Crosses, Communion, and Candles


very day we are surrounded, even bombarded, with symbols. They are on clothes, vehicles, and grocery items. They pop up on our computer and television screens. We recognize brands without even seeing their names. Local church signs frequently include the symbol of their denominational alliance, even though the written name emphasizes some dimension of their mission.

Symbols both advertise and inform. They may also remind us of company slogans. For example, the checkmark on Nike shoes seems to shout their slogan, “Just do it.” The Coca-Cola symbol might bring to mind a slogan from the past (“It’s the Real Thing”) as well as a current one.

    Christian Symbols

The history of Christianity includes the use of symbols in the earliest centuries. The fish became an identification for believers during the first few centuries of the Church, when persecution was common.

Ever since the fourth century, Christians have used the cross as their public symbol. It not only speaks of suffering and sacrifice but also of the hope of all believers due to Christ’s resurrection.

A casual survey of most church sanctuaries, even those rented for a few hours each Sunday, have some Christian symbols. The most obvious is a cross of varying size and presentation. If there is a Communion table, it may be represented by grain stalks and a cluster of grapes, or a cup and a small loaf of bread. Some churches have a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, imprinted on the church bulletins or inserted in the window above the baptistery. Occasionally one may see a shepherd’s crook utilized to emphasize Christ as the Good Shepherd. Or, if an actual stick is placed in the nave, it represents the pastoral authority of the local pastor. Candles and candlesticks are common.

    Symbolism Revisited

There is a revived interest in symbolism as evidenced in the emerging worship forms of some churches. People want to experience God sensually, not just cognitively. They want to encounter the divine, not just hear a great sermon.

One reason for this special interest in symbolism stems from a previous generation’s neglecting the traditions and symbols of the faith. Now the pendulum is swinging back. Young people are desiring a visual and symbolic experience as part of their worship and faith commitment. Alt worship (alternative worship), which originated in the United Kingdom with the approval of the Anglican bishop, is also evident in the United States. It has arrived with a new appetite for imagery in worship and with new media for displaying it.

This interest has resulted in a mix of the historic symbols with the most advanced media technology and techniques. A survey of this scene reveals multiple flat screens, backdrops with changing colored lights and symbols, candles, incense, alternating darkness with light, labyrinths, ancient liturgies, and art productions from within the artistic community. Spotlights, fog machines, and black ceilings are also common.

Many of these forms of imagery are used outside of a church sanctuary in the confines of small groups. It may involve moving from station to station. Some start with a person washing his or her feet at the beginning, then moving to a place where a specific Scripture passage is read and meditated upon as to how it relates to life. This may be followed with writing a note of thanksgiving to God and posting it on a message board. I once saw a note listing thanksgiving for parents and various siblings. It ended with “I thank You for my little sister even though she. . . .”

There are a great many other stations which can be developed to help provide an experiential encounter with God and still be biblically correct. Some youth organiza- tions and new emerging congregations are using an excellent balance of freestyle and liturgical style in their worship encounters.

    Worship Styles

Prior to the worship renewal of the 1960s, worship tended to be described in terms of two styles—liturgical and freestyle. However, in the decades following, a variety of styles have developed. They have designations such as blended, charismatic, hymn-based, and contemporary. Regardless of the label attached, it appears that all of them still spawn and adapt from the basic two—liturgical and freestyle.

Liturgical worship

is formal with wording, phraseology, and body language predetermined. It also includes a variety of symbols and symbolic actions in the process of the worship service.

Freestyle worship

isn’t free from planning but rather places planning and organization subject to the spontaneous moving of the Holy Spirit and to the particular situation. It also allows for greater flexibility in one’s personal response.

The Bible does not dictate a particular style. It does, however, indicate attitudes which must be present for genuine worship and provides means by which to express our worship. This enables worship to reflect truth, personality, and culture.

    An Evaluation

Moving toward more liturgical worship contains inherent weaknesses. (1) The symbols—rather than what they represent—may become the emphasis. At that point, a form of idolatry arises. (2) A person may become so enamored with the beauty of the process that the purpose is given a secondary emphasis. (3) There is always the possibility of going through the actions and saying the prescribed words without allowing them to be the expression of one’s heart.

I believe the potential positives of this move toward liturgical worship far outweigh the possible negatives. First, it becomes a tangible means leading toward filling a spiritual void. The symbols enable individuals to have a better grasp of God. From the Mount Sinai development of Israel as a nation, He provided symbols as a representation of His presence. Symbols point to the existence of a living God whom we can know and whose presence we can feel, even though we have not yet seen Him.

Second, this move ties the contemporary Christian to historic Christianity through using the litanies and prayers of the saints from the early centuries of the Church.

Third, for many individuals this move provides a fresh approach to worship different from what they perceive to be current stagnant approaches.

Since the vast majority of Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations utilize various freestyle forms of worship, how should we respond to this trend? To begin with, we must remember that style isn’t the issue when it comes to genuine worship. What really matters is our willingness to come before God with pure hearts open to however the Holy Spirit chooses to move in order to meet the needs of people in their cultural setting. Also, since some individuals are visual learners while others experience a greater impact through hearing, it seems logical for us to be open to a variety of worship styles in an attempt to reach a generation which the church in general has been losing.