Books: The Story of the Christian Year

January 6, 2014

The Wee Kirk conference we attended in October had a book swap. I took a book which I had not found particularly interesting, and came home with The Story of the Christian Year by George Gibson. I enjoy reading history, particularly when it relates to something else I have a strong interest in (in this case, the Christian church), and the origins of the church year is a topic I had read very little about.

I grew up familiar with at least some seasons of the church year. Lighting Advent candles was the natural lead-in to Christmas, and our Advent calendars always started with the first Sunday of Advent, not with December 1 as I see so many of them today. Lent I considered something for grownups to be concerned with, not children, but I knew when it was and that it ended with Holy Week, which included Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then of course Easter.

When I began to attend a fundamentalist church as a teenager, I was surprised to find that people there not only did not celebrate these days and seasons, they did not even know what some of them were. Those who did know about them considered them unbiblical, remnants of the Roman Catholic church that mainline Protestant churches had retained because of their own low regard for Scriptural truth.

For the years that I considered myself a fundamentalist, I adopted that attitude myself. After all, the church I had grown up in had never preached the Gospel clearly. It wasn’t until I went to a fundamentalist church that I learned that I needed to admit that I was a sinner, that Jesus had died for my sins, and that I trusted him for salvation. The church I had grown up in was seen as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5 KJV), focusing on the outward forms rather than the truth.

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Books: What Language Shall I Borrow?

November 11, 2013

As chair of the worship committee at church, I look for resources to enhance our public worship. Most of our time as a committee seems to be spent on planning the logistics of the worship service ( e.g. who is the accompanist each week, who is doing special music), but I try to occasionally bring up topics about the meaning and purpose of worship.

What Language Shall I Borrow?, by Ronald Byars, intrigued me because it addresses the issue of whether to use traditional or more contemporary language in the worship service. I have attended churches that used traditional language and others that use contemporary language, and I see certain benefits in both.

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What’s in a worship service? (Part 5)

July 4, 2012

I am somewhat hesitant to write about “what I’d like to have in a worship service,” because I think there is already too much emphasis, in many churches, on shaping worship services to meet people’s preferences. The point of worship is not what I want, or how I feel about the experience, but about God and turning our focus from ourselves to God.

There are, however, certain practices in a worship service can help or hinder our attempts to focus on God. I’m not suggesting trying to go out and change a church’s worship traditions – even those of my own church. (I happen to be the chair of the worship committee, but at this point the committee does little more than make sure we know who’s doing the music, Scripture readings, etc. for each Sunday. And I’m not going to try to use my position to push my own preferences. Though I might try to plant a few seeds if we get talking about possible changes…)

The things I suggest here are a mix of what I learned in classes at college (as a Bible major), what I have seen done in different churches, and what I have heard or read in books on the subject.

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What’s in a worship service (Part 4)

July 2, 2012

Of all the different kinds of churches I have attended and worshiped at, I feel most at home in a Presbyterian worship service. I don’t know how much that has to do with the fact that it is similar in its general form to the worship services at the Congregational church I grew up in, how much my 23 years of being Presbyterian, how much with the way its nature matches my personality, and how much it is the excellent features of the worship service itself.

One of the first things I learned about Presbyterianism, back when I switched to that tradition from the Baptist churches I had attended before I got married, is that in many ways they are a “middle way.” There is an excellent book on the subject by Harry Hassell, Presbyterians – People of the Middle Way. Taking a position between two extremes is not always the right approach, because sometimes one “extreme” is right and the other is extremely wrong. But in many aspects of religious belief and practice, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from both ends of the spectrum, and a middle position borrows from both while avoiding the errors of focusing too much on one to the exclusion of the other.

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What’s in a worship service? (Part 3)

June 29, 2012

I remember hearing about house churches when I was a teenager. The New Testament tells about Christians meeting in one another’s homes, and I knew that in countries where Christians are persecuted people would generally have to meet in homes. I heard of new churches that were started by someone inviting people to worship in their home. But it always seemed to be assumed that when possible, a church building was the normal and preferred gathering place.

Sometime in the past decade or so I began to hear about people who gathered in house¬†churches by choice. One occasional commenter at WorldMag Community always writes very critically about “institutional churches” when the subject comes up. While his tone¬†often strikes me as uncharitable, some of his points are worth considering.

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What’s in a worship service? (Part 2)

June 26, 2012

As many different churches as I visited as a child and young adult, I never had occasion to visit an Eastern Orthodox church. I didn’t know anyone who attended one, and the only time I lived near one was the year when I was teaching Spanish at a Christian school in Levittown, PA. I walked or drove past it often, and wondered what it was like.

My curiosity didn’t extend to actually visiting it, however. The school where I taught had a list of acceptable churches for its teachers to attend. I don’t remember whether all the churches on the list were Baptist, but an Eastern Orthodox church would most certainly not have been acceptable.

After I married and became a Presbyterian, I had more contact with people from other Christian traditions. The church we attended in Langhorne participated in ecumenical activities with other churches in town (with the notable exception of the fundamentalist Baptist church I had attended previously). I remember discussing church and theology with the priest of the Episcopal church on Good Friday during the Walk behind the Cross, and one year I attended a Saturday retreat held at the Friends meeting-house and getting to know some Roman Catholics.

I also read a lot, and I was particularly intrigued by accounts I read of former evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I couldn’t imagine following their example, but I understood some of the factors that seemed to motivate them.

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Reading: At the Corner of East and Now

September 12, 2008

This is the kind of book I would love to find any time I want to learn about an unfamiliar faith or church tradition. Frederica Mathewes-Green tells how she came to be an Orthodox Christian, what their worship service is like (including explaining all sorts of words and customs that would make little or no sense to an outsider), the history behind it all, and Orthodox views on a variety of topics. Interspersed with all this, she introduces the reader to various Orthodox Christians, mostly from her own parish but some she met elsewhere, in all their quirky individuality (no cookie-cutter Christians here!).

I was particularly interested in Mathewes-Green’s comparisons of Orthodox tradition to Protestant Christianity, from which she and her husband converted to Orthodoxy. She can explain effectively to evangelical Christians how and why the Orthodox believe and practice what they do, because she knows how both think. (She gives examples of lifelong Orthodox who find evangelical views incomprehensible.)

Evangelical Christianity has been concerned, especially in recent years, about being “relevant” to the culture. Worship services, music, language, teaching styles, and evangelistic methods are all designed with a view to speak to people in the context of what they already are familiar with. While Mathewes-Green does give an example of Orthodox monks publishing a punk-style ezine to reach young people crippled by the nihilism and despair of the punk subculture, Orthodox worship has no concern for cultural relevance.

This is a good thing, Mathewes-Green says. “People newly coming to church should have an unfamiliar experience. It should be apparent to them that they are encountering something very different from the mundane. It should be discontinuous with their everyday experience, because God is discontinuous. God is holy, other, strange, and if we go expecting an affable market-testing nice guy, we won’t be getting the whole picture.”

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