What exactly is a "normal" Christian anyway? (And yes, my answer sounds elitist)
Why It's Important That People Aren't Coming to My "Liturgical" Church Plant
I am at the tail end of writing a series of articles on the Church's worship and practicing "the liturgy." There were 6 main articles (which you can access at the end of this article) while this article and the next few articles to follow are an addendum or appendix to the main articles.
After publishing each article, part of my post-publishing routine was to engage in dialogue with people on both sides of the Liturgy Spectrum (that is, with both "low-church" and "high-church" Christians). Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest pushback I got was from high-church Anglo-Catholics, who's main criticisms seemed to be that:
1.) I wanted to dumb down the liturgy.
2.) I wanted to use church growth model marketing strategies to attract people.
3.) I wasn't using the 1928 prayer book (or another superior form of the liturgy).
4.) I had a very low-church understanding of the sacraments and I didn't see the Eucharist (Communion) as the high point of the liturgy, or as the sole reason that God's people gather together to worship.
Guess what? I am not going to address any of those criticisms on this blog, especially when they primarily consist of making me say things I never actually said (I guess to them the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence, a la Donald Rumsfeld) or the criticisms were given from the perspective that I could never be the right kind of Christian simply because my congregation (as well as my diocese and the majority of the Church of England) doesn't use the right form of the liturgy. I consider myself an Anglo-Catholic *(see my footnote below for an explanation) whether they think I am or not and I deny the accusations of #'s 1, 2, & 4, even if my congregation doesn't use the right prayer book according to their beliefs and standards.
Instead, I am going to address two other questions (or concerns or criticisms or pushbacks) I got from people that I am far more interested in:
1.) What do you mean by using the term "normal Christian"? Aren't we all "normal" Christians?
2.) In the bigger picture, does church attendance numbers matter all that much?
I believe these two questions are related, which is why I will attempt to answer them in a single article.
So, to start with, what do I mean by a "normal" Christian?
I have to admit, by throwing around the term "normal", I was engaging in a bit of internet trolling and was hoping to irritate or provoke people a bit. The premise of my entire series was asking the question "Is the liturgy too academic or elitist for 'normal' Christians?" I am afraid to say my answer to this question of what "normal" is has the potential to itself sound elitist. But first let me begin here:
In the context of the original article, the term "normal Christian" implied the many theologically Conservative Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Non-Denominational Christians who make up the majority in the area in which I live. Indeed, the public face of Protestant Christianity today seems to be a non-denominational mega-church pastor. "Normal" church worship is therefore pretty simple: the worship song set, announcements, the sermon, and then perhaps an altar call or response of some kind. Within this cultural context practicing the liturgy seems blatantly ab-normal. It is a foreign practice. It goes against cultural norms, and thus I do not attend a "normal" church.
But here is where I invert the term: I admit now that I was being sly, for in my estimation a "normal" Christian is a worshipper who practices and submits to the liturgy. In fact, it is ab-normal to not worship with the liturgy. Down throughout the ages the vast majority of Christians in the world have engaged in the practice of worshipping God with the full liturgy. From Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to Anglican, to Methodist, to Lutheran, to Presbyterian, and to many other branches of the faith "the liturgy" (or some form of it) is the norm for worship. And thus the increasingly prominent low-church or free-church worship of the past few centuries is the anomaly, and not those churches who follow the liturgy. Furthermore, I will forever be contending that "the liturgy" is simply what the Church does when it gathers together, that it is strange to not follow the liturgy (see my previous article for the basic outline of what happens during the liturgy).
And so I've put everyone in their box. There are the "good" churches who practice the liturgy and the "bad" churches who have rejected or forgotten it as a practice.
If you go to a "liturgical" church perhaps you feel justified at the moment or if you go to "the other" kind of church, perhaps you are feeling unjustly judged. To the first group I would say "Go back and read my series of articles, as they are an extended attempt to understand the mindset and culture of those Christians who are turned off by liturgy. To the second group I would say "If you're still following me and open to what I have to say, please allow me to answer the second question from above, about church numbers and attendance, because it might help you understand more of where I am coming from."
So, does it matter if mass amounts of people are coming specifically to my church and all the other "liturgical" churches?
One of the comments I received on my blog was from a friend of mine who I go to church with and who plays a key part in serving our community in worship (you can find his blog here). Here are his thoughts:
I 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 am actually not going to directly answer his question, because his implications are essentially right: what is most important for any local congregation is the gathered faithful be faithful in their worship to God. Instead I will answer his question by fully laying my cards on the table and coming clean with why I've written this series of articles: as much as I want my own church plant to grow, more than that I want EVERY SINGLE CHURCH in my area to begin implementing as many liturgical practices into their gathered worship as possible.
This past Sunday I had a conversation with the same friend and I brought up his comment that I quoted above. Here is what I told him: "There would be nothing better for my pride than to have ALL the churches in the area following the liturgy. Right now, it plays in to my pride to have a 'special' church that does the liturgy. It sets me apart from Those Other churches. It makes me better than them. More than anything I want to have the playing field completely leveled. I want the liturgy to simply be the normal practice. Then we wouldn't have to go round and round about what should be included in worship and what could be left out. Instead, we could then focus on the more important practice of how to live as disciples of Jesus in our world."
You see, if weekly gathered worship is a normal Christian practice, then I would also argue that confessing our sins, reciting Scripture, praying for the world, celebrating Communion, and all the other practices I lined out in my previous article are also Normal Christian Practices. These actions are simply what Christians do when they gather. They are not elitist but "normal" and ordinary. So, in answer to my original question "Is the liturgy elitist?" my answer is decidedly "no...unless we make it that way."
If I'm being completely honest, my pride is far less concerned with the amount of people attending our congregation (we're actually doing pretty decent these days—for a church plant) and far more concerned that all my pastor peers and mentors in the Evangelical/Pentecostal world are not beating down my door and asking "Hey, you do liturgical worship, right? Could you help me out? We really want to start doing it at our church." My pride is a little hurt, you see. I want to feel important. I've inwardly gloated for years that I'm ahead of the curve. I've known that congregations in large cities have already started following the trend of "going liturgical." I thought for sure the trend would eventually hit my smaller city (Peoria, Illinois) and when it did I would be in a prime position to help and consult with those pastors looking to figure it all out.
But I'm still waiting...and I'm not exactly sure if Peoria is simply reeeeeally far behind the times or if "liturgical" worship will never fit well into our free-church culture other than with the already established Catholic and Orthodox churches in our area. My hope and prayer is my peers and elders will soon realize liturgical worship is "normal" worship. When (if!) they do I'll be able to help them through the process and get them to see that liturgy is not a trend and it's not something that appeals to Millennials (or to Boomers or GenExers or anybody), but the liturgy is simply what the Body of Christ does when it gathers.
I realize I really haven't made much of an argument as to why the liturgy is the "normal" expression of Christian worship. Honestly, without writing an entire book on that subject, that would be an extremely difficult task—and I'm not going to write a book any time soon, especially when many books on the subject have already been written. And so really my advice for understanding what the liturgy is and does is simple:
1.) Go to a congregation that does the liturgy in full and
2.) Read some books or watch videos on the subject.
I cannot help you with the first recommendation other than to encourage you to find a church in your area, but for the second recommendation I hope my next article will serve as an aide. Coming next week (and just in time for Lent) it will simply point out some resources and give some basic ideas about implementing liturgical practices into your worship.
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!
How the Liturgy can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)
How the Church Calendar can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)
*A Condensed Anglo-Catholic Statement of Faith (by Chris Marchand)
Here is why I consider myself Anglo-Catholic:
I affirm the Creeds of the Church and the 7 Ecumenical Councils.
I affirm the faith once handed down to us from the Apostles
I affirm the Episcopal structure of the Church. I believe in bishops, priests, and deacons and I obey my bishop.
I am a high-sacramentalist. I believe in the efficacy of the 7 sacraments while placing special emphasis on baptism and the Eucharist. I am not a transubstantiationist, but I am somewhere beyond a "real presence" position. I truly believe it is the spiritual body and blood of Christ present in the consecrated bread and wine.
I affirm that the Eucharist (Communion) is the high-point of the liturgy and the high-point of the Christian's life and that spiritual and physical grace is imparted to the baptized believer who partakes of it.
I affirm the Apostolic succession of priests, from the original apostles on down to our age.
I affirm the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church (to some this would disqualify me as an Anglo-Catholic, but I would want to point us to the "Anglo" side of the term that we wouldn't want to neglect).
I affirm the use of the Prayer Book in our personal and communal lives, even though there are debates as to which version we should use. On those debates I am no expert.
I affirm daily prayer according to the Prayer Book, consisting of morning, midday, and evening prayers, though I am certainly not perfect in keeping all the prayer times.
I affirm practicing the full liturgy, that is, we shouldn't leave anything out.
I believe there is a united "catholic" church (or at least there should be) but that the governance of the Church does not fall solely under the bishop of Rome.
What might make me NOT Anglo-Catholic (according to some)
1.) While I believe the Eucharist is the high point of the liturgy, I believe it is interdependent with and integral to the other parts of the liturgy. I would say "What good is the glory and victory and holy experience of the Eucharist if the other parts of the liturgy are not practiced and if we fail to go back out into the world to proclaim the new kingdom of God established through Jesus in his body and blood? It's like the epistle of James: You tell me you have faith (i.e., the Eucharist alone) and I will show you my faith through my works (i.e., through the rest of the liturgy and through a life of active mission.") Another way of putting it: The spoken Word of God is another high-point of the liturgy which is complimentary to the Eucharist. Just as Christ is truly present in the elements of the bread and wine, so is Christ truly present when the Word of God is spoken. It is a different but similar sacramental grace bestowed upon God's people. Also, I see the other actions of the liturgy as being inextricably linked to the table/altar. Confessing our sins and interceding in prayer for the world are bonded to the proclamation of the Lord's Supper. To sum: the Eucharist is the summit, but we need the fullness of what the liturgy. Without all the parts the whole is much weaker.
2.) While a high sacramentalist who will always follow the prescribed liturgy, I'm not always formal in my presentation of the liturgy. I like liturgy to be relational and to make sense in my culture. When I say these types of things people think I mean to "dumb down" the liturgy, but I mean nothing of the sort. I simply mean that people should experience emotions during the liturgy, that they should feel a part of the ritual and that the ritual is a part of them, and that space is given for reflection and for the Spirit to move as the Spirit wills. The liturgy should also feel embedded in a people's culture, without actually changing any of the liturgy itself. This may sound oxymoronic, but it can be done.
3.) I'm not in to all the fancy-schmancy dress, that is, the vestments. I will wear what my bishop tells me to wear but other than that, I want to look and dress humbly (NOTE: I am not a priest yet, so I don't fully vest on Sundays).
4.) There are certain "Anglo-Catholic" beliefs and practices that I don't ascribe to. While I believe in the "Communion of the Saints" and believe they are present with God and interceding on our behalf, I don't invoke the saints in my prayers. There is also certain aspects of Marian theology that I don't ascribe to, even though the Church Fathers did (I remain open to being convinced otherwise, but I simply don't see the Biblical evidence). There are perhaps other typically "Roman Catholic" beliefs that a number of "Anglo-Catholics" tend to believe in that I don't ascribe to. I would have to go through a list belief by belief in order to figure out where I stand on all of them. On these issues I might look more like a "Protestant".
I am sure Anglo-Catholics could find a number of other things wrong with me, but I think I've addressed the potential major concerns.