Here is one of my favorite classic essays by Michael Spencer. I, too, grew up as a believer in the “tent revival” atmosphere. I, too, was taught that liturgy equaled deadness and man-made religion. Now I am looking for liturgy. Now I’m looking for music that is all about God, and not about how I feel. And one reason I’m looking for this is due to Michael’s essay, Dr. StrangeLiturgy. Read thoughtfully and prayerfully. JD
The humor of me standing in front of a Presbyterian Church, wearing a robe, saying the Apostle’s Creed and leading congregational confessions, is still not lost on me. If only Hall Street Baptist Church could see me now. They wouldn’t be laughing.
I grew up fearing any church that didn’t resemble a tent revival. The first time I went to a Roman Catholic worship service, I was so scared and confused that I walked out. When everyone headed up front for the mass, I thought it was the invitation, and it seemed a good time to duck out. The stress of trying to figure out kneelers was too much for me.
Even Methodist churches frightened me. I simply didn’t understand what was going on in the simplest liturgies, and I assumed it was bad for real Christians to be around it. “Good” was evangelistic revivalism, and all the efforts expended to get people down to the altar, or even better, up there “testifying’” of how they got saved. (My Episcopal friend was just as confused by our Baptist services, but he handled it far better than me. I never found the courage to even visit his church.)
Today, revivalism scares me to death, and the comfortable predictability of the common liturgy is home for me and my family. When ministers start “winging it” and talking about what has God laid on their hearts, I want to go out the back door. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer ought to be the law of the land as far as I am concerned.
My friends often talk about liturgical churches as if they were dens of open Satanism. There dead, phony Christians, bound in Papist chains of tradition and quenching the Spirit at every opportunity, sit frozen, worshiping God in a box and considering themselves the only real Christians. Meanwhile, down at the Free Pentecostal Last-Days Assembly and Revival Center, real Christians, free in the Spirit, get high on Jesus, get saved every Sunday and see God working miracles at every service. Shambala-shingi.
I’ve quit trying to explain myself to these people. Having “been there, done that” as a naive Charismatic during my high school years, I know how convinced these folks are that liturgical churches are wrong, and that anything genuine must be extemporaneous. But I think I need to go on the record with what I’ve found in the liturgical tradition, and why I’ve taken my children away from revivalism and helped them find their way into a church that purposely avoids the very things I valued most for years as a Baptist.
The cause of it all
A boy can’t be too careful what he reads. I have no idea where I picked up Robert Webber’s overlooked book, The Majestic Tapestry, but somehow it found itself in my hands, and I read it. Several times, and to my everlasting benefit. It was this little book that cost me a promising career as a Southern Baptist revivalist.
Robert Webber is a professor of church history and theology who has devoted his career to the encouragement of evangelicals in deepening their appreciation of the larger traditions of Christian worship. Majestic Tapestry was my introduction to a Christian tradition I had never heard of before. (The extent of my ignorance defies measurement. I had no truthful ideas about any Christianity beyond my own fundamentalism and what I had been told about Catholics. And most of what I believed about my bunch was wrong.)
Here was the Christian year, the great themes of redemption outlined in the liturgy. Here was the church militant and triumphant, and a depth of appreciation for the Bible as a worship source that I did not find in my corner of the faith. Here were the Psalms, the Collects, the Responses and other voices of simple, Biblical worship. Here were the bonds that held Christians together across history and denominations; the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here were the saints, the confessions, the creeds, the saints, the martyrs and, yes, the liturgy of Christianity. And it was apparently all mine, even though I was in a church that though most of these people were roasting in hell.
I was captivated. Webber predicted that the wider Christian tradition has particular appeal for boomers who dislike denominationalism. I had grown up in the hothouse of denominationalism, but many of my significant Christian friendships were with non-Southern Baptists. I knew these brothers were Christians, and I sensed that they were part of a larger Christian family to which I belonged, but did not know it.
Webber focused on the theme of Christus Victor (Christ Victorious), and showed me how the worship of the church re-enacts this theme each time it gathers to worship. Here were Guilt, Grace and Gratitude as the great themes of worship. Here was the Lord’s Supper as a great table of communion and a preview of the eschatological banquet at the end of time. Here was baptism into the body of Christ, not just “our church.” Here was an acceptance of other Christians in the great tradition, rather than an exclusion of all other Christians over matters that were clearly trivial or even false.
The effect of Webber’s book upon me was profound–and it continues to this day, as I come more and more to value the great tradition of faith flowing from the Old Covenant into the New and through the Church of all times and places.
Out in Left Field
In 1982, we moved to Louisville so I could attend seminary. I had worked as a full time Associate Pastor for youth for three years before coming back to school, and I was not really interested in any more youth ministry positions. I wanted to pastor, and refused to apply for several youth ministry openings in the Louisville area.
One day, however, I was contacted by Highland Baptist Church, a church near the seminary in the Cherokee Triangle area of Louisville. Highland was not my uncle’s kind of Southern Baptist church. For one thing, the church was extremely “high church” compared to the typical SBC congregation in Kentucky, to say the least. Most SBC pastors would have felt they’d wandered into a moderately high Presbyterian church. Worship was liturgical. Scripture was read in three lessons. Corporate prayers, responses and confessions were common. Music, though occasionally aware and appreciative of its revivalist roots, was polished, serious and classical. The pastor, Paul Duke, was a young preacher whose fine sermons were filling the church up with professionals and the seminary community. He preached from the lectionary and was more Fosdick and Craddock than Criswell or Vines. The beautiful stone sanctuary was full of liturgical colors and the Christian year.
I tried to not act like Jethro Bodine, but the fact is, I was wowed. This was “high cotton” for a kid from the revivalistic backwaters of Western Kentucky. No, they weren’t wearing robes or using incense, and yes, they had invitations, but this was a church intentionally plugged into the tradition that Webber was writing about. In my two years as youth minister at Highland, I did a passable job with the students. But I learned enough about the church to change me for a lifetime. I never again felt entirely comfortable in a typical Southern Baptist Church.
Seminary underlined much of what I was learning at Highland. I came to understand the tradition of the church, and to see the value in allowing that great tradition to replace denominationalism. At the same time, I saw some of the possibilities for integrating this tradition into the mission of the church; the many ways that scripture and tradition, rather than modernity and pragmatism, could shape evangelism and ministry.
In church history I studied this tradition, and in theology I saw its development and influence. For the first time, I saw how my fundamentalistic Baptist roots related to that great tradition. I realized that even in the sawdust trails of revivalism, there were the echoes of liturgical worship and the Book of Common Prayer. I noted that our 1956 Baptist Hymnal, when examined closely, was full of texts that were not written recently in Nashville. Some were translations of ancient Latin texts. Catholic lyrics? In my hymnal? It was only one way my eyes were opened to the overarching influence of the Christian tradition.
What do I love about liturgical worship?
I love the Christian year. When I was working on church staff, we were told to organize the church year around the various offerings and denominational emphases from the Southern Baptist Convention. Other than Christmas or Easter, there was no vestige of the Christian year. It was the program of the church that held together our worship and proclamation. I remember how this never really struck me as odd until I had children. Then it became obvious that the Christian year was a primary way of teaching our children–and the whole congregation– the story of the Gospel.
Today the Christian year is one of my passions. Advent, Lent, Holy Week, Epiphany, Trinity Sunday, Christ the King, Ascension, Annunciation, Holy Baptism–all of these days teach us the story of Jesus and preach the Gospel to us. Why would we want to neglect this great heritage? Why can’t all Christians see the value in the visual and artistic celebration of the Gospel that is made possible using the Christian year?
One of the saddest mistakes of fundamentalism is in assuming that if something is “catholic” it is Roman Catholic, and therefore poison. The Christian year is the property of all Christians, and I can only rejoice that more and more evangelicals of every kind are discovering Advent and Lent. Hopefully, soon we will see the Christian year reclaimed in all churches, and a great unity of worship created as a result.
I love the lectionary. Three scripture passages read in a worship service! In my revivalistic roots, you could wave the Bible around, you could slam it on the pulpit, tear pages out for an illustration, talk about what it said and quote isolated verses, but you couldn’t actually read from it much except in Sunday School. Three scripture readings in church would have been a special Christmas program, or maybe January Bible study run amuck.
Of course, there is the irony. In liturgical churches, the Bible is read all the time and shows up in every part of worship. It’s been said before that even if the sermon is repeatedly terrible, one can still get the Gospel and a good deal of solid teaching in just the liturgy and prayers of the liturgical churches.
In addition, lectionary preaching is a wonderful alternative to the “whatever text strikes Brother Billy this week” method. Lectionaries bring Christians together, as many different churches read the same lessons and hear sermons from the same Gospel or Epistle passages. Lectionary resources allow preachers to share their ideas on how they will approach the text. And, of course, the lectionary keeps the scriptures front and center. You can’t just chase the issue of the day when the lectionary does its job.
I was in an Episcopal church the week before the big vote on ordaining Bishop Robinson. The text of the week, of course, had nothing to do with the issue of the day. The rector, who felt his congregation needed to hear about the controversial issue, made the text work for his purpose, but still had to come back and talk about the Gospel for more than half the sermon. I thought that this was a good example of how the lectionary resists our own agendas, and keeps us in the scriptures, preaching Christ.
I love the creeds, confessions and responses of liturgical worship. Nothing seems to agitate the non-liturgical Christian more than the twin sins of 1) saying things together and 2) saying something every week. Why is this so irritating? Apparently, these folks think they don’t do it.
Uhh…what? Ever heard of singing? Most Protestant Churches spend a large amount of worship time saying/singing the same things together with as much gusto as they can work up, but when you take away the instruments and the tune, suddenly it’s a march over the cliffs of Romanism. Isn’t that silly?
Further, last time I checked in at my home church, the spontaneous prayers and comments this week sound remarkably like last week. Take such weekly boomerangs as the offertory prayer offered by Deacon Smith: “Lord, just bless this offering, bless those who give. Bless the sick and be with our pastor. If there be anyone here today who is not saved, may they come to Christ before it is eternally too late. In Jesus name, Amen.” Sound vaguely familiar to anyone? This makes the weekly Collect a regular oasis of innovation.
One of my favorite times in the worship service is the congregational confession. Standing together, saying in unity the words that agree we are all failures and all in need of grace, I really feel at home. It’s the same with the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, questions from the catechisms and our weekly responsive Psalms. Together, as one body, no one showing off, we confess our sins, announce our faith and talk to God in the words He has given us.
I love the fact that liturgical worship isn’t every worshiper doing whatever he or she wants to do. I’m not one to criticize the particular behaviors of any group of worshipers, but I would like to suggest that there is something really wrong with a service where people are given permission to try and outdo one another in participation and enthusiasm. Now many of my friends call this being “free” in worship, but this sort of freedom seems to have certain predictable consequences.
Showoffs and people who want attention really get into the act. People who want a life on the stage and screen feel invited to make that big impression on…..the rest of us? (When will the endless numbers of young people claiming to be called into “Christian music ministry” end?) Distractions are the norm, and the poor guy who just sits there gets bombed with guilt and constant admonitions to “get free” and “Shout/clap/jump/stomp/holler/dance for/to the Lord.”
Liturgical worship says if we can’t all do it, we probably won’t do it. It’s that simple. Oh sure, some people kneel and others don’t. Some sing louder than others. There are always ways for human nature to come through, but the idea here is to worship as a congregation, and the freedom to worship God comes along with a freedom from the domineering reign of the human ego and the demands to be recognizable to the culture.
I’ll say it plainly: some churches have turned worship into an embarrassing chaos that has no resemblance to the “decently and in order” command of the Apostle. We are fallen human beings. When you take off the restraints and tell us to be “free in God,” don’t be surprised at all if you get someone running around acting drunk or who knows what. Yes, that is a worse case scenario, but it is rapidly becoming too true to ignore. Thank God for the sanity of liturgical churches.
In fact, I may be most grateful of all that liturgy feels no need to impress the world by being like the world. It is the most un-contemporary, un-seeker friendly thing I know of in the church. It is the church’s own way of hearing and speaking, and so far, the world has made very little successful progress in turning the liturgy into a commercial for the spirit of the age. That is not to say that some liberals and innovators haven’t fallen for the temptation, and done violence to the Book of Common Prayer tradition in the name of something modern. But go to any liturgical church–anywhere–and marvel at how much of Christianity has survived even the onslaught of the blasphemers.
I love the fact that most of what is said outside of the sermon is scripted. In other words, I love it that I don’t have to listen to brother Billy Bob carry on about what God has laid on his heart THIS WEEK!!
I once had a long conversation with a thoughtful young man who couldn’t–absolutely couldn’t–come to grips with my preference for liturgical worship. I asked him if he ever got tired of hearing preachers talk. Just constantly talking to fill the hour. Especially, didn’t he weary of the banter and the cute comments and the unnecessary asides? Didn’t he sometimes wish he could come to church and hear the Bible, good words of encouragement, short, to-the-point prayers and a minimum of happy talk? He admitted that I was right, but no amount of preacherly imitation of Jay Leno would convince him to go where they were reading the service.
I understand his feelings, but once you are inside a good liturgical church working at making worship meaningful, that “scripted” feeling gives way to an appreciation of EVERY WORD that is spoken in the service. The value placed on every sentence and every small prayer or response is one of the richest treasures of the liturgy. Words ought not be thrown out as if they really didn’t matter, and they shouldn’t be used to manipulate in the way the world uses words to sell and corrupt.
Evangelicalism has become a cult of celebrities. Leading pastors are superstars, even cult-like figures of adoration and near-worship. Most evangelical worship encourages this imitation of the entertainer. Musicians, preachers, worship leaders all take their cues in style, dress and manner from the entertainment idolatry of our culture. Liturgical worship does not encourage this, and actually works against it by restraining the minister within the liturgy. The minister is the servant of the Word. He is ordained for the ministry of Word and sacrament, and his personality must become his servant that the Word might be heard and seen.
Whatever comes out of the preacher’s mouth are…the words of a man. A fallen man just like me. I know that the liturgy is also the words of fallen men, but there is something about the common service of worship in a high church that shows what can happen when human personality is harnessed to words selected precisely to give glory to God and not man. The liturgy has been “purified” like few human creations are, to bring the words of men into subjection to the Holy Word of God. I like the result, and I believe it has done me good.
I love a lot of other things. I love the use of art and architecture to glorify God. I love the hymns. I love the sense of history. I love the humility at the heart of Liturgy. I love the constant return to the language of the Bible. I love the voices of people from across the ages becoming the voices of worshipers in my little church. I love the centrality of the Sacraments, especially of that neglected celebration around the Lord’s Table. I love the theologically driven message of liturgical worship, where God matters more than the audience.
What’s not to love?
Liturgical worship can be every bad thing the critics say. It can be empty, frozen, repetitive, insincere, and elitist. It certainly can go over the heads of some kinds of people. Like any human worship expression, the use of ritual can allow our fallenness to make words about God into merely background noise for the wandering human mind. It is more demanding than other kinds of worship, and you have to practice to be good at it. It is not friendly to the lazy or the easily bored.
Yet it appears to me that the answer to deadness in worship is not sheer innovation. It is not rejecting the liturgy that brings to us the Christian tradition in the very words of scripture itself. The judgments of modern worship consumers on liturgy are not reliable. It will survive, and if we value it, it will thrive now and in the future. It will outlast polls and market studies, because it has outlasted every trend it has ever faced, and yet it continues to serve the church.
Reviving liturgy, bringing new worship expressions into old forms, new music, new approaches to congregational worship–all of these are important tasks for those of us who value liturgy, and believe that it must grow stronger and survive these times to once again bear witness to Christ when the innovations of the seeker-sensitive mega-church era have become yesterday’s abandoned fads.
Webber believes that the generations behind the boomers will be more open to liturgy than their parents, because they will be tired of the cynical attempts to lure them with flash. The language of liturgy has rich possibilities for reaching those who are weary of television and Powerpoint, and long for symbolism and substance to merge into something deep and genuine. Even Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have shown openness to looking at their own worship and reacquainting themselves with their liturgical, classically Christian roots. There is an exhaustion out there in the modern worship crowd, and liturgy is the oasis many will find in their staleness and dread.
I am glad to have found a home in liturgical worship and in an appreciation for the greater Christian tradition. I hope that my remaining years will give me opportunities to share this true renewal of Biblical worship with many of my evangelical friends. This is a treasure worth finding, and passing on, for with each new congregation that discovers the worship of the ancient church, the treasure of Christian tradition itself is made richer.