Much of this series on spirituality focuses on what we do when we are alone with God. But what about when we are with other Christians? What of our common life of prayer?
For Adventists, times for corporate prayer include the Sabbath worship service, the prayer meeting, weeks of prayer, camp meeting, and the like. In most of these, the dominant activity is not prayer, but preaching or teaching. Besides the sermon or sermons, there are the other exhortations, like the one before the offertory. There are announcements, greetings, and explanations. But we do pray.
We are not a liturgical church, but our services remain predictable, with well established patterns of what happens, and when it happens, and how it happens. The pastor will go out on the platform with elders. They will kneel in silent prayer. There will be an opening prayer, which is said with ministers and people standing. It will be short, and will invoke the Holy Spirit. There will be a prayer after the offering, thanking God for his blessings (again, with ministers and people standing). There will be a pastoral prayer, with all kneeling; it will be the longest prayer of the day, and will cover a multitude of topics, but with a familiar pattern of praise and petition. The preacher may pray before or after the sermon (or both) and there will be a concluding prayer of blessing as we leave.
The communion service adds to this prayers of blessing over bread and wine, said by elders after they have read from the words of institution (rarely are these scriptures and blessings said by the ordained minister, for some reason).
The prayer meetings adds the custom of the “season of prayer,” with all taking turns praying aloud, in small groups of two or three or all together. We learn when we are small, incorporating into our prayer expressions that we have heard from others: “forgive us our sins and mistakes,” “bless the missionaries and colporteurs across the seas,” “heal the sick, if it be thy will.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal includes resources to break up these patterns of practiced informality, calling us away from our rote responses to the words of Scripture. Instead of just one person reading from Scripture, we have responsive readings, in which the congregation shares. Some are psalms, for use at the beginning of the service. Some are intended for the main Scripture reading of the service. Some are intended to be used as responses to prayer, or to lead us into confession. Some are to be read at the offertory. Still others are benedictions, to be said at the end of the service. The assumption is that we do not need to pretend to come up with something original at these times—we can let the words inspired by the Holy Spirit replace our awkward utterances. We can take our mind off the question of whether we are saying the right thing, and let Scripture speak for us.
What, then, I wonder, is really the difference between a “liturgical” church, like the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran communions, and “non-liturgical” churches? We both use Scripture throughout the service. We both have orders of service with little variety. We both let our traditions guide us. We both take comfort from this when we are visiting a new place.
I spent a couple of dozen years living and ministering in liturgical churches, Lutheran and Catholic. They share a common form of liturgical worship, the Lutheran being an evangelical revision of the Catholic liturgy, removing references to human works and offerings. But the pattern remained the same, and the commonality is more clearly visible since the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Council.
The service in liturgical churches begins with an order of confession and forgiveness, and leads into a responsive singing of “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) and then a hymn of praise, the “Gloria” (joining in the angelic song, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth”). An opening prayer, or “collect,” concludes the “entrance rites.”
The service of the Word follows, with roots in the ancient synagogue service. There are typically four readings: one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from an Epistle, and one from a Gospel. This is followed by the sermon, which connects the Word as read with daily life. A proclamation of the faith we share in common follows (the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed), and then the general intercessions, with prayers for specific intentions.
Attention then shifts from the pulpit to the altar, or communion table. The offertory is not primarily for collecting money, but for bringing forward the bread and the wine, which are placed upon the table and prepared. An offertory prayer and a responsive invitation to prayer leads to the “Sanctus,” the angelic hymn of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), lifting us from the ordinariness of our life and gathering and ushering us into the heavenly throne room. Then follows a lengthy prayer that retells the story of salvation, culminating in the self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and, to connect that with what we do now, the reading of the Words of Institution. A hymn of praise is sung while the bread is broken, asking that the Lamb of God (“Agnus Dei”) show us mercy. We share in the bread and the wine. There is a final prayer and a blessing and we go in peace, “to love and serve the Lord.”
Another form of liturgical prayer is called “the liturgy of the hours.” It grew out of the Jewish custom (shared by Muslims) of praying at set hours of the day (for Jews, the hours of the main sacrifices in the temple). This form of prayer developed in the monasteries; at its root is a simple praying of the psalms. Historically, all the Psalms would be prayed by monks each day. Today, Catholics use a four week cycle. Three Psalms are prayed at each service, at morning, in the day, at evening, and at night, together with short Scripture readings, intercessions for the needs of the people, and singing of hymns.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we may not use this liturgy—but is there anything particularly wrong with it, if, like Lutherans, we are clear to remove all unbiblical elements? And, more importantly, isn’t it clear that though we may not use this liturgy, we still use a liturgy? We are not as spontaneous as we imagine.
Scripture gives little guidance about how to pray when we come together. We know that the apostles continued to go to the synagogue and the temple, so it is not surprising that early Christianity continued the practice of reading of Scripture, singing of psalms, praying for the people and explaining what was read. Pace George Barna and Frank Viola, these things are not “Pagan Christianity,” but Biblical practices that connect us to our Jewish roots.
Paul’s instructions are simple and few, allowing for both freedom and order, but emphasizing doing things decently.
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 1 Cor 14:26-33, NKJV
Within this simple guidance, that all things be done for the edification of all, there is much room for freedom. Freedom. What an idea! How many battles are fought in churches of every denomination over what can and cannot be done in worship? Paul’s only rules are that we look out for others, don’t bully or show off, keep silent at certain times. He says nothing about whether to use instruments or which kind, whether to have a set order of readings through the year (as Jews did) or whether to let the preacher pick Scripture as the preacher wishes. He says nothing about what kind of bread or wine to use, whether to have a single cup or individual cups, whether to have communion daily or weekly or quarterly or yearly.
But Paul does tell us to come together, so that we may learn from one another, edify one another, pray for one another, and worship God with one another. He knows no such thing as a solitary Christian. He could never imagine that a Christian might forsake the assembly to go off and pray to God silently in nature, undistracted by other people. For Christ is not, for Paul, a disembodied spirit. He has a body, and we are all the parts of it, all needing one another. And when is the body most visible? When we come together for worship. That’s the real intent, I’d suggest, of his warning about “not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor 11:29). It isn’t meant to draw us further into ourselves—but to draw us out of ourselves, and see the others around us who are, like us, members of the Lord’s body.
Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard.