A Baptist pastor, an Episcopal rector, a Pentecostal minister, and a Roman Catholic priest are going to plan worship together for a special ecumenical gathering coming up in several weeks. The problem is, they can’t seem to agree on any aspect of the service.
The Episcopal wants an 8 minute homily and real wine for communion. The Baptist wants a 50 minute sermon and feels communion is unnecessary because they did it last month—although an altar call may very well be in order. The Roman Catholic likes the rector’s train of thought, but wants to make sure the Table is securely ‘fenced’ and is hopeful that the group won’t deviate from the prescribed lectionary readings for the date in question. The Pentecostal doesn’t understand the fuss and wants to close the meeting in prayer (in tongues) and just call everybody together on the scheduled date to see what happens when the Spirit shows up.
Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? But, there is no punch line.
Still, it can be funny to consider how different we are when it comes to our unique approaches to curating worship. I suppose we should just count the blessing that we don’t often (if ever) have to plan worship together. On second thought, is this a blessing to be counted? A blessing by any measure?
I think the true blessing would be an increase—globally and locally—in ecumenical worship. For the reasons already mentioned and many more, this is difficult to imagine. I am no expert on the subject but it seems to me there is one simple key to designing worship that will be embraced by the widest variety of believers.
The key? Make Jesus your central theme.
According to one renowned New Testament scholar, the diversity of worship practices—and therefore the difficulty of worshiping together—has always been a problem.
Of the diversity of earliest Christian worship there can be little doubt. We have seen clear evidence of the range of this diversity—diversity over the continuing relevance of Jewish traditions of worship and the extent to which form and order should be left to the creative inspiration of the Spirit in each assembly; diversity as to whether worship is primarily an individual or communal affair; the diversity of hymns whose style reflects different modes and moods of worship and whose language and concerns reflect the different apologetic environments of the worshippers. (James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 161.)
Despite the variety of approaches to worship that have set us apart from one another since the beginning, there is one thing that can bring us together according to Dunn:
Where in all this diversity can we find unity? Not in established catechetical and liturgical forms… One clearly unifying element does seem to appear—and that is Christ. (Dunn, 161)
Can we all agree that Jesus is God? That Jesus is the second person of the Trinity? That Jesus lived, died, and rose again? Can we also agree that in some way (though we may disagree on exactly how) the cross of Jesus changed things for us, bringing us as close to God as we once were? If we can agree on these, then more than any liturgical form, the person of Jesus can unify our worship diversity.
Years ago I was leading some last minute music for a small gathering of organic house-church planters—many of them from the Brethren denomination. I asked the person in charge what the theme was for the evening so I could choose appropriate songs. At first, he said there was no theme. But after a minute, this leader responded that, in fact, “Jesus” was the theme. “After all,” he said, “who can go wrong with that?” Indeed.
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