Lessons on Liturgy from Baptists
1. I came to saving faith in a Baptist context. It was the Baptists who taught me the simplest version of the gospel, who taught me who Jesus is, why he came into the world as a true human male, what he was doing on the cross, and how his sacrifice there atoned for my sins. They taught me how his work on the cross redeems me from all my sins, and that his resurrection is a pledge of the resurrection which awaits me at his return to the earth. They baptized me in water (by immersion, of course) in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In all of this, the Baptists were (and, for the most part, continue to be) good catholics. And while we’re on the topic of catholics, you must never overlook the capitalization or lack thereof when I use this word. I know what I’m writing, and I know how to write it. You should take care to note what you’re reading.
2. I kept my Baptist treasures, for they are (as far as they go) the treasures of catholic Christianity. When I departed Baptist ecclesiastical culture for other climes, I was not running away from something evil or perverse; and – this is very important to keep in mind as you read what follows – I took most anything of spiritual value with me when I departed. I needed and sought something that was not found among my Baptist ancestors; but, that means nothing about the good things found among them then (and now as well).
Are Baptists Liturgical?
So, how do I come to point to my Baptist beginnings as containing the earliest roots of sacramental spirituality and liturgical worship which now characterize my Christian faith? Aren’t the Baptists known for eschewing these things? For repudiating these things? Aren’t Baptists as liturgical as Communists are capitalist?
Well, yes and no. Part of the problem here is that Baptists are actually as liturgical as acorns are oak trees. You’ll find as many bells and smells (in the high-church Anglican sense of that idea) in a Baptist church as you’ll find acorns in a lumber yard. But, if you puzzle anything out about the lumber, you might just find yourself backtracking its history all the way to a stand of trees shading a mass of grass which is thick with acorns, some destined to become trees themselves.
What is Liturgy?
Let’s drop the metaphors and get to one of the points here – the word “liturgy” and what it often connotes in these discussions. Dictionary.com gives the following definitions of the word:
1. A prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship.
2. The sacrament of the Eucharist.
The second definition is pregnant with unmentioned details which could be elaborated – the kinds of things you’d see, hear, touch, smell, and taste if you participated in a routine Anglican, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Eucharistic celebration. And, none of this, certainly not in the forms you’d find in those communions, would ever appear in a standard Baptist worship service.
The first definition, however, “works” just as well for a high pontifical mass as it does for the closing service at a revival at First Baptist Church in Needles, California (where I saw a number of such services as a boy). In this sense, Baptists – or, at least, this or that Baptist congregation – have a liturgy. All liturgies, from pontifical high masses to Baptist Sunday morning services, will have some variation in minor details, but the “shape of the liturgy” will be standard, and some elements in the liturgy are almost mandatory. In my Baptist days, it was the invitation at the end of the preacher’s evangelistic sermon. In fact, the sermon itself, drawn from anywhere in the Bible, was eventually an evangelistic sermon, no matter how far from evangelism the Biblical text might be. This was one of those near-mandatory features of Baptist liturgy.
More Than Just A Schedule
But, liturgy in this elementary sense is more than just a schedule. A schedule has elements, and the elements have an order, a sequence, which is sometimes dictated by the internal logic of the liturgy, sometimes the result of custom. The offering, for example, could appear in many places in a Baptist liturgy. It is usually one of the preliminarys before the preaching of the sermon. Indeed, it “must” be before the sermon, because of the internal logic of a standard Baptist liturgy, which has the evangelization of the lost as its most fundamental purpose. For this reason, the whole service moves toward the climax of the sermon, the invitation. The denouement must be either the wistful prayer of the pastor for lasting conviction on those who did not come forward, or the joyful introduction of those who walked the aisle to profess faith in Christ, to rededicate their lives to Christ, or to move their letter of membership to this particular Baptist congregation. The final Big Bang of the service must be the invitation, and what follows it cannot be allowed to diminish it.
Interestingly, in services which follow the Baptist liturgy as to the elements and their scheduling in the service, but whose climactic moment is NOT an evangelistic invitation, I have sometimes seen the offering moved to the end of the service, after the sermon. The rationale for this, explained to me by those who feel a need to defend this seemingly “unorthodox” practice, is that it affords people an opportunity to “respond” to the preaching of God’s Word by making an offering (ostensibly, out of gratitude).
More Than a Service
What would happen if a Baptist Church decided to drop the gospel invitation? I’ve seen discussions about this, and heard about even more of them. It is not a pretty sight. Why?
Just this – to drop the gospel invitation from the end of the sermon in a Baptist Church would be tantamount to abandoning the identity of the Baptist worship service. “We’re Baptists, for crying out loud! We’re here to preach the gospel. Of course we’re going to keep the invitation after the sermon.”
Of, how about this – some intrepid soul in an old-line Church of Christ decides that the classic prohibition of musical instruments in that denomination should be modified to permit the use of a piano, or an organ. Howls of protest can be expected. Or, if a new Church of Christ congregation is founded on this very departure, you can be sure that other Churches of Christ leadership will roundly admonish, possibly condemn, this departure from Church of Christ identity.
What if Roman Catholics stopped saying the Hail Mary? What if Episcopals decided to practice immersion as the only form of baptism? What if Assemblies of God congregations decided it was better to stop speaking in tongues? In all these cases, the groups would diminish, if not utterly erase, their own distinctive identities. You can enter a Roman Catholic Church service and figure out pretty quickly where you are. So, also, with a Baptist service (though you might need to wait until the end of the sermon to be absolutely sure). So also with many of the old-line Pentecostal bodies; or Presbyterian congregations; or the Lutherans; or the Episcopals. All of these groups have liturgies, just as much as the Baptists, and whatever else these liturgies do, they establish and maintain the corporate identity.
This is the first Big Lesson in Liturgy which the Baptists taught me, though it was many, many years later before I could expound it. Nevertheless, in all the ways that Baptist churches do this, they impressed on me through every sense available to me distinctives which I still recognize as Baptist.
Liturgy as Identity
A separate essay could be composed for each of the points I will mention below. For now, I simply want to list the various elements which go to make up the Baptist liturgical identity.
1. Internal Church Space: Baptists will share their distinctives here with others, of course. But, the pre-eminence of the sermon in Baptist worship means that the gathering space is focused on a pulpit, which is placed central to the congregation’s corporate attention, usually raised high up on a dais. Along with the pulpit in importance is the baptismal tank, often embedded in the wall behind the pulpit, with the choir arrayed between the pulpit and the baptismal tank behind them.
2. Sight and Sound: I’ve mentioned sight in the previous point. The “iconography” if you will in a Baptist Church is plain for anyone to read. And, attending it is a sound drawn from the Baptist hymnody.
I know that “sound” in the sense of a standard Baptist hymnody is an element that is blurring today, with the controversy of “contemporary worship” crossing all sorts of denominational lines (even as the controversies in the area of “gender issues” is doing the same thing). But, in the old days, Baptist hymnals were distinctive. Yes, they sang some songs written by the Wesleys, but that didn’t make them Methodists. The thematic constants were salvation, conviction, invitation, and revival; and, if hymns carried those themes they were sung in Baptist churches. The harmonies, the hymn tunes, the way they were rendered by the pianists (or the organists in the bigger Baptist churches) – it is not too much to say that one could almost identify one’s venue in these places blindfolded.
Finally, there was the sight and sound of the baptisms themselves, the sloshing of the water in the tank, the rushing noise of water pouring off the bodies of those resurrected from their watery, symbolic burial with Christ, the comic sight of women’s hair rendered flat and clinging to their heads where seconds before they were airily curled and waving around their faces. If the robes were white, and therefore translucent when wet, one saw a startling vision of nude or near-nude bodies ascending from the ends of the tanks. Even if the robes were dark, or lined to opacity, the robes clung like saran wrap to the just-drenched bodies.
3. Taste, touch, and smell: This is an odd trio, but their combined effect is powerfully real. Baptist communion was a quarterly thing all through my boyhood, and it was marked (as much as anyone’s memory of such rituals can be marked) more by the sense of taste, touch, and smell than anything visual.
Touch – one’s fingers trying to pick up one of those teensie white pellets without grabbing too many or dropping any as you passed the plate containing them down the pew.
Smell – this was a surprise at my first Baptist communion, and every subsequent Baptist communion recovered for me the sense of surprise at that first one. Baptists (the ones I was always with, anyway) always used Welch's Grape Juice, poured into small thimble-sized glasses, arrayed in small sockets of a large circular tray which could easily contain 50 or more of these thimbles. The trays were covered with a lid until it was time to distribute them. And when the covers came off and the trays were carried by the deacons to the ends of pews, the odor of the grape juice quickly filled the auditorium with a heady, grapish perfume. It was the odor you never experienced anywhere else unless you were quaffing a tumbler of the stuff and had poked your own nose into the glass. Here, the entire space – sometimes a very large space – was inundated with the distinctive smell of grape juice.
Taste – again, the eating and drinking made their marks on memory. What highlighted the eating was the sharp difference in taste between the hard, flavorless pellet and the cloyingly sweet grape juice. One ate the bread first, in an atmosphere charged with the smell of the grape juice, which only served to accentuate the gluey, tastelessness of the pellet. And, on the backside of that odd sensation came the splash of grape juice itself.
Confused Liturgical Identity
The point I’m trying to make may seem so obvious as to be trivial; or so subtle as to be entirely missed by most people. The importance of these elements of liturgy (the very reductionist notion of liturgy I’ve been discussing) can be seen better when one monkeys with them in ways that confuse the interpreter of the elements. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a recent blog by a fellow named Nate, who recounts a visit to First Baptist Church of Redlands, California:
This is an American Baptist Church. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, it has a beautiful building – it’s definitely no Protestant tilt-up. The church is built in a cruciform pattern and inside there are stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ. Also it has lectern and a pulpit (however both are never used). The baptismal in the back of the church is framed by carved Christian symbols and above the water is a great gold Latin cross with a hand of blessing molded into its center. If this sounds weird for a Baptist church there's more. The pastors dress up in vestments every Sunday with a cassock and stole. They also celebrate communion every Sunday...by intinction no less. Doesn't sound like the average Baptist church I know. If only more Baptist churches would follow suit I might be able to stick around with the Baptists.
For all of their pluses there are some problems. First, can't exactly figure out their order of worship. There is no confession, no absolution, no affirmation of faith, and no scripture readings. … But probably the bigger problem is that there is no clear theological confession that expresses this church’s life together. And beyond this, after talking with one of the pastors, it seems there are some questions with regard to the virgin birth. Now I don't think this is the church's official position but the fact that one of the leaders is agnostic about this issue is frightening.
What the Baptists Taught Me About Liturgy
Yeah, I know. It still grates in the ear to talk about Baptist liturgy, but for now I’m keeping the word liturgy confined to the things mentioned above – the stuff that is routine, regular, many times mandatory, the stuff you can count on for this or that Christian community to look like, smell like, feel like in all the ways one feels when one gathers with them for worship. With these constraints on the word “liturgy,” here’s what the Baptists taught me:
1. We are how we worship. The identity, the personality, the ethos of a Christian community arises naturally out of its worship. Indeed its identity in this sense is established by its worship, and it is maintained by its worship, far more than by its confession (though, obviously, that too is a critical factor).
2. Worship, identity, and confession are all mutually re-enforcing. Baptist beliefs are incarnated, if you will, in their worship, the shape of their meeting spaces, the things they do when gathered together, and the order in which they do them. And, all those “liturgy-like-things” have the effect of strengthening, re-enforcing, guarding, and sustaining the belief that is expressed in them.
3. Liturgy, in this sense and to this end, is a communal thing. The ritualistic character of liturgy is not the point at all. A single individual can perform a ritual, in utter isolation from all other persons. What makes liturgy (in the sense of this essay) powerful to establish, express, and maintain communal identity is the fact that it is the community which jointly participates in it.
Now, students of liturgy or sacramental theology will roll their eyes and mutter “lex orandi, lex credendi;” and, they will be correct to do so. “The law of prayer is the law of faith” is a true principal of communal religious identity. And the Baptists are no more immune from its working in their midst than anyone else. My only point in this essay (which may be laboring over the obvious, I know) is to point out that I learned this principle before I ever read it or heard it from a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic or an Episcopalian (groups who know this principle and know how important it is for the life of any religious community).
Baptists, therefore, taught me some of my earliest, and most important lessons in liturgy. God bless them for it.