He must increase, but I must decrease.
The Divine Service
One of the older names of the Sunday service is the “Divine Service”, a name still retained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and still used among the Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox. However, what is not often thought about is the meaning of “service” in our Sunday Service.
The most obvious question which should occur to us is, who is serving who in the Sunday Service? Our prima facie response maybe that the Sunday Service is our service or ministry or work to God.
On the Eucharistic Sacrifice
This is technically not wrong, but it is only half of the picture. This answer misses out on an important Law-Gospel dialectic whereby the Divine Service is actually God serving us first with his divine ministry of Preaching and Sacrament. This is a divine work, the work of the divine God, which first proclaims and grants us the knowledge and grace of salvation. And then in response to the benefits of this salvation so administered to us in these ministries, we serve God and beget good works in praise, thanksgiving, worship, invocation, prayer, etc.
It is vital that this structure must be retained at all cost lest we turn our service of “worship” as our own work attempting to reconcile or connect ourselves to God. Instead, our “service” to God is something which we perform in response to a God who is already reconciled to us in Christ through absolution, the Word and the sacraments. As Melanchthon explains it wonderfully in his Apology on the Mass:
For they first say this, namely, that the name of the Lord will be great. This is accomplished by the preaching of the Gospel. For through this the name of Christ is made known, and the mercy of the Father, promised in Christ, is recognized. The preaching of the Gospel produces faith in those who receive the Gospel. They call upon God, they give thanks to God, they bear afflictions for their confession, they produce good works for the glory of Christ.
Thus in both the Lord’s Supper and the preaching, the structure is the same. Christ’s mercies and benefits are first proclaimed and distributed, faith which then recognises and acknowledges the great benefits given to us there responds with the Eucharistic sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and worship.
Are you being Served?
Now that we’ve got the theological background firmly in place, we can go on to our arguments for liturgical forms.
First, the point of the public service and the public ministry is so that the congregation maybe edified and built up. However how does the public Sunday Service accomplish this? Melanchthon is clear on this point when says that the service is:
…a service in which God is known, and apprehended by the mind, as happens in the movements of fear and trust towards God. Therefore it is opposed not only to the Levitical service, in which cattle are slain, but also to a service in which a work is imagined to be offered ex opere operato, The Epistle to the Hebrews 13:15 teaches the same thing: By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually; and he adds the interpretation, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. He bids us offer praises, i.e., prayer, thanksgiving, confession, and the like. These avail not ex opere operato, but on account of faith. This is taught by the clause: By Him let us offer, i.e., by faith in Christ.
In short, the worship of the New Testament is spiritual, i.e., it is the righteousness of faith in the heart and the fruits of faith.
Melanchthon is here contradicting the Roman understanding of the Mass whereby the priest would whisper the Mass in Latin to himself and which is heard and understood by no one in the Mass. The Romans would argue that as long as the priest prays to God and offer his sacrifice to God, the people are benefited ex opere operato by virtue of it being done whether or not the people for whom he prays actually understands or hears what is going on.
By contrast to this, Melanchthon is clear that the Service is service rendered for our benefit, not ex opere operato by virtue of the minister simply rambling to himself. Instead, it is a service accomplished by virtue that it is communicated to our ears and enlightens our minds, and in so being comprehended, renews our hearts and conceives faith. From this faith conceived, the congregation are thereby moved by gratitude to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, invocation, prayer, etc.
Thus, the public service must be intelligible to us. The “worship leader” or minister, whether in prayer or in preaching, ministers to us by speaking truths which are intelligible to our minds and can be grasped by us.
Against Ex Tempore Prayers
Here I come to my main argument for liturgical forms. First, many worship leaders and ministers tend to confuse the place of public service for our benefit as a platform to exhibit their private piety. Secondly, even for those who can make good ex tempore prayers (and they are very rare and few!), the congregation are spending most of their mental energy and time processing what they say rather than partaking in prayer.
On the first point, I have to be brutally frank, many worship and prayer leaders treat the public service and prayer as an occasion for the venting of emotion or exhibiting a religious affectation in aid of proving the “authenticity” of their heart-felt prayer, often accompanied by dramatic pauses and theatrical enactment in tones. Of course, there is a place for private emotional laments and venting of emotion in your own private prayers where it’s just between you and God and God alone knows what’s in your heart with sighs and groans too deep to be coherently articulated.
But in a public liturgy, please, you’re there to pray for us and for our benefit, and we aren’t benefited by being subjected to an emotional spectacle or promiscuous exhibition of your religious affectations. How do you want us to respond to that? By congratulating you on your deeply felt piety? By mutual sympathy with your emotion?
The public service is NOT a platform to exhibit your private piety. It is the occasion for service of others. Therefore, one should not keep rambling over a deeply felt point over and over again. Public service is not your private spiritual catharsis nor is it a show to exhibit your ability to enact a theatrical spiritual performance. Rather, let us not make a pretense of spiritual authenticity by the length of our prayers (Jesus had much to say about this!), let us instead be succinct, to the point, praying for each item in order, letting our yes be yes and our no be no, and not ramble unintelligibly or engage in vain repetitive mummeries like the Romans who believe that they are heard for their repetitive rosaries and many words.
What this at most does is to make a good case for the worship leader or minister to prepare his prayers before hand and stick to the script. The next step is to make a case for public liturgical forms, that is, a fixed set of public prayers encoded in prayers books and conscientiously adhered to by both the worship leader and the congregation.
Assuming that even if we had a prepared prayer, however, there is a problem with every Sunday Service having a different set of prayers every week. First, because every Service is a new prayer, therefore when it happens most of our mental powers and capacity are used to process and understand what is being said. Now, if you are like me who has a dreadfully slow mental processing system, you would be spending all of your energy simply comprehending what is being said, and by the time you do, the prayer leader would have already moved on to the next point. Thus, as the congregation, you’re not actually praying or joining the worship leader in prayer. Rather, you’re just a passive audience, not an active participant, merely listening and trying to understand what someone else is saying, not praying yourself.
With a fixed liturgical form however repeated every week, you would know beforehand what is the prayer leader going to say. You know the point which he would be raising and the item which he would be praying for. Thus, you could bring your own intentions and your own prayers to mind as the worship leader and minister prays, joining your private prayer intentions simultaneously with the much more general point which the worship leader is praying about. And together, knowing the general point being prayed for as well as your own private intentions, we can all say a collective Amen.
Conclusion: To Serve by Edification
Let every service therefore be aimed towards the edification of the congregation, which edification comes not through an exhibition of religious affectations, but through the clear proclamation and presentation of God’s Word which Truth alone sanctifies us and edifies us. Let our prayers be in conformity to the God’s will in his Word, and let our prayers and service be made in Spirit and in Truth, alone the means of our salvation. Let us set aside everything else which would distract us from this truth and perform that which would facilitate the communication of this truth to our minds.
Let us decrease that He might increase.