“It seems to me like this model is passing away,” a South Bay pastor said to me, this time at one of those school-auditorium churches. “You see those kids?” He gestured at a couple of teenagers out in front of the building. “We go to Mexico every month to do service ministry. That’s why they’re here. If we weren’t doing that, they wouldn’t have any use for this.” “This” being the standard Sunday morning gathering: the songs of praise, the prayers, the community announcements, the sermon, the altar call, and in this case, the memorial of the Last Supper. In sum: praise God, petition God, understand God, spread God, and remember God’s love. (Well, maybe “understand God” is a little abstract — many churches today emphasize practicality over theology, as in lessons you can apply to your life right now.) “They wouldn’t have any use for this.”
It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve heard Sunday-morning praise bands that were tight and more than one performer who struck me as a genuine pop artist (Trevor Davis, anyone?) — just the sort to attract the young people of today. And of course, there is the power and presence of live music, especially live music that encourages everybody to join in. Maybe you could read something similar to the pastor’s sermon over your Sunday morning coffee, and you could certainly pray in the comfort of your home, but you’d have a hard time duplicating the musical experience. “Blessed be the name of the Lord/ Blessed be His glorious name!” A thousand (or even just a hundred) people, caught up in single-minded, single-throated praise, girded by drums and guitar: heady stuff.
Still, something’s gone a little awry — there’s even a song about it. A lot of the more modern Christian churches seem to share a similar songbook, and a hymn I’ve heard more than once is Matt Redman’s “Heart of Worship.” “I’ll bring You more than a song,” it promises God, “for a song in itself is not what You have required…. I’m coming back to the heart of worship/ And it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus/ I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it…” Sorry for the thing I’ve made it? The praise band isn’t enough. But what is that heart of worship? Why do we go to church on Sunday?
Prayer in Church Can Be a Funny Thing
Toward the end of 2006, I happened to attend, in close succession, a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Gregory the Great Church, a Chaldean Catholic Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral, a Conservative Jewish Shabbat Service at Ohr Shalom Synagogue, and a Greek Orthodox Divine Liturgy at St. Spyridon Church. The Roman Catholic Mass I knew pretty well — the four-hymn sandwich (Opening, Presentation, Communion, Recessional) surrounding the liturgical layers: prayers of praise and petition, the Scripture readings, the homily, and the consecration and distribution of Holy Communion. Except for a few variations (some more significant than others), I could have been in any one of a number of mainstream Protestant churches.
The Chaldean Mass, however, offered an element of strangeness — the priest began his prayers (intoned instead of spoken) from behind a curtain. For at least part of the Mass, he was hidden away, deep in the recesses in the Sanctuary. And while I did hear a hymn or two, most of the music came from within the context of the liturgy itself, the ancient texts sung by either priest, choir, or congregation.
The curtain and the singing brought it more in line with the Jewish service I attended soon after, which was almost entirely sung by either cantor or congregation, and in which the scrolls of the Torah were stored behind the doors of the ark. The holy things kept hidden away until the appropriate time. It didn’t take much to dope out the connection between the Chaldean curtain and the Jewish temple veil that shrouded the Holy of Holies.
But it was the Greek Orthodox liturgy that really drove home the connection to the Shabbat service. In keeping with Jewish practice, a cantor led the congregation through the order of worship, which, again, was almost entirely sung. The Chaldean curtain here became a screen, solid like the doors of the Jewish ark. And as in the Jewish service, heavy emphasis was placed on prayer.
Prayer in church can be a funny thing. Sometimes, it feels like opening remarks, or like grace before meals — “Lord, bless this service, and help the pastor to open Your word for us….” Sometimes, it turns into a lesson for the congregation. “Father, we know that You are a good God and that You are with us even in the hard times, for as You have promised, Father, ‘I am with you always…’ ” But, as with the Jews, prayer is central to the Orthodox service, enfolding — encompassing? — every other aspect. Their function and form are traditional: Besides the Lord’s Prayer, there are multiple litanies of supplication (“That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord…”), entire Psalms, and constant refrains of praise and glory. “Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us.”
Most dramatic, to me, was the treatment of the word. The Jews reverenced the word of God — at one point, the Torah scroll containing the Five Books of Moses, mantled in heavy fabric, was processed throughout the synagogue. Congregants crowded to the ends of the aisles so as to be able to touch the scroll as it passed, either with prayer shawl or prayer book. The Orthodox priest also processed the word, bearing the Scriptures aloft through the congregation. But then, later in the liturgy, he did the same with the elements of Communion. Those elements, in the Orthodox tradition, actually become Christ’s body and blood — the true presence of God’s Word become flesh. (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”) The word and the Word — the echo was enormous.