Moving Backwards Through the Prism

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The prism of Christian denominations excites me. I enjoy observing different worship styles. I find great spiritual benefit in relationships with many kinds of Christians. The pure light of God split when it hit the prism of our depravity and one result is our great variety of worship. True worshippers, however, are always pushing to get back through the prism.

During my first deployment to Iraq, I pastored the “Gospel” service. It was animated and energetic and typically lasted two hours. The sermon alone was at least 45 minutes. We had a 20+ person choir, liturgical dancers, and even a mime troupe. Every message was punctuated by “Amen,” “Preach it Brother,” and many other encouragements. I absolutely loved this service! The diversity of worshippers was staggering. Of the 120-160 regular attendees, there were Black, White, Asian, Hispanic and African people. They were Pentecostals, Charismatics, Holiness, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, Non-denominationalists and seekers, from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Civilians and contractors from the U.S. and other countries attended as well. In addition, we prayed a lot! There was also an amazing culture of trust. People felt comfortable sharing with the church about struggles, sins and spiritual shortcomings. Most importantly, all this variety washed away in the unity of worship. Afghanistan isn’t much different. It’s a smaller congregation. There’s no Gospel service, but it’s still a mix of military branches, races, jobs and nationalities, and we still are able to worship as one.

A final illustration before moving on: I had the privilege of attending an Eastern Orthodox service recently and was blessed by its uniqueness. Most notably, the Priest stood facing the altar, away from the people. He spoke to God for the people, rather than speaking for God to the people. Also, before each liturgical transition he would turn around and ask for forgiveness for his sins. For communion, the Priest dropped bits of bread into the wine to soak and then spooned them out individually for each person. The profound nature of these simple acts deeply moved me.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating that we stretch our services to two hours, be more Orthodox, or change churches. What I am getting at is far more fundamental. Unfamiliar liturgical forms have power precisely because they’re unfamiliar. They caused me to wonder, “why don’t we do that?” Sometimes we don’t because the practice doesn’t line up with our biblical understanding, other times the answer was just that “we don’t,” and sometimes the answer was, “I want to try that.” In all cases, however, it moved me to examine my Reformed heritage, which gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of it.

I did not grow up a Calvinist. I was Catholic, Baptist, Charismatic, Non-denominational and Pentecostal by age 32, when I truly discovered the Reformation. My first CRC Pastor once asked a group, for my benefit, “What is our only hope, in life and in death?” The answer was recited in unison by all. It moved me deeply, as much as anything I mentioned above.
The point I’m laboring to make in this post, is that aspects of the glory of God can be found in the worship practices of all Christian denominations and they can be instructive. John Bolt’s book, “Christian and Reformed Today,” is helpful here. In it, he defines “reformed” as being “trinitarian in theology and catholic in vision.” To be sure, Christianity is Trinitarian by definition, but not necessarily in practice. Most churches tend to worship with more of a focus on one person of the Trinity, rather than all three in unity. While Bolt wasn’t necessarily looking for praiseworthy aspects, but promotion of balanced Trinitarian worship, I believe there are benefits from studying these differences.

We can learn from a Spirit-focused church about worship and sanctification. From a Christ-focused church we can absorb the urgency of sharing the Gospel. From God-focused churches we can learn the importance of obedience and fulfilling our call. Our task is to integrate what we learn into a wholly Trinitarian form. To this end, I would encourage you to visit a church you wouldn’t normally attend, or at least talk to Christians of other denominations about how and why they worship the way they do. If you’re a pastor, build relationships with other pastors in your city for the same reasons.

A few caveats: I’m not telling you to look for another church. I would visit only if away from my home church anyway, or after talking it over with my pastor and no more than once or twice a year. Some cities I know of have engineered annual pastor or congregation swaps. If you’re blessed to live in a city with several CRC churches you might even try visiting a different one. Maybe you will find something of value in others’ worship forms that will help you to better understand yours and ultimately move you closer to that other side of the prism. 

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