This is Part 2 of a blog symposium with Matt Anderson on his book Earthen Vessels.
How We Analyze Disembodied Forms of Worship
This section puts Anderson at odds with much of the cutting edge thinking about online church, video feeds of preachers, and disembodied Christian “communities.” I agree with his analysis (ultimately, that the aforementioned realities are inadequate, even wrong, and betray an inadequate biblical anthropology) and will only add a few things. Anderson pokes at something very significant at the get-go when he talks about the “altar call” and the dominance of the act of evangelism in shaping evangelical worship.13 We can burrow down deeper, here. Evangelical worship today has been shaped by the realities of the American frontier. John Jefferson Davis,14 John Witvliet,15 James White,16 and Gordon Lathrop17 have all in various ways pointed out that the Charles Finney-era of the Second Great Awakening sealed the supremacy of pragmatism that still dominates mainstream evangelical worship today: “reach the lost at any cost.” Word and sacrament (the ancient two-fold “Liturgy of the Table” and “Liturgy of the Upper Room” which had characterized Christian worship from its earliest days on through the Reformation18) were replaced with a liturgy consisting of emotionally gripping music that would reel the audience in for the “hook” of the evangelistic message. The preacher became the revivalist-evangelist. The table became the “anxious bench.”
Bending the worship structure “for the sake of the lost” carries through today to the modern missional movement (at least in its more extreme and radical thinkers), which will bend nearly all worship practices toward the supremacy of evangelism, such that, without question or pause, we’ll start online church and video feeds of our preachers. As distressed as Anderson is with the inadequate anthropology exposed here, equally distressing is the lack of much of any theology of corporate worship. In a recent email exchange with a friend of mine as we were dialoguing about the missional church movement, I asked him, “Could it be that the more extreme advocates for the missional church ultimately are molding a church that is so sent that it is never gathered?” If the goal of mission is to gather the nations in, this leads to the question of what the nations are being gathered to. Scripture seems clear that, in the words of John Piper, “missions exists because worship doesn’t.”19 The reality is the physical gathering of people on a weekly basis for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the most important and central thing that human beings do.20 Period. Does this downplay mission? Not at all. If anything, it contextualizes it and infuses it with even more meaning and significance.
How We Understand the Role of the Sacraments
In this short section, Anderson argues well that a robust theology of the body lends itself to a strong view of the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, whether or not you are a sacramentalist. He highlights the multivalent Greek word, anamnesis, without using the term, speaking of “remembrance” and “memory” in the Lord’s Supper to include the idea of “invocation.”21 This brings new significance to Charles Wesley’s title of the Holy Spirit as “Remembrancer,” in a verse of a lesser-known Pentecost hymn of his:22
Come, Thou witness of His dying
Come, Remembrancer divine
Let us feel Thy power applying
Christ to every soul and mine
In my (admittedly Presbyterian) opinion, Anderson’s taking issue with the language of the sacraments as “means of grace” seems unnecessary and a matter of semantics. If he is fine with the notion that “Grace is God’s self-giving,” and that the sacraments “are places where God gives himself in a unique way,”23 then I struggle to see the issue with the phrase “means of grace” and am very comfortable with the substitution “means of God’s self-giving.” Anderson’s description of grace being “injected” presupposes that “means of grace” must carry a more Roman Catholic notion of infused saving grace.
But this is a minor and ultimately unimportant point compared to his main argument, which I would love to advance a step further by advocating that the Lord’s Supper cannot reach God’s intended zenith apart from embodied presence of human beings in one locale. The entire notion of “one loaf, one cup” (1 Cor 10:17) is lost when the online “congregation” reaches for some bread in the pantry and juice in the cupboard in the solitude of their own home. In Communion, we break bread together. In the Eucharist we commune with God through Christ, and we commune with one another. The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism are inherently, not optionally, corporate and embodied.24
Anderson’s ultimate point is intended to encourage memorialis evangelicals to not throw the baby out with the bathwater: “there is nothing in the non-sacramental approaches to baptism and communion that devalues the body.”25 I can agree with this. I have to say, though, that non-sacramental approaches (evidenced in the last two hundred years of American evangelicalism) have tended to cultivate fertile soil for devalued anthropology to thrive. Put another way, I wonder if our view of the body would naturally become more biblical and wholesome if more evangelicals embraced the strain of our lineage that is sacramental.
Our Musical Repertoire
Anderson’s main point here is:
The danger of an exclusive diet of contemporary choruses is that they train us to pursue instant gratification by putting the emotional release on the bottom shelf…When we feed ourselves on a steady diet of such music in the church, we shape our emotions to expect and want easy gratification.26
Here again, the Smith-Thompson axiom of “worship is habit-forming” proves true. Anderson is right when he advocates that spiritual nutrition is like physical nutrition—too much of any one thing, even if it’s a good thing, is harmful to us. Our worship-diet must be balanced. Though Anderson doesn’t mention it, the inference is that we would be blessed to have a diversity of both text and music. As much as I am an advocate for old hymns to new music, old hymns to old music are also necessary for a good worship diet.27
Finally, Anderson brings up a new point for me—namely that anthropology speaks into the issue of modern worship volume wars. I have always been an advocate for being able to hear the congregational voice in a worship service, and I now have another biblical tool in my arsenal to defend this position: “Our singing is a part of our embodied response to God’s grace as Christians.”28 That’s right. When we hear each other, we somehow understand our humanity better, and, in turn, understand and commune with God more fully and genuinely.
Alright, Matt & Commenters: over to you.