Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ending The Worship Wars!

Learning to Love Liturgy by John Throop

Every Sunday morning on one side of town, Christ Chapel gathers together in worship. The hundreds of people who come sing praise choruses, hear contemporary Christian music, take in a mini-drama on a faithful approach to a life problem, and listen to Pastor Jim Jackson's "sermon" as he sits on a stool dressed in a sport shirt, sweater and khakis. A feeling of God's presence pervades the place.

Across town, at Christ Church, hundreds of people gather, singing traditional hymns with the help of an organ and choir which marches in from the back of the church, led by a cross and a young person swinging a pot full of incense. As the hymn finishes with a flourish, the people then open their prayer books to begin at exactly the same place where they began last week. Father Tim Johnson, decked out in a set of colorful vestments, intones a sung opening prayer and a sense of mystery and solemnity fills the old building.

The two ministers can't understand each other. "How can you worship using the same book and the same prayers week after week?" asks Pastor Jim asks Father Tim. "Doesn't that get boring after a while? And how can God be real in such a stale atmosphere?"

Father Tim is equally confused. "Isn't it exhausting to create a new service every week? Don't people get nervous wondering what's going to happen next? It all seems so temporary." This dialogue stresses the heart of Christian life: worship. People approach worship in particular ways with distinctive likes and dislikes, and this variety honors God. At the same time, the "worship wars" are ever present in the mutual suspicion and misunderstanding between advocates of liturgical or contemporary worship.

It used to be that churches with a liturgical worship style scoffed at Pentecostal or evangelical forms. "Those Protestants just have hymn sandwiches," scowled one Episcopal cleric years ago. "Two hymns with a sermon, a choral number and a prayer in between." Today, advocates of contemporary worship believe that liturgical worship in mainline churches is deader than a holy doornail. "It's so boring," one young nondenominational worship leader remarked. "The Spirit's just not there anymore." Conventional wisdom states that a liturgical church doesn't have a prayer of a chance at the edge of the 21st century.

Yet every church has some kind of order or pattern in worship, and every life has some kind of ritual. There is always a certain pattern that, when followed, creates a sense of comfort and a sense of memory, the "way we've always done it."

We crave predictability and regularity, especially in the significant passages of life when the changes seem overwhelming. When we shrink back from the dynamic holiness and presence of God, ritual can help us encounter the mystery of God without being lost in it. Ritual helps to make sense and order out of what feels disordered and out of control. Sometimes encounters with God lead us to the brink or a breaking point, and ritual functions as a safety net.

The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that their ecstatic encounters with the Spirit are dangerous. "When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper you eat," he says, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk" (I Cor. 11:20). Paul then gives instructions for how the Lord's Supper is to be observed so that the presence of Jesus is honored. When he speaks of the use of spiritual gifts, Paul admonishes the Corinthians, "God is not a God of disorder but of peace."

Paul understood well the tension between freedom and order. His Jewish liturgical background was filled with times and forms of prayer and ritual observances like the Day of Atonement, Passover and the Festival of Booths. Yet the Spirit often told him to undertake certain work, or to pull out of other work, and he himself spoke in tongues and prophesied under the Spirit's control.

For Paul, Jewish ritual observances were communal, and everyone participated in reciting the prayers, lighting the candles, and reading the Scriptures. This is what liturgy is all about. The word is Greek. It means, "the work of the people." From its earliest days, the church's worship was liturgical, with a form and pattern of Word and Sacrament. Many people could not read, so they found great value in memorizing the form and words of worship.

Worship in the Middle Ages was caught up in the transcendence of God and human sinfulness, emphasizing the distance between God and humankind. The people could not be trusted with participation in worship because of their sinfulness, so worship became an elaborate spectacle to be observed with fear and trembling. The Lord's Supper of the early church, in which the faithful participated, was replaced by "the Mass" which was said for the people by the priest.

The great accomplishment of the Protestant Reformation was to return the Bible to the people - but not the worship. With its reactionary stance toward Roman Catholic customs and rituals (called "popish" and hocus "pocus"), the Reformers eliminated the trappings of Catholic style, especially "the Mass," but replaced it with ministers who led the services and preached at length to the congregation. The Church of England took a different stance. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer developed a Book of Common Prayer in which he sought to include some of the most ancient texts and patterns that he could locate, and stressed the involvement and participation of the people in worship as well as in Bible reading.

In the early 20th century, archeological research turned up hundreds of liturgical texts used in the early church. Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran scholars tried to recover not only the early church's language of worship, but also its spirit - the interaction between people, worship leaders and God, the work of the people - the liturgy. In other words, the worship paradigm shifted in the liturgical churches - but the shift in some Protestant churches was not to return to a liturgical worship, but to throw it out along with "traditional" Protestant worship and embrace contemporary worship style.

The Pentecostal movement, and the post Word War II charismatic movement, introduced the immediacy, even the urgency, and certainly the joy of the Holy Spirit in worship.

So contemporary worship leaders operate from a paradigm of worship - and often operate from a misunderstanding of what liturgy is, and is meant to accomplish. The Rev. Roger Ames, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio and a longtime leader in charismatic renewal, says, "What is disturbing to some is that the visual impact is Roman Catholic - the vestments, the altar in a church, the sacraments every Sunday. The Reformation response so often is, 'That can't be real in worship that is in spirit and in truth.' They react to symbols, not to what the symbols are trying to communicate."

Ames says that the liturgical and contemporary styles blend well together at St. Luke's because "we affirm that the liturgy was made for man, not man for the liturgy, and we let the worship flow." At the same time, the liturgical foundations help the church to connect the sweep of the Holy Spirit to the church's history over 2,000 years. "Some order will always be involved unless you believe that everything is from scratch every Sunday with no history."

Liturgy gives worshipers a sense of rootedness. "I really believe that contemporary worship styles create an audience, but that liturgy creates a congregation," says Fred Craddock, retired professor of homiletics and New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., who has trained thousands of preachers and taught often about the theology of worship. "Liturgy presupposes, but it also helps create a memory of the church's tradition. Part of what's happening today is that some worship leaders and ministers realize that younger couples and people have no memory of church. Instead of taking time to build deposits in the memory bank, they operate a no memory church.

Craddock adds, "It's kind of an abortion - I know it's a strong word, but I mean it - to presume that you can be a church without drinking from the well of the past and from tradition."

The Rev. Stan White, rector of Church of the King in Valdosta, Ga., is one with a thirst for the water from the well of the past. His congregation formerly was Pentecostal and independent, but eight years ago he and most of his members made the transition into liturgical worship, even joining the Episcopal Church and using the Book of Common Prayer. "As a nondenominational pastor, I wasted a lot of time to validate and justify the pattern we were following," he said. "It took a lot of energy to proof-text and teach that our worship was sound. There's something about the sacraments and liturgical life where we don't have to do that, and that feels safe and rooted.

"Back in the days when I was in the Pentecostal movement," White recalls, "it was a kind of joke among those who were worship leaders or young pastors that 'we can't worship without drums.' The implication was that, if we can't get the music hyped up, people can't worship, and Sunday was a failure."

One great value White sees in liturgical worship is its stress on God's presence in all of life. All of life, time and space can be sanctified. "Our ministry is a lot more integrated now. I don't have a dualism about the world and the church, but I have a deeper sense of all of life being holy. We have a Brother Lawrence type of spirituality to break down the barrier between sacred and secular. Life as worship now flows from sacramental worship on Sundays."

Finally, liturgical worship enables the minister to worship while leading others. The spotlight is on the Word or on the Table, and not on the minister or the people."The focus in contemporary worship so often is on what I'm going to get or how I’m going to feel - will I get blessed, will I feel good?" observes White. "It's very personally and personality-oriented, and there are some real problems with that. Liturgical worship and sacraments take the emphasis off of one personality - a preacher, a performer or a testimony - and put Jesus in the center."

White finds that people from all kinds of backgrounds, and some who are unchurched, have a hunger for something more profound in their worship. "The typical person isn’t theologically educated," White says, "so they can’t put their feelings into religious language. They do find themselves attracted to mystery and to beauty which the liturgy makes approachable." The congregation is growing slowly and has been adding 10 per cent to their membership each year, replacing the numbers who move away in their very transient community.

Jeff Wright, Worship Arts Producer (worship leader) at Community Church of Joy, a 2,000 member Lutheran church in Glendale, Arizona, says that attendance at their two liturgically-oriented services has been growing steadily in the last year. They also have two services which are completely contemporary and seeker-oriented. "We try to recreate the essential elements of the liturgy, like theApostles' Creed, a Prayer of Confession, or the Words of Institution at Communion," he says. "We keep the elements and message of those historic pieces, and repackage them." The church also makes the service a little different every week to keep it fresh and provocative to the worshiper.

Even so, many liturgical churches are uninspiring and people do appear to go through the motions or become caught up in liturgical trivia. The liturgy, however, is not at fault, and to blame liturgical worship for the deadliness of a congregation is too facile. Often it is not the liturgy but the worship leader whose spiritual life is routine or empty that makes liturgy dull. The same thing, of course, can be said about contemporary worship leaders - all the more reason for liturgical and worship leaders to pay close attention to their walk with God - and their own worship life. The liturgy is inspired when the worship leader truly is inspired. Still, liturgy has a power of its own that transcends the individual leader or participant. The value of liturgical worship is that, rooted in history and filling all of life with a sense of God's presence, the worship leader doesn't have to worry about coming up with the right prayer, the right words, or the right order. The rituals and forms create a channel for the Spirit of God to flow as it has for centuries, where we don't have to think, or try, so hard to be worshipers.

Rediscovering (or Discovering) Liturgy in Your Church

1. Incorporate one new liturgical element every few months which requires participation, such as a traditional hymn, a responsory prayer, or an act of confession.

2. Use liturgical forms such as are found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Methodist Book of Discipline or the Lutheran Book of Worship, and leave plenty of room for the Spirit to move in times of silence or Spirit-led prayer.

3. Use ancient prayer texts or written prayers instead of spontaneous prayer as a way for worshipers to connect with Christian memory.

4. Invite a believing pastor from a liturgical church to lead one of your worship services, using his or her liturgical form. Ask the pastor to help instruct worshipers on what they are doing and why.

John Throop is pastor of Christ Church in Peoria, IL and a church management consultant.

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