I would suggest that laments such as these point to a variety of possible issues in evangelical, and more specifically, Nazarene worship. At their core, these concerns reflect a growing hunger on the part of many for more meaningful worship.
When I reflect upon my formative years, my most vivid memories of church life are those occasions when I experienced the awesome and holy presence of God during revival meetings. As I grew older, I found myself hungering for the awe and wonder I frequently experienced during revivals, camp meetings, and Sunday worship. Hymns, testimonies, prayers, Scripture readings, preaching, the occasional shouting and waving of hands in the air, and responses at the altar, created an atmosphere in which I escaped the distracting thoughts and internal voices begging for my attention, fine tuning my inner thoughts to hear the Spirit’s voice.
The church has entered a different era and worship in our denomination has become increasingly diverse. Terms such as traditional, seeker-sensitive, contemporary, or liturgical (i.e., prayer book worship),1 and blended are words used to describe the various shapes of Nazarene worship. Diverse forms may make some of us uneasy, but diversity is nothing new. In Christian antiquity, churches in disparate cultures worshiped differently.2 Diversity, not uniformity, was the norm. Essential elements were held in common, but actual practices varied.3
The recent appearance of other worship practices in our churches has created some tension and confusion. Some conflict revolves around worship style, which usually is synonymous with the type of music used, but other facets of worship are involved as well. Perhaps the biggest problem we face is not style but anemic forms of worship.
John Wesley observed two major threats to authentic worship and spiritual vitality: the first threat Wesley referred to as formalism, and the second, enthusiasm. Formalism occurs when persons “go through the motions” of worship apart from experiencing the power and presence of God. Enthusiasm involves “an imagined experience or relationship [with God] which is not actually of or with God.”4
Some Nazarenes, past and present, have attached the “formalism” label to all prayer book worship. Yet, prayer books were designed to cultivate reverence and awe in worship. It is a mistake to confuse these meaningful forms of worship with a poor condition of the heart. We in the free-church tradition have at times accused others of mechanistically kneeling, reciting memorized prayers meaninglessly, crossing themselves callously, or receiving weekly Communion irreverently, but anyone can fall into the formalism trap. Those who worship in seeker-sensitive or contemporary congregations can thoughtlessly sing hymns or choruses, raise their hands in a robotic fashion because everyone else does it, or sit passively and virtually ignore the prayers, Scripture readings, and the sermon since they may not provide the same emotional stimulus as the music.
The problem of impoverished worship was a significant concern of early Nazarene leaders. Reacting against the formalism and spiritual decay they believed plagued the mainline denominations, early Nazarene leaders demonstrated an unyielding proclivity towards worship that was spontaneous and free. Such freedom was deemed essential for the Spirit’s work in saving and sanctifying souls. Although extemporaneous worship was highly valued, denominational leaders recognized that the desire for liberty left Nazarenes susceptible to fanaticism (i.e., enthusiasm).5
In many instances, worship was conducted without a prepared order, and churches simply followed the “leading of the Spirit.”6 The absence of a planned order of worship encouraged worship services that were disorganized, lacked unity and purpose, and had the tendency to overemphasize the emotions. On various occasions, Phineas Bresee and J. B. Chapman addressed this problem in denominational periodicals. In 1934, Chapman offers the following remedy:
I remember . . . that Dr. Bresee used to say there is a middle ground between the unplanned and the ritualistic service. He thought more people would be able to take part and get profit out of worship if something of a regular program were followed from time to time. . . . Chiefly I wanted to say that I believe it is worth any preacher’s while to seek to improve his worship service. In doing this, I believe he should build around the sermon, and that he should select the Scripture readings and the hymns, and prepare himself for public prayer with this united service in mind. . . Perhaps someone will answer that a plan of this kind will become a hindrance to the freedom of the Spirit. But I believe it will be a means of deepening the spiritual life, and when the Holy Spirit comes in special manifestation, surely all our preachers and people have the good sense to give Him free right of way.7
Although we are experiencing change in worship, the proclivity for spontaneity is one characteristic of Nazarene worship that remains. While spontaneity can work to guard against formalism in worship, if left unchecked, it can lead to impoverished forms of worship similar to those that concerned Bresee and Chapman nearly a century ago.
In response to this problem, some pastors have recently introduced their congregations to some of the rich liturgical forms that are embedded in our ecclesial roots—that is in the worship practice of John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley drew from the depth of his own rich Anglican tradition, but infused “it with the power of Pietism that animated Methodist life.” 8 Wesley constructed liturgy for American Methodists with great care and precision to avoid both extremes of formalism and enthusiasm. An examination of his approach to prayer, Scripture, sermon, music, and Eucharist could prove beneficial.
Wesley perceived prayer as indispensable to the spiritual life in the same way that breathing is indispensable to our physical well-being. He included extemporaneous prayers and written prayers in Methodist worship. The written prayers of the church assist in preventing enthusiasm and shape us spiritually since they are frequently imbued with Scripture and offer “concrete scriptural descriptions of God.”9 The routine use of written prayers also strengthens extemporary prayer by teaching us how to pray. The great strength of extemporary prayer is that it reminds us that true religion is a matter of the heart. Praying from the depths of our soul enlivens our relationship with God and helps us avoid the stagnant waters of formalism.
I have discovered that including a written prayer in worship, such as the Lord’s Prayer or the robust prayers of the ancient church, helps me pray more thoughtful extemporary prayers. While we have always cherished spontaneous prayer, the attentive listener soon realizes that even the most sincere spontaneous prayer is susceptible to vain repetition. In addition, most of us have probably heard questionable theology articulated in spontaneous prayers. The use of a written invocation, benediction, or even mixing written and extemporary elements when the pastor leads in congregational prayer can strengthen the prayer life of the church. However, when praying any prayer, written or extemporary, preparation is essential if it is to flow seamlessly and speak powerfully. Written prayers that are meaningful are prayed, not recited in a mechanical fashion, just as powerful sermons are preached and not read lethargically. Preparation and sincerity of heart make the difference.
Preaching has always been the centerpiece of Nazarene worship. For Wesley, however, preaching was secondary to the public reading of Scripture. By its very nature, Scripture is always a sufficient channel of God’s grace. Sermons, on the other hand, have the potential to misrepresent biblical truth and can fail to thoroughly address the way of salvation.10
Historically, the lack of the public reading of Scripture in worship has been a recurring problem for our denomination. Incorporating significant portions of Scripture into our worship services would be one way to strengthen modern worship. The pairing together of Old and New Testament texts exposes congregations to a balanced treatment of salvation history. 11
Scripture can be employed in worship creatively. The church can recruit and train laity with the proper skills to read. Certain texts, such as Proverbs and the Psalms, lend themselves well to responsive readings. Narrative materials, such as the Gospels, are powerfully communicated when they are read dramatically.12 A major benefit of these practices is they empower the laity to participate in an age when many congregations are rendered spectators.
The hymnody of John and Charles Wesley was vital to the Methodist movement. It was rich in biblical imagery and designed to teach doctrinal truth. The religious terrain the hymns describe is both imbued with Scripture and rooted in authentic human experience. Because the hymns focus upon God’s character and activity, they do not overemphasize one’s personal experience of God. They bridge the tension between formalism and enthusiasm. 13 This unique balance serves as a means of grace.14
Music is one of modern worship’s most temperamental issues. Whether congregations use hymns, gospel songs, choruses, a mixture, or other forms of music, the critical theological task is to examine the lyrics. Music can lead to an authentic encounter with God; it can also overemphasize human experience and drive us toward enthusiasm or an imagined experience of God. There is a significant difference between music that exalts God and music that focuses on my praise of God where “I” become the subject. God alone should be both the subject and object of all our praise.
For Wesley, the Lord’s Supper is a chief means by which God communicates God’s grace. Therefore, he urged the Methodists to “constant communion.” It was, in part, the recovery of the celebration of the Eucharist that lay at the heart of the spiritual awakening of 18th century England. 15 Ironically, one of the things lost in our current Eucharistic observance is the richness embedded in the practice of John Wesley. His practice of the Lord’s Supper was rooted in the Eucharistic tradition of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). Wesley believed, “There is no liturgy in the world . . . which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” 16 Therefore, when Wesley provided the American Methodists with their own prayer book, it included, slightly altered, the Eucharistic prayers and ritual of the BCP, which he expected them to use. 17
Many of our Nazarene ancestors harbored a great appreciation for the Eucharist. Written accounts of these celebrations indicate that they were experientially rich events, which on occasion led to conversion experiences. 18 If our Wesleyan ancestry and the history of our denomination are taken seriously, a more robust Eucharistic practice is critical to recovering more meaningful worship. This involves reconsidering the frequency of observance, but also a careful review of the means and methods a pastor employs when observing this celebration.
So where does this leave us in the quest for meaningful worship? There is an inherent danger when we jettison our ties to historic Christianity in search of something new and innovative. Wesley’s via media (i.e., middle way) offers us an alternative. Wesley chose to infuse Anglican worship with practices that aided in nurturing spiritual vitality.
We have merely begun a conversation that explores what a mediating approach to worship might look like. When local congregations gather as the body of Christ for corporate worship, the practices they enact are formative, either positively or negatively. If we respond thoughtfully and prayerfully to the issues that confront us, the positive implications for our future identity will be substantial, as well as a blessing to our fellowship.
DIRK R. ELLIS is senior pastor of Grace Chapel Church of the Nazarene in Hooksett, N.H.
2 Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), x.
3 Maxwell Johnson suggests that the timeless and essential components of Christian worship include Christian assembly centered upon Sunday, baptism, Word (Scripture and the sermon), meal (i.e., the celebration of Holy Communion and the prayers that accompany it), and observance of the feasts and celebrations of the Christian year. Maxwell E. Johnson, “Can We Avoid Relativism in Worship? Liturgical Norms in the Light of Contemporary Liturgical Scholarship.” Worship 74:2 (March 2000), 154.
4 Henry H. Knight III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1987), 47.
5 Fanaticism was the term the early Nazarene leaders attached to what Wesley termed enthusiasm.
6 Dirk R. Ellis, “The Relationship between Liturgical Practice and Spirituality in the Church of the Nazarene with Special Reference to John Wesley’s Doctrine of Christian Perfection” (Ph.D. diss., Andrews University, 2012), 216-24.
7 James B. Chapman, “A Program of Worship,” The Preacher’s Magazine 9, no. 12 (December 1934): 1-2.
8 Lester Ruth, “Liturgical Revolutions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, ed. William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 314.
9 Knight, 162.
10 Knight, 156.
11 Ellis, 255.
12 In a dramatic reading, the biblical text is scripted and read as a drama.
13 Craig B. Gallaway, “The Presence of Christ with the Worshiping Community: A Study in the Hymns of John and Charles Wesley” (Ph.D. diss., Candler School of Theology, 1988), 42-5.
14 Knight, 166-67.
15 J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (Akron, OH: OSL Publications, 1996), 1-5.
16 John Wesley, John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, Quarterly Review Reprint Series, (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1984), 2.
17 James F. White, “Introduction,” in John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1984), 26.
18 “Franklin, N. H.,” Beulah Christian, June 11, 1910, 8.