What can we learn from the journey of the Church as it has embraced prayer and scripture reading as central activities in its worship experience? Are we treating the scriptures in a healthy way in our integration of them into our worship expressions? How can we facilitate prayer in fresh ways in our communities?
The readings for the second session of my online coursework deal with the languages of prayer and scripture. I feel as though the "Points of Awareness" for this session are somewhat contrived. This is because the two focal themes, while perhaps poorly covered within the evangelical subgroups targeted by this series, are well practiced in the mainline Protestant traditions, as well as the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Here we find areas where the so-called "old and dry" churches have something to teach traditions that have eschewed more traditional ways of incorporating prayer and scripture into a service. Because these entries are not meant to be long, I will limit myself to a couple of examples.
Within the traditions targeted by this study (among which is my own Southern Baptist heritage) prayer is almost exclusively a matter of extemporaneity. It is rare that a written prayer is used in service and there exists a general suspicion of anything written down in advance. In this mindset, one may read a written prayer, but that does not imply that one has actually prayed the prayer. As such, recorded prayers may be used in the same way as the words to a song or a piece of poetry. (I paint this in necessarily broad strokes, fully aware that there are, of course, exceptions to the rule.)
The extemporaneous nature of prayer within these traditions can become problematic. For example, an entire congregation may be held hostage as the person leading the prayer moves into a personal agenda, touching on subjects that are close to his/her heart. Important areas of thanksgiving, praise, or communal intercession may be ignored, while emphasis is placed on a particular topic.
In my earlier life, when this was the only form of corporate prayer I knew, I was not attuned to these issues. However, after spending time in the Episcopal Church, the matter was driven home when I visited another congregation whose prayer times were shaped by the pastor. Rather than the "Prayers of the People", the congregation instead was subjected, with eyes closed, to a five-minute speech about the horrors of war, the greed of big corporations and governments, and the plight of children caught in the crossfire. While the concerns are real, the congregation appeared lost in a sea of performance hysteria and rhetorical language. Rather than sharing in corporate thanks and covering a wide variety of intercessory needs, the focus became instead all to narrow.
In an analogous manner, the churches of the target traditions often shun the use of the lectionary. The claim is that the choice of scripture becomes mechanical, leaving no room for the movement of the Holy Spirit. However, in my experience, congregations that shun the lectionary are often subject to another malady. Rather than being open to the move of the Spirit, they are often held captive to a few passages that the preacher chooses to address again and again. Entire sections of the Bible can go untouched as the key passages that back up a particular ideology or theological viewpoint are repeatedly reinforced. In my own experience this has led to a narrowing of perspective within congregations, leading to a dangerous place where lines are drawn and those who do not embrace the leader’s narrow theological framework are shamed and ostracized.
Using a tool such as the lectionary provides both preacher and congregation with opportunities to hear and reflect on a wide variety of scripture passages. Rather than throwing out passages that don’t match a narrowly-conceived theological framework, hearing a variety of voices from scripture encourages us to consider other points of view, sometimes agreeing and sometimes pushing back against a particular worldview or frame of reference. Even if we don’t agree with the particular voice, we are still enriched by the process of wrestling with our sacred texts.
Finally, I want to comment on one passage from the readings associated with this Session 2. In his introduction to the chapter six, White claims that the Service of the Word orally transmits the corporate memories of the community, reminding and reinforcing them, strengthening the corporate identity of those within the church (151). Through the retelling and repetition of God’s acts through both history and the life of the congregation, individuals come to understand themselves as participants in something larger – the Church Universal, unfolding generation after generation, through many different contexts.
Many churches today find themselves moving further away from the traditional stories of the past, focusing instead on thematic preaching deemed more relevant to popular culture. Believing that folks will be more interested in self-help lectures or discussions on personal spirituality, the emphasis of a sermon can move far away from the shared history that forms the Church’s identity. White notes:
"Without the continual reiteration of these memories, the Church would simply be an amorphous conglomeration of people goodwill but without any real identity" (166).
All too often this appears to be the case in many local congregations. Overrun with the latest fad from the corporate world, new church leadership models, or popular fiction, churches lose their conscious identity within the Body of Christ. Thematic preaching based on works by Rick Warren, John Ortberg, or even Dan Brown become the meat of the sermon, replacing the stories that tell us who we are in continuity with the cloud of witnesses who came before us.
Of course, preaching from the lectionary is no cure for these ills. It isn’t enough to simply read from Paul’s words to the early churches or to hear the Gospel each Sunday morning. If we are to reinforce our corporate self-identity, it is necessary to instill a sense of continuity between earlier Christians and ourselves. While each generation adds to the acts of the Church, telling its own stories that must also be repeated, it also remains crucial for us to remember our shared past, embracing our own role in a history that is much larger than ourselves.
White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. 3rd Edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.