In my corner of the free-church tradition, the only thing worse than being mistaken for a Catholic is to be mistaken for a Pentecostal. We Baptists like to believe that our ways of worship come straight from the New Testament. We reject both the excessive ritualism we perceive in Roman Catholicism and the excessive emotionalism we perceive in Pentecostalism. Of course, we are absolutely right: simple gatherings focused the word of God and prayer go back to the earliest Jewish roots of Christian worship.
The problem is that the Catholics and the Pentecostals are also right!
The Catholics are right that Christian worship was liturgical from the beginning. This is also part of the synagogue’s earliest legacy to the church. Set prayer forms, ritual actions, and liturgical calls and responses came into the church at the same time as did devotion Scripture and corporate prayer. Sacramental, liturgical worship offers a number of correctives to the traditional Evangelical and mainline Protestant approach.
First, it emphasizes the communal aspects of worship: both the local worshiping community and the continuity of worshipers today with the faithful of every generation. Second, by focusing on ritual and symbolism, this mode of worship serves to break down the almost monopolistic emphasis we have placed on the intellect. Worship is not something we do with our minds (although our minds must be fully engaged), it is something we do with all that we are: heart, mind, soul, and strength. Unlike the Gnostics, who sought release from the confines of the body, orthodox Christian worship understands that our bodies—our senses, our posture, our gestures, etc.—are appropriate vehicles through which to serve God. God does not intend to be worshiped in a sensory deprivation chamber.
At the same time, the Pentecostals are also right that the earliest Christian worship made room for spontaneity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul took pains to regulate the Corinthians’ freewheeling approach to worship, but he did not repudiate it. Once again, we might appeal to the Jewish roots of Christian worship, specifically the ancient interplay of keva and kavvanah‚ fixity and intentionality‚ which sheds light on how a formal, structured worship style can exist in perfect harmony with deep emotion and spiritual intensity. The charismatic impulse toward creativity and individuality, while it must always be informed by the faith of the larger church, is nonetheless to be given free reign. “Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul writes, “Do not despise the words of prophets” (1 Thess 5:20-21).
I’m in kind of a bind. I think the church founded by Jesus Christ was evangelical (= Word-centered) to the core. I also think it was sacramental and charismatic to the core. And I’m not just talking about worship styles but spirituality, doctrine, organization, and practice. Narrowing the options seems to force contrived interpretations of at least some of the biblical and immediately post-biblical evidence.
Most churches (and I suppose most Christians) are most at home in one of these worlds. Many are comfortable in two of them–but all three? What kind of strange hybrid would want to embrace all three? And if you do embrace all three, (1) where in the world will you ever find a church in which you can be yourself and (2) how in the world do you share your pilgrimage with other believers without them thinking you’re either weird or elitist?
What’s a platypus to do?