Episcophobia?

In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.

11 thoughts on “Episcophobia?

  1. I couldn’t agree more….

    How often I’ve heard, “But, we’ve never done it that way before!” “I don’t like that style of music. It’s not spiritual!” “Why should a whole group of members be excluded so the church can cater to the youth?”

    “….even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.”

    I couldn’t agree more…

  2. Most folks today don’t realize that the oldest worship tradition among Baptists in the US South is the Charleston tradition, which is more structured, more liturgical than the more recent, revivalistic Sandy Creek tradition, which predominates among Baptist churches today. In many ways, it sounds like you are trying to be authentically Baptist in your worship tradition, not Episcopalian. For that I say, Thanks be to God!

  3. Two of the things that I loved best about FBC Richmond for my 27 years there were the worship styles and moderate theology.

    When I first attended FBC in 1973, the baroque style of church music was popular with Dr. Ray Herbeck, the minister of music.

    Ah, such fond memories!

  4. Jim – In my opinion, if you “heard a little grumbling,” then that means people are paying attention and our church is alive and well!!! You may also remember that you have heard me “grumble” on occasion :)

    I find this particular blog material quite interesting because my closest friends are ALL Episcopalians and I am the “oddball Baptist” in our group. Denomination had less to do with my decision to join this church. It had more to do with the spiritual messages I received – the warmth and love, and the acceptance without judgement. And when I say “church” I mean the PEOPLE, who ARE this CHURCH. So, at this time of Thanksgiving, I say, “Thanks Be To God” for our gifted pastor (with his thought provoking sermons and blogs), the amazing staff, church family, associates, and friends!

    I don’t think that it matters to the “One” (does it?) whether we read a script, memorize, or improvise – as long as it is authentic worship.

  5. Jim,

    I am glad we are saying, “Thanks be to God” in our
    services simply because, to be honest, we really do not
    thank our Heavenly Father enough. Without Him, we are
    nothing. We Christians are the most blessed people on
    this earth. All denominations should be thanking Him, especially in worship. Also, like others have said, Thanks be to God for our new Pastor and Shepherd!

    Beverley Massey

  6. While still living in my home Bristol, VA area, back in the 1970s, I left the independent Christian Church in which I was raised (they were having some problems – still do, last I heard) and was, for a while, a member of a local Episcopal Church. Ironically, the Associate Rector(what Baptists would call Associate Pastor) there was a former Christian Church member and the Rector (what Baptists would call Pastor) was a former Baptist. The Rector had been raised in a Baptist church, attended a well known Baptist college where he was President of the BSU, but later became an Episcopalian. He felt that many Baptist churches, at that time, were not taking worship seriously, were putting social activity above worship. Anyway, the Episcopal Church, at that time, taught me much more about scripture than my old Christian Church ever had. It also taught me about the church year which, likewise, taught me more about scripture and about the history of the universal church than I had learned previously. I learned to be able to better pray than I had before and found the worship and reverence of that church uplifting. I later joined my wife in the Baptist denomination, after we were married. When we moved to the Richmond area, in 1979, we looked around and found First Baptist which provided a more formal, uplifting worship service than other Baptist churches in the area. For First Baptist, we could only say, “thanks be to God!”

  7. Thanks be to God — for all our many, many blessings!We are so very blessed to have the church family we have — I also often feel like an “honorary Episcopalian” at St. Paul’s, since I have been enjoying a Lenten journey with them for 20 years, volunteering in the community ministry of hospitality. There are about 350 of us from over 45+ churches who each year enjoy serving the community a lunch either before or after a brief 30 minute service, with outstanding interfaith ministers — this year I’m delighted to see that there are three Baptists among them, and I had the pleasure of chairing the enterprise several years ago! We give the money to folks at risk in our community, and send some into the worldwide fellowship who especially need us. It’s a wonderful Lenten journey for me, and I get to see many Richmond and Virginia friends who drop in at least once, and often more, during the great build-up to Easter. I’m glad you have already established your welcome, Jim, among the Lenten Lunch bunch, and we are looking forward to having you lead us in worship to a very loving God!

  8. Well, here I am, the lone dissenter! Please don’t get me wrong, I believe in thanking God…my personal philosophy has always been that an “attitude of gratitude” makes for a happy and joyful life. It is just the “roteness” of the call and response that bothers me. Not that it is like unto another denominations “way” but more that repetitve rote resopnses quickly become meaningless jabber. As a Catholic, I could plan my entire Thanksgiving menu while reciting the Apostle’s Creed. Who among you have not done something similar during the Lord’s Prayer or familiar hymns…. let him throw the first stone! I would prefer to call upon the creativity, passion, and emotion of our congregation and staff to provide more variety and surprise in our worship. Let’s mix it up ! Let’s try something different, new, creative and imaginative. Our public worship service can maintain its wonder and awe, its tradition and reverence while experimenting with new and creative ways to express that awe and reverence. I say lets have a worship service full of surprise the keeps us all awake and expectant of what is next. there must be a million ways to say “thanks be to God”.. Let ‘s see if we can discover a few of them.
    Geri

  9. What a great group of responses! It has been helpful for me to be reminded that the practice of the lectionary and the call-and-response component of corporate worship finds its roots in practices that pre-date Episcopalians, Anglicans, or any mainline denomination. Worshippers in the Jewish tradition used and use the lections, but of course, their readings were drawn from the earliest writings in the Old Testament. Episcopalians didn’t invent the practice, but many folk make the association out of reaction rather than a clear sense of its origins. (in the same way that Kleenex did not invent facial tissue, it is easy to make the association) The call-and-response practice, such as “This is the word of the Lord” followed by “Thanks be to God” is clearly reminiscent of many of the Psalms which, in couplet form, repeat a consistant phrase (ie, “His love endures forever”) in response to what might be read by a worship leader. So, in effect, we are reclaiming an ancient Christian practice that had a galvanizing effect in the formation of genuine Christian community.

    I am all for creativity! I have spent a lifetime in that endeavor. I am convinced that finding fresh ways to engage our spiritual imagination in worship is crucial. I also believe that novelty can create its own god. So, let’s do both-let us continue to strive to find imaginative ways to engage our hearts and minds in a God-focused hour. Simultaneously, let’s allow the ancient traditions of the lections and the call-and-response to root us in helpful and rich traditions (and many other practices for that matter) that can serve to give us voice to our collective convictions. Such practices were surely not meant to cause division.

    I feel so blessed to be part of an open and gifted community of worshippers. Your creative input is always welcomed and your dedication to God and to one another is inspiring. Thanks be to God, and to all of you!

  10. For me, there is no “heartfelt worship” in the call-and-response of “This is the word of the Lord” followed by “Thanks be to God”. It feels awkward and lifeless and distracts me from worshiping. It is, for me at least, putting too much stock in ritual and performance. It’s not that I think we don’t “agree” with what we are reciting, but I don’t believe we are “feeling” it. The natural progression of ritual seems to be for meaning to fade away and be replaced by compliance. My mother however, feels quite the opposite. She loves the beautifully orchestrated prayers and rituals of her church. She grew up Baptist but is now Episcopalian. Truthfully though, the “thanks be to God” thing is really only a minor distraction. If it has meaning or others, I will gladly endure it for the privilege of worshiping side by side with them. I guess I am just more of a “Thank You Jesus!” Christian than a “Thanks be to God” one. Love in Christ, Robin Hale-Cooper

  11. You all are thinking about worship and that is great! There is a lot to think about and consider. I am still learning about worship everyday.
    One of the things that occurs to me is that leaders (like me, for example) need to do a better job in communicating what is happening in worship. Corporate worship, at its core, is a very mysterious and elusive facet of the Christian faith to describe and evaluate. How do we evaluate something that is transactionally invisible? Really, we can’t. What we can do is to evaluate our outward expressions. We should do that and I am glad that our folk care enough to do that.

    What would be worse than that, and which is prevalent in most Baptist churches is an unthoughtful, patchwork construction of a series of unrelated songs, scriptures (if any are read at all), prayers, and pep talks that frankly lead the gathered folk to a few pitiful moments of vague warmth and a woefully underdeveloped theological consciousness. But they do come out feeling better.

    Warm dignity is hard to do. Either we are so warm that we flippantly stroll into the presence of God and have no chance for transcendence, or we are so dignified that we shut out the life-giving relational side of our gathering that is equally crucial.

    Let’s have warmth and dignity with conscious attention to both! Then, both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of worship are nurtured and celebrated. Thanks be to God for being God.

    I can’t wait until Sunday.

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