October 18, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: December 7, 2015

Church Sanctuary 1 sm

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Nashville TN

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.

Church Cross 2 smI 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.

Comments

  1. Steve Newell says:

    What I find interesting is that many who don’t like a liturgy for Christian worship love “liturgy” is other parts of our lives, especially in sporting events.

    Let’s look at one of Chaplin Mike’s and mine favorite liturgy, “Liturgy of Baseball”. There is a liturgy to a baseball game that I enjoy at a St. Louis Cardinals game. We expect the same order every time we go to a game. If we just went to a game and it started without singing the national anthem, hearing the opening lineups, or the ceremonial first pitch, we would be upset. If we just watched the game and they decided to sing “Talk Me Out of the Ball Game” at the end of second inning one game and the eighth in another, we would be a bit upset since we want to sing this in the middle of the seventh inning. I would go one or select a different sport.

    We love “liturgy” as part of our lives. So why don’t we also want it part of Christian worship?

    • I don’t necessarily disagree with your ultimate position, and while you make an interesting point, I don’t think your argument establishes that there must in fact be a connection. I could just as easily provide a counter-example by giving a situation in which we “don’t” want liturgy for a certain aspect of our daily lives and argue “therefore why would we want it part of Christian worship too?”

    • Certain parts of our lives are better with liturgy, certain parts aren’t. The question is which one is *specifically* Christian worship? I would probably lean overall more towards the points made in the essay above as well.

    • “Talk Me Out of the Ball Game”? That’s a keeper!

  2. 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..

    Happened yesterday when they spoke these words over communion: “these are the sure signs of new and everlasting life….” what great words, what an assurance to me that my sure sign is not something I have to drum up in myself, work up with more prayer and good works. No, I can just come, take, and eat. So simple..

    The LORD bless and keep you, Michael Spencer: see you soon.

    • “Let us love each other, so that with one mind and one heart, we may confess… [the Trinity].”

  3. Senecagriggs yahoo says:

    “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.”

    Sadly, I’m thinking “not.”

    There are loud, chaotic services that do not set will with my aging soul

    But there’s more than a plethora of “dead liturgy” services also available; which speak nothing to my heart.

    Tis a broken world we live in.

    • I would agree that pure liturgy doesn’t appear to be the answer, either.

    • Though I prefer traditional forms of liturgy with Holy Communion as the central act of worship, I also agree with you.

  4. I too love liturgy for many of the reasons you list. It takes us out of ourselves and out of the world and focuses us on the divine.
    Bingo and Amen. You got it right?

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    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?

    Because it’s ROMISH!
    NO POPERY!

    Or because the Mini-Pope in the pulpit doesn’t want any competition for his Ex Cathedra pronouncements.

    • That Other Jean says:

      Mini-Popes don’t speak ex cathedra. They don’t expect their words to be questioned. Whatever they say is the law for their congregation (I’m aware that there are Evangelical pastors who are not Mini-Popes; their voices are frequently drowned out by those who are).

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    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.

    Or Tokin’ the Ghost with that Jehovah-juana, Yoing Yoing Yoing!

  7. I don’t attend a liturgical church (and I wished we sprinkled in a bit more of it), but this post is another reminder of why I miss Michael so much. It’s loaded with wonderful lines.

    “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…”

    “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…”

    “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.”

    Some gold there!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      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…

      7-11 “Worship” choruses — the same seven lines repeated at least eleven times.

      Even more if it’s “Just as I Am” during The Altar Call — repeat until they ALL get up there!

      And then there’s the Spontaneous(TM) “Jeesus Weejus” prayers always ending in “In Jesus Name Amen”.

      • Yep. Usually by about the fourth time I’ve sung a line I’m done and ready to move on. Someone should the number of times a verse is sung against the “impact” it has on a person. In other words, is there an upward slope for the first 2-3 times it’s sung before it peaks and begins to decline with the last 2-3?

        But that could just be me.

        • It’s not just you, Rick.

        • What, you don’t like mass self-hypnosis?

          Some of the people whose churches practice this kind of repetition in singing choruses will then go on to criticize things like weekly repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed and etc. in traditional liturgical worship as “vain repetition”.

  8. Christiane says:

    it is said that when the Church put together the final canon for the Bible, one of the tests for acceptance was whether or not the book in question had been read or used consistently universally (places and times) in the part of the mass known as ‘the Service of the Word’ or in the part of the mass we know as ‘the Eucharist’ . . .

    before there WAS ‘a bible’, there were scrolls of Scripture that were carefully copied and carried to all the major parts of the Christian world to be read aloud in these services . . . certainly, the Holy Gospels, then the ‘letters’ we call ‘episles’ . . . and the strange and beautiful Apocalypse of St. John . . .

    you know, you can sit and read Jeremiah silently and it’s one thing, but if you LISTEN to it being read aloud, the words of Jeremiah take on a different dimension . . . try it . . . there ARE benefits to hearing the Scriptures read aloud . . . and there is meaning to voicing ‘responses’ as is customary even in the oldest liturgies of the Church

    one more thing: have you ever asked a fundamentalist what they know about ‘the liturgy’? chances are, they have no clue what it is other than they’ve ‘heard’ it’s ‘dead’ . . . this is a sad loss of a great heritage that belongs also to them from all the Christians who have gone before and prayed and shared communion . . . it IS sad to me, this loss

  9. Let’s face it – every church has a liturgy whether we name it that or not. I have attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches (as a member) where the order of service was as predictable as the RCC liturgy I grew up with. I have participated in mind numbing services in the full spectrum of denominations and equally have experienced the divine (granted it may have more to do with my disposition rather than the liturgy itself in some cases)

    Having also participated in preparing and leading liturgy in all the churches I have been part of i usually find myself ending up trying to introduce elements from the other end of the spectrum.

    The church I have been part of for the last 5 years acknowledges the benefit of liturgy and the church year though it is up to each congregations minister as to how much it is followed. This is the first year I have attended that the lectionariy was followed though with the various ‘special’ services and a couple of focused months on themed preaching and teaching series it is not always that obvious

    When I read Michaels thoughts on this I am totally with him but I also know the impact of being part of the RCC for more than half my life and attending the same liturgy each week which many times was far from good liturgy. I fully realise liturgy it’s not just about me and my ‘experience’ but it is on another level where I bring my mind heart soul and body to God with my other brothers and sisters when we gather together.

    For any of us involved in preparing and leading liturgy in whatever form we should be open to drawing from the rich experience of the wider church.

  10. Which part of the Liturgy do you fire up the fog machine and the strobe lights?