May 30, 2020

Congregational Singing as Liturgical Renewal: Wesley’s Revival of the Lord’s Supper

We are looking this month at the topic of church music. Colleen Reiss Vermeulen lives in South Bend, Indiana where she joyfully sings many Wesleyan hymns at St. Matthew Co-Cathedral Parish, and is working on two (Two? Yes, two.) Masters degrees at the University of Notre Dame, but took time from her busy schedule to share this historical insight with us. 

How often do we in ministry think, “I’d be tempted to incorporate more historical Christian liturgies or more services of the Lord’s Supper in our Sunday worship, but…I don’t think the congregation would get into it, they’d think it was boring or inaccessible.” John Wesley’s eighteenth-century revival in worship and sacrament points us towards a more coherent vision, revealing that it’s not just about changing the texts of a service, finding the right music, or creating the right atmosphere. It’s all these elements, and more, working together. It’s not just the music and it’s not just the order of service—it’s both, reinforcing each other in a cycle of preparation to worship the Lord and reception of His graces in communal worship.

Wesley’s reform and renewal of Sunday worship began with his observations of liturgical practice in the Church of England. In the eighteenth-century, the heart of Anglican worship, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, was “infrequently administered and indifferently regarded by large numbers of both clergy and laity,” and only administered three times a year in many places. Many even thought that the average Englishman—a worker in a new industry or mining town—were unreachable, simply a “brutal populace” with “no taste” worship consisting of word and sacrament in the form of the Book of Common Prayer. But Wesley knew that the “unchurched masses” were not unreachable. God simply didn’t create a Christian church for the elite and cultured only.

After decades of ministry to tens of thousands of Englishmen, and a true revival in worship and practice of the Lord’s Supper, Wesley put his reforms into writing in his 1784 service book, Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. What did he place importance on? Participation of the congregation in the prayers of the Lord’s Supper—accomplished through music. For Wesley, Christianity essentially involved one’s “heart” and “life.” He replaced the use of choral settings (he found such anthems inappropriate for the congregation) with hymnody, which he “believed to be accessible to all” and included A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for the Lord’s Day that were bound with the service book.

His hymns pertaining to the Lord’s Supper (most written by his brother, Charles) are a “blend of orthodoxy and evangelism,” says church historian John Bowmer. They were undoubtedly in the High Church tradition and “accused, very unjustly, of displaying Roman Catholic tendencies,” but written for full participation of the assembly. The hymns were not merely a way to form Methodists in orthodox doctrine, but also an instrument for connecting the assembly with the liturgical celebration, as many hymns were essentially “choral settings of parts of the Communion service.”

Hymn-singing was also a way of fostering reverence and attentiveness to prayer and sacrament during the Lord’s Supper. One of Wesley’s preachers advocated for “singing during the Communion of the people” because “as it is the fittest time to ask the most ordinary to receive grace, every moment ought to be improved to the best advantage.” He believed that “continual praying and singing would prevent the wanderings of many, who are not convinced of sin deeply enough, or influenced by grace strongly enough, to mourn and pray without interruption, if they are left to themselves.”  The questions driving every reform and decision are “Does this authentically flow from and connect the assembly to the whole of the service?”

By not choosing music based on “relevance,” and instead viewing music as inseparable from the service in form and function, Wesley’s celebrations of the Lord’s Supper got noticed. They were packed and crowded with Christians, new and old. Through their hymns Wesley’s followers, as Bowmer writes, “transformed was a piece of uninspiring ritual into a lively means of grace, a ‘Gospel Feast.’”  Supported by music, the Lord’s Supper did, by its own intrinsic qualities, become a very powerful agent in the revival; it was not simply attended as a duty, but as a joyful meeting with the “crucified, risen and ascended Lord, at the place where He bestowed grace and power.”  What a vision! An inspiring reminder that the songs we sing in church aren’t just a decorative addition or a way to use up time. Music must flow from our form of worship, as an intrinsic outpouring of our celebrations of word and sacrament. And when it does, it has the power to inspire, revive, and call the entire assembly to a deeper encounter with the Lord.



  1. This is a most insightful and instructive post. I’ve copied it to refer to periodically. I especially appreciate this question: “Does this authentically flow from and connect the assembly to the whole of the service?”

  2. I think it would be awesome to sing some liturgical hymns over the Lord’s Supper, however, I think our concept of the Lord’s Supper is very off base, as we see biblically in the gospels and in Acts, the Lord’s supper was more about a complete meal in fellowship with the body, as opposed to the religious traditions with which we have turned it into – forming a line to receive a small piece of bread and sip of wine or juice.

    Why don’t we partake as the disciples and first century church did?

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      By Paul’s time the “love feast” version was being abused (see 1 Corinthians). That’s why it quickly died out as a common practice.

    • We have never abandoned our love of potlucks. I don’t know what you’re talking about. 😛

    • “our concept of the Lord’s Supper is very off base”

      Christ did not institute a love feast fellowship meal. His “Do this” referred to eating the wine/blood and bread/body.

      • Also, the outward manner in which the gift is received does not affect the gift, whether on tables, kneeling, or whatever, but as with baptism, baptists and pentacostals turn it into a bunch of rules to follow, rather than a means by which God shows us his grace and forgiveness .

    • “Why don’t we partake as the disciples and first century church did?”

      Because we are not the first century Church. Although the Faith was once delivered, working out how to practice it is a work in progress. Very early on (by, I think, the 3rd or 4th centuries), the Agape Meal had been banned due to abuse.

      On top of this, we don’t actually know how the Agape Meal- if, in fact, it was meant to be part of the Communion Rite- really functioned. All of the earliest texts I have been able to find emphasis the offering of the Lord’s Supper, and not much on how the meal surrounding it worked.

      Finally, we receive that which we have been given. The Eucharistic rite, as we have known it, has been handed down for generations. And while something which is old is not necessarily correct, we had better have a good argument if we are going to reverse over 1500 years of Christian praxis. The Lord’s Supper was separated from the Agape Meal for good reason, I think. And in any case, it is not as though some form of the shared meal has vanished. The potluck remains strong ever still! 🙂

  3. This makes me sigh. As much as I love her vision of liturgical music practice, I wish we had more modern liturgical musicians. Trying to make this happen with the wasteland of CCM is very difficult. I know, I’ve tried.

  4. Bill Metzger says

    Our congregation has returned to full liturgy in worship, along with classic hymnody. We celebrate the Eucharist every service. There is a return to true reverence in worship and a proper focus-on Jesus, not us, and what HE is doing in the Divine Service. It’s wonderful.

    • Hold the phone. Your congregation had thrown that stuff away, and now they have recovered it? THAT is refreshing to hear. You should write up a story of the journey and process!

  5. David Cornwell says

    One of the greatest strengths of Methodism has been it’s love of singing. The hymns of our faith have always been a source of comfort , strength, and renewal for me. At best they can be a source of faith affirmation whether one is singing with a congregation or merely singing alone silently or in the woods while walking.

    As a child my parents would have friends or neighbors to the house on occasion, and they would gather at the piano, my mom playing the favorites (she wasn’t an accomplished pianist, but could get by), and everyone singing. These weren’t all the great hymns of the church, but many easy to sing gospel songs. I always loved those times together.

    Over time some Methodists lost their love for the Lord’s Supper and fell back on the tardy practices of the Church of England. In fact one seldom hears of this aspect of Wesley’s teaching.

    Thanks for this essay.

  6. I have friends who say they don’t like liturgy. But when you ask them about the best day of their life, many of these will cite their wedding day, which is liturgy from start (seating grandmothers) to finish (DJ playing New York, New York) and everything in between!
    I think that’s because their hearts were already engaged, and looking to the liturgy to help provide expression for what was already inside them.

    • My wedding day was not about the liturgy, it was about the bride!

      • …And the best part of the wedding was the non liturgical stuff that happened at the reception.

        • One could (and should) easily argue that the best part of worship is not the liturgy but the King. Proper ceremony mix with a heart of anticipation certainly pays off though.

      • Right, but for many brides, there’s a lot more focus on liturgy than in many church services. They just don’t use the word liturgy. I think the word “Pinterest” pops up more often these days, but it’s still a stealth liturgy.

        • I see what you mean by this.

          • The bride wears white, is walked down the aisle by her father, they make “repeat after me” vows, they exchange gold bans, light candles or tie ropes together, take communion, seal the deal with a kiss, and are “presented” as one to the world… All very liturgical.

          • There’s a liturgy to the reception too, usually. It certainly seems more informal due the the party context, but there’s usually a general outline of events: Entrance, first dance, cutting the cake, throwing the flowers, etc… Nobody shows up to that party and says, “what do you feel like doing? Let’s do that!” There’s tradition to be followed, and it adds meaning and significance to the event, making it distinctly recognizable from any sort of generic celebration.

          • At our reception… it was pretty much do what you want. We played “Steering wheel of fortune”, a game based upon my notoriously bad driving. Very few of what might be called liturgical elements. But then, I am not that much of a liturgical guy.

  7. I attend a Nazarene church, in theory Wesleyan tradition, but we seldom celebrate the Eucharist, maybe once every couple of months. In MY opinion this sacrament id THE most important part of any church gathering. Jesus said “as often as ye would”, but this has been largely forgotten in favor of emotional choruses and altar calls. The focus has been switched from Christ’s sacrifice to the individual’s commitment. Wrong, wrong, WRONG!