Worship and the Physical Body: The Earthen Vessels Symposium – Part 2

Zac HicksCulture, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

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.


13 Anderson, Vessels, 212.
14 John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 84-86.
15 John Witvliet, “Theological Issues in the Frontier Worship Tradition in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Worship Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 179-200.
16 James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 160-161; Introduction to Christian Worship, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 164.
17 Gordon Lathrop, “New Pentecost or Joseph’s Britches? Reflections on the History and Meaning of the Worship Ordo in the Megachurches,” Worship 72 (1998): 521-538.
18 See Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009).
19 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 11.
20 See Zac Hicks, “Worship is the Most Human Thing We Do,” 9/26/11.
21 Anderson, Vessels, 222-223.
22 Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Everlasting Spirit.”  (Check out Bruce Benedict’s amazing setting of this hymn.)
23 Anderson, Vessels, 255, n. 20.
24 Of course there are exceptions which the rule of love would compel us to practice, such as in-home Communion for folks who are shut-in and/or disabled.  But it is a big leap to allow for such exceptions to be the rule in instances such as online church.
25 Anderson, Vessels, 224.
26 Ibid., 226.
27 Those who follow my blog are well aware that, in many ways, I view my music (to date) as a “gateway drug” for run-of-the-mill modern worship evangelicals.  My hope isn’t for them to stop at the methodology I employ, but hopefully grow to appreciate and even embrace historic hymnody in classical forms.
28 Anderson, Vessels, 227.

3 Comments on “Worship and the Physical Body: The Earthen Vessels Symposium – Part 2”

  1. This is fantastic zac! I (not surprisingly) agree with this whole-heartedly. Can't wait to get this book. Thanks for the thorough introduction.

  2. Hi Zac,

    So grateful I was introduced to your blog via Mere-O. Can you give more of your thoughts on sacramental vs. a purely "in remembrance" approach to communion? I see how the latter tradition may devalue corporate worship; however, I'm trying to work out how communion is a means of grace uniquely. In plainer speak, I fear what I guess is to be feared in regards to any spiritual practice or discipline – whether it be reading the Word, praying, serving, etc. – that is, a sort of striving for righteousness that has already been given in Christ.


  3. Hi Brittany,

    Thanks for checking out the blog and this post. And thank you, doubly, for your open and honest question. I can't speak for everyone. Solid evangelicals are quite divided on the issue. Here's what I appreciate, though, about your comment. You're trying to preserve the beauty and exclusivity of the gospel of grace. You're not wanting it to share the stage with anything else…especially our work and merit. I applaud that. I hope that we evangelicals never lose sight of that.

    Much of the issue of "striving for righteousness" is an issue of the unseen, the heart. The same act can be one person's self-righteousness and another person's Spirit-borne, grateful response to Jesus' life and work. Here's where I've come down on this issue. The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith ALONE (Eph 2, and many other places). So it simply cannot be that baptism and the Lord's Supper impart any kind of salvific grace. 1 Corinthians 10:16, however, convinces me that the Lord's Supper is more than mere symbol, just like Romans 6 does the same for me with regards to baptism. God is doing something real here. Even the language of "remembrance" in Scripture (Greek "anamnesis") seems to imply so much more than a mind-exercise of recalling a past event (namely, Christ's crucifixion). All these ideas imply to me that we some how truly participate in an encounter with the living, risen Christ in these "sacramental moments." THIS is the grace to which I refer. That God would bless us with close encounters of Himself that are real and tangible is a gracious gift. I don't deserve it. I certainly didn't earn it. Nevertheless, when the bread is broken, I somehow recognize Jesus in the same way those two Emmaus travelers did when they sat down and ate with Jesus after His resurrection before he ascended (Luke 24).

    One final thing I'd offer. One of the most helpful treatments that aided me in parsing all this out was Calvin's extended treatment of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It's heavy reading, but worth it. And I'd recommend it to you. He gave a helpful illustration that still sticks with me. He said (I'm paraphrasing) that God-given faith is like a pillar that connects us to God. Faith is the support on which the God-to-human relationship rests all its weight. We didn't build the pillar. God gave it to us. Calvin helpfully illustrated the sacraments not as additional pillars (for that would undermine the reality of faith ALONE). Instead, he likened them to buttresses/supports that help keep our faith from teetering to the left or the right. Think of stone, wood, or metal "poles" situated at a 45-degree angle, propping that pillar up. The sacraments AREN'T the saving faith. But neither are they an inconsequential nothing. God has designed them to be supports of our faith. The sacraments become the fuel that God has graciously provided to make our faith strong and vibrant.

    Again, this is not every evangelical's take. In fact, the dominant stream of revivalist evangelicalism believes in a "memorialist/symbolic" view of the sacraments, and they do so for many of the reasons you articulate (a desire to hold to grace alone through faith alone). I share that core, but Scripture has led me to re-examine the nature of baptism and the Lord's supper, and this is where I've landed. I hope this is helpful. Thank you for your honesty and even your trust in asking a total stranger-blogger to tease out his ideas a bit more.

    Grace & Peace!

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