testament church recorded in Scripture, they were just the Mass repackaged. Luther’s main problem with the Mass was the idea that Jesus was being sacrificed again for sins at every service during the Eucharist, which he said was based on an inaccurate understanding of the cross. He set forth revisions to the Mass which remain the foundation for most Protestant church services today. In a nutshell, Luther made preaching the centre of the gathering instead of the Eucharist. He replaced the altar table with the pulpit. It is Luther who gets the credit for making the sermon the climax of the Protestant order of service, even though this actually has no biblical precedent (according to the authors). On a positive note, he also introduced congregational singing and changed the Mass from Latin into the common language of the people. Most of the other reformers used Luther’s basic liturgy with slight adjustments. Zwingli, for example, replaced the Catholic altar table and doctrine of transubstantiation with the Protestant “communion table” and symbolic view of the bread and wine.
John Calvin, despite making many positive contributions, also caused a lot of damage according to Viola and Barna. His order of service was even more focused on the sermon than Luther, and his preaching was intensely individualistic, theological and academic. Although he allowed acapella, he was fiercely against instrumental music and choir singing in services. Rather, he encouraged Christians to embrace a quiet, somber, self-critical attitude as repentant ‘sinners’ before a great and austere God. Probably the most disastrous aspect of Calvin’s order of service, however, was that he personally controlled practically the whole service from the pulpit. According to Viola and Barna, Christianity has still not fully recovered from all these unbiblical influences. Unfortunately, Luther and company still retained the underlying formalism of the Catholic ceremony. The meetings were still controlled by ordained clergy with a predetermined program and the people were still passive spectators (besides the singing). There was seemingly no desire to return to the open (Holy Spirit led) and participatory (every-member functioning) meetings seen in the New Testament.
The Anglo-American era
In the next four centuries the structure of church services was heavily influenced by revivals led by famous evangelists such as George Whitfield, John Wesley, Charles Finney and D. L. Moody. In America, George Whitfield redefined the purpose of preaching with his famous outdoor crusades. To Whitfield, sermons were almost exclusively about making individual converts. Following his example, churches across the country were now becoming solely focused on ‘winning souls’ and God’s ‘wonderful plan for your life’. Music began to be seen as an emotional tool that could be designed to soften people for conversion, and almost all evangelists had a musician on their team for this purpose. The Methodists in England, with the help of Charles Wesley’s hymns, also introduced a much more emotional dimension to their services where loud and vigorous singing was encouraged and made more prominent. Unfortunately, more emphasis began to be placed on the individual experience of church and less on the corporate nature of gatherings. This was also the era of the “altar call”, popularized by Charles Finney in the 19th century, where people were asked to respond to the sermon and come forward to the platform for prayer. Finney’s influence on church services is still massive today. He turned evangelism into a science, which has contributed to the manipulative and ‘seeker friendly’ methods of ministry commonly practiced in modern church services. Finney was a pragmatist – he believed that it didn’t matter how we do church “as long as it works”. Following along this trend, D.L. Moody was the person responsible for introducing the method of asking people to follow in the ‘sinner’s prayer’ to become a Christian. Billy Graham perfected this technique, including the steps of raising ones hands “while everyone closes their eyes”. It was also during the time of Moody that Christians first began to be concerned with saving as many people as possible before the world ends. Interestingly, although church services across the world were changing drastically in their approach and emphasis, they still stuck to the basic structure handed down from Martin Luther. The surface was altered, but the roots remained in Gregory’s Mass.
Riding on the back of the revivals, the last century has seen the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements which have brought more emphasis on the leading of the Holy Spirit during services. However, just like their revivalist predecessors, they are highly subjective and individualistic. And just like all the rest before them, they still retain the same basic order of worship. They are still officiated and directed by clergyman, they still make the sermon central and the people are still unable to minister to each other. Protestants have made major breaks away from Catholic doctrine, but they have never fully broken away from the liturgical constraints inherited from Rome. In terms of the actual practice of church, there have been many adjustments but no vital change.
Viola and Barna claim that a fixed order of service is not rooted in the bible, but that it is pagan and therefore unnecessary. Do you agree?
They also seem to think that a fixed program is restricting and perhaps even harmful because the Holy Spirit is not free to lead the meeting and members cannot participate. Do you experience it like that, or do you find a structured approach is more helpful or enjoyable than an unstructured approach to worship?