One of the most significant features of modern Christian movements is the loss of connection to their ancient Church heritage and traditions, the classical roots of the faith. Last month I wrote about valuing the Jewish roots that remain within Christian heritages (see, Rediscovering the Roots that Remain, November 2009). However, many contemporary streams of Christianity have very little connection to their past heritage. The Messianic Jewish movement in America is linked to the classic Jewish heritage. However, in Israel and sometimes in the former Soviet Union, rooting to Jewish heritage and tradition is lacking. I think the abandonment of classical roots is a mistake both in Messianic Judaism and Christianity.
The Meaning of Classical Rooting
In the history of the Church and Synagogue, meaningful traditions and reverent modes of worship have developed which powerfully draw us into the most important truths of our faith. It is amazing how parallel the classical Church and the Synagogue are in their basic worship expression. Scholars see this pattern as the influence of the Synagogue on the early Church.
The Synagogue Pattern
The Synagogue maintains a pattern of worship analogous to the ancient ascent to the Temple. It begins with Psalms of praise and moves ever higher and deeper. There is a great confession of faith, the Sh’ma:
“Hear O Israel the LORD is our God the LORD is One (or alone)” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
This leads to a further confession of faith, the Amidah (Standing Prayer) or the Shemoneh Esreh (18 Blessings). Today there are 19, since the prayer for rebuilding the Temple was added after the Temple was destroyed. Framed by paragraphs of praise, it is a prayer for redemption and restoration in their many aspects; it basically encapsulates the fullness of the faith and hope of Israel. It is a faith confession. It includes the recitation of the Holy, Holy, Holy content from Isaiah and Ezekiel. This is the height of Jewish worship. Then the service continues with the reading of the Scriptures.
The mourners’ Kaddish is an important prayer for those who are marking the loss of a close relative. It is especially important on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, because it is the Jewish response to death and grief. The prayer affirms the goodness of God and the hope and certainty of the coming of the Kingdom. In the face of our greatest challenge, the loss of loved ones, the Kaddish teaches us to praise God in the mist of our sorrow and to affirm our faith in God and His ultimate restoration. The Aaronic Benediction then releases God’s blessing to the people.
The Church Pattern
The classical Church tradition also begins with the Psalms. This leads to a great confession of faith, one of the ancient creeds. As in the Synagogue, Scriptures are read without commentary; especially in classical Protestant churches since scripture is regarded as the highest authority. The height of the service is the Communion in the bread and wine of Yeshua’s broken body and shed blood. Worship prepares the people for serious engagement with the elements. The Holy Holy Holy is sung as in the Synagogue. Then the words of institution from Yeshua and/or Paul are read with the warning of the gravity of the meaning of participation, including the warning to not partake in an unworthy way. Confession of sins precedes the actual taking of the bread and wine. As a symbol of the unity of the Church, it is done under the auspices of elders. The service ends with a benediction, either the Aaronic or the many others from the New Covenant Scriptures. Charismatic-Classical Christians add modern music and worship, prophecy and healing times.
An Unbroken Tradition of Millennia
It is interesting that the Church and Synagogue have maintained this basic parallel pattern for almost two millennia. The spiritual fathers of both traditions, going back to the time of Yeshua, have had a sense of the most basic things that should always be covered. I call this reaffirming the basics. The spiritual healing writer, Leanne Payne points to the great liturgical tradition as part of establishing people deeply in the right symbol structure for faith. I am not saying that if something is old it should be assumed to be right and good. That would be a big mistake. But if it is ancient and good, it is a wonderful way to unite ourselves with centuries of believers.
Why the Abandonment of Classical Worship and Tradition?
So why has much of the Christian world and some of the Messianic Jewish world in Israel and the former Soviet Union largely jettisoned classical worship and tradition? There are many reasons. First, in both Jewish and Christian contexts, the post 60s generation was a generation that largely rebelled against their parents and the heritage of their ancestors. We see this in the music world, where we were the first generation that could not appreciate the music of past generations. The classical styles of music and song were considered boring! No loud drums. No major beat. There are other factors. Past generations appreciated the stability of repeated patterns and found such patterns meaningful. Post 60s people wanted new and spontaneous happenings. The attention span to see new and wonderful things in repeated patterns and content has been lost. I agree that the traditions should not be embraced in a legalistic way and that modern forms of praise and worship can be good additions. However, even with such modern forms, we find the same dismissive mindset. Many of the greatest worship material of the charismatic movement from 20 years ago is now forgotten. Yet, the traditional church did not discard its hymns from hundreds of years ago and many generations enjoyed them.
In Israel, and to some extent in the former Soviet Union, the Messianic Movement is influenced by the same trends. However, we have the added burden that classical forms of worship, despite the quality of content, is connected to the ultra Orthodox whose culture and lifestyle are despised by most secular Israelis. The classical form is identified with legalism and deadness. In addition, Messianic Jews are not recognized by and even experience persecution from members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
A Deeper Reflection is Needed
I believe that both Christians and Messianic Jews need to think more deeply about these issues. First is the issue of honoring the way which God has worked in the past through our ancestral fathers and mothers. If we would humbly approach the traditions, we would see that what God has given is good, beautiful and true. It is by His hand and from His grace. Some Christians are attracted to Messianic Judaism in America because they are looking for a continuity and foundation that their free style Christianity does not provide. They are ignorant of classical Christian roots. In addition, many denominations that have preserved the form are now dead due to lack of faith. The negative factors associated with these denominations are a strong detriment from embracing the good traditions they preserve.
When we discover this wisdom and quality, we can incorporate this as part of our corporate lives in the Body. We can do it creatively, with new musical styles, with modern worship songs, and in the case of Messianic Jews, adding much New Covenant content, since the worship of the Synagogue reflects a pre-New Covenant orientation. I believe that if we are to recover depth we need to teach our people about these ancient paths and open their hearts to embrace the great wisdom and traditions of our history. We must avoid the legalism of always having to do what was done in the past. (In the Synagogue this requires a three hour service!) Yet we can embrace the most central and foundational parts of the traditions. This is an important part of wholeness and not being cut off. This can only happen if this is part of our discipleship.
Lastly we need to guard against the whims and trends of contemporary culture determining the values and practices of our worship. Used wisely, the classic traditions of prayer and worship can provide an objective standard of value that will help us connect back to the faith of those who came before us. This will serve to enrich our present faith.