Shifting the center of worship from sermon to table

In anticipation of the conference we hosted a few weeks ago, “Everybody Has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the Formation of Missional Communities,” I put out a survey for those who plan and lead worship. The results were revealing in many ways.

People invest a lot of time in worship planning and take it very seriously. We’ve raised the bar in terms of the importance of thoughtful planning, which is good. But we still have a ways to go in how we conceive of worship in the first place.

In the over 50 completed surveys, one thing emerged over all other responses as a shared practice related to worship planning: it begins with and revolves around the sermon.

This is not a surprising insight, especially for those of us in free church traditions (most of the respondents) that do not begin with a fairly set liturgy buttressed by readings from the lectionary. (Although, even the few that completed the survey from more liturgical traditions built their services around the sermon).

I probably wouldn’t have questioned this much before reading Jamie Smith’s books, particularly, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith questions our view of what it means to be human, noting that since the Enlightenment, we’ve tended to think of humans as creatures driven by reason, or ideas. But, a more satisfying view from theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, is to see humans as desiring creatures. As the title of Smith’s latest book suggests, we are what we love. And desire is not cultivated or trained primarily by information, but by bodily practices in the world, our habits and routines, or as Smith calls them, liturgies, that hold our lives.

If Smith is right, and surely he is, then what does the fact that we plan worship around preaching say about what we think it means to be human? Do we think of humans as “brains on sticks,” to use Smith’s memorable phrase? One other survey finding might support that we do indeed suppose that formation is primarily a function of rationality. We expect very little in terms of bodily participation from those who worship. As one respondent put it, “We don’t expect our members to do anything except sing.”

Now, don’t get excited here. I’m a preacher and would like to think my sermons make a big difference in people’s lives. And I think good ideas are better than bad ideas or no ideas. Unlike some worship leaders who equate worship with singing, I think a good deal of worship goes on during preaching. No one is saying stop preaching (though occasionally sermons I hear miss two or three good places to end earlier), but we might want to be more realistic about what preaching actually accomplishes (a post about this, perhaps, in the future).

So, let’s keep the sermon and maybe even think more fully about its importance, but what if we built our service around a different telos, or “end,” than the sermon?

What if the service was built around the Lord’s Supper? And by that I mean, what if the planning and design of the service revolved around making the new social arrangements of the gospel visible? OK, let me explain a little. Surely part of the significance of the gospel is that the welcome of God cuts across ways of sorting the world by ethnicity, gender, age, class, etc. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh which means that men and women, old and young, servants both male and female, will prophesy (to paraphrase Acts 2). All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved, without distinction.

The table is the place where these new social realities become most prominently visible, where we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. Admittedly, the way many of us practice communion conceals this reality. We are left to our private meditations as we take individual portions and pass the emblems down rows to faceless participants. Communion is the time, in many worship services, where we are left alone with our thoughts (brains on sticks?).

We’d have to practice communion differently to make visible the new social realities of the gospel embodied among the eschatological people of God (church). In fact, I very seriously doubt that we would have come up with the idea of passing plates down rows in the first place if the social aspects of the table of the Lord were our starting place. I am struck every time I attend a service where I am invited to get up and go to table. The visual impression made by a diverse people being welcomed around one table is striking. Often I have thought, what but the reconciling work of God could have brought these people together?

And, we’re doing things with our bodies and interacting with other bodies. We’ve moved from being worship spectators/consumers to embodying the claims of the gospel on our collective life.

To refer back to the post from two days ago, now the focus of worship is not an excellent performance, but making the diversity of the people of God visible. We would think of leadership roles in worship, not just in relation to who can do the best job (or what gender they are), but in terms of making the reconciled people of God visible.

It might change the ways we think about other parts of our worship, like singing. Consider that toward the end of Romans, Paul exhorts this Jew/Gentile challenged church to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He then cites passages from the Psalms that imagine all of humanity with one voice praising God. Singing in worship is not just about you getting your praise on. It’s a public act of solidarity wherein the gracious welcome of God becomes visible. The offering, the sermon, the call to worship and the sending at the end, all would be given a different significance.

I know that this kind of shift from sermon to table as the focus of planning would form a different kind of imagination for who we are and what we do in the world. It would shape our desires differently. It’s tougher to worship around the notion of the welcome of God and then exclude others in the various places we live and work. And it would protect our preachers from the temptations related to celebrity. I think we’d be less compartmentalized in our Sunday lives and our Monday-Saturday lives, less likely to distinguish between the gospel and justice, less likely to see personhood in relation to autonomy, more likely to know in our bones the significance of community. And on and on and on….

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Who’s in?

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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2 Responses to Shifting the center of worship from sermon to table

  1. J. Bordine says:

    What does this look like?

  2. Pingback: Links To Go (November 1, 2016) | The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts

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