[Note: Help with two matters of research connected with this blog entry and follow-up to it would be greatly appreciated. First, how did the Church of God Ministries come to change their format of church services to its present form? Second, how did the Church of God community as a whole decide on its present format of church services?]
Yesterday while we at dinner with a friend, my mother talked about an intriguing Feast of Tabernacles story from last year, when she went to Tobago with my stepfather for a joint Feast between our church, the United Church of God, and Church of God Ministries (which I do not know much about, but is apparently based out of Louisiana ). My mother mentioned a few matters of the Feast there that were of interest. One of them was the fact that they sung a lot of hymns, about double the normal we have. The other subject of interest, though, is something I would like to discuss today, and that is the structure of services.
Normally, liturgy is not a subject of particular interest on this blog. There are people who write often and think often about such matters, but I have never been in the position where that was especially a concern. While I am not sure about the practice of other churches, when I was a student at the Ambassador Bible Center in 2004 I took the opportunity to attend a talk on liturgy from the fellow who was in charge of Ministerial Services at the time. He was a bit surprised to see me there, considering few people have any interest in looking at the subject whatsoever, but I was intrigued by the little black book that elders had which discussed the various proper forms for funerals and the baptism and laying on of hands, and marriages. I was the only person in the room that did not have a copy of that particular booklet, which is given to the elders for them to undertake their duties, but from what was discussed I gathered the contents of the book at least in a broad sense.
Among the matters of liturgy discussed there is the format of church services. I have had the chance to witness a few different variations of the accepted forms of services. There are actually five types of these service forms that I can remember having been a part of, as a witness and often a participant. The most common type is the sermonette + sermon format. Then there are the two split sermons format and the Bible Study format with a break but no sermonette, which are at least common enough that most people have seen those. As a result of being a part of congregations that were a bit more flexible than usual, I have seen two additional formats where the sermonette time was replaced by a long musical program (a selection of songs from Mendehlsson’s Elijah) and by a play that I helped write and perform by the children, teens, and a few younger adults of one of the congregations where I once attended. What the three most common of those formats have in common as it relates to liturgy is that they begin with the congregation singing three hymns and then the giving of an opening prayer.
What the Church of God Ministries did differently in this regard is to have the opening prayer at the beginning of services, and then the opening hymns afterwards. What this does that is of interest is that it gives the services the structure of a chiasm (which occurs frequently in scripture ), where the same elements are present at the beginning and end of a message, with other elements that repeat. If we wanted to name the elements of services where the prayer was labeled as A, the music service as B (whether special music or sung by the congregation as a whole), and where a given message was labeled as C, with announcements as D, the structure of the traditional services we are used to would look like this:
B1 – A1 – C1 – B2 – D – B3 – C2 – B4 – A2
In contrast, the format used at the Feast of Tabernacles last year looked like this:
A1 – B1 – C1 – B2 – D – B3 – C2 – B4 – A2
As might be imagined, this second form is much more balanced from a structural point of view. All of the other elements of the message are bookended by the opening and closing prayers, which mark a clear boundary between the elements of the service and the rest of the day. Likewise, there is no question in the mind of some about whether or not the opening three hymns (or however many are sung) are a part of the service or not. Here they are clearly marked as being within the service by being after the opening prayer. Likewise, there is no question for those who are milling about or talking that services are about to begin, as the opening hymns do not act as a warm-up act for people to finish getting to their seats or for late people to arrive somewhat incognito, but are clearly integral and full parts of the church services. In so doing, perhaps it would become a custom for the opening prayer to bless the speaking and listening as well as the singing, pointing out the involvement of the entire congregation in the services.
There are at least a few unanswered questions I have as of yet that will require future investigation. For one, how is it that this particular Church of God organization made a conscious effort to change the usual liturgy? This decision was not an automatic one, but it was one that apparently was made after considerable thought and (hopefully) discussion. Liturgy is a matter of tradition and comfort far more than it is a matter of scripture, yet there are people who tend to get very worked up over such matters despite the fact that they involve habit rather than belief. There is a reason, for example, that the long song program or play program are so unusual, and that is because we are all creatures of habit and like things to remain as they are without a great deal of change. Even if a change is more rational, there are many who will prefer the old ways to the most logical or best ways simply because they are old ways.
The second question is equally mysterious to the first, if not more so, and this is: how did our liturgy for the church services come to be in the first place? When was this decision made, and who made it? Was it an original decision made by someone (likely Herbert W. Armstrong) towards the early days of the Radio Church of God after thought and reflection, or was the decision made to copy how services were held by others? These are all questions that, at least to me, remain unknown, not least because such arcane matters as the format for church services are not the sort of material that made it into any of the books I have ever read by him (his autobiography would have been the most obvious one). Clearly, by the time there was an organized ministry, the matter would have been decided (no later than the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, if not before then), but it was clearly not a matter that has attracted a great deal of attention either at the time or since then, possibly because so few people even think about such matters, much less analyze them.
Liturgical matters, like the format of church services, are not a matter of doctrine as much as they are a matter of habit and tradition. If the Bible does not spell out areas that everyone agrees to be matters of great importance, like the structure of church organization, the format of church services is an even more arcane area of the format of services, of which there must have been considerable flexibility in the early Church of God, along with (one would presume) a certain amount of influence from the synagogue and other models around them. Paul was very clear that church affairs should be handled decently and in order (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 14:40 and its surrounding context), but considerable latitude appears to be given about the nature of the order that was to be found from congregation to congregation.
Given that we are creatures of habit, though, the earliest habits that we form tend to be the most enduring ones. At times, these can be matters of preference that are not of any great importance in the grand scheme of things. That said, these matters can be the source of a great deal of conflict with others. When I was in Family Club in Tampa, for example, I gave a speech about the correct way to fold a towel, and it made some of the people there laugh who knew some of my family members and how fussy they were about something that is not important at all. Compared to folding a towel, the format of church services is a more important matter by far, although it too is a matter of the same kind, where we have our own preferences and our own habits that we have often uncritically taken from others and done the same way over and over again without a lot of thought and reflection. It is not my intention to criticize the way that people do things, merely to seek the reasons why we chose to do them in the first place, and to at least examine the larger message we are giving about the importance of matters of worship practice. Honoring God is a serious matter, too serious to be left to blind adherence to habits simply because we are used to doing things that way, without ever thinking of the repercussions of those decisions or the reasons why we do things the way we do, and on what authority we do them.
 See, for example: