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Worship as Threat and Promise

Revisiting Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s Liturgical Wisdom for Today’s Church

This post is the concluding part of a three-part article “Three Theological Themes for Worship,” a condensation of a presentation given at the 2018 Symposium on Worship. This series explores Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s most generative insights and considers how they might shape the worship we prepare and lead today.

Threat and Promise

One of Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s favorite images of the church at worship is that of a beating heart—this helps us to understand his contention that the church at worship is both threat and promise for the world.

“The life of the Church pulsates like the heart by systole and diastole. As the heart is for the animal body, so [worship] is for church life a pump which sends into circulation and draws it in again, it claims and it sanctifies. It is from the life of worship…that the Church spreads itself abroad into the world to mingle with it like leaven in the dough, to give it savour like salt, to irradiate it like light, and it is toward [worship]—toward the Eucharist—that the Church returns from the world, like a fisherman gathering up his nets or a farmer harvesting his grain.” Worship, 55.

As worship is offered by the church, both in the world, and on behalf of the world, it underscores what von Allmen calls “the impermanence of the life of the world” in the scope of God’s divine plan. At the same time the church offers itself as a sign of eschatological hope, a transformation and a real future. Thus, the worshipping church is to the world both a threat and a promise.

This may all seem rather abstract. So let’s look at some more concrete implications for some common acts of worship:

Praise. The doxological declarations of the church are an anti-pagan polemic with political overtones. When worshippers sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” when they declare “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory,” they reject all pretensions to these things that might be implicitly claimed by other forces such as the seductive cultural narratives of consumerism, or explicitly claimed by the state and its demands of obedience.

Prayers. Christian worship makes plain the threat, the challenge to alternative claims of sovereignty. It does so not only in its doxologies, but in its prayers. In its prayers it asks, “Thy kingdom come,” which not only expresses hope, but asks the judge to come and for the world to be judged.

Preaching. The threat is evident in preaching insofar as preaching calls upon people to make a decision of eschatological import—to “entrust their life to the One alone who can deliver them from perdition” (Worship, p. 65).

Eucharist. The threat is also evident at the Lord’s Supper where, though the ‘medicine of salvation’ is offered, the threshold contains a warning for those who are not believers and who might eat and drink to their condemnation (see 1 Corinthians 11 ff.).

This suggests that recent movements in, for example, the PCUSA, to regularly welcome to the table those who have not yet been baptized is misguided. Of course, the table, as Wesley and others note, can be a “converting ordinance.” But typically, a conversion happens first.

Evangelization. This is an odd entry here—because we don’t often think of “evangelism” as a moment in worship, a liturgical element. Von Allmen hears those voices who ask whether the contemporary “post-christian” cultural moment requires the church to abandon liturgical forms so that it may “appeal to the world with more forceful directness.”

But this question itself, maintains von Allmen, betrays a “deep misunderstanding as to the aim and purpose” of worship. Worship is not primarily aimed at the world, but at God. Recall the image of the heart. The church is oriented toward God in the systole, toward the world in the diastole. There cannot be one without the other; neither can the two be conflated. Yes, von Allmen says, the church should put more energy into its evangelistic efforts, and it can always serve God in the world with more vigor and obedience. But one should not confuse these valuable things with the worship the church offers as the assembly of the baptized.

And in fact, von Allmen declares that by the mere fact of its celebration, worship has an evangelizing force because it is has a “power radiating joy, peace, freedom, order, and love.”

“While we must not give up evangelistic effort because of the evangelizing power which [worship] has over and above its main concern, we must not either deny that the mere celebration of worship provides a sign which is for the world a challenge and a promise. Thus it has a power of evangelization which is often hardly guessed at. That is why it is so important that Christian[worship] should be celebrated with a maximum of theological urgency and of spiritual fervour.” — Worship, 79.

Some Concluding Thoughts

One may wonder what sort of worship was offered in the parish churches in Neuchâtel, Lucerne, and Lignières, and whether those churches—with all that radiating joy, peace, freedom, order and love—resemble much the churches of 21st century North America.

There are times, of course, when the church’s life expressed in its worship does indeed pulsate with divine power. May it be ever so with us.

And this is one of the most remarkable things about von Allmen’s writing: that all his extraordinary, far-reaching theological insight emerges from someone deeply engaged in the very ordinary and everyday work of a pastor among garden-variety Christians, teaching and visiting, baptizing and marrying and burying, preparing worship and preaching and presiding at the table each Lord’s Day.

My hope is that a little exposure to the Gospel through Jean-Jacques von Allmen inspires us to worship with precisely that: a maximum of theological urgency and spiritual fervor.

About von Allmen

Jean-Jacques von Allmen is among the most admired liturgical theologians of the 20th century. Yet his work is largely—and lamentably—unknown to most worship leaders.

Von Allmen was a parish pastor in the Swiss village of Lucerne for 17 years, and then professor of practical theology at the University of Neuchâtel from 1958 until his retiring in 1980 and his death in 1994. A friend of Karl Barth and Brother Roger of the Taizé community, he worked tirelessly within his own confessional circle for liturgical reform, but was broadly ecumenical in his sensibilities and appreciations.

His theological work was always grounded in his experience of the local congregation at church and as church. He is perhaps best known for influential books on biblical theology: A Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1958); liturgical theology: Worship: Its Theology and Practice (Oxford, 1965); as well as The Lord’s Supper (Lutterworth, 1969), and homiletics: Preaching & Congregation (John Knox, 1961).

Click on the links to continue reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.