What’s the most important aspect of worship?
Many “contemporary” Protestants would likely say, “music,” as that’s almost become synonymous with worship over the past thirty years. I’ve been to churches where pastors get up in front of the congregation and say, “Well, that was some great worship. Now let’s hear from The Word.”
Classical Protestants would probably say, “preaching.” This is, after all, what set the early Reformers apart. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were noted for their preaching. Zwingli went so far as to equate worship with preaching. At any gathering of Protestants who spring from this mold, having someone “share from the Word” is an absolute necessity 1.
Liturgical Christians tend to look at the Protestant preoccupation with music with confusion. After all, in these settings, music is not considered “the worship,” but rather a servant of the worship 2. They also don’t disagree with the importance of preaching, but find it odd that preaching would be highlighted to the exclusion of other aspects of worship. Liturgical Christians tend to point to Communion as being the most central aspect of worship 3.
So, who is right?
When posed questions like this one, my typical answer is, “Yes.” This is because real life is so nuanced each posited answer is likely capture some element of the truth. In this instance, however, I think perhaps Protestants such as myself have something we need to learn. Communion really does need to move into a more central place in our worship.
Why is this? After all, preaching has been in place as the root of Protestant worship for centuries, and music for decades, and things seem to have worked out ok. In fact, the accepted recipe for a “successful” Church nowadays is to have great music and a charismatic preacher. So why should we bother paying attention to the way liturgical churches worship? Music stirs the soul, preaching stirs the mind, and that takes care of everything.
And then the Internet happened.
Preaching stirs the mind 4, yes. But in a world where I can download sermons from the “most well-known” practitioners of the homiletical arts on a whim, why would should I bother to come to listen to “average to mediocre” Joe Preacher from a nearby church? For that matter, why even travel a distance to a “successful” church to hear a good preacher?
Music stirs the soul, which is certainly true, but if music is the thing, why wouldn’t I download the most well-produced and beautiful versions of popular songs, and take it with me anywhere I am, instead of hearing the less manicured versions played in the church on the corner? Likewise, why bother to wake up early on a Sunday to travel to a church were there is great music?
The reality is, preaching and musical enjoyment can be replicated virtually with ease. If that’s all worship is, then there is no reason to come out on Sunday morning, week after week. There is no reason to come together. After all, a superior product is available on-demand, at my leisure.
This brings us to Communion. Protestants have done our best to minimize the importance Communion in worship. We take it infrequently, we do we tack it on to the end of a worship service, and break it up in many individual servings 5. Even so, there is something about Communion which separates it from other aspects of worship.
It can’t be replicated virtually.
Communion is an incarnational act, it requires physical elements to celebrate. Communion is also an expression of physical community, so it requires other people to be present for it’s meaning and purpose to become fully manifest. You can put headphones on and listen to a sermon whenever you have a moment, you can play the latest and most uplifting worship music on the radio as you drive to an appointment, but Communion without physical symbols is a fantasy. Communion without other believers is just a snack.
Sometimes pastors are actually told, “I’m sorry I missed worship, but I slept in – I’ll download your sermon later, and I turned on worship music during breakfast so I still worshiped myself.” This is, no doubt, true. But it’s worship which is missing it’s heartbeat – the incarnational celebration of the mystical union we all share in and with Christ.
- Even at a “party.” ↩
- Though, even many Christians from liturgical traditions have been “Protestantized” enough to take up the musical mantra. ↩
- Notice the word change. In Liturgical worship the Eucharist is in a place of prominence, but not in a way which inadvertently dismisses other worship elements as being “less.” ↩
- I would say it stirs more, but preaching really is a thought exercise. ↩
- And really large churches even use packets of “Communion, ready to eat.” The juice is disgusting. ↩