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.

Advent for the Liturgically Challenged

advent-candle11I can still remember the First Sunday of Advent, 1996. 


One of our church families came forward and gathered around the wreath to light the first candle of the season.  A litany was read from the pulpit, and then the oldest son (who must have been about twelve at the time) struck one of those big, wooden kitchen matches and lit the candle of Hope.  Afterwards, he held the match up to his lips and blew it out, blowing out the flame of the candle at the same time.  The congregation gasped.  There was an awkward pause before he realized his mistake and corrected it by striking another match and lighting the candle again, and then blowing out the match—and the candle—again.  This time, the congregation laughed out loud.  What else could we do?


We Baptists aren’t all that good at liturgy.  On the First Sunday of Advent, 2006, at First Baptist, Washington (“a church of Baptist tradition and ecumenical perspective”), I handed a brass taper to a new member who comes from the Anglican church and asked him if he knew how to handle one of those things.  A taper, as you probably already know, is the proper name for one of those fancy candle-lighting thingamajigs.  “Oh, yes,” he said with a smile.  And then I asked if he would be interested in serving as a “candle consultant” (remembering the near-disaster of All Saints’ Sunday a few weeks before when we had tried to light candles for all those we had loved and lost and nearly lost a few more in the process). 


Baptists are not all that good at liturgy, but one of the reasons First Baptist, DC, tried to cultivate an “ecumenical perspective” is that there is much to be learned from the larger household of our faith. 


This matter of observing the seasons of the Christian year, for example, holds the promise of making every worship experience richer.  At First Baptist, Richmond, we wait with breathless anticipation for the coming of Christ in Advent; we walk with him, trembling, toward the cross in the season of Lent; we crash cymbals and sound horns in celebration of his resurrection at Easter.  Along with those broad themes are the colors and sounds and smells of the seasons.  Advent begins in darkness, with the flame of Hope sputtering on its charred wick.  We sing our hymns in minor keys.  We drape the church in purple.  But as the other candles are lit in the weeks that follow—peace, and joy, and love—the sense of expectancy is heightened, and when the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve, the mood shifts suddenly and dramatically.  The church is filled with light.  Deep purple is replaced by brilliant white and gold.  The minor key modulates into the major and suddenly it is nothing but joy to the world, the Lord is come!


Hope to see you in church this Sunday.