How the Liturgy can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)

This is my fifth 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?

After several negative articles attempting to dissect the problem, this article and the next make an attempt at rebuilding what the liturgy is and can do amongst God's people, most especially in the role it can take in transforming the Church in the midst of our present culture.

DISCLAIMER: This is not a comprehensive article. Such a term is an oxymoron, as no single blog article could encapsulate something as complex as "the liturgy" or liturgical studies. So I ask you to please not judge it for what I have left out or failed to mention. I will later post an article with numerous books and resources and practical ideas for the liturgy. Therefore, it is best to approach this article as one entry point into thinking about what the liturgy is supposed to do, especially if you attend a congregation that might be considered "non-liturgical". 

Though it might be a fool's errand, this article is for two disparate audiences: 1.) I am writing for those already fully enmeshed and committed to "liturgical" worship in hopes that they might see how they can teach and practice liturgy amid a culture that is liturgically illiterate, and 2.) I hope to "offer a way in" for those self-described "low church" people who are interested in incorporating liturgical practices in their church but may be intimidated by the prospect and is in need of a primer in order to know what this liturgy thing is all about.

Let's start with one of the simplest set of churchy questions possible: How are Christians called to live? That is, what actions are disciples of Jesus supposed to set about doing? And what actions are universal to all branches of our Faith?

Your list might look slightly different, but here is what I would say. 
Followers of Christ are supposed to: 
  • pray to God 
  • praise God 
  • read the Scriptures and listen to the Scriptures read 
  • tell the world the Good News of Christ 
  • pray for the world 
  • live peaceably with other Christians 
  • gather to worship 
  • serve the world 
  • baptize people into the Body of Christ 
  • celebrate the Lord's Supper
  • confess their sins. 
  • and along with all these they are also to speak up for the "least of these", follow the Sermon on the Mount, practice the gifts of the Spirit, and evidence the Fruit of the Spirit.

Here are the next set of questions: Is it possible to teach the Church everything on that list all at one time? Surely that's too much to fit in at once, you might say, and you'll have to bite off little bits every Sunday and at various other worship, prayer, and teaching services in order to teach God's people ALL of those practices. Unless...has someone come up with a way to teach God's people all of those practices in a short amount of time? Is there some program someone has set up? If so, I'd really like to see it!

Guess what? I've found a solution for everyone! The very "program" you're looking for has already been written up and road tested just for you! Very simply, it's what we call the "The Liturgy."

Here is the essence of what I'm saying: 
By its very nature the liturgy: 
  • disciples us into the way of Jesus 
  • teaches us how to seek and commune with God 
  • models how to live together as fellow disciples 
  • and encourages us to live in ongoing mission to the world who needs to receive the Good News of Christ.

In other words: Liturgy is discipleship

And thus, also by its very essence liturgy is action. It is a set of actions that (when taught and practiced well) compels the Church to further action, to a life of action, in fact.

In other words, until Christ comes again to reign in his kingdom, the liturgy is not an end in itself, but is instead a catalyst for sending the Church out to proclaim the Good News of Christ, to making disciples of Christ, and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continually bring about his Kingdom here on earth in all its physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual manifestations. And this "sending out" sets in motion a continual cycle where disciples, both old and new, are drawn back into worshipping God together and living together as this new community that God is forming in the world. We worship, hear the Word, celebrate Communion and are sent out. Then, after a time on mission we come together again for worship, an ever-flowing cycle until he comes again...

Therefore, until the new Heavens and the New Earth come, the "end in itself" for the Church is the endless cycle between gathered worship and living on mission together. "Worship" and "Mission" forever feed into each other. We commune with God together as his disciples and we go on mission together to gather in more disciples.

In light of these foundational thoughts, allow me to offer my first major "corrective" to how we do liturgy: we have gotten too hung up on the words. We have become obsessed with the idea that we can get worship "right" through the use of the proper words put in the proper order. Many congregations (such as my own) are part denominations that have set orders of worship they are required to submit to, and I am in no way advocating for any of us to change or "dumb down" the liturgy. I am full supporter of obeying the ecclesial authorities God has ordained in our lives.  Instead, I fear those of us committed to the liturgy can easily give in to turning "the liturgy" into a kind of deity-like idol or a new law to be obeyed as co-equal to the Gospel of Jesus.

Speaking with no actual ecclesial authority, here is what I would posit: "The Liturgy" is primarily a set of actions that proclaims who God is and what God has done in the world. By practicing the liturgy we come to know God, to know who God has created us to be, and to know what God has called us to do in the world. "The liturgy" is a set of words wedded to a set of actions wherein the Christian comes to know the truth of God's Good News and then comes to know how to live the Christian life.

I am convinced the reason many people are turned off by the liturgy is there is too much emphasis on saying all the words in order and on getting the ritual right, but not on getting the heart and meaning of the words and ritual right. Liturgical worship can often seem like a mad dash to get from Point A to Point B, rather than a formative set of actions that come to define every aspect of our lives as those "in Christ". 

To further explain I will now go through the "actions" of the liturgy as I see them. These notes are taken from a catechism class I teach at my church and merely line out the basic structure of what we do when we come to worship.

1. Word and Table: When we gather together on Sundays our worship will have two high points or two main rhythms, the first being The Word or the reading, hearing, and expounding of God’s Word, and the second being The Table, where we celebrate The Great Thanksgiving (Eucharist) by gathering around the Lord’s table, remembering his death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory by partaking of bread (his body) and wine (his blood). This is how our liturgy (our way of worshipping) shapes who we are, proclaims who we are, shows the world who our God is.  

2. The liturgy is a set of actions that tells us who we are: Instead of thinking of the liturgy as the set of words we need to get through in order to be “done” with worship, we can instead think of them as a set of actions that tell us who we are. The liturgy shows us and anyone observing what followers of Christ do with their lives. Basically, every week we sum up the Christian life as we worship the Lord in the liturgy. Through The Word and The Table we come to know that:
    1. We are people of worship--we offer our lives up to God in prayers and songs.
    2. We are people who cling to God’s word--we read the Scriptures to each other and proclaim God’s good news to each other (e.g., in a sermon).
    3. We are people who confess our faith to God, to each other, and to the world—as shown in the recitation of the Apostle's or Nicene Creed.
    4. We are people who seek God’s face for ourselves, for our community, and for our world—as shown in the Prayers of the People.
    5. We are people of reconciliation—We seek God’s forgiveness (in the Prayer of Confession) and forgiveness among each other (in the Passing of the Peace).
    6. We are people of communion—In the Eucharist we become united to God and to each other.
    7. We are people of thanksgiving--In the Eucharist we learn to live a life of gratitude back to God, a thanksgiving which is also expressed through singing, praying, and partaking of food together.
    8. We are people of the Story—In the Eucharist we remember, partake of, and then live out the work of Christ.
    9. We are people of mission—In the closing prayers we are sent out into the world to fulfill God’s mission. Mission is the culmination of our worship and worship the culmination of our mission.
All of these actions are embodied in the ritual of a typical Sunday liturgy. They immerse the body of Christ in the rhythm of discipleship. The offer a model for the disciple where each of the actions listed soon become natural to their everyday lives: 
reading God's word, 
confessing our faith, 
confessing our sin, 
dwelling in relationship with God and people, 
living in thanksgiving, 
telling the Story to the world, 
and living a life of mission for the world.

When I look at the actions of the liturgy it is difficult for me to even consider what we might leave out. To me, it would seem the entire Christian life is summed up in the words and actions given in its structure. There will certainly need to be large amounts of teaching and explanation on the liturgy and all the theology behind it that would not fit into the flow of a typical Sunday time of gathered worship. This would be the role of Christian education ("Sunday School"), catechism/confirmation class, Bible studies, small groups, and one on one discipleship.

But I believe if the liturgy could be explained and modeled this way by Church leaders (as a set of actions that encompass what it means to be a disciple of Jesus) then it would soon cease to seem "elitist" or "academic" or "too long" or "too Catholic" or too whatever reason people lobby as to why the liturgy isn't a "relevant" or beneficial practice.

The explaining and the modeling of the practice of liturgy is my life's work and I pray those of us who are advocates of it will have enough patience to continually introduce people its beauty and meaning and rhythms. Liturgy is the very work of God moving through his people to accomplish his purpose here on earth.

Next article in this series:
How the Church Calendar Can Speak to Modern People—Turning our holidays into holy-days Previous Articles in this series:
Is the Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For "Normal" Christians?
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
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!
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

1 comment:

Michelle Van Loon said...

Gosh, am I enjoying this series.

Have you seen the book "Liturgy Of The Ordinary" by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren? She connects the movements of the Anglican liturgy to the daily practices that shape our lives (brushing teeth, making a bed) in a very compelling way that helps readers see that liturgy shapes our corporate worship, but it also shapes our experience of daily discipleship in very profound ways.