When I was growing up I was part of a ‘used-to-be-Brethren-now-we’re-Free-Evangelical’ church in the south east of England. The youth leaders at that church often took us to experience worship in churches that were different than our own. One of the foundations of the church seemed to be a willingness to work and worship with anyone who loved Jesus, despite having its roots in a movement that’s often known for its isolation and doctrinal purity.
I’ve often wondered what brought such a huge change in attitudes to the men and women in that church. I’ve often wondered if a church that knew its Bible so well (the teaching I received is something I’ll always be grateful for) couldn’t help but do what it says, particularly as it also had an urge that far outweighed its size to share the Good News of Jesus and to bring blessing and encouragement into as many lives as possible.
My family was the result of a marriage between a Roman Catholic (whose Methodist auntie used to take him there as well) and an Anglican. When I was old enough I was sent off to Sunday school at the nearest local church, which happened to be Baptist. When I ‘gave my life to Jesus’ at the ripe old age of 9 during a ‘Beach Mission’ I started to go along with a friend to a youth group that met at the Evangelical church I mentioned above.
In my growing up years I used to be part of a Christian band that played at events in a whole variety of churches, had Roman Catholic friends who sometimes took me to Mass and went to a school with connections to Canterbury Cathedral.
When I got older I was, for a while, an Associate Evangelist with The Pocket Testament League and later an Associate of Scripture Union before joining Youth for Christ as a national staff-worker. I went on to pastor a charismatic-evangelical church in Manchester before pastoring a small, inner-city Baptist Church. I did my theological training alongside folk from the URC, Methodist, Anglican and Baptist churches. Later on I was part of a House church, worshipped with a Vineyard Church and settled very happily into an inner-city Anglican Church in Manchester (where much of my heart still remains).
Since moving to Scotland things have gone full circle…having spent some time in an Evangelical Free church and the Salvation Army, we are currently worshipping with the Baptists again.
So, yes, I’ve changed churches quite a bit and I’ve always had a bias to appreciating the way other Christians do stuff.
All of which leads me to the topic of today’s post…if we are ‘one’ our corporate worship and prayer can be so much richer.
Round about 150 AD a teacher in the church at Rome wrote a letter that we know as ‘The First Apology of Justin the Martyr’. He describes Christian worship at that time:
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons
And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
What is striking here is that if you went into any place of Christian worship today the pattern and the ingredients mentioned in 150 AD would still be recognisably part of the service today.
We still have much in common…the reading of scripture, preaching, prayer, Communion, news and needs still make up the framework for our worship. There is no mention of music or singing, which may not have been wise in a time of persecution, but scripture encourages them too.
What has changed is the way we do them and what we think they are all about…some of us pray extempore prayers, others use carefully crafted liturgy. Some of us like 15 minute homilies, others don’t feel they’ve been fed without at least 45 minutes…maybe longer. Some of us like our services to be quiet and contemplative, others like loud and enthusiastic worship music. Some churches have organs and choirs, others have bands and worship leaders and some only sing unaccompanied Psalms. Some of us use all manner of modern multi-media and some of us prefer words and books. Some believe that the bread and wine is just a symbol, others attach more significance to its substance…what matters is that Jesus told us to do it! (And it’s possibly the only firm instruction for our gatherings together that he left.)
When each of us comes to worship we have at our disposal a tremendous arsenal of ways to pray and praise. They enable our God-given preferences and temperaments to focus, rather than distract us, from the object of our worship. And when God is wholeheartedly worshipped we often come away feeling refreshed and encouraged ourselves too.
I am so grateful for the richer experience of worship that has come from an appreciation of the unity and diversity of the church.