Is it time to reclaim liturgy?

Over at Christianity Today, there is an article by Mark Galli, the author of Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of the Christian Liturgy about the appeal of liturgy to evangelical Christians. The article is called “A Deeper Relevance”. I found his words on the church’s attempts to be “relevant” to be particularly interesting:

something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. “The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world,” writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. . . It is precisely the point of the liturgy to take people out of their worlds and usher them into a strange, new world—to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they’ve come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day.”

One of my frustrations with the church is that while there seems to be a never ending quest for relevance, we are not called to be relevant. We are called to be set apart, to live in ways which are wholly different from the world around us, to care about things which the world cares nothing for and to care very little for that which the world sees as important. Much of our quest to be relevant seems to me to be in stark contrast with the biblical instruction: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2

In practice, it can be hard to figure out what this means. Does Christian music which sounds like it could be playing on the adult contemporary station count as being conformed to this world? My sense is that while there is nothing wrong per se with music or issues of style which reflect the culture we live in, we need to be reminded regularly and probably forcibly that we are not of this world. That we are defined by, shaped by and devoted to things which the world finds foolish rather than pleasing. We need to be encouraged as a matter of habit to conform ourselves to God’s transformational power rather than going with the flow. Regularly stepping outside of the normal flow of life to engage in something such as liturgy which is so radically different, unchanging and even slightly alien would probably be good for us.

Certainly, going to a Protestant church service takes us outside the world’s norms to the extent that those who attend are doing something which those who don’t attend aren’t doing. However, Mr. Galli points to a difference which I think explains why attending a liturgical service takes us out of the world in a way that attending the typical evangelical service does not. After writing about a church which is literally called “Relevant” where they recently did a “30 Day Sex” challenge encouraging the marrieds in the church to have sex everyday for 30 days, he says this about the liturgical service:

The Anglican liturgy I participate in begins and ends like this:

Celebrant: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
People: And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever.

Deacon: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God.

The liturgy, from beginning to end, is not about meeting our needs. The liturgy is about God. It’s not even about God-as-the-fulfiller-of-our-need-for-spiritual-meaning. It’s about God as he is himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not about our blessedness but his. The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not nearly as relevant as we imagine.”

Really, it’s hard to imagine anything more counter-cultural and outside of the norms of this world than being told that our needs are not all that relevant in the scheme of things. In a way, the liturgy and its utter irrelevance to our lives, is a sort of holy smack-down. A regular reminder that in our natural minds, we have the order of things all wrong.

I was raised Catholic, although I can no longer claim to be Catholic as there are so many teachings of the church which I cannot affirm, I have always loved the mass. Contrary to what one might suppose, being asked to put your own struggles, sorrows and grief aside on a regular basis in order to focus on something much bigger than yourself is very comforting. When I was in high school, I attended mass at my Catholic school almost everyday. During a time when everything was changing, saying the same words that had been spoken every day for centuries was grounding to me. I found comfort and solidarity in the idea that through out the centuries and around the world, people with lives both more comfortable and more horrifying than my own would gather around an alter to remember our Savior and think on God’s love and redemptive purposes for our lives.

I have spent most of my adult life in evangelical churches for various reasons. I cannot go back to Catholicism or join Orthodox Christianity. Our family attended an Anglican Church for a while, but it was spiritually dead, although filled with very nice people. I would love to see the wider community of believers reclaim the mystery of liturgy. It is my opinion that evangelicals are in a great position to do this, because in many places where the liturgy has been kept alive, the faith is musty. The evangelical church, for all its faults is often still a place where they know the living God who wants to transform us. Many evangelicals and other “born-again” Christians still have a vision of God and what life with Him could be, yet the reality is that from Sunday to Sunday the execution is often weak. Perhaps it would be a great service to the faith to begin re-claiming the other-worldly liturgy which in one form or another nurtured the faith back through the ages.

5 thoughts on “Is it time to reclaim liturgy?

  1. I think I’ve shared my opinion of Contemporary worship services with you. It makes me feel like I’ve been trapped in Children’s church; everything complicated has been banished. Anyhow, my parents’ church has been having a Compline service on Sundays (looking at their website, I see now that last Sunday was the last one, I suppose until next Fall). Compline is the evening prayer performed in monasteries typically. Apparently the Compline service at my parents’ church was very popular with area college students. Here’s a link:

    So there is a hunger out there for more traditional worship.

  2. you might want to spend a bit of time looking at churches that claim to be relevant, and find out why what they are doing is working.james

  3. James, I actually have spent time at “relevant” churches and often enjoyed it. However, my experience has been exactly what Willow Creek Church has found – that they don’t do a very good job of sustaining and growing faith into deeper waters. By my mid-20s I often felt like I was one of the most spiritually mature people at a church and was dying for mentors or relationships with people whose faith had moved past the milky stuff. I do appreciate the time I have spent in churches which are working to be relevant, but I am coming to think that we have a lot of very immature Christians who don’t even realize that there are much deeper waters to be found in the faith. Not saying that relevant is the reason for this, but I suspect that simply by virtue of working to be relative to an immature culture, it can be hard to lead people deeper.

  4. Suburban Correspondent,
    I had a good nun in high school who warned us that we don’t get to pick and choose which of the Catholic tenants to believe and still call ourselves Catholic. I totally respect the right of the church to define itself and expect acceptance of the tenants of the church from its members. Many years ago, I got to the point where there were just too, too many things which I no longer believed about the Catholic faith for me to continue to call myself Catholic. If anything, the gap between the teachings of the Catholic Church and what I believe to be true has grown even wider over the years.

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