I have the privilege of working with a church that grants me study leave. Our church is one of those visionary places that recognizes when its leaders are given (sanctioned) opportunity to unplug, reflect, read, and process, we’re better at what we do. I naturally gravitate toward introverted, cerebral activities, so I purposefully plan aspects of study leave to be connecting with others in my field and learning from them.
This past week, I went down to visit some new friends at New Life Church down in Colorado Springs. They’re a non-denominational evangelical church with a charismatic-style history. They are a megachurch that is doing a lot of good; they’re using their “mega”-blessings wisely, in my opinion. They’ve been in the news for different things—a pastoral controversy a few years ago (we pastors need God’s grace, too!), and an infamous shooting more recent than that (please continue to pray for healing). Still, for all the bad press, they remain a faithful body, committed to God and to prayer (their commitment to prayer blows me away, actually). I also appreciate one other thing about them: from the oldest to youngest, New Life is committed to corporate worship. Thank God for my brothers and sisters down at New Life.
My intention for going down there was to soak in their version of modern worship, hopefully to learn a few things that might translate into our context up here in Denver. I met with worship leader, Aaron Wagner of The Mill (New Life’s Friday night young adult community / worship gathering). Aaron was extremely generous with his time, easy to talk to, and exhibited a wisdom beyond his age. Aaron clued me into a new thing going on at New Life that I jumped on—a Sunday night service that’s more “liturgical.” What?!?
Anyone who knows New Life looks to them as the bastion of all things contemporary. One of their church’s bands (the Desperation Band) is signed with Integrity’s Hosanna! and several of their worship leaders regularly speak at contemporary/modern worship conferences all across the nation. So, as someone who has fallen in love with ancient liturgy and has continued to wed it with modern worship for years now, I was intrigued.
Greeted by a rainy early Sunday evening, my family and I stepped into the service eager to worship God alongside our brothers and sisters at New Life. The service’s origins seem to be from the heart of pastor Glenn Packiam (a Desperation Band original member and a great thinker and articulate communicator), its main planner, overseer and pastor. We stepped into “the Tent”—a smaller worship center—and were greeted with the familiar sights and sounds of modern worship. A blacked-out, largely circular room, sophisticated lighting coupled with a gentle use of haze (I personally like haze, as I think it can, for the modern person, create a visual sense of simultaneous transcendence and immanence…I know some people think it’s overly “rock show,” but I think there’s liturgical value for those open). The room was oriented as a semicircle of seats around a stage that was elevated about 4-5 feet high. It was dark and comfortable, and it was obvious that the people present were there to worship. The band was pretty typical—male bass player / lead singer (a bit unique), female vocalist, electric guitar, keyboard, drums. In short, the venue was outfitted with all the best bells and whistles of modern worship. Below is the service, coupled with some reflections (I’m doing this from memory, so there may be some flaws):
- Blessed Be Your Name, along with several other great New Life Songs by Jared Anderson and Glenn Packiam
- A well-articulated statement of purpose, some community-related announcements, and some great pastoral encouragement about worship from Glenn.
- A few more songs, typical in this setting, moving us from “praise” to “worship.” There was a great Reuben Morgan song in there whose title escapes me.
Confession of Sin
- Straight from the Book of Common Prayer (!), Glenn led the people in reading this beautiful confession, the words projected on the front screen. Glenn did a good job explaining to a group of people, whose charismatic heritage leans them toward feeling that pre-written prayers may be artificial and potentially “devoid of the Spirit,” the value of praying other people’s words—citing Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament evidence.
Words of Encouragement and Preparation
- Glenn prepared hearts to enter in a time of communion, which they celebrate every week in this service! Coming off the heels of having taught a 16th Century Christian Thought class on worship in the 16th century, this is rather remarkable. (But maybe this shouldn’t be, given that the charismatic family tree goes: charismatic/Pentecostal>Holiness>Methodist>Anglican [though many charismatics don’t know that they have Anglican roots!].) Glenn also called communion a “sacrament” and articulated a simple, Protestant perspective about it being a means of grace. He offered a great phrase, roughly quoted: “A sacrament means that here we actually receive help from God in a special way.” I like that. But again, for a non-denominational evangelical church to call the Lord’s Supper a “sacrament” is pretty extraordinary. Glenn invited us to the front or back of the room, where stations were set up with larger plastic cups (rather than the dinky, anti-festal ones most of us use) and baskets of previously-broken bread. He encouraged people to share a cup with about four people. For germophobes, this is a nightmare, but for people like me who LOVE teasing out the symbolism and import of the Eucharist, it was bliss (and I’m glad someone out there has the guts to fly in the face of our overly germ-conscious culture for the sake of a beautiful communal act). One thing was absent from Glenn’s preparation. There were no words of institution. I don’t believe words of institution are a necessity, but they certainly are a rich part of the church’s tradition, dating back before the Reformation, and they provide great biblical context and thought to the Meal.
- With music playing, people spread out in the room to the various stations. Interestingly, there was no one administering communion at the stations. The elements were just set out for people to take. Again, I don’t think this is a necessity, but having people administer the sacrament provides personal continuity as a powerful symbol of how the Last Supper was distributed (i.e. from Jesus to His church, person-by-person). Also, in many traditions, it helps church leaders to faithfully administer communion under the warnings of 1 Corinthians, so that the elements are distributed to recipients ready to receive it.
The Lord’s Prayer
- Even a lot of more traditionally liturgical churches don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer as a part of communion, but this practice is quite ancient, and it was great to see it used here. Again, the words were on the screen. It was a slightly modernized version, with the most notable phrase being:
And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
- A lengthy Old Testament reading, and then a lengthy New Testament reading, both ending with:
Leader: The Word of the Lord
People: Thanks be to God.
It’s a no-brainer in many liturgical churches to have an Old Testament and New Testament lesson. However, for modern evangelical churches to do it, especially nowadays, is out of the ordinary. My colleague, Don Sweeting, and I have tossed lamentation back and forth that the Scriptures are shockingly vacant from many modern evangelical services. This is historically ironic, because evangelicalism is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, which worked so hard to bring the Scriptures back into more prominence in worship. It’s exciting to not only see this shift happening at New Life, but to see it coupled with the liturgical response that helps jolt us low-churchers into a remembrance that the Scriptures are a precious gift of grace from God.
- To provide continuity with Sunday morning (without overly taxing the pastor, which I appreciate!), they replay the Sunday morning’s sermon on video. The down-side to this is that the preacher cannot personally engage with listeners. The other down-side is that in an overly “screened” culture, which has moved us from being text-based to image-based, it’s good to do some gentle cultural combat here, given that our faith is rooted in a text (the Bible). The more illiterate and image-driven we become as a culture, the less easy it is for people to imbibe longer passages of Scriptural text.
At this point, my family and I had to leave to get back to Denver, but what follows according to Packiam’s blog post was some sermon-discussion with the people gathered…pretty extraordinary that some really personal community-time like this is able to take place! Then there were announcements and dismissal. Somewhere woven in (I can’t quite remember) was an offering, but its usual spot seems to be after the sermon.
Overall, I’m excited to see more and more churches grabbing on to the beauty and depth of historic liturgy. I think New Life is a great example to how contemporary churches can tastefully and meaningfully incorporate ancient liturgy into a modern worship service without sacrificing the core of modern worship sensibilities (blocks of songs, flow, modern ambience, etc.). I sense, among young and old, a growing hunger for liturgical roots like this. I’ll leave it to another post to process the “why’s” of THAT!
I hope I get a chance to meet Glenn Packiam in the near future and pick his brain about the conversational and visionary origins that led to a service like this in a place like this. In the meantime, I’ll continue to note the growing number of Christian worshipers who are re-engaging old liturgy and old hymns in new ways. It’s hard for us to see it, but we’re in the midst of a new (and better) dawn in evangelical worship.