|Arlen & Elsa praying over the crowd at Break Forth Canada|
A Critical Opening: When I use the word liturgy in the following entry, I am clearly not using it in the broader (and more accurate) sense of the word. Liturgy (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word originally referring to a public responsibility to the government carried out by a citizen. Liturgy now, in its context within Christian worship generally refers to the entire collection of services, orders, rituals, ceremonies, prayers, creeds, music, homilies, responsive readings, recitations, assigned scripture readings and other consistent elements used in public worship. Often, the form and content of these liturgies are prescribed from the ecclesiastical leadership. These are generally considered separate from private times of worship, devotions, meditations and prayers (although elements of the public ‘liturgical’ worship service may be used as spiritual aids).
For the sake of this blog I’ll use a narrower perspective. As most within the wider church body have a narrower understanding of the word liturgy, I’ll use that here. I’ll primarily refer to creeds, responsive readings, and other prescribed forms that most people think of when they hear the word liturgy.
So, with a humble request for understanding on every side of the interpretation of the meaning of liturgy, I’ll wade into the turbulent waters of this somewhat contentious issue and hope I don’t drown in the process.
OK – here I go, without a PFD . . .
Before I write more about our next section on liturgy I want to share very personally the journey that I’ve been on with liturgy. You may be vehemently opposed to my opinion and I’m OK with that. Diversity of opinion is a good thing. You may also find that you’re in agreement with my opinion, even if only somewhat.
Now, here goes . . . .
Aside from styles of music, the greatest worship wars have often been fought over the use of liturgy in worship.
I’ve been on both sides of the debate. Although I grew up as a Lutheran, we were pretty ‘low church’ (informal). Certainly, there were creeds being said but we weren’t steeped in ancient traditions.
As many Pastor’s kids do, I went through a period of rebellion in my teenage years. While my rebellion was more complex than many due to the violent death of my father when I was seven, the simple truth is that I was still far from God.
When God rescued my heart and life I began a journey of trying to find ways to reach so many who had taken the same path as I had. Most of those who I had grown up with had left the church as they saw the church as irrelevant to their day to day lives.
As the old saying goes, “The pendulum seldom rests in the middle.” And so, my pendulum swung dramatically against anything I perceived as irrelevant to the culture I lived in.
I invited spiritually-seeking friends to church and often watched their faces take on many looks, from bewilderment to boredom. This was not what I wanted for them.
I remember the frustration when one of my friends who was a new Christian was given a communion card to fill out with his name and then hand to the usher. To him, this was an admission ticket and he couldn’t figure out why he needed a ticket to go take communion.
I saw many others who shook their heads in confusion over the Pastor’s robes and vestments, the constant choreographed standing up and sitting down, the use of multiple worship supplements, and the foreign Latin phrases.
Frankly, I became angry at a church that, in my rather judgmental opinion, was so ingrown that it didn’t care about those who were outside of the church’s subculture.
My wife and I attended our church’s evangelism program which had as a grand finale to make a list of your friends to invite to church. Our church had moved from what I considered a very dynamic and diverse worship style to what I considered to be very formulaic, out of touch and seemingly devoid of creativity. (Yes, I was pretty harsh) The week before the “Invite Your Friends to Church’ service, my wife and I sat in the evangelism class where we were supposed to make a list of our unchurched friends that we were going to invite to church.
The result? The sheet remained blank. Not a single name was written down. There was not a chance that we were going to invite our friends who consisted either of pagan musicians or pagan businesspeople to any of our church services. It would have sent them running even faster from the church that sought to reach them.
I couldn’t possibly understand why a church would seek to drain personal creativity from their people. As a musician I knew that while you worked within certain restrictions such as key signatures, scales and tempo, freedom of personal and community expression was to be celebrated. Why some foreign committee would dictate all forms, acceptable lyrics, responsive readings and service orders to every church within the denomination, regardless of the context and giftings of the local church was beyond my comprehension.
I met with our pastor, grilled him about where was he taking the church, and painful as it was, we left the church, never to return. I never yelled, carried on a tantrum, circulated letters or gossiped about the pastor.
And why would we?
He was a good man with one of the warmest pastoral hearts we had ever encountered. When my wife and youngest child both nearly died in a traumatic childbirth, he was one of the few who showed up at the hospital. Although we had profound disagreements on worship styles, we were never divided on the essence of the Gospel, a fond relationship or scriptural integrity.
Looking back, I know I should have handled things better.
Although my wife and I ended up at a church where we had a better alignment in mission, and God truly blessed the church with staggering growth and outreach, I know that I was overly harsh in my views back then.
But then, I was on a mission. I had given decades to helping the church relate to the culture it sought to reach. I sought to make all music, visuals, verbal and written communication as contemporary as possible. I preached it, I taught it, I promoted it.
And even though I was imperfect in my presentation, content and attitude, I saw many churches experience rapid growth after they hosted my workshops and then employed the principles I taught. I rejoice at what God did and continues to do.
Now, it’s a few years later. Have I experienced a complete revolution in opinion? Hardly. But perhaps I’ve experienced a realignment of opinion with more of my ‘liturgical’ roots.
But there’s something that happens as you grow older. You see passing fads. You observe the time warp of ‘80’s suits, ‘80’s haircuts and 80’s set designs on Christian television – even when it’s the 21st century. You watch flashes of fads in the Christian church that are often grounded in untethered emotion and questionable theology.
This changes your perspective. You long for something lasting, something that has stood the test of time, something that isn’t going to show up as the latest YouTube phenomenon.
You also realize that whatever form of worship you follow, whether high church or low church is far less significant on the spiritual growth of your people than their time wrestling with the scriptures personally and in small groups, following spiritual disciplines and surrounding yourself with honest accountability structures of people who will gracefully challenge you in your walk with Christ.
We each have 168 hours in a week. If you sleep eight hours a night (I know, I know, I’m also hoping to reach that goal some day), then we have 112 hours each week. To believe that the perfect choice of the perfect ancient creed or the perfect Chris Tomlin song within a single hour of a worship service will perfectly form spiritual health in our people is simply naïve. During the other 111 waking hours of the week, church attendees are facing a world that constantly bombards them with messages that are antithetical to the very essence of the Gospel message of God’s loving and grace-filled covenant relationship with His people. One hour a week will not cut it for our people, no matter the form.
It’s been said that one of the greatest reasons why we fight over form and content in our worship services is that this is the sole spiritual feeding grounds of most of our people in church. When you alter the singular one hour of spiritual nurture they receive each week, people arm themselves for the bloodiest of battles and will fight to the death.
Worship also has some pretty dangerous elements in it. True creativity is ultimately a representation of you as a person. It is an expression of your personality, experiences, feelings, thoughts, and opinions. The form of worship you are drawn to is an outpouring of all of those things. When you mix that with religion, it’s no wonder we have “holy wars” over worship forms. When you challenge someone in their form of expression you are often challenging their very essence as a person. It’s like a child holding up their best water colour finger painting and being told by their teacher than only acrylic on canvas is appropriate in the classroom because it is more authentic, traditional, historical, appropriate, relevant or ____________ (insert your choice of descriptor). Then, when you baptize your opinions with religion you simply escalate the argument to a point where reasoned and respectful discourse flies out the window.
Further, if you as a pastor have sacrificed so much by attending the rigor of seminary and have bought into the hothouse indoctrination from professors who are seldom in the trenches of real-world congregational ministry that the form of a single one hour weekly service is a hill to die on which will ultimately define the theology of your people, you will stand with sharpened sword in hand against any suggestion of change.
Or, if you have bought into the all-consuming belief that all we need is a renaissance of multi-sensory, curated personalized emergent worship expressions filled with finger painting, touching, tasting, dancing and smells that overwhelm our olfactory senses to revolutionize the church, you may grab the very same swords others are wielding.
I believe that it’s not that simple and it’s not that complex.
In my opinion, the public worship service of whatever form you use only takes on character, depth and integrity when it is a communally-shared expression in response to the reinvigorating work of God’s Spirit that is happening in the life of your people the other 111 waking hours of the week.
As we look at liturgical forms and content, I don’t believe that this is a hill to die on.
It is not a magic formula where just the right “eye of newt and toe of frog” combination are stirred together in the giant vat of worship service design to create a guaranteed weekly result, regardless of the ongoing spiritual life of your people.
As I have travelled the world, I have seen both profound spiritual immaturity and maturity in Christian churches expressing every form of worship. In fact, there seems to be little correlation between the style of worship service and the lived-out expression of the Gospel in the members. I know people who are sold-out on high-church, low-church, charismatic, conservative and every other form of worship service who have mud and blood under their fingernails from serving a needy world with hearts of humble, Christ-like expression. I’ve also seen the opposite of this from people who stand their ground on every form of worship.
Now, in closing, I want to clearly state that this doesn’t mean that content and form is not important. It is very important! An ongoing feeding of purely pabulum or solely sashimi will eventually affect the doctrinal distinctives of your church, which will ultimately affect the hearts and actions of your people.
With that in mind, I want to write about “liturgical” elements that likely won’t transform but could enrich the worship life of your church.
Stay tuned . . . I promise to be more “inspirational” in upcoming entries.