Word and Sacrament: A Friendly Response to Skye Jethani

Image result for word and sacrament

It’s not every day that I find myself in disagreement with Skye Jethani. I unfortunately don’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally, but I always value his opinion on things and respect what he has to say about any given subject topic. So consider this blog post an exercise in friendly critique.

A few ago days ago, Skye published an article entitled “The Case Against Sermon-Centric Sundays.” The title is exactly as it suggests. His sentiments throughout the article echo the refrain of a crooning Bob Dylan: “the times, they are a-changin’.” With the rapid advances in technology that have occured over the past couple of decades, Christians can now listen to their favorite pastors’ sermons on an app, on YouTube, on iTunes, etc.–so long as they’re carrying that infamous rectangular device in their pockets. This renders Sunday preaching redundant at best, and inefficient at worst. Christians are no longer getting their weekly diet of biblical teaching on Sunday mornings, Jethani argues, and the time and resources that churches invest in to prop sermons up is unnecessarily disproportionate. Sermon-centric Sundays should be regarded as the necessary but antiquated product of a bygone era of Reformation that needed to place Scripture in the hands of the people. But 500 years has done its work, and the church must now look toward a new horizon.

Jethani’s solution? Well, there are a number of solutions, he suggests. But the one he seems to favor the most is what he regards as a “return to the table”–that is, a renewed focus on the Eucharist (or, for the stubbornly low-church evangelical, “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper).

Some people have already taken to Twitter or the web to respond, such as this article from The Gospel Coalition (which seems to have drawn the ire of Jethani and co.) So I’d like to point out that there are many things to commend about Jethani’s analysis. For example: his implicit critique about the “celebrityism” that is rampant in evangelical (sub)culture. Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, and others have proven that a church built on the personality of the preacher instead of Christ as the cornerstone is a house of cards just waiting to topple over. Moreover, he asks some really good questions: can the gross amount of time and energy spent on sermons be distributed more evenly with other pastoral responsibilities among pastoral staff? Could we use time more wisely and efficiently? Etc. etc. These are questions worthy of consideration in a post-Christian culture.

Before I continue, a disclaimer by the way of disclosure is in order: I’m a seminarian, an M.Div. student studying to become a pastor. But I am not writing this out of concern for job security. If it was my paycheck that I was concerned about, I wouldn’t have entered pastoral ministry in the first place (more on that later).

As it stands, I’m actually largely in agreement with Jenthani’s diagnosis. His prescription and remedy? Not so much. Here are a few reasons why.

An Incomplete Ecclesiology and Imbalanced Liturgy

The word “church” is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which means “assembly.” The biblical idea is that God’s people are regularly “called out” to gather under the proclamation of God’s word, much like how the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear the words of Moses. That is why Stephen could refer to “the church [‘assembly,’ ekklesia] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). This focus on God’s Word could be seen after Israel’s return from the exile, when the prophet Ezra read Scripture in front of the people (Nehemiah 8). It was continued in the Second Temple Period during the time of Jesus, when Scripture reading and exhortation was the centerpiece of the weekly synagogue gathering (“synagogue” was one of two Greek translations for the Hebrew word “qahal“, the other one being–you guessed it–ekklesia). It was during a synogogue service that Jesus, an itinerent rabbi, read from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet and began to teach. These synagogue meetings on the Sabbath would later inform the shape and liturgy of the early church Sunday morning gathering.

Some of the earliest Christian writings dating back to the first and second century, such as the writings of Justin Martyr and the anonymous Didache (a Christian “instruction manual”) emphasize the centrality of preaching and teaching alongside regular communion observance. Justin Martyr writes, “and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” Many early church fathers such as John Chrystostom would sometimes preach at three hours at a time on the Lord’s Day (sometimes more!), giving Wesley and Whitefield a run for their money. (I’m guessing some of you are more thankful for your pastor now.) Every time, the message that the liturgy communicated was clear: This is “the Word of the Lord” (Dei verbum), a solemn and profound declaration, and the sentiment was exactly the same as that of Mount Sinai, “Thus saith the LORD.”

For the better part of the first millenium, preaching occupied a pride of place alongside the Eucharist as an integral part of the church’s liturgical life. It was only later, probably in the early medeival period, that the Eucharist began to eclipse preaching as the centerpiece of liturgy. As it turns out, the Reformers had a pretty hefty pedigree to base their reforms off of.

But, of course, this doesn’t negate the fact that we are in a different time and a different era. Isn’t it possible that we’re just afraid of change? Should the church not adapt to the times? True, I am of a more conservative temperament. One of my life mottos is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, Jethani argues, something is broke and in need of fixing. Fair enough. Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that this is true, and we are to overturn centuries of ecclesiastical history. I am radically Protestant, after all, so tradition should hold no sway on me, right? Let’s move on to my next point.

An Imbalanced View of the “Means of Grace”

As mentioned above, Jethani suggests reinstituting the Eucharist to fill the vaccuum inevitably left by preaching as the central act of Christian worship.

I’m a millennial (as the blog title suggests), so you’ll forgive me for thinking in terms of GIFs, but the following one that came to mind seemed appropriate for the occassion:

Why Not Both GIF - WhyNotBoth GIFs

Yes, that’s an excellent question, adorable little Latina girl. Why NOT both? The Reformers certainly didn’t seem to see such an either/or dichotomy. On the contrary, they consistently argued in their writings that “Where the Word of God is rightly preached, AND the sacraments truly administred, according to Christ’s Institution, ” that is where you will find a true church.

That’s because the Reformers considered both biblical preaching AND the sacraments as a “means of grace”: that is, rather than simply being the act of the pastor, preaching and the administration of sacraments is simultaneously the act of the Holy Spirit. Just as the elements of bread and wine (or juice) are set apart from common use for our spiritual nourishment, so is time set apart for God to speak through His Word and through the exhortation of the pastor that shepherds the congregation (or by those that have been duly called and qualified). Just as the Spirit is uniquely present in the act of communion, so does He also work in, through, and even in spite of the preacher. Because it is wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit, there is a prophetic element and dimension to preaching that we often overlook. The spoken word and the elements are a common part of every day life. But there is something to be said of when these are done in the “assembly” of believers: an ineffable synergy that makes the Word come alive, which would be lost if we resorted solely to curating audio and vidoe recordings. In the church’s historical liturgy, we hear the Word preached and respond with communion.

Don’t get me wrong: communion is vastly underappreciated and overlooked by the average evangelical church. I’m in a minority in my small Baptist church that is pushing (probably unsuccessfully) for weekly communion observance. But it should not be done at the expense of the proclaimed and preached Word.

Jethani himself writes, “It’s worth remembering that the Protestant Reformers’ goal was not to rethink the church’s worship.” That’s true, as we’ve already seen; so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they knew what they were doing all along. Historically speaking, the church’s liturgy had always been divided into two parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. During the medieval era, the former was largely eclipsed by the latter. The Reformers at their best sought to reestablish that balance. It would be a disservice to the church to rid ourselves of it once again.

Perhaps it’s just my millennial hypersensitivity, but all this talk of supply-demand economics and target demographics (which, ironically, are for millennials like me) in the article sounds eerily reminiscent of the programmatic, business-model mentality that informed the pragmatism of the seeker-sensitive movement not too long ago. (And the antidote proposed sounds a bit “Emergent-y” .) The moment that pragmatism determines the church’s worship is the moment that we set it up to be outmoded with the newest fad. Rather than tradition just for tradition’s sake, I think there is wisdom in sticking with the structures that the church has used for millenia, while leaving room for fresh expressions.

The “Call”

This blog post wouldn’t feel complete without an anecdote to drive home a point.

When I felt God calling me into pastoral ministry, I had just started a doctoral program in clinical psychology with the hopes of having a successful career in the field. I didn’t want to live large, just comfortably, enough to provide for my wife and family in the token suburban home with a white fence, neatly trimmed hedges, and the 2.5 kids that the American dream promises (my wife didn’t want a dog–still doesn’t unfortunately). I practically had the thesis to my disseration already spelled out, and I was ready to make it.

And then the wierdest thing happened to me. Almost as if it was overnight, all the passion that I had for the field was sapped from me and placed into an area that I feared and promised myself never to venture into: vocational ministry. I wrestled with God longer than Jacob–for weeks on end. But in the end, as always, God had his way with me. So I threw my hands up, stopped at my Master’s, dropped out, and entered into seminary.

Recently, one student in the ministry where I serve at asked me why I had traded in a promising and potentially lucrative career as a clinical psychologist to become a pastor. The question struck me: I had considered it before, but never so pointedly. In this student’s eyes, I had simply traded one ministerial opportunity for another, which is a completely accurate analysis. After all, counselors, therapists, and clinical psychologists have a tremendous opportunity to reach out and minister to so many people. So I entertained his question with serious thought, and I came to this conclusion: God had burdened my heart to preach the Word.

Although I was still unfamiliar with the words of 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul’s commission to Timothy was impressed upon my heart: “Preach the Word.” I had encountered solid, biblical, orthodox preaching through the apps and podcasts that Jethani had mentioned. Yet instead of leading me away from pulpit ministry, it led me toward it. I felt the call of God to go and do likewise–to tell others about this God that I had experienced. To proclaim this message I had received. I genuinely fought it. But in the end, I shared the same sentiments as Jeremiah: “his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

Suffice to say, I’m convinced that as long as there is a church, there will be people called to preach, to fill the pulpits, to proclaim God’s Word, to exhort believers, and of course, to administer the sacraments. It will still require intensive theological training, and a time may certainly come when we will have to ask ourselves whether the traditional seminary route is the best way forward in a post-Christian age. But preaching itself will never disappear; neither will the need to train our pastors. (That’s why the pastoral epistles were written!)

There’s a lot more I could say. This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive critique, much less a final word. And I’m always open to dialogue.

Skye is asking the right questions, just not dishing out the right answers. There is much to commend in his article and much that I agree with. But is the monumental shift in technology a signal and warrant for a monumental shift in church liturgy? I don’t think so.

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