Having been raised Protestant, I sometimes wonder what might have kept me in the Protestant world. Having been surrounded by people who claim to want to be like the first Christians, and only follow the Bible, I was amazed (as a young lad) how virtually nobody in Evangelical Protestant churches do that. This, of course, led to my journey across Protestantism, into the older liturgical churches, finally settling upon Anglicanism in The Episcopal Church USA. The liberal-progressive trajectory of that denomination, in the late 1990s, was what eventually caused me to seek refuge in the Catholic Church. I wonder, sometimes, what might have happened if I had actually found “Bible Christians” among the Evangelicals, who really do practice what the Bible tells them to do, and who really do worship in the way the early Christians did. I never found anything like that in the Ozarks, and indeed, most “Bible Christians” throughout America’s Bible Belt probably wouldn’t even know what I’m talking about. And THAT is the root of the problem.
So what would real Bible Christianity look like, from a Protestant perspective anyway. We need look no further than the writings of the early Christians themselves. They told us. You see, the early Christians were very prolific in their writings back then, just like modern Christians are prolific in their writings today. Have you ever been to a Christian bookstore? There you will find shelves upon shelves of books written by modern Christian authors. You might find, mixed among them, a few older titles too. The early Christians were no different, except they didn’t have actual bookstores, or libraries, or even publishers for that matter. Early Christians didn’t write their books for royalties. No. They wrote them strictly to pass on the Christian faith, and just like the scribes who copied the Bible, letter by letter, so their books were copied in the same manner. Consequently, only a cross-section of their writings survive to this day, but the fact that they do survive is something every Evangelical should be aware of, and yet so few are.
These books are called the writings of the Church Fathers. I could go into a number of theories as to why modern Evangelical pastors never talk about them. While not judging the intentions of individual pastors, I would say that collectively, it could be summed up as follows.
Modern Evangelicalism is a business. The type of product being sold at Evangelical churches these days is a certain type of worship style, that involves elaborate music entertainment, based on the pop-music concert model. The heavy focus on a highly-trained garage band, leading the Sunday-morning service, is accented by colored lighting sequences, lyrics projected onto a screen, with the occasional fog machine and laser beams. After this cacophony of emotion-driven worship, follows a 30 to 40 minute indoctrination session, wherein the pastor gives his specific interpretation of Scripture, that everyone is expected to agree to. This may be followed by a call for repentance which leads to scores of people traveling down to the pulpit to rededicate their lives to Christ. This is colloquially referred to as an “altar call,” though there is usually no altar anywhere to be found. What is found, however, is the pulpit from which the pastor preached from, and that is where everyone gathers to pray for forgiveness and get “saved” or “re-saved” or “re-re-saved” on Sunday after Sunday.
The reception of Holy Communion just isn’t a very high priority for these churches. At best, a once-a-month administration of the bread and wine (often grape juice) is carried out in a hurried manner, with no real form or ceremony. Individual reception of these elements rarely ever happens. Instead, the congregation remains in their pews, while the communion elements are distributed to them, in collection plate style. The bread and grape juice are often held in hand while everyone waits for the pastor to give the signal. Then they all eat and drink them at the same time. This is their communion, and they’re lucky if it happens only once a month. Some Evangelical churches only do it once a year, around Easter time, and if there is any ceremony beyond what I described here, then it’s usually a Jewish Passover Seder.
This is the typical Evangelical church model, and they stick with it because it works. It keeps people coming back, and it keeps the money flowing in. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as the saying goes, and since it seems to be working quite well, most Evangelical leaders really have no desire to change anything.
Truth be told, however, the model really isn’t working for everyone. For every one Evangelical mega-church, there are at least four or five smaller churches nearby that are hemorrhaging members every year to these mega-churches. Why? Because they’re essentially trying to do the same thing these mega-churches are, but the mega-churches are better at it, have more money, and will always out-perform the smaller Evangelical churches. Nothing will change here. This trend will continue to repeat itself, year after year, until all the members of the small Evangelical churches are gobbled up by the larger mega-churches. At the current rate, they’ve got maybe a decade left, or two at the most, before the mega-church model IS Evangelicalism in total.
That is, unless, something happens. That is, unless, these so-called “Bible Christians” actually start behaving like Bible Christians, by following the Bible, and the model of the early Christian Church.
So what did the early Christian Church do, that was so different from what modern Evangelical churches do today? It’s simple really, they followed the example of the Apostles by celebrating communion weekly (Acts 20:7), and in doing so, they didn’t just throw together some ad hoc method of throwing crackers and grape juice at their congregation. No. They took their time, and they made a big “to do” about it. Yes, they included a little formality, with just a touch of pomp and circumstance. Because you see, great things require great measure. Anything that’s important has some formality, pomp and circumstance connected to it.
Think about a wedding for example. No pastor just stands in front of a bride and groom and says something like: “Hey, you kids, wanna get married?” They reply, “Yeah, sure.” Then he says something like: “Well Congratulations! You’re married now. You may kiss the bride.” That doesn’t happen, does it? No. Of course it doesn’t. That’s because everyone recognizes that marriage is a great thing, and with great things, some great measure must be involved. There is usually a formal ceremony, with a formal “liturgy” or “order” involved. There is special clothing required, at least by the participants, with special music and special decorations. While not exactly the same thing, this was the mindset in which the early Christians approached Holy Communion, week after week, in their church services. The modern Catholic Mass is the outgrowth of this, as is the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
Now granted, modern Evangelicals may have some aversion to the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox. That’s fine. I get it. I used to be an Evangelical. I know what it’s like. Evangelicals should, however, at least imitate the practice of celebrating communion weekly the way the Bible records (Acts 20:7), and the writings of the early Christians confirm, who recorded that they did just that in a ceremonial way every week (Didache 9 & 14, written in the late first century). At least then, however, they could honestly say that they’re “Bible Christians,” and they are “following the example of the early Christians.” If they’re not celebrating communion weekly, in some kind of ceremonial way, this claim just can’t be taken seriously. I think, inwardly, they know this. At least those few who are Biblically literate know it.
However, the pop-concert model works so well. In fact, it works so well that it can be perfected, marketed and turned into a business that follows the capitalist model of bigger is better, crushing its neighboring competition in smaller Evangelical churches.
Pastors, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those of you watching that big mega-church down the street slowly gobble up your flock, you know something must be done. As long as you keep trying to imitate the pop-concert, mega-church model, your ministry is doomed, and you know it. It’s like you’re trying to operate a small hardware store, while Home Depot is literally just a block a way. Something needs to change. You know it. The question is, will you do anything about it? I dare say that most of you will not. However, there are a few of you who might try. For those few who are willing to try something different, something that would make you a real “Bible Church” for real “Bible Christians,” you may want to consider the following.
What I’m going to recommend to you should work quite well, whether you’re using the King James Version (KJV) in your church, or any modern English version. In fact, the KJV might actually work a little better. I’m going to recommend you use a Protestant variation of ancient liturgy that grew right out of our English heritage. You’re going to need a Book of Common Prayer (BCP). If your church is using a Modern English Bible, or occasionally switching between Modern and Traditional English, you’ll probably want the 1979 version, which has both Modern English (Rite Two) and Traditional English (Rite One). If, however, your church is using the KJV exclusively, you’ll probably prefer the 1928 version, which has Traditional English alone, that is explicitly designed to mesh together well with the KJV. Remember, the people who gave us the BCP also gave us the KJV, and in fact, the BCP predates the KJV by sixty-two years. The style of Traditional English used in the KJV was modeled after the BCP.
Now, the reason why I’m referring you to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is to show good faith on my part. I’m not referring you to a Catholic or Orthodox source of liturgy. I’m referring you to a strictly Protestant source, written by Protestants, for Protestant churches, in America no less! The BCP has a long tradition in the English world, going back some 500 years. I’m not trying to draw you into the Catholic Church here. I think this referral to the BCP proves that.
There are a few things you should know about the BCP up front. First, it’s totally Protestant. There are some old prayers and forms therein that go back to Catholic Medieval England, but the BCP itself is Protestant. Second, there is no copyright on the text of the BCP. Just like the KJV, you can copy large portions of it, use it in handouts, or make pew booklets, without having to worry about violating copyrights. Third, the BCP is universally recognized worldwide as the staple of English liturgical norms. It’s been widely imitated, even duplicated, but never rivaled. Fourth and last, anyone can use the BCP. You don’t need to be an Anglican clergyman, or even a member of an Anglican Church. The BCP is for everyone.
To start, I would recommend dividing your church service into two halves. The first half might involve readings and a sermon. The second half would be the Communion Service portion. If you’re using the BCP 1979, that begins on page 358 in Rite Two, which is Modern English, and on page 326 in Rite One, which is Traditional English. If you’re using the BCP 1928, it begins on page 71. In all three versions of this rite, the Nicene Creed marks the beginning of transition from a sermon to Holy Communion. You will note that the option to use the Apostles Creed is given as an alternative. The pastor should himself decide which is more suitable for his congregation. It should be noted also that the word “catholic” is used at the end of both creeds, Nicene & Apostles. The pastor should explain to his congregation that in this context the Greek word Katholikos (Catholic) was the ancient equivalent of saying “non-denominational” or “non-sectarian.” It means “that which is universal” or “that which is commonly the norm.”
As I said above, great things require great measure. You’re going to need a real altar, not a pulpit. A real altar should consist of a very nice table, suitable for liturgical use. You’ll want to place that front and center in your church building, preferable on an elevated space called a chancel. The pulpit, from which you preach, should always be off to the side, away from the altar. You should definitely wear some kind of liturgical attire. The most informal being a simple white robe, perhaps with some color offsetting it, the type you might see used by a church choir. The offset colors you may eventually want will be green, purple, red and black. The times for using this colors are as follows and follow the Christian liturgical calendar, which is pretty much universal in all of Western Christianity…
- Advent and Lent — purple
- Christmas and Easter — white
- Pentecost and remembrance of martyrs — red
- Trinity (after Pentecost) and Epiphany — green
- Funerals and remembrance of the dead — black
In the few Bible churches that use the BCP, the customs vary. In some cases, the pastor puts on the robe after the sermon, and before he ascends to the altar. In other cases, the pastor wears the robe throughout the entire church service.
The idea behind all this is to get away from the pop-concert method of worship, that the mega-churches now have a near monopoly on. The point being that true and authentic worship of God involves everyone! The entire congregation participates, especially during the liturgy of Holy Communion.
Last but not least, we need to talk about the apocrypha. Whether you believe it’s inspired or not is irrelevant. What matters is this. Nobody, and I do mean NOBODY, has the authority to remove books from the Bible. As a pastor, you know in your heart that’s true. That, however, is what a lot of Protestant publishers have done over the last century and a half. To justify this, many Protestants aided these publishers by coming up with elaborate reasons why these books need not be included in the Bible. I must discourage you from following that line of thinking. Your congregation should definitely be using Bibles with the Apocrypha in them, and that especially applies to the King James Version (KJV) which included the Apocrypha in every copy up into 1885. You can find KJV with Apocrypha Bibles here and here. The most common Modern English Bible with the Apocrypha is the NRSV, which can be found here and here.
You know what I’m saying is true. Pastors, if you keep trying to follow the pop-concert and mega-church model, those mega churches are all the more likely to beat you at this game. If you try to follow the old-school church model, your young people will get bored, and move on to a mega-church anyway. You’ve got to change the game. Liturgy is the answer, and the BCP is your ticket. Start simple, just using the Holy Communion liturgy of the Sunday service. Then, if it works well, advance to using the reading portions that precede it, maybe even incorporating the lectionary, or you could just stick to your own reading plan. You might also develop morning and evening prayer booklets for your congregation using the BCP, or even better, just post the order on your website, making it smartphone friendly. All of this is sure to engage your congregation fully, and make you more of a real Bible Christian in the process.