Worship for Discipleship-- "Fix" or "Practice" (Or maybe some of both?): Part 1

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


In preparing a sermon based on the gospel lesson in the lectionary this week (Luke 9:51-62) I found myself pondering anew the call of Jesus and the sort of things it takes to respond to that call.

This is a first in a series of articles that flesh out some of those ponderings in light of that text and early Christian, early Methodist, revivalist, and especially the contemporary United Methodist contexts in which we find ourselves and our stated mission as a church to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

I begin this series with a bit of personal testimony.

Having been raised Southern Baptist, the call of Jesus was most often translated to me in my youth, especially in invitational hymns, as happening in the context of a highly emotionally charged action of "walking down the aisle" to "come to Jesus" while an invitation hymn, such as "Why Not Tonight," or "Why not come to Jesus now?" or "Why not, why not, why not come to him now?" was being sung. My "conversion experience" (which I would still claim as valid) occurred on January 2, 1972 when I "went forward" on the first verse of the "Why not Tonight." I was just about 7 1/2 years old at the time, and was subsequently baptized, by immersion, two Sundays later on the evening of my half birthday.

"O do not let the word depart,
or close thine eyes against the light.
Poor sinner, harden not your heart!
Be saved, O tonight!"

It was an experience that, even almost immediately after it happened, I looked upon with some ambivalence. There was great pressure in the congregation and pressure (or support) in my family to help this moment happen. One of the reasons I had not walked the aisle, frankly, was that I didn't know how to swim and I was terrified that I might drown during baptism. I had shared this with my parents, and during that fall vacation, my father tried to teach me a bit how to swim, or at least how to tread water and hold my breath underwater so that I might be less frightened about what would happen when the pastor (rather than he) would at some point plunge me under water for all the congregation to see.

Since my father had done this with me in the fall, I couldn't fall back on being afraid of drowning as a valid excuse not to go forward anymore. Sunday after Sunday after that, both in the morning and especially at night, these "invitation hymns" were being sung and the pressure inside ("the conviction of sin" was the name used to describe this) kept mounting. I was very certain I didn't want to go to hell when I died. And it was clear from the preaching and from these songs both that the remedy to that was to "come forward" and "receive Jesus" and to do it, "now."

And so, on that night in January, I didn't wait even for more than the first word of that song, "O," to be sung before I was on the move down the aisle.

I remember a very strong sense of surrender in this. (I Surrender All!). And there was an equally clear sense of relief that accompanied this concrete ritual action of surrender-- this action of walking down the aisle, taking the preacher's hand, hearing him ask me what I was seeking and saying, quite simply and truthfully, "I want Jesus."

I believe Jesus honored that desire at that moment.

But in fact, I also observed that nothing happened-- nothing changed except that now I had said this, publicly, and so the pressure to do so was off. All that remained now was "to follow my Lord in baptism" (understood in that community of faith as an ordinance-- something we do because Jesus said so-- rather than a sacrament-- something God offers as a means of grace to make us new creatures). And then to follow him-- whatever that might mean-- for the rest of my life.

But I repeat-- nothing had changed. Family and church folk were expecting me to report some sort of unspeakable joy in all of this. Or perhaps to give some sort of testimony to what Christ had just done for me. Thankfully, the pastor didn't try to put me on the spot to do that. He just welcomed me as a brother in Christ. Had he tried to put me on the spot, I would have actually had nothing to say, honestly. I felt relief-- and not much more. Instead, there was more like a question-- "Now what?"

In that community, "now what" meant primarily that I was given many opportunities to study the Bible and take on a variety of leadership roles-- including assistant librarian beginning in the 4th grade, and librarian (with a budget for new books!) beginning in the sixth. They taught me well-- in both roles. They cultivated in me a strong love and respect for scripture, supported me in seeking to learn more, and even gave me opportunities to teach. It was as part of that community that I heard, loudly and clearly, at age 19, a call to ordained ministry-- but a call I recognized, even at that point, needed further clarification. Teaching, writing, speaking, preaching, maybe pastoring-- I wasn't sure exactly what-- but yes, this kind of thing, full-time.

Meanwhile, in college, in a small town in Ohio where I was the only practicing Southern Baptist around for many miles, I began attending the Episcopal Church on campus and encountered worship in a very different mode. The biggest underlying difference wasn't that it was "liturgical" and followed a "prayer book" and a lectionary and that communion was practiced weekly with real wine and was open to all baptized persons present (and those were all huge differences!). The biggest difference I observed was that worship there didn't always lead to a highly emotional moment where people were called to give their lives to Jesus. Instead, worship there was a more or less ingrained and embodied (crossing, bowing, kneeling, forming a line to receive communion) practice of those who participated in it. Among my friends (students, faculty, staff and townspeople) who were part of that congregation, worship wasn't something they went to to see folks saved or to rededicate their lives to Christ, but something whose words and actions seemed to imbue their whole lives in many ways. The repetition of the ritual and its basic forms over time that were part of this practice of worship meant that those who stayed with it got all of this into their bones, their blood, and even, quite palpably through the incense, their lungs.

Both of these forms of worship-- the one leading to an emotional response (Baptist) and the one getting into the bones (Episcopal) have continued to be deeply formative for me. I see and have known value in both. And it's a large part of the reason that I am United Methodist-- because in our heritage we have, as Methodists, from the beginning been people who knew and practiced the value of both. Sunday nights in the early Methodist societies were very much about moving people to commit more deeply and in emotionally palpable ways to the way of Jesus, to holiness of heart and life. Sunday mornings, whether for those earliest Methodists in the Church of England or one of the other options available at the time, were about participating in worship as a practice that got into their bones in a way that gave substance and support to what happened on Sunday night in Society meetings and Thursday night in the smaller, more face to face environment of the class meetings where they could help each other learn how to live out General Rules that equipped them to be disciples of Jesus transforming their world.

But I find myself worrying a bit about where I think I'm seeing many of our congregations and some of our leaders heading with worship these days. We seem to be polarizing about whether worship functions as practice (the "liturgical renewal" or "traditional" folk) OR as a "transformational experience" (perhaps most notably in "contemporary" or "relevant worship" circles) OR even as a kind of mixture of the two in a single service ("blended worship")-- each as the "one right way."

Our earliest forebears at their best didn't pick one or the other or try to combine the two into one. The did both-- each one in a different time, a different place, and according to the purpose for the assembly.

So some questions for us to consider...

  1. Which of these approaches actually best characterizes the purpose and practice of worship on "Sunday morning" where you are-- "fix" or "practice" or "blend of the two"? Why is that? And how is that working for you?
  2. Do you have ways or means to encourage people in your worshiping community to experience each approach to worship in its own integrity ("fix" for more "intentionally persuasive" contexts-- like the early Societies--, "practice" for more "ongoing development" contexts-- like the congregations and perhaps even the class meetings early Methodists also attended)? Or are you implicitly underwriting the notion that "just one" of these is a sufficient environment for all of our "worship needs" to be met-- or rather all of the ways we need to offer ourselves to God in worship to be achieved?

I look forward to further conversation on this-- and on the next part of this reflection coming soon!