“Ten Things I Learned Wrong from a Conservative Church”
by John Killinger
Fifth wrong teaching: Worship is Proclamation before It Is Anything Else
The topics we will cover as we consider this chapter deal primarily with corporate worship. We will discuss liturgy, preaching, prayer and communion. In this chapter it will be interesting to note that Killinger is very astute in his observations regarding worship in the churches he has been a part of. Ironically, while he has been completely wrong on the points he has made in previous chapters, he is right on in this chapter, as he shows how many “conservative” churches have really missed the mark concerning the true purpose of worship and liturgy.
What is liturgy? The word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek and means “service” (see Acts 13:2). Throughout Christian history the term has been used to refer to the standard order of events within a worship service. Today, many refer to “liturgical” or “non-liturgical” churches, based on the formality or complexity of their worship service. There is surely a huge chasm between the order of service in a Catholic church and that in a Baptist church. The Catholic service is very structured and purposeful, while the other is very free and superficial. Since the time of the reformation, many churches have come to see the liturgy as decorative or even trivial instead of an essential part of worship.
Killinger reveals that this was the case in the church he attended: “In the church where I grew up, worship basically meant listening to preaching” (p. 85). He continues, “Southern Baptist preaching tradition... always treated religious music, prayer, and the reading of the Bible as ‘warm-ups’ for the preacher, to get the crowd (and maybe even the preacher) in the mood to hear the voice of God speaking to them through the words of the minister” (p. 85).
Because liturgy is seen only as “window-dressing” for preaching, the real substance of liturgy has been altogether removed by many churches. But liturgy is much more than ritual form. Before anything else, liturgy is (or should be) theological substance serving to instruct and teach. The liturgy we use serves a specific purpose and is based directly on the words of Scripture. As we move through our worship service we are on a spiritual journey – not of emotion, but of substance.
Killinger made an interesting observation in regard to liturgical education as well: “I participated... in a study of courses in worship and spirituality at seminaries across the U.S. We were amazed to find that there were no such courses in the conservative and fundamentalist seminaries. There were plenty of courses in preaching, but none in the context in which preaching is normally done.... But none saw any need for training ministers in the art of designing or leading in liturgy” (p. 87). While this might be expected of non-liturgical churches, it cannot be said of all “conservative” churches. The CLC is a conservative church body and our seminary has mandatory courses on liturgy, which discusses worship, prayer, music and hymnody, psalmody, and much more. This is because our conservative church recognizes the importance and value of our liturgy in corporate worship.
Another part of the worship service is the sermon. This is the part of the service that Killinger remembered well from his youth. But he doesn’t remember it with fondness. He says: “Conservative groups have an oratorical tradition all their own... It usually includes having a very simple outline that is more emotional than intellectual, stating the obvious as cleverly as possible, saying it in a variety of tones and emphases, lacing everything with humor, and closing with a memorable story or poem” (p. 86).
Lutherans certainly have an oratorical tradition (Lutheran sermons in the time of Luther are said to have gone on for hours), but most of what Killinger speaks of here has nothing to do with conservatism, but more to do with how people are taught to preach. Every preacher has different gifts, and while emotion, tone, humor and memorable stories are not wrong in themselves, such things ought to be used sparingly because it can detract or distract from the Gospel.
Killinger also mentions how the Bible was used in sermons: “The Bible is used primarily to provide legitimacy for the main thesis being propounded, and the sermon often uses the text merely as a jumping-off place, not as an object of study or analysis” (p. 86). While there is a time for choosing a theme and picking a passage to support it, it can be dangerous. It is better to start with a text and draw out your theme from the text. This is one of the reasons why our churches follow a pericope or pre-chosen series of texts throughout a year and alternate pericopes from year to year.
The problems we have talked about (with both the sermon and the liturgy) may be a result of the movement within churches to entertain their members. To such people the sermons is not seen as an opportunity to teach or instruct but as a show. This thinking is common in many churches today, especially the non-denominational Mega churches of our society. Killinger rejects this idea: “Since frontier days... these churches and ministers have confused entertainment with worship, and have been more interested in crowd-pleasing than in truly helping people come before God in all His love and holiness” (p. 92).
Prayer also plays an important role in our corporate and individual worship. There are two types of prayers: formal or written prayers and extemporaneous or “ex-corde” prayers. Each has its benefits and shortcomings. The extemporaneous can have direct relevance to members of the congregation, but can be wordy or deficient in grammar and theology. Written prayers can weave together the parts of the service, but may be dry or not heart-felt. Killinger states that his church was given to extemporaneous prayers without careful thought: “Given the development of most conservative churches in the frontier spirit of this country, many free churches have an abhorrence of written prayers and responses – elements of worship they consider ‘popish’ and high church. Consequently we heard the same prayers every Sunday, or at least the same phrases and petitions recycled, varied only according to the person praying” (p. 88). He continues, “I seldom hear a prayer, when I am visiting in a conservative church, that shows any attention to forethought and careful articulation” (p. 91). There is great value in written and well thought out prayers. Diligently contemplating our own written prayer, or using the written prayers of others can help us improve our own extemporaneous prayers as well.
Finally, Killinger touches on the topic of Communion. He says: “Communion is not regarded in most conservative churches as entertaining, and it has been axed from the worship experience. Baptism is considered happy and uplifting.... Baptism conveniently symbolizes new life, personal transformation, eternal hope, and is therefore adjudged photogenic, good press, positive vibes, reinforcing the image these churches want to convey. But Communion, on the other hand, is a downer. It remembers Jesus’ death and invites meditation. It permits too much undirected time and allows people’s thoughts to wander” (p. 93). While this is an accurate description of the Baptist churches, it is certainly not descriptive of our conservative Lutheran church. He even quotes a former SBC President as commenting about communion: “It’s best not to have it at all.” How sad! Though we can’t be sure of what Killinger really does believe about communion (especially with what we’ve studied so far) he has done a good job in this chapter of pointing out some of the failings of many Christian churches today related to corporate worship. May the Lord help us to retain the truth of His Word in our worship and teaching, and fortify us through both Word and Sacrament!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville,
Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew