The Right Order

Donald Richmond:

PrevinComedyRoutineIn his book and study guide The Way of Beauty, David Clayton relates the following comedic television routine: Famous composer and conductor, Andre Previn, is leading an orchestra. At a point during the mock-performance, Previn cues the pianist with his baton. As the pianist plays it becomes obvious that the music is not right and Previn tells him to stop. When Previn insists that the pianist was playing the “wrong notes,” the pianist gets up, walks over to the conductor, takes him by the lapels, and shakes him shouting, “I am playing all the right notes… but not necessarily in the right order.” This, used as an illustration, is the problem with much Protestant worship today. We may have the right notes, but we all too often “play” them in the wrong order.

The Worship Arts includes visual, vocal, poetic, prosaic, musical, rhetorical, and kinetic components. Each and all are included in public worship, and are crucial to the worship experience. Well-ordered worship will not simply attend to the biblical and theological aspects of “communication,” but, as well, the aesthetics which either add or detract from the worship encounter. To confuse the order is to confuse the message and confound the hearer. As just one of many examples, have we ever really thought about the theological implications of when (or if) we do the Announcements? Even Announcements proclaim a theological agenda!

I am sure that many worship leaders today, even if they enjoy some liturgical sentiments, think that Acts 2:42 provides a perfect paradigm for structuring worship. That is, if apostolic teaching (catechesis), fellowship (communion), breaking bread (Communion) and prayers are included, all is well. Of course, taking a hint from both the Psalms and Paul, “hymns and spiritual songs” would also be included. But, even with this sound substantive outline, is it really enough? Is it truly ordered for biblical fidelity and social impact? I think not.

One of the lessons that I learned from Dr. Robert E. Webber is that while substance does not change, structure can, does and must change. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea. Nevertheless, even if the structure changes it does not mean that the structure is unimportant. As with everything in worship, structure is vital. Everything “says” something. What are our structures of worship saying?

Let me provide another illustration: Some time ago I was asked to lead a worship workshop at one of our local churches. During my two hour lecture, and then Questions and Answers, we covered almost every element of how we worship– or, in fact, do not. One of our topics was physical architecture. As I began to address this issue in greater detail, I focused (in part) upon their Communion Table. It was bare. There was nothing on it: no Table Cloth, no Wine Goblet, and no Paten. Nothing! “What,” I asked them, “is wrong with this picture?” They could not guess. My answer to this semi-rhetorical question was simple: “Even if you do not celebrate Communion every week, Word and Sacrament are so crucial to worship that when you have a bare Table your subliminal message is, ‘Come for the Bread of Life, although we cannot offer you anything.’” This is clearly not the Good News!

And every part of worship is almost equally as important. But have we clearly thought about every part of worship, from beginning to end, and why and how we “do” it? I think that many churches have not. How is worship to be practically understood and navigated? Do we have a theology of arriving at church? Do we intentionally embrace a functional Entrance Theology? What, specifically, is our theology of welcome? When a person enters our doors, what, within the entire structure of worship, do we want to say? What is our Preparatory Theology? Are we using our entrance into the Sanctuary optimally or is it simply a dead zone punctuated with somewhat purposeless (and thus powerless) music? What tone must the music have: Why? When? Where? How? What is our synthetic theology of music? Do we have one beyond the rather inept idea that it must integrate with the Sermon and be “missional” (another article in-and-of itself!). How many biblical texts do we read and reflect upon each week? Why one…two…three…four? How are Announcements done? Why? What is the theology behind Announcements?

The Road to Emmaus. Duccio. c. 1308

The Road to Emmaus. Duccio. c. 1308

All of these questions and illustrations beg an important question: Why? Although I have briefly hinted at answers throughout this article, it is important that I am absolutely clear about the purpose of playing the right notes in the right way in the right order. Fundamentally this concern is rooted in our relationship with God as revealed in and through both Word and Sacrament. From Genesis through Revelation God communicates a pronounced concern about proper worship. At no time did God ever communicate an “anything goes” orientation. God provided Adam and Eve the priority of blood sacrifice. Abel honored this emphasis, and his offering was acceptable. Although Cain’s offering may (or may not) have been well intentioned, it did not follow the revealed pattern and process. As such it was rejected. Also, and not to be minimized, the process and pattern of Passover was revealed by God, and disobedience to this revelation was both costly and immediate. Similarly, God gave Israel the patterns and the processes for the Tabernacle, Temple, and Feasts. Although some measure of artistic creativity was allowed, as the biblical text suggests, Tabernacle, Temple, and Feasts were revealed. God’s calculations, from coverings to costly jewels, were specific. Structure and substance were clearly stated. Turning to the New Testament, and not overlooking our Lord’s emphasis upon worship being “in spirit and in truth,” our Lord was deliberate in how the Last Supper was to occur. “Took, Blessed, Broke, Gave,” is the ritual refrain in the Communion (and other) narratives. Speaking and acting are both evident and emphasized. The Emmaus revelation was also predicated upon the Word (“did not our hearts burn?”) and Sacrament (“their eyes were opened”) paradigm as found throughout Holy Writ. That is, in other words, worship suggests a revealed pattern and process that requires careful and prayerful attention. There is NO arbitrary in worship. Worship is not well-intended whim. It is crucial to God’s revelation. Are we truly being attentive? (Although I do not entirely agree with their analysis of worship, I am indebted to both Dr. Scott Hahn and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger for at least some of these ideas.)

There are many other questions that must be asked and answered in worship. Have we actually taken the time to prayerfully and carefully work through the entire process? Without asking and answering the right questions we may have all the right notes but be playing them in the wrong order. Do we want cacophony or true celebration?


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