Community in Worship, Part II: Worship Nurtures a Community That Is Alien to This World

By Phillip Magness

In the first installment of this series, I highlighted the unique character of the Christian community as one created by God. While other communities are based on common human activities, desires, persuasions and identities, the Christian community is based upon — and created by — divine activity. This is seen most clearly when Christians gather for worship, as the Divine Service is a manifestation of the fellowship created for us in Christ Jesus, and a chief venue for the Holy Spirit to perform His work of enlightening and sanctifying us in the Christian faith.

As the Lord has His way with us in worship, a culture alien to this world is formed. In this culture of Christian community, we are nurtured in faith. We grow not only in our own sanctification but are built up with the whole church into the people God intends us to be. Indeed, worship and culture are intrinsically linked. One sees this readily in Romantic languages, where the word for “worship” is a form of the Latin cultus, rather than the Old English worth-ship. In worship, the true and the good are grown — literally cultivated. In Christian worship, God cultivates us. We are His workmanship (Eph. 2:10), souls in which He works His good and perfect will and accomplishes His purposes (Phil. 1:6).

The Divine Service and all the daily prayer offices (Matins, Vespers, Compline) form us into a unique community. No other community is so tethered to the Lord of heaven and earth. The peace we receive from God through the proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins passes all human understanding, as it is an alien peace (Phil. 4:7). It is not peace as the world gives, but an extraordinary peace from Jesus Himself, bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit (John 14:23).

We receive this peace with the whole Christian church on earth as the Spirit sanctifies us and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith (Luther’s Small Catechism, Third Article). In this way, worship manifests a community that is in the world, but not of it (John 17:16–27). We are not of the world because we have received an alien righteousness — that is, a righteousness not of our doing, but of God’s. Possessing an alien righteousness, we form a community that is alien to this world.

In this alien community, we are not static. We are nurtured in faith as we grow in righteousness. The activities of Christian worship grow our faith and strengthen the bonds we share as the Body of Christ. As this happens, our ways and patterns of worship take on a richness all their own. Just as a man-made community develops art, music, sculpture and ceremonies that enrich and magnify the community’s activities, so does the culture of the church. In the Christian church — the community created by God, literally the ecclesia, the “called-out ones” — divine worship takes on good and true forms that are cross-cultural and counter-cultural to the cultures of the world.

As the church, we enjoy the fruits of holy culture as our participation in the Means of Grace entails actually doing things. While we passively receive an alien righteousness, we are active participants in the Lord’s work. Our mouths sing, proclaim and confess. We eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, which requires movement and vessels. Our sanctuaries are adorned with liturgical art that evokes Scripture and reinforces the Gospel message. Candles are lit, and pastors and assisting ministers move as the action of the liturgy takes us from font to lectern to pulpit to altar.

Many congregations reinforce our reception of this alien righteousness by processing a cross, reminding worshipers than salvation comes to us extra nos, from “outside ourselves.” The ways in which all this is done vary according to the local context but are all rooted in the common ways in which Christian culture has been formed since ancient times: the proclamation of the Word, the preaching of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments. The rich and varied ways in which we participate in these tasks nurture a holy culture among us as we look forward to the ultimate cultus at the throne of the Lamb (Rev. 22:3).

The habits of being in Christian culture allow for the Word to dwell in us richly (Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:25) and keep us growing in our faith. Yet, precisely because this is such a blessing, it also carries a risk. While the way in which a congregation goes about its holy tasks can rightly be cherished as they bring us Gospel gifts, traditions can also become idols for us. Indeed, the medieval church’s elevation of traditions was a chief reason the church needed the Reformation! So it is important — vitally important — that we always keep such things in perspective.

It is good, right and natural to love special hymns, a certain architecture, the way your pastor conducts the service, or the way in which the Lord’s song is led in your congregation. You are being nurtured in the culture of the church through these wonderful things. But we must always fix our hearts on the gifts they deliver; for as important as it is to have a packaging that reflects what is inside, the real seed that is sown in us through the culture of the church is the Gospel. May we always cherish the culture of the church — and of our own congregations within that church — but may we do so only for the sake of what God does for us in that alien culture through His Word and Spirit.

6 thoughts on “Community in Worship, Part II: Worship Nurtures a Community That Is Alien to This World”

  1. I don’t think cultus and cultivate are from the same root. Kind of a nice metaphor, though. I also would not say the Divine Service, Matins, etc. “form us into a unique community.” The Gospel and the sacraments are what form us, not a specific type of liturgy. I appreciate that you said traditions can become idols. I prefer “traditional” worship myself, but some go too far and say it’s un-Lutheran or even a sin to not use “traditional” worship. I think encouraging useful traditions is wise, but I also think we should not burden consciences. I am also concerned that we might lean too far into the “alien culture” thing. There are plenty of good, innocent things about this world and our culture. If we try to make our kids too different (I’m not talking about matters of clear right and wrong), we may well wind up driving them away from the church. Our young people are not of the world, but they do have to live in it.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts presented here and I myself have often shared this type of comment arising from our confessional documents which clearly state that specific forms of worship cannot be required. In our present day, however, I think we take this statement of the confessions a little too severely, forgetting that the position the Reformers had taken was one forced upon them by the RCs who were demanding that the forms of the RC Church were required and could not be deviated from. The reformers were arguing from a position of cleansing the church of practices which were harmful. In our modern circumstances we are faced with all sorts of attacks on the liturgical practices – often by individuals who would take things much too far. Though the statement that “worship practices cannot be required” is still true, it is also true that we should not jettison practices which have served the church well without good reason and certainly not unless there is something better to put in its place. Far too many clergymen have used this statement to monkey around with the liturgy and caused more harm than good. I would add to this statement that no specific practice or format of worship may be required” — we should not so quickly toss out the covering and clothing of the church as so many rags without giving a fair consideration of the treasures they represent and the value the still retain. It is neither wise, prudent nor a salutary thing to do.

      1. Pastor Owen, as I said before, I prefer “traditional” worship and think useful traditions should be encouraged. But the Reformers were not forced by Rome to teach that human traditions were not binding on consciences. They were echoing Christ in Matthew 15:9 and Paul in Colossians 2:16-17. Churches are free to alter or abolish any human tradition, so long as they do so without causing offense. This is not “attacking” or “monkeying around with” the liturgy, but exercising Christian freedom. I also would not call human traditions “the covering and clothing of the church.” Pure Gospel teaching and administering the sacraments according to Christ’s institution are the real adornment of the church. Those things can take place both inside and outside of “traditional” worship forms.

  2. John J. Flanagan

    Although I was raised Catholic, attended 9 years of parochial school, and left Catholicism in my early forties, I grew comfortable with uniformity in the worship service. My wife and I then went to a Lutheran Church (LCMS), then to a non denominational Bible church, a Baptist church, an Orthodox Presbyterian Church, another non denominational community church, and back to a series of LCMS churches. Presently, we are attending a non denominational Baptist church which stresses Reformed Baptist doctrines. Meanwhile, as we moved from church to church, we sincerely strived to understand the Bible like the Bereans of Acts, but found no easy way to comprehend the reasons why the church was so divided on the meanings of similar passages of scripture. I cannot engage in theological disputes. That is the realm of Theologians, most of whom disagree on the finer points. I have retained much of the Lutheran influences, yet never felt comfortable with the lack of uniformity of worship I found in several churches we attended. Each congregation reflected a difference in style, and preaching seemed to be usually short messages, not the type of expository teaching needed by Christian families. Perhaps, other LCMS churches are more traditional, so I cannot judge from the half dozen I have attended over the years. But the important thing is to be Biblical, and stress the Gospel, but my main criticism of Lutheran worship has been very little uniformity, with each congregation doing something different in worship, and in the process, losing its Lutheran identity. Soli Deo Gloria

    1. I agree with you my dear friend. Please see my comment to James Gibbs above. I believe that the reason for our lack of uniformity is indeed as a direct result of looking with the wrong perspective at this statement that “no specific form of worship may be required.” Years ago, there was much more uniformity. When one traveled about, you could easily expect to find each Lutheran church you visited throughout the country to be quite similar in the worship service. I think the 1960s changed this, with individuals thinking they had authority to monkey around with the worship services without regard to what was already in place and without any thought to what they were removing.

      1. Pastor Owen, I think St. Paul meant what he said when he wrote to the Colossians, “Let no man judge you” with regard to human traditions. When a congregation is considering changing its traditions, it should strive to avoid offense. The problem I have is when other Christians look at congregations other than their own (sometimes by using the Internet) and basically accuse them of being “un-Lutheran” in how they worship. Again, changing traditions should not be termed “monkeying around.” We can each agree or disagree about the wisdom of a particular tradition (or change to the same). What we should not do is point the finger of blame at our brothers and sisters. And who, in your opinion, should have authority to change worship services? Isn’t it the congregation and its leaders…the ones who almost always do the actual “monkeying around” you decry?

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