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By Robert Dilday. Photos by Win Grant.

Worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church is multifaceted, transforming, grounded in Scripture and deeply sensitive to God’s presence – in a word, liturgical. Some Christians are skittish of the word because liturgy, for them, connotes sterility, anachronism, an inability to transform. That’s because, in part, they associate it so closely with the distant Christian past. Yet, this ancient method of encountering God is uniquely suited to pointing to God’s presence in a postmodern world.

Liturgy, says worship writer Mark Galli, lives out a story in a story-deprived world. Western culture has lost its story. The narrative which modernity gave us – that human life is progress, that science and technology will resolve all difficulties – has been shattered by a century of world wars and economic collapses, holocausts and genocides, pandemics and terrorist attacks. In contrast, liturgy reenacts a profound narrative. It’s a story – The Story, actually – that begins with God’s creative act and the choosing of a people. Through them the Creator was revealed to the world – by the gathering of a nation and the insights of that nation’s prophets, and, ultimately in the supreme revelation, by Jesus Christ.

But the story continues among generations of believers – including us – who have discovered broken lives healed by the God revealed in Jesus, and who look hopefully to the time when all creation will be redeemed.

Worshippers pray during Sunday morning worship services.

When we welcome others to worship, we welcome them, not just to a service at the corner of Monument and the Boulevard, but into a drama that is epic – and one which will transform them.

How does liturgy reenact the story through worship at FBC?
By embodying worship in four “acts.” The call to worship and opening hymn gather us as God’s people, a preview of the ultimate gathering of all believers from all eras to praise God. We hear the Word through Scripture and through preaching drawn from it. We symbolize Christ’s sacrifice by taking the bread and cup in Communion. And we respond and are sent out to engage in God’s great gathering mission.

By engaging Scripture. If the Bible is, as we proclaim, God’s word, then immersion in it will be lifechanging. Each Sunday, wide swaths of it are read – from the Old Testament, from the Epistles, from the Gospels. Generations of believers have crafted a reading schedule – the lectionary – which reminds us of our story, evoking gratitude for God’s mighty works in the past and promises for the future. That’s why a robust “Thanks be to God” is the appropriate response to the reader’s reminder that what has been heard is “The Word of the Lord.”

By participating in the prayers and praises of past generations. We pray the Psalms in the call to worship. We sing the Doxology in gratitude for God’s blessings. We recite (and, once a month, sing) the Lord’s own prayer.

Jim Somerville baptizes Will Wright.

By symbolic reenactments.
Baptism represents both God’s initiative in offering love and relationship, and the response we make to that great gift. In Communion we are reminded of Jesus’ blood and broken body, and experience His presence in a remarkable and mysterious way.

By living the Christian year. The Christian year isn’t a medieval timekeeping device superseded by the atomic clock. It’s a deeply spiritual – and profoundly counter-cultural – reenacting of the life of Christ as a way of ordering one’s own life. FBC begins the church year by reflecting on the mystery of God’s incarnation at Advent, celebrates Christ’s revelation to the world at Christmas and Epiphany, journeys with Him to the cross in Lent, rejoices in resurrection and a Spirit-filled life at Easter and Pentecost, and proclaims the signs of the Kingdom during the days that follow, until Advent renews the cycle.

In the end, liturgy reminds us of the one great character in our story – God – and anchors the focus there. “ ‘I come to seek God because I need Him,’ may be an adequate formula for prayer,” said the devotional writer Evelyn Underhill. “ ‘I come to adore his splendor and fling myself and all that I have at his feet,’ is the only possible formula for worship.”

Robert Dilday (robert.dilday@gmail.com), a member of FBC since 1986, is a deacon and member of the Church Choir and One Accord, and led the church’s former contemplative and contemporary worship services. He has two sons – Harrison, 22, an engineer in the U.S. Navy based in San Diego; and Andrew, 19, a sophomore theatre major at Baylor University. Robert is Associate Editor of the Religious Herald, the biweekly newsjournal of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He enjoys running, reading and music, and sings in a local jazz band.

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