Q. How can we balance our desire to make changes in the service for emphasis and still allow the congregation to be comfortable within a certain structure so they can worship without distractions?
A. It was C.S. Lewis who famously compared good worship with an old shoe. The more familiarity and fewer surprises, the better. Lewis was right that innovation tends to draw our attention from the purpose to the mechanics of what we are doing.
Of course, inflexible constancy isn’t good either, and can result in auto-pilot worship (in any style). So you’re right in asking the question in a way that tries to hold together two competing values. The answer to your question depends so much on context. Change that is imperceptible in one church may cause anxiety in another. And sometimes we needlessly worry about the anxiety a change may cause, when in fact it might be very well-received.
The most successful strategies I have seen for achieving balance involve a structure of worship in which the main categories are constant and innovation occurs within them. In one church, the rubrics for each week are these: Gathering, Confession and Assurance, Proclamation, Creeds and Prayers, Lord’s Supper, Charge and Blessing. Those six categories are constant, but there is room for improvisation within each. In another church, they are “Songs of Praise and Trust,” “Prayers of Confession and Intercession,” “Reading and Preaching of the Word,” and “Responses of Prayer, Gifts, and Testimonies.” Within each category, the combination of which particular acts of worship are sung or spoken changes each week depending on the sermon theme or available musicians and artists.
Overall, we wind up with the largest problems when we forget to hold together these two competing values. Rigid opposition to all change and patterns of endless innovation are equally regrettable attitudes.
Q. I recently visited two churches in the Reformed tradition that celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The first included extensive teaching about the Lord’s Supper but no Lord’s Supper prayer. The second had a Eucharistic prayer, but no teaching about the Lord’s Supper. What’s up?
A. In the sixteenth century, Reformers added a teaching section prior to the Lord’s Supper to explain the meaning of the feast to their congregations. Recently published consistory minutes from Calvin’s Geneva have given us new appreciation for how little some worshipers understood about the
Lord’s Supper and how important this teaching must have been.
Over time, this teaching section grew to dominate Lord’s Supper celebrations, gradually eclipsing Eucharistic prayer. This was true despite the fact that the eucharistic prayer is a practice that dates well back to the early church, long before any of the distortions in the mass that so irked the Reformers had emerged in medieval Catholicism. Jesus himself at the last supper offered a prayer of thanksgiving as part of the Passover ritual.
Recent liturgical research and renewal efforts have attempted to bring back the practice of a celebratory Eucharistic prayer (see The Worship Sourcebook for many examples). This practice is terrific on several levels: it turns our attention toward God, it expresses deep gratitude and Christ-centered joy and hope, and it conveys our awareness that it is the Holy Spirit (and not our own piety) that makes the Lord’s Supper spiritually nourishing. In short, it moves the Lord’s Supper from the “classroom” to the “sanctuary.”
In a Word
A Eucharistic prayer is often called the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Like a creed, it sums up the whole Christian faith, offering thanksgiving to God for everything from creation to our anticipation of the full coming of God’s kingdom.
The prayer usually consists of two parts. The first is a rhapsodic, thankful remembrance of all God’s works of redemption, from creation to new creation. It often sounds like a psalm or a creed as it rehearses the entire scope of salvation history. In many traditional texts, this part of the prayer is itself divided into two parts: thanksgiving for creation, ending with a song of praise based on Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the Sanctus); and thanksgiving for the work of Christ, ending with a memorial such as “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
The second part consists of a prayer that God’s Spirit will work in and through the present celebration to accomplish the main purposes of the Lord’s Supper, which are to nourish, encourage, and strengthen the church. Sometimes this is called a prayer of consecration or epiclesis (Latin for “to call upon”).
Overall, the prayer has an explicitly trinitarian shape: thanksgiving and remembrance of God the Father, thanksgiving and remembrance of Jesus Christ, and prayer for the present work of the Holy Spirit.
We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (email@example.com). You can also e-mail John directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).