This is my third article of six exploring "liturgical" worship and whether or not it works in my culture, that is "middle American Christianity". Here is our foundational question: Is the liturgy too elitist and academic for "regular" or mainstream Christians who fall into the general Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Protestant camps?
This article, the first of two parts, addresses some of the many possible reasons why worshipping God through "the liturgy" does not seem to work for my context. It is split into two parts for the sake of length.
Here are articles 1 & 2:
Is the Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For "Normal" Christians?
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
THE DIRE DIAGNOSES
I am now in the midst of attempting to diagnosis why it is that "liturgical worship" does not work (or does not seem to be working) in my middle class, middle American city. Here are my best guesses. And please note that "the liturgy" is something I am deeply committed to. It is something I will do the rest of my life. It is something I believe to be deeply Biblical, historically Christian, and transformative for today's Church. But perhaps it does not (yet) appeal to a majority of the people in my cultural context.
The deeply bitter irony is this is exactly the opposite of what "the liturgy" is supposed to do. It is not supposed to appeal to anybody or any "type" of Christian. "The liturgy" is simply what the Church does when it gathers together. "The liturgy" is simply the Church proclaiming through word and deed who God is and who we are as a result. Nonetheless, this list is an attempt to explain what might be happening with the apparent lack of appeal for "liturgical worship" in my setting. You will see how there are both positive and negative sides to each of these points. (Also please note: this is where I pretty much make everyone mad. My list will go back and forth between poking holes in the liturgy and insulting huge swaths of the American people...but maybe you won't realize I'm insulting you when I do...? Whichever camp you fall into, I hope you enjoy it...)
This first article consists of reasons people might give as to why "the liturgy" is too elitist or academic, or, as this article is ironically titled, why it has a "superiority complex". But it also gives reasons why the liturgy is off-putting to many people and why it seems backwards to them.
1). The liturgy is too literary and uses too many words
There are A LOT of words in a full liturgy. There are set prayers for 1). calls to worship, 2). forgiveness of sin, 3.) intercessions for the Church and world, 4.) during and after Communion, and 5). being blessed and sent out into the world. There can be up to 3 Scripture readings and a responsorial Psalm. It is possible that a lot of music will be sung, with some hymns having 4 or more verses. Congregations also often recite the Nicene Creed and have a set way to "pass the peace." On top of all this, the words themselves can be a stumbling block, as the language used is more flowery and at a higher reading level than 21st century conversational English. In other words, people don't normally talk to each other or talk to God in the same kind of language as the liturgy uses and so it doesn't feel natural. It feels uppity and remote to us. Instead of connecting us to God it distances us from God.
2). The liturgy is too complicated and esoteric and long...
There are so many parts in the liturgy that it becomes difficult for the uninitiated to even know what is going on. The cliche is there is so much movement that people hardly know whether they're standing up or sitting down. It's a cliche but it is mostly true. The way a typical liturgical service operates assumes that you already know what is going on and what will be coming next. That is, it assumes a pre-knowledge of the ritual. That is, it is by default non-seeker sensitive (or seeker insensitive?). There are so many actions and symbols in the liturgy that can be off-putting to people who are used to what is called "low-church" worship. From the ornate vestments, to the statues and icons, to the processing in and out, to the constant ups and downs, to having to recite prayers and Scriptures out loud, to having to learn stodgy old hymns, to reciting a 4th century credal confession that most churches never talk about, to confessing our sins, to having to take Communion every week, there is so much about the liturgy that is foreign for typical Evangelical Christians, so much that will make them uncomfortable, and so much that is confusing and hard to follow.
On top of all this, some congregations almost seem to want to make it difficult for people, forcing worshippers to go back and forth between different sets of prayer books, hymnals, and seasonal Scripture inserts/booklets. Then, some "liturgical" churches almost seem make it a goal of "the liturgy" to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible without letting anyone dwell in God's presence, as if they are stating by their performance of the ritual "It's OK. We're doing our thing up here. We've got the whole thing covered, and once we're done, all the requirements will have been met for the week, you'll be in tip-top spiritual shape and you can just go home." Again, this is a worship designed for the initiated, not for those coming from the outside, be they Christian or non-Christian.
3.) Liturgical churches typically use the pageantry of a by-gone age (think "smells and bells") instead of the pageantry of our technologically savvy, entertainment obsessed age, and as a result they seem out of touch and dull to modern people.
Over the past 20 or so years Evangelical/Pentecostal/Nondenominational/Mega Churches having increasingly sought to use the resources of technology during their times of worship. The decibel levels of the music has risen, complex, automated lighting rigs have been utilized, lyrics are projected with cinematic, moving backgrounds, and comfortable theatre seating has been installed. How can the vestments, incense, stained-glass, statuary, icons, illuminated Gospel books, crosses held high, candles, etc. compete with the audio/visual abundance of the 21st century? The pageantry of the "mega-church" (used generally as a catch-all term) is far more colorful and bold, even if it lacks any depth of symbolism and often seems to exist as "art for art's sake" or "art for the general glory of God," rather than drawing from the rich symbolism of the historic church (which is to say that the "contemporary" worship space often seems to be a oddly neutral or general gathering space resembling a concert or film theater rather than a sacred space with Christian symbols).
All in all what this signals is the mega-church is using the means of present day culture, a medium that translates almost immediately to present day people (whether they are Christian or not). There is an immediate comfort for the modern person in the mega church worship space. But in a "traditional" "liturgical" space there is immediate distance. This is not a culture we are familiar with. We can observe its beauty and stand in awe of it just as we do in art and history museums, but this beauty is not Us. It belongs to someone else. This is not how We connect with God. In a museum we observe and appreciate the art as spectators, but a worship space should allow for an interactive experience for the worshipper.
4). The liturgy is too "catholic" (isn't it?)
There is a basic assumption that anything "liturgical" or "ritualistic" in worship is by default "Catholic", that is, "Roman Catholic". To many Protestant Evangelicals the Roman church is apostate, tantamount to a heretical cult (which is, by the way, exactly how many Roman Catholic's view Protestants). There is certainly a history here, where anything that smacks of "Popery" is to be done away with. The early Reformers were known for this and we Protest-ants follow in their legacy. Well, there is Popery and then there's Popery. I'm not going to get into the differences now, but I do feel compelled to say that a default labelling of everything "liturgical" as "Catholic" is a willfully ignorant stance towards the rich liturgical traditions of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist and other Churches. Which is to say that to be turned off by "liturgy" is to reject a whole slew of traditions and denominations and not only the Roman Catholic church. Nonetheless, the stigma of "liturgical" = Catholic remains firmly planted in many Christians' minds and thus liturgy continues to be a turnoff to many in my context.
Other Articles in this series:
Why People Don't Go To Liturgical Churches Part 2: It's Un-American
Is the Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For "Regular" Christians?
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
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