Ritual and Adventist worship

Perhaps it is providential the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not have many liturgical roots. We have the opportunity to start with a clean slate and create forms of worship that are distinctively ours and that reflect our unique beliefs.

C. Raymond Holmes, D.Min., is director of student life, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Seventh-day Adventists have generally viewed the terms liturgy and ritual with deep suspicion, equating them with formalism in worship and a lack of spiritual vitality. However, we need to recognize two vital truths regarding Christian worship in general and Seventh-day Adventist worship in particular: (1) Every worship service, formal or informal, is liturgical in nature. That is to say, it has order (2) Liturgy and theology should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. When it comes to worship, liturgy ought to harmonize with theology in such a way that the truths confessed are dramatized and illustrated by the actions of a congregation in worship (see Norval Pease, And Worship Him [Nashville: Southern Publishing Assn., 1967], p. 51).

These two facts of worship formed the keynote of the national convention of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Church Musicians Guild held July 6-10, 1982, at Keene, Texas. Delegates from all over the United States, ministers, teachers, and church musicians, met together and by means of lecture, dialogue, and demonstration made a serious attempt to do what the above statement suggests—integrate worship forms with Adventist beliefs. Significant steps were taken, but Adventist liturgy still has some distance to go before catching up with Adventist theology. But we can all rejoice in the positive dialogue that took place at the convention between pastors and church musicians. A new appreciation for the working relationship that should exist between them became apparent. Once again we learned the fruitful lesson that the best way to get to know and trust each other is to sit together and discuss a mutual concern—in this case, the musical-liturgical enhancement of Adventist worship.

The convention revealed a growing recognition on the part of laymen, ministers, and professional musicians that worship is a vital issue for our church. Revelation 13 and 14 make clear the crucial nature of the issue. There worship is the central issue for the remnant church—in fact, for all Christian churches living and working in the closing age of history. Worship is not an irrelevant, peripheral matter; it is the heartbeat of the church. It is in worship, that the church reaches out into the world with the message of salvation in Christ and the message of preparation for His soon return.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged from the revivals of the nineteenth century in America. An important phenomenon of those revivals was a dramatic, almost worldwide, inter est among churches of various denominations in the events connected with the second advent of Christ. The growing Advent Movement slowly and painstakingly developed an eschatological perspective for both theology and life that has been a major contributing factor in its stability and an unusual worldwide influence on its growth. Institutionally, this led to a phenomenal concern for evangelistic involvement in the world, together with a certain separation from the world subculturally. There now appears to be a growing concern, especially on the part of the younger generation of church members, to break out of that insularity in a new search for identity. It seems that every generation of church members must undergo such a search, which can take many forms and be, at times, a rather agonizing and threatening process. I don't believe such an identity can be found by radically overthrowing or denying either the doctrines or life style that have made us what we are as a people, but by reexamining these in the light of con temporary events and our need for self-discovery as a church. I do believe that our doctrines, creatively reflected and illustrated by what we do when we worship, the liturgical actions in which we engage, can effectively contribute to a renewed sense of identity—an identity firmly based on our own great doctrinal traditions.

Our beliefs are Biblically based; therefore we need not spend much time, when it comes to worship, trying to discover roots in contemporary history. They do not exist. We have no extensive worship traditions to reflect upon. What we have has been borrowed in bits and pieces from the worship experience of other Christian churches, mostly from church bulletins. The convention at Keene, Texas, dramatically demonstrated that there is a growing interest among us in the liturgical illustration of our distinctive Adventist beliefs. The revision of The Church Hymnal as a worship guide as well as a hymnbook is partly responsible, since it presents the church with the opportunity to do this kind of thinking.

Perhaps we should see it as a providential gift of the Spirit that we do not have many liturgical roots. Perhaps it is a gift, as well as an unprecedented opportunity, to be able to start from scratch. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise to have nothing to live down liturgically, no distorted traditions. We have only a liturgical vacuum, an empty space. Our concern should be that this empty space be filled with the right kind of Adventist worship traditions which we now have the opportunity to develop. The fact is that Revelation 14 does not call us to be Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, or even Methodist in our worship—but Adventist! It is a call to liturgical distinctiveness that avoids copycat rituals.

Obviously, then, we must search for Adventist worship roots in the Biblical narrative—specifically in the Old Testament sanctuary services, the heavenly ministry of our Lord as outlined in Hebrews and in Revelation, chapters 4, 5, 13, 14, and the sweeping theme of the great controversy as we understand it. With the Word of God as our source and the writings of Ellen G. White as our guide and safeguard, we have the opportunity to be creative and to respond to Dr. Pease's counsel that the answer to the search for Adventist worship forms "be found in (1) a thorough knowledge of the Biblical, theological, and historical aspects of Christian worship, and (2) a thoughtful application of this knowledge to Adventist worship today" (ibid. , p. 8). It is one thing to renovate; it is something altogether different to create. Our liturgical task is to begin thinking of ways to create worship forms distinctively ours, rather than simply to renovate what has been created by others. For this we need the best thinking and talent of pastors, theologians, and church musicians united in a common concern and cause.

As we face this task, one of the first things we need to realize is that man is both a religious and ritualistic being. Primitive and modern cultures alike demonstrate this truth. It was, and still is, common among primitive peoples to act out beliefs in ritual ceremony. Religion is part of daily life and little distinction is made between the material and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred. For modem man this is not so. Other rituals, such as those connected with work, play, family, and nation, often take the place of the religious. But whether ritual be primitive or modern, pagan or Christian, it serves the same purpose: it not only portrays but actualizes in creative drama the faith and hope of the participants. The Adventist congregation that sings as a benedictory response "We have this hope that burns within our hearts" senses anew the hope it corporately shares. It is an uplifting, reaffirming experience. What is pro claimed and illustrated liturgically actually happens: the people experience hope. Their thoughts, their inner eyes, their consciousness, is fixed on the Lord's soon return. Belief becomes visible and audible in liturgical action. This is not a magical occurrence. Knowledge of the Advent doctrine and faith in its validity and fulfillment must form the basis of the liturgical drama. It is the belief that gives meaning to the ritual, but at the same time the ritual dramatizes the belief. This is precisely why ritual alone, unrelated to Biblical truth, is meaning less and dangerous. It is also why religious truth, which by its very nature demands ritual expression, must give rise to the right kind of ritual.

Many non-Christian cultures possess a well-established understanding of the relationship between idea (truth, doctrine, belief), and the reenactment of that idea in action (ceremony, ritual, liturgy), or the depicting of that idea artistically (painting, sculpture, music). Human origins, the meaning of life, the crises of life or rites of passage, and important personal, tribal, or national historic events are explained and kept alive by such reenactments or rituals. It seems that man was created with an inherent need to portray his under standing of life and religion in action, story, and ritual. Even his confrontation with the mysterious, that which he does not and cannot know or adequately explain, he attempts to express dramatically. The need to depict is a natural human trait and has its origins in God the Father, who created man and the universe. This human need must be informed and guided, but it should never be ignored. To say ritual has no place in life or in religion is to misunderstand the very nature of man as well as the Biblical record. We do not believe, as Adventists, that sin has so corrupted and depraved man that he has no higher aspirations, that whatever he produces or touches must automatically be suspect. We believe that even fallen man has retained the image of God, distorted and marred though it be. That image expresses itself in mankind's highest achievements in drama, music, graphic arts, and in science and technology.

The Bible clearly teaches that Christian truth, as well as non-Christian myth, can be dramatized and depicted in ceremonial ritual. Verbal communication is not the only way to pass on sacred truth. The fact is that rites and ceremonies serve to reinforce either the superstitions or the Christian beliefs of people. They relate the abstract to our human thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They are acts that make beliefs understood by reenacting or depicting them in human action, language, and artistic creativity. In any culture, religious or otherwise, art synthesizes perception. It helps put together in the mind what the senses have imagined. Native art is usually representational, descriptive, and realistic rather than abstract, even though it may appear distorted to a person from another culture. It is meant to be understood by everyone, in contrast to much of so-called modern art that is understood only by artists. It attempts to find meaning in that which exists rather than to create an existence of its own. With that attempt, conservative Christianity should feel comfortable. Religious ritual performs the same function. It helps to portray the truth.

If we can agree that not ritual itself, but only that ritual that does not accurately express our theology, is bad, then we are in a good position to do some creative thinking. We are also in a good position to evaluate and assess that which we do while exercising the corporate judgment of the whole church. It would appear that the very first thing we must do is develop an Adventist theology of worship based on the Old Testament sanctuary services and the ministry of Christ our Lord in heaven. The right kind of liturgy must be undergirded by the right kind of theology. The second thing we must do is to focus that theology on Adventist worship practices in a creative attempt to develop forms which dramatize Adventist beliefs. This second task cannot be accomplished by our clergy alone. For this we need the talents of our most outstanding and dedicated Adventist musicians.

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C. Raymond Holmes, D.Min., is director of student life, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1983

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