Ed Phillips: Worship with the saints; not as an individual experience

Worship focused on the eucharist, and that focused on a tradition-free personal relationship with Jesus, are two different ballgames.

In the ancient church a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which Ed Phillips replies is here.

Dear Tom Arthur:

The dilemma you describe is not unusual. Many of my students from Protestant traditions face similar difficulties. The problem is a fundamental clash of ecclesiology – that is, how we think about the church. Your education in divinity school brought you to (I might say, led to your conversion to!) a catholic ecclesiology. This is at odds with the entrepreneurial ecclesiology of a congregation organized according to the business-model of the “Purpose Driven Church.”

Let me propose the analogy of a game. Different ecclesiologies are different games with different internally coherent sets of rules and strategies. Your congregation has been taught a set of rules taken from methods that go back to 19th century revivalist Charles Finney, channeled through Rick Warren. This is its fundamental purpose for worship: “Our goal is for individuals to be led into a deeper personal relationship with Jesus.” A strategy accompanies this rule: “We will use a variety of creative methods to enhance worshipers’ relationship to Jesus.” A related strategy: “Adherence to tradition tends to get in the way of a fresh, contemporary relationship with Jesus.”

A catholic ecclesiology, on the other hand, would have a different fundamental purpose for the assembly: “Our goal is to be the local manifestation of the universal Body of Christ, for the glorification of God.” A strategy would be: “We intend to worship in union with all the saints throughout all human history.” A related strategy: “Tradition has been handed down to us by the saints, and keeps us in union with the universal (catholic) church.”

What happens when you go through the historic catholic pattern of Word and Table with its Eucharistic Prayer in your context is something like this: You say, “It’s time to kick a field goal,” and your congregation asks, “How will that help us get to home plate?” You are acting on a rule that is out of place in your congregation’s game of worship. What probably won’t work well is trying to make that field goal fit better into a game of baseball by calling the fence the goal post, and using a bat to hit a pitched football. What you will need to do is teach your congregation a different game.

Naturally you will also have to be convinced yourself that the catholic game is truer and more faithful than the business-model game, whatever virtues the latter may have. Therefore, preach sermons on the meaning of the sacraments. Teach about the Eucharist in small group ministry and business meetings and educational meetings and retreats. You will have to open the imagination of your congregation to the inexhaustible mystery of the Eucharist. You will have to show them what is at stake, and that means celebrating the Eucharist with them in the patterns that connect us with our Great Tradition.

This will take time -- much longer than a year or two. As a new pastor, you will have to learn much of this along with your congregation. Listen to them. Some of them will have a strong personal relationship with Jesus because they are part of a congregation that has formed them to hope for that (a virtue of the Revival Model). That is a good place to start. Lead them from there on the deeper way of discipleship. Listen to their frustrations (and recall your own struggles) as they learn the liturgy. What you may find together is that worshipping with all the saints in our Great Tradition makes a personal relationship with Jesus more profoundly life-changing and vastly more expansive that anyone alone could imagine.

Be patient, friend. What is true will prevail.

Sincerely,

Ed Phillips

Ed Phillips teaches Worship and Liturgical Theology at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.