The Proclaimed Word
Why do we do what we do?
Welcome to The Bridge Church. If you’re new here, you’ll undoubtedly notice that we do things a little differently here than you might be used to at other evangelical churches. Perhaps it’s the geography of the service - the way we set things up and use our space; or perhaps it the style of the service - either more formal, or less formal than you might be used to from where you came; or perhaps it’s the form of the service - the way we structure and order the elements of worship over the course of 90 minutes. Whatever you’ve noticed, I want to tell you that much of it is intentional, and there are important reasons for why they are the way they are.
If you’re not new here, perhaps you’ve been here for a while and find our unique way of doing things familiar, or perhaps you’ve been here so long that you remember a time when things were different and perhaps long for a time gone by. I want to take the better part of the next semester on the blog to remind you of why we do what we do, and to help you remember the very intentional reasons we have for the choices we have made. Last time we looked at the songs we sing in worship, and continuing over the next eight or so weeks we will be looking at the following aspects of our worship service to better help you understand/remember who we are, why we do what we do, and what are the goals of our choices.
The Geography of Worship - what we want you to notice and experience when you walk into our space for worship
A Peculiar People; a Thankful People - why we start with the offering
Perfectly Balanced as All Things Should Be - how we consider both who we are and who we long to be when choosing a vocabulary of worship (song style and selection)
The Proclaimed Word - rediscovering the public reading of scripture
The Applied Word - why the sermon is dialogical (discussion questions matter)
The Great Unburdening - the liberating power of corporate confession
Recognizing the Body - why we take time every Sunday for the passing of the peace
A Community of Hospitality - how and why we centre the service around the open table
The Power of Presence - why the prayer and ministry time at the end of the service is not just an addendum
Sending - what we bring back into the world
This week we continue the series with an examination of why we make such a big deal about the reading of the scripture in the service, and what affect we believe that this practice has on the congregation.
So one of the first rules of starting a new pastorate at a church is to not change anything. Some people say that the moratorium on change is six months, others say that it is a year. The idea being that when you come to a new congregation as a pastor that you need to first learn about their values and the way they do things before judging those values and practices by changing them to something else. I have generally believed in and lived by those principles and endeavoured to when I came to pastor The Bridge Church back in 2013 - but there was one exception: We were going to start reading the Bible in the service.
Now I don't say that as a way of denigrating the practice and liturgy that this church had developed before I came, or to imply that the Bible wasn't a central part of the congregation's life or worship in absence of this practice - but I have for a long time had a strong conviction that the public reading of Holy Scripture is an essential component of the worship of the Church.
The Scriptures must stand on their own
What you will experience in many Evangelical churches is an emphasis on the centrality of the preached word. This is far from being a bad thing. An emphasis on preaching is one of the defining traits of many Protestant denominations, especially Evangelicals (and reformed traditions as well, but that's a different animal). But when you go to one of those churches, what you are most likely to see is that the Scripture that is read, if it is read in fullness at all, is read as a part of the sermon by the preacher. Now the sermon that is preached may be exceptionally faithful to the text; it may be fully expository in nature; and the preacher may have a high sense of reverence for God's word in their proclamation. But regardless of all of these factors, what is implicitly communicated by this style is that the text exists to serve the act of preaching. Or to say it another way the word is utilized in service of the sermon - it is a means to a glorious end.
But the Holy Scriptures have never been in the service of the sermon; God's word is living and active and powerful on its own, rather, the sermon is a mode of communication that exists in the service of the word. This difference is not just semantics, it is a matter of what is of first order. When we separate the reading of the Bible from the event of preaching, what we communicate is that first God speaks, and then we respond by explaining and contextualizing his authoritative words. If we subsume the Scripture reading into the message, what we communicate (albeit unknowingly sometimes) is that our words are authoritative prima facie, and God agrees and backs up our claims. The nuance is small, but crucial if we are to have a right understanding of Scripture and proclamation.
The Bible must be heard in the voice of the people
One of the great things the Protestant Reformation gave to the Church was the scriptures in the vernacular of the people. We got to open the Bible and read God's word for ourselves. When the Bible is only proclaimed from the lips of the pastor, or worship leader, it creates this backward's impression that the only people who can rightly proclaim the word are authorized leaders. This couldn't be further from the truth. At The Bridge Church we endeavour to make sure (as much as possible) that the person reading the Bible on Sunday morning does not have any other reason for being on the platform that day. We don't want role-confusion in the liturgy, this holy book is the book of the people as much as it is the book of God's words. It belongs to the people as it is their story that is being told. At the same time, as the reader comes from the congregation to bring the Scriptures, he or she also returns to the congregation after reading. This symbolism, while perhaps invisible to anyone who hasn't been told (which is why I am telling you now!) is equally important. This movement from from proclamation to participation reminds us that the reading is only fully authoritative when embedded in the community. We can all read the Bible on our own and glean something from it. That is the ministry of illumination that comes from the Holy Spirit, but the authority of the word comes when the people of God receive his word and agree upon it together. It is this balance between Scripture, Spirit, and Church that keeps us from false-interpretations and heretical ideas that twist the Bible into fundamentally anti-biblical statements. This protection happens fundamentally on a larger stage as denominations and groups of churches keep each other accountable to right doctrine and practice, but it can be seen in a small way every single Sunday when the Bible is read by someone from the congregation.
The proclamation of the Scripture is worship
This is sometimes lost on people. When we read the Bible, we are not taking a break from worship in order to learn - rather we are continuing our worship of God in the action. this is the reason that when the word is read that we ask everyone to stand. We assume a posture of reverence, recognizing that God's own words are being proclaimed in our midst. It is also why at the end of the reading, the reader declares for all who have ears to hear that what was just proclaimed was "the word of the Lord." We recognize and name the authority of the one who speaks through the Bible. It is also why we respond after that proclamation with one voice: "thanks be to God." We acknowledge that what we have heard is not just from the mouth of one of our own, but comes to us by the Holy Spirit from God himself, and we respond with thanksgiving. It is also why, the reading of the Scripture and times of prayer are the only times we ask you not to move about and visit the giving station. Because as important as many other things are, we want to stand enraptured by the voice of the Lord that is proclaimed through the Bible. No other thing should divide our attention at this time. We give God our full and undivided presence as he gives himself to us. This is why, when I came to the Bridge in 2013, I broke my own rule to institute this change to our worship service. If we are to be as truly Evangelical as we claim to be as a congregation, we cannot do so without a healthy regard for the Scriptures and without a practice that reinforces that belief. So the next time you groan inwardly about having to stand for a long passage of Scripture, take time and reflect upon what your attention and reverence is communicating to God, and to the others who are watching you. Your leaders have thought a lot about that, which is why we have a Scripture reading in the first place.
Next week we will be looking at the sermon proper, and why our dialogical format is so central to what we preach.