Is The Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For Regular Christians? (An Introduction)

Alternate title: The Liturgy is Dead! Long Live the Liturgy!


I realize to some people the title of this article is going to look like click bait. But it's not. Instead it is a question I have continued to ask myself numerous times over the past several years. In a way, I ask it every single Sunday...

I also realize everything about the series of articles I am undertaking about the Church's liturgy and worship, from its premise to it's main points is going to sound elitist, as if there are some parts of the Church that have "higher" or more "superior" forms of worship, and other parts of the Church I want to separate out, put on a lower rung of worthiness, and deem "inferior". But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, my one desire for writing on the subject of liturgy is for the Church to worship together in unity, in spirit, and in truth. This reason alone is why I care so much about the liturgy, what it does through the Church, what it says about the Church, and about God who is her Keeper and Savior.

I say all this as a disclaimer because this article (and the ones that follow it) are not polemical in intent but instead a lament asking a number of questions I am afraid to know the answers to. It represents the death of a central belief for who I am as a follower of Christ (i.e., "the liturgy is the best way to worship God"). I certainly would want my belief to come to life again, but right now I am in the midst of discerning whether or not "the liturgy" is on life support in the American church (and thus on its way to expiring) or if it can be resuscitated and able to make a full recovery.

This article is the first of a 6 part series questioning the place of the liturgy in the 21st Century American church. This article introduces the problem, the 2nd article is a parable offering a narrative on the situation, the 3rd and 4th articles list why people (possibly) don't go to liturgical churches, and the 5th and 6th articles attempt to form a solution surounding the Church's use of "the liturgy".

Our foundational question is: Is the liturgy too elitist and academic for "regular" or mainstream Christians who fall into the general Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Protestant camps?

Now onto the introduction:

Here is a brief bio so you can understand where I have come from and where I currently am: I grew up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of God church, but in my early 20's I began finding out about "historic" Christianity and "ancient" forms of worship. While attending seminary my wife and I were drawn to the liturgy and sacraments of the Anglican Church. We saw ourselves as part of a movement of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians seeking to deepen our faith by returning to the ancient paths, as documented in such books as Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Beyond Smells and Bells, and Accidental Anglican

We had become weary of the shallowness and flashiness of "seeker sensitive", "mega-church" worship, and instead decided to become "seekers" of the beauty and depth of the historic faith where we met the Lord incarnationally in the sacraments. We quickly committed to learning how to practice and understand the liturgy and the Church calendar. After seminary we left our beloved Chicago area Anglican Church (Church of the Redeemer) in order to plant a "liturgical" church in our home city, Peoria, Illinois, feeling something like lone pioneers, establishing the first Evangelical liturgical settlement on the wide open prairie. It took a year to put together, but eventually we got paired up with an Anglican pastor (Fr. Greg Lynn) and began Epiphany Church in someone's home the summer of 2011.

We have been hammering away ever since, meeting in our home, our pastor's home, renting space in a local ministry center (the Peoria Dream Center), in a beautiful stone church, and now finally in a Civil War memorial hall. We have been a "fledgling" church for so long the title is beginning to make me weary. The church plant has not turned out like I expected. We have a strong committed core of wonderful people, but they are a small group. I have a life-long goal to be an apologist and evangelist for "the liturgy" but I have often ended up feeling a lot like Father McKenzie in "Eleanor Rigby", prepping a sermon that no one will hear. 

I'm not exactly sure why our church plant hasn't taken off. There are a number of factors that could be contributing to it, including:
1.) We are entering an increasingly post-Christian society where young people are less and less likely to desire going to church or remain committed to a belief system.
2.) My pastor and I are bi-vocational and not able to commit lots of time ministering to people and managing the congregation.
3.) The general culture in our area is not ready for or open to learning how to do "liturgical" worship.

This last factor is the one I think about the most...

My pastor said something a little while ago that got me thinking about all of this, a statement I have been trying to unpack and discern the implications of: "People don't come to church or stay at a church for the worship. They come for the community of people and the sense of belonging they feel. The liturgy itself is not what draws them."

My pastor's statement is born from a desire to figure out how to be the Church in an increasingly post-Christian age. He is in the midst of discerning how our culture has shifted and why and how they might find themselves in a church building on a Sunday, if they are open to the idea of "coming to church" at all.

But there are some problematic assumptions about the statement: 
1). Saying "people don't come to church for the liturgy (or the worship)" seems to imply there is a disconnect between the identity of the Church (those followers of Christ who proclaim the Good News in word and deed) and what the Church does when it comes together to worship.

Thus my counter would be: Sure, but for me one of the primary ways I feel connected with people, to really feel like I'm in a community is to worship, pray, and discuss the things of God with them. That is, the worship part goes hand in hand with the community part.

2). If however, we haven't detached what the Church does in the liturgy from who they are in Christ, the statement implies modern American people are either too shallow, too self-centered, or too one dimensional in how they see spirituality and matters of faith, and have instead become too focused on one aspect of the Christian life at the expense of others, that aspect being "life together" or forming strong Christian community and friendships at the expense of gathering together to worship God, hear the word of God, and celebrate the sacraments.

Thus, my counter would be: Well, if people are preferring to just have "community" and not seek God through gathered worship isn't that a trend that needs to be corrected? Shouldn't we disciple them to see the Christian life differently, a more interconnected way of life where worship, community, and mission are practiced all together?

3.) However, perhaps neither option 1 or 2 are what is wrong. Instead, what my pastor could unconsciously be implying is that we are doing the liturgy woefully, tragically wrong.

Thus my counter would be: If our liturgy is turning people away, shouldn't we actively seek a way to change the liturgy or to practice the liturgy in such a way that people are drawn in rather than compelled to run out?

Conclusion: I will say much more on this in a later article, but I strongly believe "the liturgy", both because of its rootedness in Scripture and the Church's tradition, is essential in teaching us who we are in Christ and how to live out our lives as followers of Christ. This means that for me the only way for "Christian community" to know what its identity is and what its actions should be is for it to engage together in the the way of life the liturgy lays out for us (again, because it is rooted in Scripture and the Church's tradition). 

However, if our gathered worship is not connecting to all aspects of our lives as Christ followers, then perhaps how we are doing our worship and the spirit in which we are doing it has "lost the plot" and requires a drastic change of some kind. I have firmly held principles as to why I believe churches should practice "the liturgy" but at the same time I am in the midst of diagnosing why liturgical worship has not been as much of a success in my context as I thought it would be.

The next article attempts to more thoroughly diagnose my own cultural situation as to why the liturgy "doesn't work", through a parable:
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
Other articles in this series:
Why People Don't Go To "Liturgical" Churches Part 1: Liturgy's Superiority Complex
Why People Don't Go To Liturgical Churches Part 2: It's Un-American
How the Liturgy can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)
How the Church Calendar Can Speak to Modern People—Turning our holidays into holy-days
What Exactly Is a Normal Christian Anyway? (and yes, my answer sounds elitist)
Related Articles on Worship and Liturgy
Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music
I Don't Care If the Church Will Sing It In 2065
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship 

Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
4 Things I Learned About Worship By Being on a Podcast
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary


TesfaMesqel said...

I don't mean to be crass, but perhaps your "liturgical church plant" hasn't "taken off" because there was already a number of established liturgical churches in the area? A Google Maps search showed some 3 Orthodox Churches and 8 Catholic Churches, it sounds to me like there are plenty of churches that can offer a liturgical experience, be it Eastern Rite or Western Rite.

The Liturgy doesn't need to be changed, it's remained largely unchanged for many centuries and is itself the preserved tradition for communal worship (hence it's very name) passed down to us from the time of the Apostles. In many, many other cultures and countries people flock to liturgical churches, which are generally seen as the norm and people almost can't imagine a church that is not liturgical. It is clear that those who find the Liturgy unpalatable or prefer alternative styles of "worship" have been deceived and misled to something that is not from the One Apostolic Church at all but rather the invention of misguided theologians who chose to create a new tradition separated from the ancient traditions that have been preserved in the Church.

We need to pray for those who have fallen away from the venerable traditions of the ancient Church and help (not proselytize or affront) them to become educated and hope that they will see past the deception to the Light of the Church.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Hi there. I'm not sure if people get to reading my responses, but I hope this one finds you.

It's not crass. I get what you're saying.

I feel pretty confident in my counter to the critique you offered.
I would venture to guess nearly all of those already established liturgical churches are doing very little cultural engagement, most especially with the religious nones and agnostic/atheists and post-Christians we find ourselves engaged with in our social circles. Which is to say I don't believe they have connections or have found a way to engage with the whole masses of people that have walked away from church altogether or who never grew up in church to begin with.

Hopefully you'll stick around for some of my later articles and see where I go with things.

Seth Ben-Ezra said...

I will be awaiting the future installments (and I'm sure we'll have opportunity to discuss face-to-face if we wish). But I do wonder what constitutes "success" of the liturgy. Did the people meet with God? Were they absolved of their sins? Did they receive His marching orders for the week? Were they fed at His table?

Isn't that success, regardless of the head count?

(I know. Easy for me to say....)

Blog Novice said...

Just stumbled across your article by chance, thanks for sharing your struggles. I find many similar issues running through my head on a regular basis. I'm a Lutheran pastor in one of the more conservative Lutheran bodies in Canada, and most of our congregations adhere to some form of the liturgy although there is quite a diversity of expressions. I have a deep love of the liturgy but can sympathize with many people who struggle with it. I also am mission-minded and think the beauty and depth of the liturgy and the sacraments have much of what the world needs.

Often in my circles, the liturgy debate is slightly amended to be the contemporary music versus traditional hymnody debate (not entirely the same issues, but there`s lots of overlap). I have had the exact same thought as the title to your article in regards to that debate. I have likened it to Shakespeare. It is well known that Shakespeare is deep and significant literature that does much to shed light on the human experience in an artful and impactful way. All people should appreciate Shakespeare. But many people will not and even utterly refuse to give Shakespeare a chance simply because the English sounds funny. Are they missing out on something immensely valuable and meaningful? Yes. Do they care? No. Will contemporizing Shakespeare, making him hip and modern, draw people in and slowly win them over as fans of Shakespeare? Maybe, but probably not. Getting back to hymnody and liturgy, the question I ask myself is, what is a Christ-like response to those people who refuse to take part in what`s probably the most beneficial thing for their life in Christ, simply because `they don`t like it'?

I don't have the answer to that question. My answer depends on the day and who I'm talking to. The outer poles probably range from "we should be incarnational and meet people where they're at, breaking down whatever barriers stand in the way of people meeting Christ,' all the way to 'people need to have the full expression of the Gospel laid before them. Only that which deeply and meaningfully proclaims Christ is what we should be publically practicing." And of course every nuance in between.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your articles. Thanks again for sharing.

bethmeersman@yahoo.com said...

Interesting topic. I don't know if you are a young pastor or not, but I love the liturgy. I am 56 and was raised in the methodist church in southern California. I've attended the same church for 53 years. We have always followed the liturgy, some pastors have been high church others in the middle. I experience the mystery of God through the liturgy. I've always felt that way since a child. I also experience synesthesia of music, so the liturgy done in concert with choir and organ offer me a mystical experience and power of God. I've always been told I was an old soul or born in the wrong era, but the liturgy is from another time, so it works perfectly for me. Aside from early or primitive church following the liturgy, is it not even older from old testament times? Is not the blue print of our service from Isaiah 6?. I really don't experience my God in some of these modern , bare bones worship services. It's difficult to empathize with younger people who can't appreciate the ancient liturgy. I say they are missing out. So I look forward to the next article.-as an after, I am going on the Wesleyan pilgrimage in England this summer, so I am really going to be studying and understanding more of liturgy and evangelism, the liturgy does have a valid place in the modern church.- Beth Meersman

Anonymous said...

Is there the need for Liturgy? Just because 'we' think so it does not mean it has to be. Or perhaps others view Liturgy in the same way you dismiss other worship forces as 'shallow'......saying the same thing every week, reading the words out of a book or off a card, not having to create or think, just repeating what you are given to say......'we are all individuals. These are all arguments I have heard against Liturgy but 'Liturgy apologists' either disregard them or say these critics don't understand. If Liturgy is being viewed as a social class or intellectual level for people to aspire to then perhaps it is doomed.

Unknown said...

I’ll be honest I come from a mottley Nazarene/charismatic background and liturgy has never been my “thang” but I at least have some reasons for it and I’d love to hear your thoughts. First I think liturgy existed in its peak in a time when everyone in those areas went to church. And that can’t been removed from its context. Liturgy is for the Church, and it doesn’t seem to be possible for people to just “pick up” that day. Every time I’m in a liturgical service I feel like I’m lost in a zumba group and every minute that goes by I get further behind. I can’t bother to think about the words because I’m just worried about how I sound and that I’m a syllable behind. I think there are words that can be imported into a service with newer believers like “praise be to God,” and “amen…” but the longer more flowery interactions are so hard to get into the rhythm of in a large setting.

I think liturgy needs to shift to the daily and weekly lives of the church. The bible studies and daily prayer meetings have the a context to enjoy the repetition of traditions and the church calendar as well as the vulnerability explore a tradition like liturgy with the kind of awkwardness that leads to more honesty.

Even still I think liturgy needs to be justified. Every single word needs to matter in a tradition that exists in a culture where our western traditions are basically only Christmas, and weddings. It’s not self centered to get bored and tired of long flourishing prayers that use old or extraneous words and take up the small bit of time that the community has set aside for worship and encouragement. For this I think smaller repetitions of the benediction or maybe, St. Francis’s prayer have a theological and comfort aspect to them but are memorable and useful in various moments. The “joining in” and feeling of togetherness will not happen with words that cannot be memorized and it seems that it is something that really can only be fully experienced after a lot of time. So while those moments are powerful to a well established congregation it's not the most accessible thing to a new group of people. Not nearly as much as an invitation to lunch after the service.

I’m in a similar boat with a bit of a twist. As I said before and will briefly assume you understanding from your AG background my best moments in worship are musically inspired. And when I say music, I mean, rather boisterous music. In wanting to develop a church community I also want to foster the freedom to be loud or honest or open. While that’s all well and good the leap from quiet group of people in a home to a service feels miles away. Furthermore, how do you bring people into church traditions that extend past the particular gathering into Church tradition? For that I think it comes down to “true community” (insert my squinty eyed hipster glasses face). But really in the fellowship of people genuinely sharing their experiences and developing a connection to tradition there is space to develop and experiment in worship.

Its fallen quite out of fashion, but once upon a time, even in my rather low-key Nazarene Church. The “Sunday school” bit of the day was actually spend talking theology and learning about church history. It was pretty extensive and by highschool I knew all about the church creed as well as its founding. I think there’s room to bring these retellings of history and tradition but that perhaps, can’t be separated from the traditions like liturgy.

So tl;dr, context is something required with liturgy. It can’t be removed from the large ecosystems that existed when liturgy was developed. Think of people living together, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Perhaps you can’t separate the history, theology, and the years spent in life together from the order of service.

Richard said...

I would say absolutely that liturgy is not passe or dead. In fact, my favorite book so far is "Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community"by Simon Chan, who argues the lack of liturgy is killing the Evangelical Church. Chan is a Pentecostal pastor espousing the benefits of liturgy. For me, I don't want to be entertained, I don't want to have Holy Scripture made "relevant" to me, I don't want my "worship" experience to consist of a 45-minute exegesis of some random passage and etc. I view "worship" as a verb and I love being a part of the service. I love my Anglican church service whereby there's a balance between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. To me, it ties me to the ancient faith of the early Church Fathers. It ties me to the creeds, and ties together the holiness, contemplative, and incarnational parts of myself.

I attend an Anglican church plant and many of our visitors come from non-liturgical churches and they have fallen in love with the form of worship.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Richard, I would recommend reading the rest of my articles in this series. You get more of the fuller picture of where I stand.

I think you and I have had very similar experiences.

Thanks for sharing.

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