Ngoma: Tool for Contextualization or Pathway to Syncretism

In African cultures, music is much more than entertainment. Rather than in the West, where music can be more of a commodity to be traded or a soundtrack to our daily events, in African cultures the making of music shapes community.[1]When encountering unique cultures, Christian missionaries generally seek to contextualize the means by which the gospel is shared and the way in which individuals learn to worship Christ. Goals of contextualization seek to maximize understanding of the gospel by matching worship expressions to a culture’s way of life. In several African cultures, music making and other significant parts of their lives involve something called ngoma.What is ngoma? Ngoma is many things: a drum, a means of making music, the experience of music, even the title of a United Methodist Hymnal.[2]Patrick Matsikenyiri wrote, “Music – singing, dancing, playing drums – is a metaphor for and a means of ngoma.”[3]To Swahili speakers, ngomasimultaneously embodies the synergy of music and dance.[4]Illinois Wesleyan University Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Gearhart describes how ngomahas the “capacity to blur distinctions between categories of people and ideas.”[5]Ngomais also recognized as a performance of music for the purposes of ritual healing.”[6]These healing rituals frequently involve combining aspects of Christian worship with indigenous African spiritual practices; often this process leads to syncretism.

Thesis and Methodology

A primary concern in contextualizing the gospel to any specific culture is the issue of syncretism. Syncretism represents a state of contextualization where the amount of non-Christian or pre-Christian culture embraced causes the Gospel to be either significantly watered down or added to – something Scripture expressly forbids.[7]In this paper, I will examine case studies involving ngomaand songs used by African Christians that exemplify ngoma, all with the intent of more clearly defining the nature of this cultural marker. In my exploration, I will attempt to determine if ngomashould be used in African expressions of Christian worship and if so, to what degree. Within my conclusions, I will also attempt to connect issues of ngomainvolving contextualization and syncretism to worship style concerns of many North American churches.

Patrick Matsikenyiri, Zimbabwe, and Ngoma

Michael Hawn’s book, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally, thoroughly orients Westerners to ngoma. Hawn points out that the Shona-English Dictionary defines ngomaas “drum.”[8]Hawn goes on to suggest ngomabe “thought of as an active process of experiencing drumming, playing drums, or dancing to drums as well as the name of the artifact.”[9]  Patrick Matsikenyiri (b. 1937), a pivotal character in Western introduction to ngoma, is the subject of an entire chapter in Hawn’s book, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally.[10]Within these forty-one pages, Hawn chronicles the story of how Matsikenyiri’s life and influence helped shape Zimbabwe and impact Western understanding of the indigenous song and culture of Matsikenyiri’s native land. Throughout his life, Matsikenyiri served as a church leader, school headmaster, District lay leader and secretary of the United Methodist Church, preacher, and music leader.[11]  Matsikenyiri’s life experiences acquaint Western Christians with the cultural dynamics and challenges of African Christianity, including contextualization and syncretism. Matsikenyiri’s story also places these two paradigms squarely at the intersection of ngoma.

While serving as a missionary for the United Methodist Church, Robert Kauffman traveled to Africa in order to study indigenous music. After focusing his efforts on Zimbabwe, Kauffman’s primary role turned to analyzing local music for the ultimate purpose of assembling songs for contextualized worship material in a future hymnal to be entitled, Ngoma.[12]While working on this task, it became inevitable that Kauffman and Matsikenyiri would meet. As development of the United Methodist hymnal Ngomaproceeded, Matsikenyiri became Kauffman’s fellow musician and primary consultant. As he and Matsikenyiri attempted to balance contextualization and syncretism, Kauffman’s methods displayed a sensitivity towards methodological conservatism. One example of Kauffman’s conservatism came through “sometimes fitting biblical texts to existing traditional tunes or composing original church music in modified traditional styles.”[13]Church of Sweden missionary Olaf Axelsson, close friend of Matsikenyiri, noted that Kauffman’s method for developing African worship music included the intent to “modify the traditional musical styles and forms to some degree ‘in order to get away from the accusations of being too traditional…being diplomatic so that the new music wouldn’t indicate too much of the traditional African worship.’”[14]In contrast to the more progressive contextualization of worship music championed by Vatican II Catholic missionaries, Kauffman’s work with Matsikenyiri remained more aware of pitfalls that could lead to syncretism.

Kauffman may have staunchly guarded the use of worship music in areas that blurred the lines between faith and culture, but Kauffman was not African. As opposed to the West, where musical expressions of worship are traditionally kept within the bounds of liturgy, the same cannot be said in Africa. African folklorist and author Maurice Taonezvi Vambe notes that in African music, “nation and narration not only implicate the genre of song; songs discuss varying levels of politics and nationalism.”[15]During Patrick Matsikenyiri’s life, political upheaval and cultural turmoil in Zimbabwe (indeed much of Africa) demanded a central place in the lives of every person. Rev. Canaan Banana, a minister and leader in Zimbabwe’s liberation movement who later became Zimbabwe’s first majority-rule president in 1980,[16]sought Matsikenyiri’s help because of Matsikenyiri’s reputation among Christians in his country as a strong musician and worship leader.[17]By helping Banana fit a Ndebele text to a traditional wedding tune, Matsikenyiri “placed the liberation struggle within a spiritual context” and displayed his willingness to use music within the context of worship and for the promotion of a political/cultural agenda. Though the song appears to have no title as such, this translation of the lyrics clearly demonstrates their duality of purpose and their place within the ngoma spectrum between contextualization and syncretism:[18]

The blood of the Lamb                                                          

We are experiencing hardship

He, he, a helehe (exclamation of hope and promised victory)

The blood of the Lamb is powerful

The body of the Lord

We are experiencing hardship

He, he, a helele (an exclamation of hope and promised victory)

The body of the Lord is powerful.

Michael Hawn reports that this song, in addition to still being popular in church worship and the wider culture, was also adapted by Christians in South Africa and used in their struggle against apartheid. The South African adaptation of Matsikenyiri’s song is an even better example of how contextualization of worship music can push the lines of syncretism:[19]

Be still O nation, don’t cry

Your God

Will fight for you


Freedom, we will get it

Your God

Will fight for you


Be still O nation, don’t cry

Mandela, our hero

is going to fight for us.

Although texts in African cultures can appear simple, Hawn points out that they also carry “layers of meaning and significance.”[20]Matsikenyiri’s and Banana’s song demonstrates the ability of some worship songs to push the boundaries of syncretism by functioning both within liturgy and, in this case, by their ability to “sanctify the political struggle for independence.”[21] 

Ngoma in the Contextualized Worship Songs of Matsikenyiri

As Michael Hawn advanced his research into ngoma and its influence on the contextualized worship music of certain African cultures, he examined songs recommended by Patrick Matsikenyiri. One of these songs is entitled, “Jesu tawa pano”(Jesus, We Are Here). Hawn describes this song as having “a proverbial quality to it” because this colloquialism is common in many Shona Methodist worship services.[22]Hawn point out that the use of “we” rather than “I” or “me” attests to the entire community’s role in the spiritual health of everyone who worships.[23]One of the most significant meanings of this song for the Shona people is that Jesus is the n’anga, or healer.[24]In a culture that reveres ancestors, Christ’s role as mediator between God and people suggest to African worshipers that Jesus is their ancestor. Hawn explains, “Christ is an ancestor to humanity as a brother through the line of Adam. As Christ is one with Mwari(God), he carries supernatural status and functions as an intercessor (mediator) for African Christians. Through prayer we enter into dialogue with this most important of ancestors.”[25]Jesu tawa pano”embraces ngomain a way that is similar to the story of the Apostle Paul using the altar to an Unknown God in Athens as a cultural doorway to sharing Jesus (Acts 17:22-31).  “Jesu tawa pano”uses ngomato turn worshipers’ hearts toward Jesus Christ.

Iropa(By the Blood) is a song that bases itself, like many songs in the Shona language repertoire, on a cyclical structure.[26]The cycle begins when the congregation sings “regwayana” or “we are saved.” Next the lead singer inserts the lyric, “Iropa” (by the blood) before the congregation repeats “regwayana.” The cycle of the full statement is complete when the words “By the blood (of Christ) we are saved”[27]are sung. Cycles two and three declare that because of the blood of Christ, believers have been saved by “God’s grace” and that “we have ALL been saved.”[28]Patrick Matsikenyiri testified that this song reminded him of his encounters with rebel guerrillas and Rhodesian troops – that God had delivered him from violence and death because of his grace demonstrated through the blood of Jesus. African theologian and the first freely elected leader of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, points out that because so many Africans have experiences similar to Matsikenyiri, songs of ngoma, like Iropa, can frequently seem to take on political air.[29]Does this use of ngomacross the line from contextualization to syncretism? According to Hawn’s perspective, many African Christians would not believe so. Though this may seem inappropriate to Westerners, African cultures are accustomed to remembering God’s mighty acts of salvation and grace, even in the turmoil of political upheaval.

Matsikenyiri’s African Praise Songbookdisplays significant liturgical characteristics in the worship song, Uyai mweya wakachna (Come, Holy Spirit).[30]This song takes the structure of a collect, a worship element commonly found in liturgically-styled worship services. The collect’s structure normally follows this order:

  1. Invoking God
  2. Recalling the witnesses of God
  3. Making petition through Jesus
  4. Giving the reason for the petition

Traditional African religion ties people’s hopes to their ancestors. Hawn notes that in some African cultures, ancestors have been called the “living dead.”[31]As the Uyai mweya wakachnamentions the “heirs of old,” African believers remember many who have gone before them in the faith. Musically, this hymn is a combination of both Western and African forms. In Uyai mweya wakachna,a soloist sings the verses while the congregation sings a complimentary part. The congregation’s part sometimes moves in homophony with the soloist but sometimes in harmony – while displaying its own distinct rhythm.[32]The stanzas are similar to a Western hymn; each stanza paired with a refrain in a manner similar to a Western Christian gospel song. Interestingly, the congregation’s part, seems very similar to traditional African music, displaying overlapping phrases and cyclical form.[33]Matsikenyiri’s contextualization has taken special efforts to sensitively employ ngomaby combining African musical features and the cultural awareness to those gone before us with a distinctly Christian structure of a collect. This song seems to epitomize the best uses of ngomawhile staying well away from the downfall of syncretism.

Ritualistic Healing and Ngoma’s Ontological Tipping Point

I have sought to demonstrate how within some cultures of central and southern Africa, ngomafunctions as an agent for the contextualization of Christian liturgy and in some cultures as a catalyst for the sanctification of a political struggle for independence. Ethnomusicologists Carol A. Campbell and Carol M. Eastman observed that in the Swahili language culture of Kenya, ngomais “closely linked both in song-context and dance-form to Swahili social structure.”[34]In this close link to indigenous social structure, Ngomacan also carry a strong connection with ritual healing. Singing and drum playing for the purposes of ritual healing have deep roots in many African cultures. In his book, Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa,[35]John M. Janzen shares research that indicates ngomameans both “performances of drumming, dancing, and celebration as well as ritual therapy”[36]In addition to personal well-being, most African concepts of health include an understanding of and desire for health in the community, society, and natural order.[37]Relating Janzen’s research, Michael Hawn points out that “ngomarituals are often a synthesis of traditional and Christian religious perspectives, as well as multilingual manifestations.”[38]Hawn continues, writing that the African concept of healing goes deeper than in most Western settings – sometimes it is through this “deeper” movement that ngomarituals can slide beyond Christianity, producing unwanted syncretism.

An example of this sort of syncretism may be found among the Zulu people of South Africa, where there are two distinctive types of people who employ the principles and practice of ngomain order to restore people and community to health; they are the izinyanga(doctors) and theizangoma (diviners).[39]As you can see, within the name izangoma, is the word ngoma. While “technical versatility on the drum, is not considered as crucial as the izangoma’s good will and willingness to serve,” the role of the izangomachiefly involves “functioning as a mediator between the living and the ‘living dead,’ (ancestors) – which is primarily a religious role.”[40]The methods and role of the izangomaas traditional healers can become easily confused with a Christian pastor’s role in spiritual healing and congregational song – ontologically tipping ngomafrom the realm of contextualization into undesirable syncretism. Though this specific example comes from the Zulu people of South Africa, similarities exist involving ancestor worship across various African cultures, making this particular concern one that could reveal itself in a number of other contexts.

Case Studies Involving Ngoma

Another milieu in which the nature of ngoma may be investigated is in case studies provided by members of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists. ICE explains that their vision for the future includes “communities of Jesus followers in every culture engaging with God and the world through their own artistic expressions” while offering “networking, training, and resources for the flourishing of biblical and culturally appropriate arts.”[41]ICE member Greg Kernaghan tells of a trip to Mozambique where he found believers gathered under a mango tree.[42]After the morning worship and a sermon lasting forty minutes, the group sat down for lunch. One of the pastors stood up and began to sing out in a call and response style while the others responded in harmony. Because this was an oral culture, the spontaneous singing intended to review the sermon they had heard and weave its content into a memorable song so that the people could continue to meditate on the teaching and share it with others. As with all music in Africa, the song included clapping, stepping, and other kinesthetic response. Ngomawas surely present because Kernaghan’s story included the experience of music, dancing, and spiritual healing. Although means of cultural expression also used for indigenous religion had been employed, the gospel seems to have been properly contextualized without falling into syncretism – because the focus was always on God’s Word. Ngomafunctioned in this instance as a method for group meditation on the preached Word.

Another ICE representative, Roberta King, shares a story about an interaction between Western missionaries and African Christians.[43]In King’s account, Western missionaries uncomfortably join in the corporate worship of a group of African believers. Due to the full-body posture involvement and physical expressions that the missionaries were not used to in their own worship, the Westerners refrained from joining the congregation. According to King, the missionaries were unaware that their response in worship (or lack thereof) demonstrated to the Africans that they “have sin in their lives.”[44]Was ngomapresent in this story? There is no clear evidence of ngoma, but there is clear evidence of the importance of contextualization – especially when it comes to individual response and participation in worship.

Julie Taylor, a consultant and coordinator of anthropology and ethnomusicology and the arts for SIL International in Africa (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc), has labored to aid contextualization of the gospel through native art forms. Taylor shares an anecdote concerning the intersection of traditional African culture with music of the West by introducing a Sabaot language musician in Kenya named Patrick Mang’esoy.[45]Mang’esoy taught himself to play a native Sabaot stringed instrument called thebukantiit. During his undergraduate degree in Language Studies at the Pan African Christian University of Nairobi, Mang’esoy studied the biblical Psalms. Mang’esoy came to realize that if the Israelites praised God with all of the instruments they had on hand and their praise was acceptable to God, then playing his bukantiitwould also be acceptable.[46]One day while carrying his bukantiitto an interview, someone on the street asked him why he carried his native instrument rather than a guitar. Mang’esoy’s response is a poignant commentary on the need for contextualization without fear of using traditional musical instruments like the bukantiit:

“‘The bukantiit speaks my language. I am a Sabaot and will never claim to be a foreigner, so why should I reject what speaks to me?’ Such an instrument has nothing to do with evil or being primitive, but it is a way to deliver God’s message for my people. The guitar does not fit the natural way of speaking for us.”[47]

Taylor recounts that when Western hymnody was originally introduced to Kenya, hymns were plagued by poorly translated texts and by melodies that were awkwardly “overlaid” with the Swahili language and wrongly “believed to be well understood through Kenya.”[48]As native musicians like Mang’esoy have assimilated their indigenous musical styles into worship songs, qualities of Ngomawithin their cultural expressions have proved to assist in the transmission of the gospel.

Though Western missionaries do not always pass the test when it comes to contextualization, respect and affection can go a long way towards a positive reception of the gospel. ICE representative Brain Schrag tells of an experience he had in the Democratic Republic of Congo.[49]Schrag recounts that his family and he had invested in a Bible translating project for the Mono language people. During his time among the Mono people, Schrag learned a Mono language song and how to accompany himself on a native harp. One year later, Schrag returned to meet with other missionaries and pastors to follow-up with the results of his family’s work. The trip was stalled by a rotting wooden bridge which forced them to take a twelve mile walk to the group’s destination. Along the way Schrag was continually met by people who ran to him, shaking his hand, and asking him to play and sing the song he had learned one year earlier. Schrag responded kindly each time by playing and singing. After finally arriving at the meeting, Schrag was nominated for a position that he was clearly unqualified to hold – mostly due to the affection which the Mono people for him. Ultimately Schrag was not elected, but the lesson was learned. Schrag’s willingness to love and respect the Mono people through the use of one of their cultural expressions was reciprocated. The reciprocal love between Schrag and the Mono people enabled the gospel to spread. Was ngomapresent in this story? As with Roberta King’s account, the presence of ngomais not clear. Even without positively identifying ngomain this story, proof becomes evident that there is much to be gained through demonstrating love and respect towards people of all cultures. Christians should not fear potential syncretism associated with ngomato the point that they fail to witness.

Ngoma in Contemporary Culture

Though examples of ngomaare clearly found within the documentation of scholars like Michael Hawn, Roberta King, Brian Schrag, and Greg Kernaghan, more contemporary examples of ngomacan be discovered. Some of the more interesting contemporary uses of ngomacan be found within the music of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. As in the West, African churches find the emotional appeal of worship containing these qualities significant. Jean Ngoya Kidula describes such a worship event in his article on singing and dancing within Pentecostal churches of Nairobi, Kenya.[50]Kidula describes the plans for a Pentecostal worship service:

Pastor White had declared that he would not preach at the service; rather, he wanted the songs to speak to the people. On the day of the event, the choir sat onstage. We had decided that we would only stand to “perform” the completely new songs. However, as soon as we started a known choir song, some members of the congregation stood up and began to sing along or even pray aloud. The choir members immediately responded by standing, and soon everyone would be up, singing from the lyric sheets that we had printed out. It was not long before Pastor White began to exhort, encourage, challenge, and evangelize the audience. What had begun as a song service, turned into a meeting that included prayers, altar calls, the laying on of hands for healing, and a celebration of praise. I was initially told the service would last an hour. Two and a half hours later we dismissed the congregation because it was getting late and sometimes dangerous after dark.[51]

The emotional lures of Pentecostal worship proved to be unstoppable for Pastor White and his congregation. Later in his chapter, Kidula describes the qualities of African Pentecostal worship that shaped the church service – qualities that display strong identifying qualities to ngoma. Kidula writes that worship in the Kenyan Church of God, songs “function as a rhythmic tom-tom like noise for the inducing of the desired ecstasy…the Spirit moved some to dance; others to speak in unknown tongues, to jerk, or to fall in a dead trance.”[52]The resemblance between this Kenyan Pentecostal church’s adoption of ngomaand ngoma’s use by Traditional African healing dances is remarkable. Has this particular Kenyan congregation made an appropriate use of contextualization in its handling of ngomafor the worship of God and transmission of the gospel? Or does this account demonstrate a well-intentioned attempt at contextualization that fell, sadly, into syncretism?

Another example of ngoma’s use in modern African Christianity can be recognized in the videos and music of a group named “Gospel Ngoma.” The music group, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, modestly identify themselves on their Facebook page as, “Africa’s Leading Christian and Gospel Music Group. Praise, Worship and Godly Dance. Leader Groupe Africain de Musique Chretienne. Louange, Adoration, Dance Divine.”[53]Though Gospel Ngoma’s music can be purchased on iTunes, CD Baby, and Amazon Music, watching the group’s videos on YouTube may provide one of the best ways to understand their music and their use of ngoma. Gospel Ngoma’s music stylistically represents a fusion of physical Pentecostal worship expression, celebrative music, and African ritualistic dance – all while projecting an expectation of deliverance and healing. These qualities, which are evident in all of their music, display themselves fully in the song, “Dance for God – Heaven Shake.”[54]During the nearly six and a-half minute song, up-beat, festive instrumental music plays, and a variety of people dance. It is worth noting that the majority of this song employs instrumental music only – without singing. From early church times of the Greco-Roman period, Christians have expressed concern that instrumental music could import elements “into the worship music that might evoke pagan rituals or entertainments.”[55]

Another one of ngoma’s unique song components involves the use of verbal art forms that, when performed, are accompanied by instrumental music.[56]During the Gospel-Ngoma video, the camera’s focus cuts from dancing group to dancing group while the listener is exhorted by an unseen voice performing spoken words while accompanied by instrumental music. The unseen voice also employs a tone reminiscent of African-American preachers. This type of vocal tone reflects a parallel noticed by Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid. Maynard-Reid draws attention to the similarities between African-American preachers and the African priest/medicine man.[57]These vocal similarities help a preacher benefit from cultural connections to ngoma and help legitimize the preacher’s role as trusted spiritual leader, healer, and guide. Gospel Ngoma also exploits these vocal qualities in their song.

The words of the speaker/preacher begin by encouraging the viewer/listener to praise God. The speaker’s words also testify to his desire to praise God:

“God of love, when I think of your goodness. When I think of your mercy and grace, when I think of the price Jesus paid for me, I want to praise you – let’s stand up, let’s praise God! Let’s dance with our God in mind! Alleluia!”

Hey, I feel like I want to dance! Hey, I feel like I want to dance! I feel like I want to dance for the Lord!

Next, the tempo speeds up and the dancing becomes even more expressive. The lyrics also change. The leader then encourages the dancing worshipers:

“Shake heaven with your praise! Shake, shake, shake! Shake heaven with your praise! Hallelujah!

The lyrics promise that a benefit will be gained by “shaking heaven with our praise:”

God has blest us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places. Let’s pull them down! Pull down your blessings! Pull down your anointing! Pull down your redemption!

All treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus – the Word of God.

Let’s dig it – dig the Word of God. Are you looking for treasure? Dig it!  

Is there anything like a wall blocking your blessings? Surround them with praises, surround it with prayers. Declare the Word of God and the wall must come down! In the name of Jesus, the wall must come down! In the name of Jesus all knees shall bow!”

A series of non-lexical tones are then sung and chanted, followed by several of the previous lyrics. Though these lyrics may not express doctrine or theology this is considerably different from many Pentecostal congregations in the West. Within the context of many African cultures, the lyrics may produce a syncretistic result. In some African cultures, when lyrics like these are combined with dance and accompanied by the instruction that dancing will elicit healing from God, then the ngomaconnections to traditional ritualistic dance reveal themselves. Have the cultural foundations of spirit-healing dance and traditional tribal religion become an influence on African Christianity? The evidence portrayed in the music and videos from Gospel Ngoma seems to demonstrate this reality.

Syncretism: The Greatest Fear from Ngoma

Traditional African ritualistic dance can easily lead to syncretism because of its centuries-old use as a means of appeasing spirits. Traditional African religion understands that spirits roam unseen in every corner of every land. Spirits may bless your or cast pain and sorrow on your life, therefore these spirits must be appeased.[58]Spirits come in different types. Some spirits are ancestors and the ancestor’s spirits are delineated into three subgroups; Ngoma cia aciari(the spirits of the father and mother), Ngoma chia moherega, and Ngoma cia riika.[59]It is noteworthy that the word ngomais featured in the names of each subgroup of ancestors. In his article, “Unapproachable God: The High God of African Traditional Religion,”Tokunboh Adeyemo writes that “For the traditional African, ‘religion begins not with a belief in God but with an emotional opposition to removable evils.’”[60]The removable evils Adeyemo describes mostly involve the divinities. The divinities are lower-level spirits who need to be appeased or removed – similar to Greek gods and goddesses. Finally, Africans believe in the Supreme Deity. The Supreme Deity is the creator and head of the spiritual realm. In traditional African religion, the Supreme Deity is far away and does not care much for the affairs of people. According to Edward John Osei-Bonsu, a person’s ability to perceive these spirits and potentially deal with them comes through the services of a spiritual healer providing mediation of the spirits and guidance using “rituals, customs, and ceremonial observances” that are conspicuously related to ngoma.[61]

Osei-Bonsu distinguishes African Traditional Religion from African Indigenous Religion.[62]According to Osei-Bonsu, Traditional religion is clearly not Christian. Those who practice Traditional African religion possess an understanding that many Africans have recognized for millennia, that spirits are everywhere, and the medicine man is the spiritual leader who will help you navigate and appease them. Traditional religion threatens Christianity less than Indigenous African religion. African Indigenous religion’s adherents believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.[63]Unfortunately, African Indigenous religion is the epitome of a syncretistic spirituality, specifically because it does accept major facets of Christianity. The problem lies in African Indigenous religion’s equal acceptance of Christianity and Tradition African religion. This melting pot approach to spirituality is expressly forbidden by the Apostle John in Revelation 22:18-19:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

If Christians purposefully borrow or unwittingly dabble too much in areas fully claimed by culture as belonging to the false traditional spirits (ngoma), then the gospel becomes confused or blended into meaningless ritual. Without Godly vigilance Ngomaworship practices meant to bring people close to God can end up eroding their faith from within.

Ngoma free from Syncretism?

The syncretistic cultural aspects ofNgomacan be recognized and avoided. James R. Krabill provides what may represent the first historical example of this sort of indigenous orthodoxy when he recounts the life of Ntsikana, someone Krabill identifies as “the first great Xhosa hymn writer.”[64]Krabill documents Ntsikana (1780-1821 ca) as one of the “first converts to Christianity among the Xhosa speaking people of southern Africa.”[65]Krabill deduces that Ntsikana first heard the gospel from London Missionary Society missionary, Dr. J. T. van der Kemp between 1799 and 1801.[66]Fifteen years later, Ntsikana was impacted through his participation in Bible study and worship with the LMS missionary, Rev. Joseph Williams.[67]Because Ntsikana’s interaction with missionaries was so limited, many Xhosa Christians believe that Ntsikana’s faith came directly from God. This reputation is bolstered by a story shared by Krabill concerning Ntsikana’s rejection of ngoma:

“Ntsikana reportedly saw a bright light strike his favorite ox. Later that same day he was prevented from participating in a neighbor’s festive party when a whirlwind blew up out of nowhere, requiring guests to abandon their dancing. Sensing that the Holy Spirit had entered him Ntsikana ordered his family away from their dancing, quickly took them home, and declared ‘People should pray [rather than dance]!’”[68]

Krabill relates that in the days following this experience, Ntsikana could be heard humming chant-like tunes that he claimed he was receiving from the Holy Spirit. When similarly-inspired texts were added, these songs became the basis for an indigenous regional song bank used by Xhosa speaking Christians.[69]The words of one of Ntsikana’s hymns, described as his ‘great hymn, is particularly poignant:

The Great God, he is in the heavens.

You are you, Shield of truth.

You are you, Stronghold of life.

The life and ministry of Ntsikana demonstrate how worship can be contextualized without digressing toward syncretism.

Roberta R. King provides additional practical ideas for musical contextualization that missionaries and worship leaders can employ to keep their worship from sliding toward syncretism. King advocates recognizing and respecting individuals or groups receiving the music being created.[70]King believes using cultural music constitutes “a crucial step toward understanding their significance for the life of the church” without leading toward syncretism.[71]To this end, King suggests involvement in musical performances with indigenous people.[72]King teaches that “music as a phenomenon is universal; its meaning is not.”[73]Recognizing the activity of making music as being one that holds a unique power to bring people together, King encourages missionaries to leverage this powerful quality of music for the spreading of the gospel. King believes the process of making music holds a natural ability to contextualize the gospel, leading King to posit her most significant idea, that “musical meaning lies within the receptor.”[74]Relying on an anecdote involving a song-writing workshop among the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast, King addresses questions that were posed by the participants. The group’s questions hold significant implications for the use of ngoma. According to King, creators of contextualized music must use a “theology of music-in-context.”[75]King explains this idea by describing how she and her team assisted the Senufo artists to think biblically and theologically through the lyrics of their songs with the express purpose of keeping their music from falling into syncretism. King’s suggestions serve as a poignant set of guidelines for both missionaries and domestic Western church planters hoping to contextualize the gospel in order to reach the lost while not crossing an invisible line into syncretistic activity.


When does contextualization become syncretism? I believe the answer was found within the case study of ICE representative Greg Kernaghan’s observation of worshipers in Mozambique.[76]Singing, clapping, and dancing were all employed in a religious and spiritually healing experience that indicated the presence of ngoma. In this instance, the use of ngomawas directed by Scripture and the preached Word. Worshipers were using culturally appropriate means (ngoma) as a tool for worship and meditation on the gospel. If a line in the sand exists delineating a clear separation between contextualization and syncretistic worship, that line appears to be found in the direct application of Scripture.

In Africa, the potential of worship slipping into syncretistic practice through the appropriation of indigenous or popular styles may seem a much greater danger than in the West – but is it greater? Especially since the advent of modern/contemporary worship, many North American churches might ponder when culturally sensitive artistic expressions depart from the realm of worship and enter the arena of entertainment? Does the use of popular forms of entertainment in Western evangelical worship represent our own fall into syncretistic ritual – if Scripture is not employed as the center and source for our worship activity, then perhaps in some cases, it does.

In this paper, I have examined case studies involving ngomaalong with songs and videos used by African Christians exemplifying the use of ngoma. I have explored historical and modern expressions of ngoma, more clearly defining the nature of this cultural phenomenon. I have discovered evidence that ngomais currently used and should continue to be used in African expressions of Christian worship – with the key caveat that worship maintains the centrality of Scripture. My research indicates that without maintaining the purposeful primacy of the gospel, cultural expressions of worship have a great tendency to devolve into syncretistic ritual that endangers the eternal souls of its participants. Discussions concerning ngoma,contextualization, and syncretism should not be bound to African or world culture contexts. My research in preparing this paper leads me to realize another application of ngomafor the worship style concerns of North American churches. By examining ngoma’srole as the ontological tipping point between contextualization and syncretism, North American churches can plainly observe the need to focus worship on Scripture and retelling the gospel story. Western evangelicalism must learn from ngomathat reaching lost people with a culturally relevant gospel message can never assimilate so much cultural expression that the Word of God is diluted into entertaining and syncretistic programming.










Adeyemo, Tokunboh. “Unapproachable God: The High God of the African Traditional.” in The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God. Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer, 127-45. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Campbell, Carol A. and Carol M. Eastman. “Ngoma: Swahili Adult Song Performance in Context.” Ethnomusicology 28, no. 3, 467-931. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Park, 1984. doi:10.2307/851235.

Gearhart, Rebecca. “Ngoma Memories: How Ritual Music and Dance Shaped the Northern Kenya Coast.” African Studies Review 48, no. 3, 21–47. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Gospel Ngoma Facebook Page. Accessed February 22, 2019.

Gospel Ngoma, Andre. “Dance for God – Heaven Shake.” Filmed [April, 2013]. YouTube video, 6.22 Posted [April, 2013].

Hawn, C. Michael. Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

Hawn, C. Michael and Swee Hong Lim. “Cross-Cultural Communication Through Symbol.” inWorship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill, 129-43. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.

International Council of Ethnodoxologists. “Vision Statement.” Accessed February 22, 2019.

Janzen, John M. “Ngoma: Discourses in Healing in Central and Southern Africa.” American Ethnologist, 22, no. 4, 1086. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell 1995.

Kernaghan, Greg. “Turning Sermon Notes into Song.” in Worship and Mission for the Global

Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook.Edited by James R. Krabill, 216-17. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.

Kidula, Jean Ngoya. “Singing the Lord’s Song in the Spirit and with Understanding: The Practice of Nairobi Pentecostal Church.” in The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity. Edited by Monique M. Ingalls and Amos Young, 133-47. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

King, Roberta R. “Do They Have Sin?” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill, 184. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.

———. “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication: Lessons for the Church.” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill, 110-18. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.

Krabill, James R. “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill, 212-13. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Osei-Bonsu, Edward J. “The God above Tradition Who Speaks to All Traditions: An African (Ghanaian) Perspective.” in The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God. Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer, 146-65. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.

Schrag, Brian. “The Love Motive.” In Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill, 192-93. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013. Reprinted with permission. Original article was published under the title, “Why Local Arts Are Central to Mission,” in International Journal of Frontier Missiology24, no. 4 199-202, Winter 2007.

Taylor, Julie. “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities. Edited by Suzel Ana Reily and Jonathan M. Dueck, 88-89. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Vambe, Maurice Taonezvi. “Song, Narration and Nation in Africa.” Muziki: Journal of Music Research in Africa11, issue 1, 1-3. Cape Town, South Africa: University of South Africa Press, March 2014.

[1]C. Michael Hawn, Gather into One: Praying and Singing Globally(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 161.

[2]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

[3]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

            [4]Rebecca Gearhart, “Ngoma Memories: How Ritual Music and Dance Shaped the Northern Kenya Coast,” African Studies Review 48, no. 3 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 22.

            [5]Gearhart, “Ngoma Memories,” 22.

            [6]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

[7]Rev 22:18-9, ESV.

[8]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

[9]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

            [10]Hawn,Gather into One, 148-87.                       

            [11]Hawn, Gather into One, 154.

[12]Hawn,Gather into One, 155.

[13]Hawn,Gather into One, 156.

            [14]Hawn,Gather into One, 155.           

           [15]Maurice Taonezvi Vambe, “Song, Narration and Nation in Africa.” Muziki:  Journal of Music Research in Africa11, issue 1 (Cape Town, South Africa: University of South Africa Press, March 2014), 2.

[16]Hawn,Gather into One, 157.

[17]Hawn,Gather into One, 157.

            [18]Hawn,Gather into One, 158.

[19]Hawn,Gather into One, 158.

[20]Hawn,Gather into One, 162.

[21]Hawn,Gather into One, 162.

[22]Hawn, Gather into One, 175.

[23]Hawn,Gather into One, 175.

[24]Hawn,Gather into One, 175.

[25]Hawn,Gather into One, 175.

            [26]Hawn,Gather into One, 176.

            [27]Hawn,Gather into One, 176.

[28]Hawn,Gather into One, 162.

[29]Hawn,Gather into One, 1768.

[30]Hawn,Gather into One, 183.

[31]Hawn,Gather into One, 182.

[32]Hawn,Gather into One, 183.

[33]Hawn,Gather into One, 185.

[34]Carol A. Campbell and Carol M. Eastman, “Ngoma: Swahili Adult Song Performance in Context.” Ethnomusicology 28, no. 3 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Park, 1984), 467.

[35]John M. Janzen,“Ngoma: Discourses in Healing in Central and Southern Africa,” American Ethnologist, 22, no. 4, 1086 (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell 1995), 21.

            [36]Hawn,Gather into One, 164.

             [37]Hawn,Gather into One, 165.

[38]Hawn,Gather into One, 164-5.

[39]Hawn,Gather into One, 165.

[40]Hawn,Gather into One, 166.

[41]International Council of Ethnodoxologists, “Vision Statement,, accessed February 22, 2019.

[42]Greg Kernaghan, “Turning Sermon Notes into Song,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook,Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 216-7.

[43]B. E. Bharathi Nuthalapati, “The Gospel and Local Art Forms,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 184.

[44]Roberta R. King, “Do They Have Sin?” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook. Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 184.

[45]Julie Taylor, “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities. Edited by Suzel Ana Reily and Jonathan M. Dueck (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 88-9.

[46]Taylor, “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya,” 88-9.

[47]Taylor, “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya,” 89.

[48]Taylor, “Coexistence of Casual and Cultural Expressions of Musical Values Among the Sabaot of Kenya,” 85

[49]Brian Schrag, “The Love Motive,” In Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), Reprinted with permission. Original article was published under the title, “Why Local Arts Are Central to Mission,” in International Journal of Frontier Missiology24, no. 4 (Winter 2007), 212.

[50]Jean Ngoya Kidula, “Singing the Lord’s Song in the Spirit and with Understanding: The Practice of Nairobi Pentecostal Church,” in The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, Edited by Monique M. Ingalls and Amos Young (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), 135-6.

[51]Kidula, “Singing the Lord’s Song in the Spirit,” 135-6.

[52]Kidula, “Singing the Lord’s Song in the Spirit,” 143.

            [53]Gospel Ngoma Facebook page, Accessed February 22, 2019.

[54]Gospel Ngoma, Andre, “Dance for God – Heaven Shake,” Filmed [April, 2013], YouTube video, 6.22 Posted [April, 2013],

[55]C. Michael Hawn, and Swee Hong Lim, “Cross-Cultural Communication Through Symbol,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook, Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 133.

            [56]Campbell and Eastman, “Ngoma: Swahili Adult Song Performance in Context,” 468.

[57]Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 86-98.

[58]Tokunboh Adeyemo, “Unapproachable God: The High God of the African Traditional Religion,” in The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God,Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 127-45.

            [59]Adeyemo, “Unapproachable God,” 132-3.

            [60]Adeyemo, “Unapproachable God,” 130.

[61]Edward J. Osei-Bonsu, “The God above Tradition Who Speaks to All Traditions: An African (Ghanaian) Perspective,” in The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God, Edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 46-65.

            [62]Osei-Bonsu, “The God above Tradition Who Speaks to All Traditions,” 159-60.

[63]Osei-Bonsu, “The God above Tradition Who Speaks to All Traditions,” 159-60.

[64]James R. Krabill, “Ntsikana: The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook,Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 213-23.

[65]Krabill, “Ntsikana: The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 212.

[66]Krabill, “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 212.

[67]Krabill, “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 212.

[68]Krabill, “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 21

            [69]Krabill, “Ntsikana, The First Great Xhosa Hymn Writer,” 21

[70]Roberta R. King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication: Lessons for the Church,” in Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook,Edited by James R. Krabill (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013), 110.

[71]King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication,” 113.

[72]King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication,” 114.

[73]King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication,” 114.

[74]King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication,” 116.

[75]King, “Musical Bridges in Christian Communication,” 116.

[76]Kernaghan, “Turning Sermon Notes into Song,” 216-7.


The Lord’s Supper: Foundations and Practice in Puritan Liturgy

The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, and Communion: over the centuries these terms have been used by Christians to name one of the two most fundamental worship practices inherent to Christian identity. For the greater part of church history, as well as in many modern worshiping traditions, this practice forms the heart of Christian liturgy. But which one is it: The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or Communion?

The Lord’s Supper connotes the final Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples and was recorded in all four gospels. As Jesus shared the cup of wine and the bread, he gave new meaning to the covenant meal of the Exodus. Jesus told his disciples that as often as they would drink the cup and eat the bread it would be in remembrance of him.[1]In 1 Cor. 11:17-34, the Apostle Paul points to the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal helping the church remember Christ’s suffering and death. For churches that choose the focus of the Lord’s Supper, this crucial expression of worship becomes a time for congregational confession, repentance, and personal identification with Christ’s suffering.[2]

Eucharist is a word derived from the Greek eucharistiaand is also found in 1 Cor. 11:24.[3]Eucharistia means “thanksgiving,” and also contains roots of the words used for joy (chara) and grace (charis).”[4]Churches that choose to identify with the term eucharist focus on thanksgiving as a central part of their worship through Christ’s table.

The word communion comes from the King James Bible’s translation of the Greek word, koinonia.[5]In Acts 2:42, Luke uses this word to emphasize the fellowship found when Jesus’ disciples broke bread together.[6]Worship scholar Constance Cherry writes that the term communion conveys a deep since of togetherness around Christ’s table in the spirit of Eph. 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”[7]

For Puritans, worshiping around the Lord’s table was of crucial importance to communal and individual piety. Through which lens did the Puritans view this fundamental worship practice; Lord’s Supper, eucharist, or communion? Perhaps a case could be made that Puritan worship employed all three of these views in some form or fashion. However, through careful exploration, I hope to identify which of these positions most closely aligns with Puritan doctrine and practice.

Thesis and Methodology

In this paper, I will investigate the doctrines and worship practices defining Puritan understanding of the Christian covenant meal. I will demonstrate, that the Puritans employed the Lord’s Supper as their preferred model of Table worship. I will trace understanding of the Lord’s Supper from Scripture, to the early church, to Calvin’s Institutes, and finally to Puritan doctrine and liturgy. I will validate my thesis by consulting a number of primary and secondary sources.

The Last Supper and Early Christian Practice

When Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with the Apostles, he told them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”[8]“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”[9]The story of the Last Supper recounted in the gospels directed early Christians to “do this in remembrance”[10]of Jesus. The Apostle Paul uses words for Lord’s Supper (kuriakos deipnon) and the word for eucharist (eucharistia)when he instructs the Corinthian church concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:17-33.[11]

Apart from the teaching of the Apostle Paul, the Didacheis the earliest Christian teaching on the Lord’s Supper. The Didacheteaches Christians concerning the cup:

We give you thanks, our Father,

for the holy vine of David your servant,

which you have made known to us

through Jesus, your servant;

to you be the glory forever.[12]


And concerning the broken bread:

   We give you thanks, our Father,

    for the life and knowledge

    that you have made known to us

    through Jesus, your servant;

    to you be the glory forever.[13]

The Didache, displays similarities to scriptural texts in the way it guides Christian churches to employ the Lord’s Supper as a way to retell, remember, and rehearse the life, ministry, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Just after the Apostolic period, in approximately 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius giving a detailed description of the Lord’s Supper.[14]This letter, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, refers to the supper as eucharistiaor eucharist. Although Martyr uses the word translated as eucharist, he still stresses Christian worship and formation through remembrance as he cites the Gospel of Luke 22:19, “Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me. This is My body;’ and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is my blood;’ and gave it to them alone.”[15]Justin Martyr writes in his letter to the Emperor, that “no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”[16]It is clear from Martyr’s apology that the early church valued the Lord’s Supper as an instructive and formational liturgical practice, but the church also restricted those who participated as those who were baptized believing members. These two practices of keeping the Lord’s Supper in memory of Jesus and restricting those who participated to being baptized believers were values shared by Puritan Christians over thirteen hundred years later.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

The first generation of Protestant reformers produced three distinctly different positions on the Lord’s Supper. Motivated by the Reformation value of sola Scriptura, Martin Luther selectively changed the elements and order of the Roman mass.[17]While softening the Roman church’s understanding of transubstantiation to one of consubstantiation, Luther’s Table liturgy retained the lens of eucharist. Ulrich Zwingli chose a liturgical model consisting mostly of a sermon and prayers.[18]Zwingli unbendingly held the significance of Christ’s Table to one of strict remembrance with a frequency of observance occurring four times per year: Easter, Pentecost, Autumn, and Christmas.[19]Zwingli designed his worship liturgies exclusively according to what he observed in God’s Word with little in the way of aesthetic consideration.[20]John Calvin also focused his doctrine of Table worship on God’s Word, but he kept the basic liturgical contours of the Roman mass. Calvin could hold this position while simultaneously regulating his worship to practices found in Scripture because he “viewed the Word as more extensive than the sermon…borrowing from Augustine, he spoke of the Lord’s Supper as a ‘visible word…thus, in understanding Calvin’s thinking, it is a grave error to replace the primacy of the Word with the primacy of preaching.”[21]

Calvin understood worship as a continuation of the covenant relationship described in Scripture. To Calvin, covenantal worship always involves Word and sign. Calvin believed God “tempers himself to our capacity.”[22]Calvin understood that because God knows us better than we know ourselves, he “provides for the elect visible means to help them know God’s mercies.”[23]Calvin believed that the sacraments of Lord’s Supper and Baptism, “provided those visible signs of God’s love whereby God ‘imparts spiritual things under visible ones.”[24]For instance, Calvin taught that the Lord’s Supper, as sacrament, was a mandate from Christ and also served as a sign that seals God’s Word on the hearts of his elect. Not only did Calvin believe the sacraments were seals used to confirm the Word, Calvin taught that, as sacrament, the Lord’s Supper served as a “true visible representation of the invisible spiritual things to which the Word directs us.”[25]Calvin identifies an example of this concept in the book of Acts, chapter two. Calvin writes, “in God’s action there is a correspondence between the sign and the reality. When the Spirit was given to the Apostles they saw cloven tongues of fire ‘because the preaching of the gospel was to spread through all tongues and was to possess the power of fire.’”[26]

Calvin also knew that signs have limitations. Calvin taught that this limitation came in the sign’s need for connection to God’s Word. Calvin believed God’s revelation “never takes place without a word.[27]Calvin writes,

from the very beginning of the world, whenever God offered any sign to the holy patriarchs, it was inseparably attached to doctrine, without which our senses would gaze bewildered on an unmeaning object. Therefore, when we hear mention made of the sacramental word, let us understand the promise which, proclaimed aloud by the minister, leads the people by the hand to that to which the sign tends and directs us.[28]

While Covenantal worship always involves Word and sign – for Calvin, God’s Word always takes prominence. Signs are essentially aids helping humans in our efforts to comprehend the divine.[29]Pastor and author Ronald S. Wallace writes,

God, through the signs, seeks to give man something earthly to lay hold of with his mind, not in order that man may drag God downwards to become one standing on man’s own level but in order that God may, by thus getting hold of the perverse and sluggish mind of his creature, raise him up from the earthly world to the heavenly mystery, and deliver him from small self-centered conceptions by giving him truly God-centered conceptions.[30]

In Calvin’s Lord’s Supper, the table certainly functions as a sign, “which God ever commanded men to use, that he might make them sure and confident of the truth of his promises.”[31]However, Calvin also calls the Supper a sacred mystery that consists of corporeal signs and spiritual truth.[32]In partaking the Lord’s Supper, “a soul must partake of Christ truly and thoroughly, that by his energy it may grow up into spiritual life.”[33]Although Calvin calls the Lord’s Supper a sacrament, he does not believe the Lord’s Supper contributes towards one’s salvation, nor is the Supper Rome’s transubstantiation or Luther’s consubstantiation. Rather, the eating of Christ’s body in the Supper is “nothing else than the eating of faith, and that no other eating can be imagined.”[34]By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is truly present in the Supper, but his presence is spiritual; and Jesus’ spiritual presence is no less real or efficacious. Calvin describes how the Lord’s Supper, as a sacrament of the New Covenant, is a sign of union with the Body of Christ. Calvin believes the doctrine of union with Christ to be one of the most important for Christians that they may fully comprehend the faith, life, and ordinances of the church.[35]Calvin believes the natural mind cannot comprehend this mystery of the faith; spiritual communion with Christ through the Lord’s Supper is only possible for the elect who have the indwelling Holy Spirit to aid them.[36]

The concept of spiritual communion with Christ connects Calvin’s Table liturgy beyond the anamnesis of a memorial meal and into the realm of communion. Calvin explains that this connection to Christ is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.[37]Calvin confirms this by writing in his commentary on Ephesians, “God acts by the sign in such a manner, that its whole efficacy depends on His Spirit.”[38]Although Calvin does not agree with either transubstantiation or Luther’s consubstantiation, his concept of Holy Spirit-aided communion presents a true gift of Christ. Wallace comments, “the whole Christ is really given in the sacrament.”[39]In Institute Four, chapter 17, section 32, Calvin writes,

The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids men take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.[40]

Calvin redefines sacraments not as means to obtain God’s grace, i.e. works salvation, but as signs – covenantal evidence of God’s promises. In general, Calvin describes the limitations of signs through their lack of native power. Sacraments are not magic spells meant for mankind to wield, attempting to harness the power of deity. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, the grace Christians experience from this sacrament is truly a gift and a product of the Holy Spirit’s work.

For Calvin, the Christian’s ability to receive the Holy Spirit’s work in Table liturgy comes from the worshiper’s spiritual preparation through self-examination. In this way, self-examination before receiving the Lord’s Supper holds great importance. Calvin seriously regarded the Apostle Paul’s admonition from 1 Cor. 11:27-32. In this passage, Paul warns the church about eating or drinking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Paul writes that flippant or ignorant consumption of the Supper’s elements leads to judgement, sickness, and even death. Paul encourages Christians to scrutinize their own lives and spiritual connectivity to God rather than placing themselves in great peril. Calvin demonstrates he whole-heartedly belief in Paul’s teaching when he writes,

Wherefore the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover, to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed.[41]

With quotes from the writings of several Church Fathers including Tertullian, Ambose, and John Chrysostom, Calvin articulates the Christian’s deep need for self-examination prior to observing the sacrament of Lord’s Supper.[42]For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is not an unimportant or fringe portion of Christian liturgy. Because of their importance, Calvin holds deep convictions concerning the real (but spiritual) presence of Christ in the Supper, weekly observance of Christ’s Table, and scripturally required self-examination of the participants. The Lord’s Supper, for Calvin, is a remembrance, but his remembrance holds facets of a deep spiritual communion. Calvin always referred to Table worship as a sacrament – crucial for spiritual growth and nourishment, but not salvific. Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper would be remembered and highly valued by one of the next generations of Reformed Christians, the Puritans.

English Nonconformists

Puritans are part of a broader group of Reformed Protestants called Nonconformists, appearing in England during the sixteenth century. Professor and author Stephen Mayor comments that Puritanism “is what happens when you put the ideas of Calvin into the world of Elizabeth I.”[43]  Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, appreciated the work of Luther, and Zwingli. However, like Martin Bucer, Cranmer never fully adopted their doctrines, instead he remained “simply Protestant.”[44]In his 1548 attempt to build ecclesial bridges to the Nonconformists, Thomas Cranmer borrowed elements from Lutheran sources and produced an order for Communion in Latin, but with prayers in English. Cranmer’s action “gave satisfaction to militantly Protestant elements.”[45]Those militant Protestants were, for the most part, Puritans; their satisfaction with Cranmer’s Via media only lasted so long. As English Protestants who had broken their allegiance with Rome, Puritans determined they were also not satisfied with the reform measures adopted by Cranmer and the Church of England. The spiritual heritage of many Puritans may have come through the Anglican Church, but they remained most shaped by John Calvin in their theology, doctrine, and liturgy.

Puritans Around the Table

Puritan scholar Horton Davies conveys the significance of the Puritans’ choice to call their Table liturgy ‘The Lord’s Supper’ rather than ‘Communion’ or ‘Eucharist.’[46]Davies describes how the significance of this nomenclature comes in its consistency with Puritan views on the authority of Scripture, “It would be assumed that all Puritans would be unanimous in their criticism of tradition by Scripture.”[47]In the English translation of Scripture, the Table liturgy was never referred to as Communion or Eucharist, only the Breaking of Bread or the Lord’s Supper. Davies explains how Puritans rejected the Roman Catholic understanding of the Communion as a Sacrifice and how, in order to distance themselves from this doctrine, they also rejected the posture of kneeling. Because Anglicans retained the Catholic practice of kneeling in their celebration of the Table, the posture of kneeling became another point of division between Puritans and Anglicans.[48]

John Cotton, Puritan author of the book, The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England in 1645, shared five identifying marks of Puritan Lord’s Supper: worshipers sit while being served, bread and wine are blessed separately, administration of the elements is restricted to ministers, the extemporaneous nature of prayers, and one’s admission to the Supper was based on repentance and faith or by letters from other churches giving assurances of such.[49]An example of the differences in America between Puritans and their North American Anglican counterparts centers on this last point and can be observed in the testimony of Anglican Thomas Lechford:

“Once a moneth is a Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper whereof notice is given, usually a fortnight before, and then all others departing save the Church, which is a great deal lesse in number then those that goe away, they receive the Sacrament, the Ministers and ruling Elders sitting at the Table, the rest in their seats or upon forms; All cannot see the Minister consecrating, unlesse they stand up, and make a narrow shift. Then one of the teaching Elders prayes before, and blesseth, and consecrates the Bread and Wine, according to the words of Institution; the other prays after receiving of all the members: and next Communion they change turns;…and the Ministers deliver the Bread in a Charger to some of the chiefe, and peradventure gives to a few the Bread in their hands, and they deliver the Charger from one to another, till all have eaten; in like manner the Cup, till all have dranke, goes from one to another. Then a Psalme is sung, and with a short blessing the congregation is dismissed.”[50]

Lechford goes on to express his befuddlement at both the simplicity of the Puritan service and the fact that he, as one not belonging to the “visible saints,” was kept from joining in the Lord’s Supper.[51]Setting boundaries for who could partake of the Lord’s Supper may not have been of significant importance to Anglicans, but it was quite a serious matter to Puritans.

Puritans in both England and America were strict in their fencing of Table fellowship. Not only were church members constrained by the Apostle Paul’s admonishment in 1 Cor. 11:27-34, in Puritan congregations the “ministers themselves prepared with assiduity, both in extensive and unsparing self-analysis.”[52]Davies shares the account of Puritan minister Jonathan Mitchel, “who spent a whole preparatory day every two months before each Lord’s Supper and began it with fasting.”[53]Puritan self-analysis carried the burden of demonstrating one’s repentance and faith. Demonstrating repentance and faith before the Lord’s Supper frequently meant sharing personal testimonies in the gathered assembly. This public sharing became a significant burden on many congregation members, especially those with more introverted personalities. Davies shares a note from Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather. The Mathers felt the experience of demonstrating one’s repentance and faith was so “severe” on “quiet and sensitive persons” that “some truly gracious Souls have been discouraged from “offering themselves to join in Fellowship.”[54]The heavy task of repeatedly testifying to one’s worthiness to partake in the Lord’s Supper may well have impacted decisions made setting the frequency of Table liturgy. There were disagreements in many congregations concerning the correct time interval for celebrating the ordinance. One complaint during a debate on this subject asserted that “when Communion was held fairly frequently elders were sometimes absent, even when they had agreed to the celebration.”[55]Despite passionate debate, it was resolved in this particular debate “that the lordes supper be celebrated euery first sondaie of every moneth.”[56]

Matthew Henry’s The Communicant’s Companionin 1704 may provide the most complete explanation of the Puritan understanding of the Lord’s Supper’s meaning.[57]Henry writes of Puritan Lord’s Suppers, “It was appointed to be a commemorating Ordinance, and a confessing Ordinance; a communicating Ordinance, and a covenanting Ordinance.”[58]Henry explains what he means concerning a communicating Ordinance when he writes,

Here are not only Gospel-Truths represented to us, and confessed by us, but Gospel-Benefits offer’d to us, and accepted by us…By the Body and Blood of Christ, which this Ordinance is the Communion of, we are to understand all whose precious Benefits and Privileges which were purchased for us by the Death of Christ, and are assr’d to us upon Gospel-Terms in the everlasting Covenant…so in this Ordinance we are Partakers of Christ.[59]

As Henry continues, he makes it clear that Puritan Lord’s Supper is not memorialism.[60]Horton Davies esteems Puritan Lord’s Supper as a sigillum Verbi, “a Sacrament that seals believers to the benefits of the Redeemer’s Sacrifice” … “in the full Calvinist sense.”[61]

Liturgical Comparison

Is the Puritan Table liturgy a replica expression of Calvin’s Lord’s Supper doctrine? Mayor writes that “it is certainly true that behind Puritanism stands the powerful figure of Calvin.”[62]Comparing the service orders from Calvin’s 1542 and 1566 Geneva liturgies with the Puritan liturgy of Middleburg in 1586 can reveal many of the functional similarities and differences between Calvin’s and the Puritan’s beliefs concerning Table liturgy. In the Lord’s Supper services that were not celebrated weekly, Calvin’s Liturgy flowed like this: Psalm reading (as a Votum, or vow), Exhortation, Confession, Prayer for Forgiveness, Psalm (usually sung), Prayer for Illumination, Scripture, Sermon, Intercessions, Lord’s Prayer, Prayer of Preparation, Apostles’ Creed, Words of Institution, Long Exhortation, Distribution, Psalm (usually sung), Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Benediction.[63]The Puritan service at Middleburg progressed in much the same way: Scripture and Psalms (usually sung), Psalm reading (as a Votum, or vow), Confession, Psalm (usually sung), Prayer for Illumination, Lord’s Prayer, Scripture, Sermon, Intercessions, Words of Institution, Exhortation, Prayer of Thanksgiving, Distribution, Scripture, Prayer of Thanksgiving, Psalm 103 or other Psalm of Thanksgiving, and Benediction or The Grace.[64]It is helpful to see the similarities of these liturgies when displayed in columns:

Table 1: Services of the Lord’s Supper (not celebrated weekly)

Calvin (Geneva 1542, 1566) Puritan (Middleburg 1586)
Votum (Psalm 124:8) Preparatory Scripture and Psalms
Exhortation (1566 only) Votum (Psalm 124:8)
Confession Confession
Prayer for Forgiveness  
Psalm Psalm
Prayer for Illumination Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Lord’s Prayer
Sermon Scripture
Intercessions Sermon
Lord’s Prayer (paraphrase) Intercessions
Prayer of Preparation Words of Institution
Apostle’s Creed Exhortation
Words of Institution Prayer of Thanksgiving
Long Exhortation Distribution
Distribution Scripture
Psalm(s) or Scripture Prayer of Thanksgiving
Prayer of Thanksgiving Psalm 103 or another Psalm of Thanksgiving
Benediction Benediction or The Grace

Source: Data adapted from Gibson, Jonathan & Mark Earngey, ed. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present(Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018) 681-84.

Within services of the Word where the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated weekly (Calvin referred to these services as ante-communion), more similarities and differences can be observed. Calvin’s liturgies from Geneva in 1542 and 1566 took this order: Votumor vow[65], Exhortation (from 1562 onward), Confession, Prayer for Forgiveness, Psalm (usually sung), Prayer for Illumination, Scripture, Sermon, Intercessions, Lord’s Prayer paraphrase, and the Benediction.[66]The Puritan Middleburg liturgy from 1586 held this sequence: Preparatory Scripture and Psalms, Votumor vow,[67]Confession, Psalm, Prayer for Illumination, Lord’s Prayer, Scripture, Sermon, Intercessions, Psalm Benediction or the Grace, and Dismissal.[68]

Table 2: Services of the Word (where the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated weekly)

Calvin (Geneva 1542, 1566) Puritan (Middleburg 1586)
Votum (Psalm 124:8) Preparatory Scripture and Psalms
Exhortation (1566 only) Votum (Psalm 124:8)
Confession Confession
Prayer for Forgiveness Psalm
Psalm Prayer for Illumination
Prayer for Illumination Lord’s Prayer
Scripture Scripture
Sermon Sermon
Intercessions Intercessions
Lord’s Prayer (paraphrase) Psalm
Benediction Benedictions or the Grace

Source: Data adapted from Gibson, Jonathan & Mark Earngey, ed. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present(Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018) 671-74.

It is worth noting that in all of these liturgies, where Psalm or Psalms are indicated, the normal mode of congregational expression for both Calvin and Puritan practice is for the Psalms to be sung. An example of this can be found in the detailed instructions for the Middleburg Liturgy of the English Puritans, “The action thus ended, the people are to sing the 103 Psalme, My soule giue laude, &c. or some other of thankes giuing: which ended, one of the blessings before mentioned, is to be recited, and so they rise from the Table and departe.”[69]Singing is also directed in Calvin’s notes on his liturgies: “And the deacon offers the cup, saying: This is the cup of the new testament in the blood of Jesus which has been shed for you. Meanwhile, the Congregation sings the Psalm: Louand’ et Grâce…After thanks has been given, the Canticle of Simeon is sung: Maintenant Seigneur Dieu.”[70]Puritan and Calvinist singing was unaccompanied by any instrument other than the bare voices of the congregation. Both then and now, acapella congregational singing serves as a demonstration of both God’s transcendence and his immanence. These qualities can be observed no better than in the translation of Psalm 124:8 used in the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in British North America in 1640: “The succor which wee doe injoye, is in Jehovahs Name: who is the maker of earth, and of the heavens frame.”[71]


In this paper, I have investigated the doctrines and worship practices that define Puritan Table liturgy. I have demonstrated that the Puritans practiced the Lord’s Supper as their preferred model of Table worship over the concepts of Communion and/or Eucharist. With the support of a number of primary and secondary sources, I have traced the practice of Lord’s Supper from Scripture, to the early church, to Calvin’s Institutes, and finally to Puritan doctrine and liturgy.

Clearly Puritan doctrines and Table liturgy came by way of significant Calvinist influence. Calvin’s passion and calling to recover true and biblical worship inspired the Puritans. When Puritan churches expressed Calvinist theology, they marked it with their own lives and experiences, producing a lived theology – Puritan lives lived in worship. Puritan pastors and laymen provide the most tangible heritage of Puritan spirituality and the best evidence of Puritan theology within devotional and instructional writings. I conclude my paper with a beautiful and representational sampling of these works:

When you thus consider the blood of Christ in all those excellencies, O then be grieved that you have so long neglected it, that you did that which was the cause why this precious blood was spilt; that you should thrust your sin into his side, to fetch his blood from his very heart. O Lord, was I the cause this blood was shed! Was it my pride and vain glory that did set a crown of thorns upon this crucified, bleeding Christ![72]

The opinion that the sacraments are but bare signs and seals of God’s promise and grace to us, does not a little hinder piety; whereas, indeed, they are seals, as well of our service and obedience unto God; which service if we perform not to him, the sacraments seal no grace to us. But if we receive them, upon the resolution to be his faithful and penitent servants, then the sacraments do not only signify and offer, but also seal and exhibit indeed the inward spiritual grace which they outwardly promise and represent.[73]

Thy will is in all thy provisions to enable me to grow in grace, and to be meet for thy eternal presence. My heaven-born faith gives promise of eternal sight, my new birth a pledge of never-ending life. I draw near to thee, knowing thou wilt draw near to mel I ask of thee, believing though hast already given. I entrust myself to thee, for thou hast already given. I entrust myself to thee, for thou hast redeemed me. I bless and adore thee, the eternal God, for the comfort of these thoughts, the joy of these hopes.[74]

At the Lord’s Table Christ kisseth his spouse with the sweetest kisses of his lips, and ravisheth her heart with his warmest love. In other ordinances he wooeth her; in this he marrieth her. In other ordinances she hath from him the salutes of a loving friend; but in this the embraces of a husband; other duties are pleasant and wholesome food, but this is the costly, delightful feast. In this Christ bringeth his beloved ‘into his banqueting house,’ a storehouse of all sweet delights, of variety of delicacies, ‘and his banner over her is love’[75]

You will say that if you could have Christ crucified again before your eyes, if you could see the body of Christ hanging upon the cross and there behold Him crucified, and hearing Him cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me,” you would think that, if your hearts did not break for sin, they were desperately hard. Know every time that you have come to receive the sacrament, you came to see such a sight, and is it not as great an aggravation of the hardness of your heart if it has not broken at this sight as it would be if it should not break at that sight?[76]

And, when I could no longer look,

I blest his Name that gave and took,

That layd my goods now in the dust:

Yea so it was, and so ‘twas just.

It was his own; it was not mine;

Far be it that I should repine.[77]



Bayly, Lewis. The Practice of Piety: Directing a Christian how to walk, that he may please God. 1611; rpt., Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1842.

Bennett, Arthur, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. East Peoria, IL: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975.

Burroughs, Jeremiah. Gospel Worship or The Right Manner of Sanctifying the Name of God in General. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990.

Calvin. John. Institutes of the Christian Religion in The Library of Christian Classics: Vol. XX–XXI, ed. John T. McNeill. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Cherry, Constance M. The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

Davies, Horton. The Worship of the English Puritans. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997.

———. The Worship of the American Puritans, 1629-1730. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999.

Doolittle, Thomas. A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper. Aberdeen: George and Robert King, University of Michigan Reprint, 1844.

Gibson, Jonathan & Mark Earngey, ed. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present.Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018.

Gore Jr., R. J. Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002.

Hammett, John S. 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015.

Haraszti, Zoltán. The Bay Psalm Book: The First Book Printed in British North America 1640. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2016.

Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Kapic, Kelly and Randall Gleason, eds. The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004.

Martyr, Justin. trans. Roberts and Donaldson. The Apologies of Justin Martyr. Greenwood, WI: Suzeteo Enterprises, 2012.

Mayor, Stephen. The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1972.

Thompson, Bard.Liturgies of the Western Church. Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Publishing, 2015.

Webber, Robert E. Common Roots. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978.

Wallace, Ronald S. Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997.

White, James F. Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.

Yuille, Stephen J. Puritan Spirituality: The Fear of God in the Affective Theology of George Swinnock. Milton Keynes, UK: P


[1]Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 87.;Matt. 26:26-29, Mk. 14:22-25, Lk. 22:14-23 (ESV).

[2]Cherry, The Worship Architect, 87.

[3]John S. Hammett, 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015), 185.

[4]Hammett, 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, 185.

[5]Hammett, 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, 186.

[6]Cherry, The Worship Architect, 88.

[7]Cherry, The Worship Architect, 88.

[8]Lk 22:15.

[9]Lk 22:19-20

[10]Lk 22:19-20.

[11]Cherry, The Worship Architect, 87.

[12]Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 357-58.

[13]Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 357-58.

[14]Robert E. Webber,Common Roots(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 105.

[15]Justin Martyr, trans. Roberts and Donaldson, The Apologies of Justin Martyr(Greenwood, WI: Suzeteo Enterprises, 2012), 70.

[16]Martyr, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, 69.

[17]Jonathan Gibson, & Mark Earngey, ed. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present(Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 80-1.

[18]R. J. Gore Jr., Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle) Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 73.

[19]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 178.

[20]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 180-81.

[21]Gore Jr., Covenantal Worship, 72-3.

[22]James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 64.

[23]White, Protestant Worship, 64.

[24]White, Protestant Worship, 64.

[25]Ronald S. Wallace,Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 140.

[26]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 140.

[27]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 72.

[28]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religionin The Library of Christian Classics: Vol. XX–XXI, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 844.

[29]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 78.

[30]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 79.

[31]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 852.

[32]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 901.

[33]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 898.

[34]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 898.

[35]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 143.

[36]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 168.

[37]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 169.

[38]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 169.

[39]Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 201.

[40]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 919.

[41]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 927.

[42]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion, 931.

[43]Stephen Mayor,The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1972), ix.

[44]Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, xviii.

[45]Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, xvii.

[46]Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans(Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 204.

[47]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 204.

[48]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 204.

[49]Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 1629-1730(Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999), 188.

[50]Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 186-87.

[51]Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 187.

[52]Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 200.

[53]Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 200.

[54]Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 201.

[55]Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 23.

[56]Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 23.

[57]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 212.

[58]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 212.

[59]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 212.

[60]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 213.

[61]Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 213.

[62]Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 2.

[63]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 681.

[64]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 684.

[65]Ps 124:8.

[66]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 671.

[67]Ps 124:8.

[68]Gibson, Reformation Worship, 674.

[69]BardThompson, Liturgies of the Western Church(Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Publishing, 2015), 339.

[70]Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 208.

[71], Zoltán Haraszti, The Bay Psalm Book: The First Book Printed in British North America 1640(Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2016), 124:8.

[72]Thomas A. Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper(Aberdeen: George and Robert King, University of Michigan Reprint, 1844), 130.

[73]Lewis Bayly, The Practice of Piety: Directing a Christian how to walk, that he may please God 1611; rpt.(Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1842), 83.

[74]Arthur Bennett, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions(East Peoria, IL: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 164.

[75]Stephen J. Yuille, Puritan Spirituality: The Fear of God in the Affective Theology of George Swinnock(Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2007.), 169.

[76]Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship or The Right Manner of Sanctifying the Name of God in General(Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 255-56.

[77]Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds. The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 260.

Exploring Luther’s Spirituality

Theologian Robert Webber describes a dinner party where the subject of spirituality was introduced. Once broached, the topic generated a number of culturally acceptable responses reminiscent of an article that once described “Spirituality in America” as “what we believe, how we pray, where we find God.”[1]  The article, from Newsweek magazine, defined spirituality as the “passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God.”[2] The search for spiritual passion in modern Western culture takes many forms. Webber’s dinner guests identified with many of the forms of spirituality mentioned in the Newsweek article, culminating in the host being asked his belief. When Webber surprised everyone by answering he was a committed Christian, “who believes Jesus to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’”[3]the guests responded in startled silence. When Webber asked the guests what they would now ‘do with him,’ one guest responded, “Explain yourself. I’m willing to hear you out.”[4]Webber made clear to his guests that in order to explain himself he would have to tell a story. He quickly added, “All spiritualities are based on a story. You have to know the story of a particular religion to understand its spirituality.”[5]Webber was by no means the first to define his spirituality through the story of the gospel as recounted in Scripture. Martin Luther also defined his spirituality in this way. For Luther, sola scripturawould be no empty battle cry. As Luther grew to understand how the gospel story was at the root of his own spirituality, what changed was more than the opinions of a handful of dinner guests.

Thesis and Methodology

Martin Luther’s spirituality demonstrates a strong connection to the gospel story. As an Augustinian monk, Luther would have gained much of his intimate knowledge of Scripture and the gospel story through use of a common monastic strategy for studying Scripture that involves three steps; oratio(prayer), meditatio(meditation), andilluminatio seu contemplation(illumination or contemplation).[6]In this paper, I will use the same structure to explore some of the major features of Martin Luther’s spirituality, demonstrating his piety’s connection to Scripture. Within my exploration, I will lean heavily on the commentaries and primary source documents found in Krey and Krey’s volume, Luther’s Spiritualityin The Classics of Western Spirituality.

Oratio (prayer)

When Martin Luther approached the gospel story he began with prayer.[7]Luther understood that the need for prayer was due to the fact that “the biblical text overthrows all human reason and forces the reader to call upon the Holy Spirit for help.”[8]A believer’s prayer life is not just an exercise in spiritual obedience. Rather, Luther saw prayer as a way for believers to build their faith story in a kind of lived theology.[9]Liturgical theologian Simon Chan articulates this opinion when he relates prayer and worship to living and active theology; “to speak of worship (prayer) as a fitting response implies that in the very act of worship (prayer) we are participating in the God who is truth.”[10]During Augustine’s time, the concept lex orandi – lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith,[11]clearly articulated the conversational relationship between prayer and faith. As an Augustinian monk, Luther would have been influenced by this perspective on prayer and faith. To this end, Luther knew that one of the most important tools to reform the church would be the way the church expresses its prayer and worship.

“There are no greater contributions by Luther to the devotional spirituality of his followers than the small and the large catechisms that he wrote in 1529 and his hymnody.”[12]Philip and Peter Krey relate that in the organization of both catechisms, Luther moves from commandments, to the creed, to prayer.[13]In doing so, Luther encouraged families to worship and pray together within their households, thanking God for his gifts and establishing the “sanctity of every household” – elevating the spirituality of everyday people and moving away from the “professionalization” of the monastery.[14]For Luther, prayer and worship were the front door for understanding the gospel story, ecclesial renewal and the foundation of personal spirituality.

Meditatio (meditation)

Translating the Bible into German is one of Luther’s enduring works. In the preface to his German writings, Luther remarks that he translated the Bible so that the Bible and not his own books would be accessible to all.[15]Luther believed that if the German people could hear and read Scripture in their own language, their spirituality would be greatly enriched.[16]Luther writes in An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg(1523), “Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that has been the rule up to now. We can spare everything except the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word. For the whole Scripture shows that the Word should have free course among Christians.”[17]Though many of the significant renewals Luther brought to corporate worship involved the deletion of items he considered ‘prattling and rattling,’ Luther retained the eucharistic words of Jesus “to the exclusion of almost everything else.”[18]Concerning the importance of the gospel story used in worship, Luther believed that “The Word – summarized in the eucharistic words of Jesus, and proclaimed and preached at every liturgical service – becomes the true center of authentic Christian worship.”[19]

To Luther, meditation involved Scripture and repetitious reading. Krey and Krey explain how according to Luther’s understanding, “one must meditate by using all one’s senses, especially that of repetitive hearing, to experience the external word for understanding.”[20]In his preface to the German writings, Luther expounds, “you need to know that the holy scripture is the kind of book that makes the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, since none of them teaches about eternal life except this alone.”[21]Using Psalm 119 as a biblical framework, Luther prescribes meditation as the repetition of scripture reading “not only in your heart but externally, aloud, so that, in constantly repeating the words, you can compare your oral words with the ones written literally…reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection in order to understand what the Holy Spirit means by them.”[22]For Luther, one’s consumption and internal abiding of Scripture was crucial to one’s spirituality.

Et Illuminatio seu Contemplatio  

(Illumination and Contemplation)

Gregory of Nyssa referred to those who lived the monastic life as martyrs – witnesses to the gospel story and the greatest models of the faith.[23]In the sixteenth century, this impression largely remained. By comparison, Martin Luther’s spirituality involved approaching the gospel story in prayer, then meditating on Scripture. If a Christian would commit to these steps, Luther believed the Holy Spirit provided spiritual illumination. The illumination Luther gained through the Holy Spirit’s unveiling of Scripture pointed him to an expression of piety that was more communal and less individual. Luther believed that expressing spiritual disciplines in the everyday world provided a more effective and sincere spirituality, fulfilling the gospel’s great commandment and great commission. Luther wrote, “everyday relationships and duties prove the greatest spiritual discipline of all.”[24]

For Luther, living out one’s spirituality in accordance with Scripture also means suffering. In his sermon at Coburg on cross and suffering, Luther instructs believers that they will suffer, and their afflictions will be given to them by Satan and the world.[25]Luther writes, “first, we must note that Christ’s suffering did not just deliver us from the devil, death, and sins; his suffering is also an example for us that we should follow in our own suffering.”[26]Real suffering hurts. If a believer chooses their own kind of suffering, Luther intimates, “it would not be suffering if it did not hurt very much.”[27]Luther’s preoccupation with suffering comes, again, from an orientation toward the gospel story. Luther points out in his sermon at Coburg that, “we should also be crucified with him (Christ) and suffer with him, as he clearly shows in many places in the gospels. ‘Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me,’ says the Lord, ‘is not worthy of me.’”[28]Luther’s teaching on suffering helps Christians understand that one of our primary responses to prayer and meditation on Scripture will be the formation of a spirituality that prompts believers to act as the hands and feet of Christ.


Luther’s commentary on Psalm 117 provides a poignant demonstration of his spirituality, intersecting Scripture, the mandate for good works in response to God’s grace, and the need to endure the temptations and sufferings of Satan. This expression comes as Luther elaborates on one of the seven deadly sins, acedia– otherwise known as sloth. Luther writes, “The Word of God demands that we do not race over it and think that, by doing so, we have completely grounded ourselves in understanding it, as superficial, overstuffed, and bored souls do.”[29]Luther goes on to name this state as the condition of sloth. Sloth is a “joylessness that all too often gives way to despair over God’s purposes, plans, and willingness to love and help us in ways we cannot even imagine.”[30]Luther exhorts believers through Paul’s words in Romans, that Christians “not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”[31]Whether through this commentary on Psalm 117, one of his sermons, or the renewal of liturgy, Luther encourages Christians to build their spirituality on the foundation of the gospel story. According to Luther’s writing and life work, believers in Jesus Christ should fill themselves with prayer (oratio), meditate on God’s Word with fear, humility and diligence (meditatio), and allow themselves to be illuminated by the Holy Spirit through practical contemplation involving the service of others and endurance of suffering (Et Illuminatio seu Contemplatio).




Adler, J. “Spirituality in America,” Newsweek, September 5, 2005.

Blackwell, John N. The Noonday Demon: Recognizing and Conquering the Deadly Sin of Sloth. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2004.

Chan, Simon. Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Gibson, Jonathan and Mark Earngey (eds), Form of the Mass 1523and German Mass 1526in Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present.Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018.

Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Saint Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan. 2001 ed.; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005.

Krev, Philip D. and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spiritualityin The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Nathan B. Protestant Critique and Liturgical ReforminThe Oxford History of Christian Worship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006.


[1]J. Adler, “Spirituality in America,” Newsweek, September 5, 2005, 9.

[2]Robert E. Webber,The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 14.

[3]Webber, The Divine Embrace, 14.

[4]Webber, The Divine Embrace, 14.

[5]Webber, The Divine Embrace, 14.

[6]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spiritualityin The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), xiii.

[7]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, xiii.

[8]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, xiii.

[9]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, xxvii.

[10]Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community(Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 48.

[11]Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology, 48.

[12]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 183.

[13]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 183.

[14]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 184.

[15]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 119.

[16]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 119.

[17]Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey (eds),Form of the Mass 1523and German Mass 1526in Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present(Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 77.

[18]Nathan B. Mitchell, Protestant Critique and Liturgical Reformin The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 320.

[19]Nathan B. Mitchell, Protestant Critique and Liturgical Reform, 320.

[20]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 119.

[21]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 122.

[22]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 122.

[23]Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Saint Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan. 2001 ed.; repr.(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 37.

[24]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, xxv.

[25]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 151.

[26]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 152.

[27]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 153.

[28]Matt 10:25, ESV.; Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 152.

[29]Phillip D. Krev and Peter D. S. Krey (eds.), Luther’s Spirituality, 129.

[30]John N. Blackwell,The Noonday Demon: Recognizing and Conquering the Deadly Sin of Sloth(New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2004), 12.

[31]Rom 12:11.


Christ’s Ascension Matters

Scripture reports that after his resurrection, Jesus appeared several times in physical form to many people. Forty days later, the book of Acts tells that Jesus was again with his disciples:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power then the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”    Acts 1:6-11 ESV

Last Friday I had the privilege to attend commencement ceremonies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. President R. Albert Mohler’s address to graduates was inspired by the account of Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr. His message was entitled, “As if It Had Been the Face of an Angel.” This title harkened to verse 15 of Acts chapter 6:

And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.     Acts 6:15 ESV

Dr. Mohler pointed out that the original language indicates Stephen’s face had the same other-worldly glow as did Moses’ face after spending time in God’s presence and receiving the Ten Commandments. Scripture gives even more explanation of Stephen’s angelic countenance:

But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”      Acts 7:55-56 ESV

Stephen’s vision and testimony were not only the deciding factor upon which the council stoned him, they also hold a key to every Christian’s faith and our hope for heaven; Christ’s ascension. Jesus Christ did ascend to heaven – not as a non-corporal spirit being, rather, in a new physical body given by God at his resurrection.

Why is this important? As Gerrit Scott Dawson writes, “Through the ascension we discover that the incarnation continues. Jesus remains united to our human nature.” “If Jesus’ new life does not continue, then he could have died again…The resurrection requires an ascension to be completed.” “To put it bluntly, if Jesus did not go up as a man, he cannot come again as a man. The Judge would not be our Brother, not the one tempted in all ways as we are, not the man with the nail-scarred hands and the ‘rich wounds yet visible above.’ He might be God in that case, but he would not be human. And we would be lost.”

What God allowed Stephen to see gives a clear and true understanding of the role Christ now plays on our behalf.

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.     Hebrews 8:1-2 ESV

Robert Webber put it this way, “Jesus Christ, this man who is God, participated in our humanity to die for us and to be resurrected for us, and he now has ascended to the very throne of God to continually represent us to the Father. For ‘he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence’(Hebrews 9:24 NIV). He who did everything that ever needed to be done to save us now continually stands before the Father interceding for us!”

This year (2017), Ascension Day is Thursday, May 25th. If Jesus Christ is your Savior and the Lord of your life, take some time to reflect on how perfectly he loves us and how grateful we are for his continuing work on our behalf before the throne of God in heaven.

Works Cited 

Dawson, Gerrit Scott. Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2004. p. 3-5.

Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2004. p. 159.

The Trilogy of Holy Week


    This article has been written to encourage members and attenders of First Baptist Church Mt. Washington, Kentucky to worship on special services March 29th and 30th. If you are not close by, look for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services at a church near you.


Have you ever gotten only part of a story? Maybe turning on a show after it started? You might find out how the story ends, but you haven’t gotten the full experience. Attending Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship in addition to Easter Sunday morning helps believers in Christ gain better spiritual awareness; reflecting and gaining a greater understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice and death. Followers of Christ must understand how significant these days are because they serve as parts one and two for the most important trilogy the world has ever known.


Worshiping on Resurrection morning is a terrific ending for sure – our eternity depends on it. But when a Christian allows Easter morning to be their sole Holy Week worship experience, it is akin to someone watching The Return of the King, the third movie in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. When a movie goer watches only the third part of a three-part story, they miss out on the trilogy’s drama and true sense of victory. Similarly, if a Christian skips the first two days of the Triduum (the great three days of Easter) and jumps straight to the third day, they miss much of what Easter morning means. Those who only attend worship on Easter Sunday just get the end of the story. Every believer needs to reflect on the importance of all three parts of Jesus’ Passion Week trilogy.


The first part of Christ’s Passion Week trilogy starts on Maundy Thursday evening (March 29th) at 7 pm. The name Maundy comes from a Latin word reminding us that after the supper, Jesus taught his disciples a “New Commandment:” the greatest among us are those who humbly serve. To this end, some churches choose to not only memorialize the Lord’s Supper, but also Jesus’ washing His disciple’s feet.


Soon after the events of the upper room, Jesus went with his disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray. After His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was taken into custody for a mock trial that would ultimately end in a death sentence. Maundy Thursday worship also contemplates the actions of Judas the betrayer and the Apostle Peter, who denied Christ three times. Worshipers leave this service understanding that many times we, too, reject Jesus. Our 9:35 Worship Band will help lead us in this service.


Although some churches hold Good Friday services from 12 pm till 3 pm- the hours Jesus spent on the cross, we will continue the Triduum story on Good Friday evening (March 30th) at 7 pm. In our Good Friday service worshipers will remember Christ’s trial, suffering, and path to Calvary. To help us remember what Christ suffered on our behalf we will use scripture, original devotional writing, music, art and candlelight. Good Friday worshipers will engage the story of Christ’s triduum Passion with help of our vocal ensemble, 1838.


Only after experiencing the Holy Week events of Thursday and Friday are we TRULY able to celebrate the resurrection of our Savior on Easter morning! Please join us on the pilgrimage to walk Jesus’ steps during these three focal days of Holy Week. Then you will know and experience the joy of Easter as you never have before!

Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?

Epiphany, like other potentially unknown holidays in the Christian tradition, is understood best by seeing what it meant to early Christians and learning why they began celebrating in the first place. Remember that the early church believed the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was so life-changing that they thought they should re-orient their lives to reflect their new identity – even the way they experienced time. Because of this strong belief and their commitment to the Gospel of Christ, they developed the cycles of the Christian Year.

Unlike the common calendar that follows astronomical time, the Christian Year does not begin on January 1st, it begins on the first Sunday of Advent. This is usually the Sunday after our American Thanksgiving. Since we just experienced Advent and Christmas, let’s skip ahead to Epiphany. Epiphany begins after the twelve days of Christmastide (Yes, there are actually twelve days of Christmas) and extends to the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas. If you want to know more about this interesting memorial, see my article, Keep the Groundhog in His Shadow. Epiphany was the very first annual celebration of the early Christian church apart from Pascha (Easter). Merriam-Webster defines Epiphany as a sudden manifestation/perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. Epiphany began as the memorial of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and the official beginning of His public ministry. Christ’s immersion in the waters of the Jordan River was followed by the Holy Spirit landing on His shoulder in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven was heard proclaiming, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). These events gave the sudden understanding or epiphany that Jesus Christ was God’s Son.

Old and New

Church Father, Clement of Alexandria reported (170 – 200 AD) that the celebration of Jesus’ baptism was held by believers on January 6th (Talley, 121). “The earliest narrative for the solemnity of Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus himself in the Jordan River, remembered and celebrated the medium of Christian social transformation – that is the waters of baptism. By that event, the waters of the Jordan River were sanctified by the touch of God’s Son, and by them, in turn, all the waters of the world were sanctified for baptisms in ages and places far from the Palestinian waters of Jesus’ baptism. Those waters are the medium of sanctification because they bring people into a new society, that of the Kingdom of God” (Connell, 191).

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

– Matthew 16:24 ESV

This original understanding of Epiphany is still maintained by Orthodox Christians. One of their most interesting traditions associated with Epiphany is the blessing of the waters and diving for the cross. The largest of these celebrations takes place each year at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Sixty or so young men from the ages of 16 and 18 participate in the church’s 110 year – old tradition. The morning begins with a worship service and then the boys’ process bare-footed two blocks from the cathedral to the water followed by thousands of other worshipers and on-lookers. Following the release of doves and a special blessing, the Archbishop tosses a small white cross into the chilly waters of the Spring Bayou and the divers leap in, striving to reach the cross. The one who reaches the cross first is then carried on the shoulders of the other young men back to the cathedral where he receives a special blessing from the Archbishop. The dive is more than a fun and competitive event. It is meant to recall Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and an important part of the young men’s formation as disciples of Christ and faithful Christians. (Demorris Lee, blog article from January 2, 2012)

We Three Kings

A few centuries later, Western Christians began to also associate Epiphany with the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men and their search for the infant Christ.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

But the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you,

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

-Isaiah 60:1-3 ESV

Popular expression of the story of the Magi involve three wise men, traditionally known as Caspar (who brought the gift of gold), Melchior (bringing frankincense), and Balthazar (bringing myrrh). Most scholars believe there may have been more than three, but the tradition grew out of the three gifts mentioned in scripture. It is worth noting that scripture gives testimony that they arrived sometime after Jesus’ birth. Matthew 2:11 reports that instead of finding the child in a manger, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” The story of the Wise Men teaches believers that Christ has been manifested as the Savior, not just for the Jews or a select group of people, but for the entire world.

Why does it matter?

Through both stories of Epiphany, we are brought to understand God’s greatness and the manifestation of divinity among us (Chittister, 80-81). Epiphany is more than a story about Jesus’ baptism. It is more than a story about three Wise Men. We do not need to pretend that the baby Jesus is born again every year. The coming of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus help us to identify exactly who was born in Bethlehem and “help us to move beyond this ‘cute baby’ concept that keeps so many from realizing the deep meaning of the incarnation or prevent us from appreciating the great exchange between God and man” (Stookey, 112). Christmas and Epiphany can actually be seen as two aspects of the same holiday. This one holiday pushes believers to see Christ manifested in the flesh and as the true Son of God. Epiphany is about how Christ’s manifestation is extended in us (Webber, p. 77). Think about these questions as you ponder Epiphany in your own life:

• How is my life different because Christ has revealed Himself to me?

• How is my family different? My work? My relationships?

• Does my life give an epiphany of Christ to those around me?

Sources Cited

Chittister, Joan. The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Connell, Martin. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year, Volume 1. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2006.

Lee, Demorris A. “Diving for the cross.” Faith & Leadership: A learning resource for Christian leaders and
their institutions form Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. January 2, 2012.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991.

Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Books, 2004.

Presentational vs. Participatory: Are We Teaching to the Test?

My wife is an educator. Her entire adult life has been spent teaching children and helping equip teachers. Perhaps the most formidable and irritating challenge she deals with is the enduring bane of standardized tests. Tests, in general, are not bad. Tests are meant to reveal objective progress toward a desired benchmark or standard. In the world of American public school education, standardized testing has unfortunately become the 800-pound gorilla in the room causing all things to revolve around its needs – determining the very curriculum it was designed to assess. In deciding what is crucial or dispensable, standardized tests can leave educators absolutely no time, opportunity, or choice to teach anything outside of the tests’ sometimes narrowly-focused objectives.

In planning and leading worship, the benchmark for which worship planners and leaders strive is congregational participation. If worship is what happens when God’s people assemble to receive and respond to God’s revelation, then it makes perfect sense that leaders want these moments to count. We want people to actively participate in the holy dialogue of worship with Creator God. We do not want to turn the sanctuary into an auditorium, nor the congregation into a crowd that passively seeks entertainment. Over the last few years I have read many books and heard several speakers expound on responsible worship planning, preparation and leadership. The buzz words in this milieu are “active congregational participation.” In nearly every instance the focus specifically lies on congregational singing. Recently, though, I have begun to wonder if focusing on the goal of congregational participation and inevitably dropping “nonessential” worship elements might be doing the same thing to evangelical worship that standardized tests have done to public education?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I truly believe that one of the biggest problems in Western Christianity is audience-style, consumer-driven, passive worship attendance that turns would-be worshipers into non-engaged spectators. As Robert Webber writes, “we sit passively and are entertained by television…as spectators, we listen and watch, but we seldom participate actively. This same mood is often carried over into our church services.”[1] Bob Kauflin expressed the same sentiment when he wrote, “How can you stand there with your hands in your pockets and apathetic looks on your faces and claim to be worshiping God?”[2] For many Christians, greater participation is needed in congregational worship. My concern is that in our culture, active engagement in worship simply means that everyone sings for as long as possible. If someone sits down or does not sing, they are considered to be passively engaged in worship or not engaged at all. The fallacy at work is that we can’t see all forms of active engagement.

The root of this issue might come from our need to mend what is broken. A pastor once spoke to me comparing music ministry to preaching ministry. He said it must be nice for me to have immediate recognition as to whether or not I had done my job well. In preaching a sermon, he felt he had no evaluation of the effectiveness of his hours spent researching, writing and delivery other than expressions on the congregation’s faces, handshakes at the door, and their general responsiveness to his leadership. As opposed to the sermon, he remarked, with music everyone knows right away whether or not my work has been successful. In trying to achieve our goal of helping the congregation worship, we may be over simplifying our evaluation criteria to include only what is most obvious – congregational singing. Just like the pastor in my story, we can immediately see and hear active participation when the congregation sings, but may not so easily identify internal forms of active participation.

John Baldovin, in his introduction to the book, The Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer, points out that all Christians turn actions of worship into ritual.[3]  Ritual has a bad rap in American culture. For many people, “ritual” is synonymous with “meaningless.” According to Baldovin, ritual is what “helps a group of people experience solidarity, identity, and common purpose.” Our ritualistic actions are the tools we need for the Body of Christ to “express our identity bodily and communally.” Singing together in the congregation can help us to experience this solidarity, group identity, and common purpose, but it is not the only way. If God reveals Himself to us in corporate worship and our response is our participation, don’t we need options for response in addition to musical expression? Shouldn’t we build liturgies in a way that accommodates more ways to respond than singing alone?

Throughout history, God’s people have responded to Him in many different ways. Andrew Hill points out several of these historic responses in his book, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church.[4] In addition to singing, Hill gives biblical evidence for liturgical responses (such as AMEN!), prayer (worship, praise, thanksgiving, adoration, devotion, communion, confession, petition, and intercession), making vows or commitments, preaching/teaching, giving tithes and offerings, participating in seasonal festivals, penitential acts (weeping, tearing clothes, shaving one’s head), and artistic responses. In her book, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, Constance Cherry lists numerous principals to consider when moving congregations from passive to participatory that do not include singing.[5]  Cherry asks worship planners to consider these questions: Which of the five senses have I employed? Where have I asked people to connect with fellow worshipers? How many times have I invited all worshipers to do something? What physical action have I invited? How much of what is being done by leaders can be done by the people? And, am I intentionally and pastorally guiding worshipers toward appropriate responses?

In a recent conversation with a good friend, we talked about this very subject. As we talked, my friend Tom shared that he almost never sings with the congregational music. However, he told me how he appreciates well-crafted and well delivered presentational music in the same way he values sermons. Why? Both presentational music and sermons give him time to hear God or to reflect on how God is revealing Himself. Tom is an introvert. Congregational music helps many in our congregations understand God’s revelation. However, as an element of worship naturally geared toward extroverts, it may also make it difficult for some introverts to listen to God. Some estimates are a that a third to a half of all people may function this way. [6] We need to provide many ways for our congregations to hear and respond to God’s revelation, not just one. If we don’t give our congregations time and opportunity to hear God, then to what or whom are we asking them to respond? Let’s not reduce the structures of our worship to include only the forms of response we can see and hear. That would be like turning congregational worship into a standardized test.


[1] Robert E. Webber, Worship is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2004), 3.

[2] Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway 2008), 121.

[3] John Baldovin, The Postures of the Assembly During the Eucharistic Prayer (Chicago, IL: Liturgy  Training Publications, 1994), 3.

[4] Andrew Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1993), 113-130.

[5] Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 267-269.

[6] Susan Cain. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2013), 14-15.