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...
WHY PEOPLE COME TO CHURCH (OR, IS OUR WORSHIP A FAILURE?)
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