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Peter Toon on Eucharist, Edification & Evangelization
I recall the days when the Salvation Army called the Sunday morning service the “Holiness Meeting” and the evening service “Evangelism Meeting.” That is a careful and workable distinction between a service of worship, edification, and calls unto holiness for believers, and a service to which others were invited with a view to converting them to Jesus Christ. Many churches today, especially those much into “church growth,” have conflated, confused, and complicated the relation of evangelism to worship.
In the early Church, only the baptized who were in good standing (and not under church discipline) were allowed to stay for the second half of the Eucharistia (the Thanksgiving) on the Lord’s Day. Visitors were dismissed at the end of the Ministry of the Word. Even catechumens were dismissed at this point, for to be preparing for church membership was not sufficient for attendance at the Lord’s Table.
The Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”) that begins the sacramental half of the Eucharistia was (and is) a call unto the baptized believers, who are the assembly of the elect gathered before the Lord and his Table, to be raised in the Spirit to the heavenly banquet. By its very nature and definition, the sacramental half cannot be open to any but those who are prepared in heart and mind to eat the Body and drink the Blood of the once crucified and now exalted Lord Jesus. To encourage people to attend who are not worthy participants in the heavenly celebration is to put their souls in spiritual danger.
The Apostle Paul wrote in the most solemn terms to the church in Corinth on this matter: “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. . . . For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27–29).
The classic Book of Common Prayer has several Exhortations to remind the baptized what a solemn and high privilege it is to receive the Body and Blood of the Savior and thus that a right preparation is necessary before reception. The Exhortation to be used in the actual celebration of the Communion, which is to be said by the minister before the Sursum Corda, includes these words: “For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. Judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord. . . .”
To seek to implement in 2003 in the West the Communion discipline practiced by the Church of the third century or by the Church in missionary situations today is to face great difficulties. People who would feel hurt and excluded by being asked to depart after the ministry of the Word and before the ministry of the Sacrament have the option of going elsewhere and being treated differently—or of not going anywhere at all. Churchgoers, after all, can choose where they go.
Yet there are several possible ways that a basic discipline can be maintained and people’s feelings not deeply hurt. One way is to have classes for catechumens, seekers, and visitors at the same time as the second part of the Eucharistia. They are dismissed in an attractive way to continue to serve the Lord by receiving their appropriate instruction. Careful explanations would be given so that they recognized that the aim of the dividing of people is in the long term to unite them in Christ in the Eucharistic assembly.
The key is, of course, so to celebrate and so to present the Holy Communion that it is regarded with awe and wonder, so that people recognize in their hearts that it is the very opposite of a fast-food service open to all. It is a banquet of the Bride with the Bridegroom, the King, dressed in the robes he provides.
Only the Baptized
Turning now to non-sacramental services, the public services of Morning and Evening Prayer with the Litany—or the equivalent in other traditions—are by their very nature and contents services of thanksgiving, of hearing the Word, and of petition for the baptized, repentant people of God.
Yet they are of such a kind that there is no need to expel nominal Christians or seekers or even agnostics and unbelievers from them, for they can all truly benefit from watching or even partially participating in the offering of thanksgiving, hearing the Bible, and engaging in public prayer. Further, after the Office is completed, they can benefit further and very specifically when the sermon addresses unbelievers and seekers and afterwards the church offers them personal prayer and counsel.
Specific services for evangelism must be constructed in such a way that people who are not converted—seekers, backsliders, and nominal Christians—do not sing hymns, say prayers, and make statements that are truly only in the language of the converted. For example, the “Our Father” is most specifically a prayer for the adopted children of God. In the early Church, only the baptized were allowed to pray it in church.
We should not be causing as yet uncommitted people to act and speak as if they were what we judge they are not but want them to be through evangelism. Thus, they can sing hymns that praise God as Creator and Judge and Christ as Savior and Lord, for the truths concerning Jesus are, we believe, objectively true; but they cannot sing hymns that presume that he is their personal Savior and that they have the assurance thereof in their heart, for that is not true if they are not yet converted to him. One who is not converted and baptized cannot be asked to sing, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine,” or “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
There is plenty of scope for words of thanksgiving and praise to God, for statements of the gospel of God concerning his Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and so on, which can be uttered by a seeker or nominal Christian in a service for evangelism. Their utterance in word or song does not necessarily presume a faithful baptized Christian saying them, and so they can be used because they are part of God’s truth.
But one type of mentality, which seems to be widespread and common, we must avoid: thinking that believers are edified by a constant hearing of a “simple” gospel message. When we do not provide for the baptized believers the fullness of Christian worship, when we dumb it down continually to cater to seekers and backsliders and invited guests, we do not edify the Church of God. Only a small proportion of services on a Sunday ought to be devoted to evangelism, because Sunday is the Lord’s Day, when the Lord’s people meet with their Lord in Word, Sacrament, and fellowship, to be blessed and edified and enriched by him.
To miss out on the joy of worship and edification from the Word due to an erroneous judgment about the pressing need to evangelize is a very great loss for the people of God. You cannot edify the people of God by telling them every Sunday to make a decision for Christ. Having made that decision, they need to be led on into the riches and mysteries of the Christian faith.
Worship, especially at the Eucharistia, is only for the baptized elect people of God. But entry into the catechumenate is for all who seek and wish to find.
Peter Toon is Vice President of the Prayer Book Society (www.episcopalian.org/pbs1928/index.htm).