The reliturgicalisation of the church

iPhone July 2011 005 - CopyThere was a time when if you went into a church you knew what you would get. And then churches decided to do something different, except they all did the same different thing. Kevin DeYoung has a really interesting post on the Gospel Coalition blog assessing the New Evangelical Liturgy, and in particular critiquing it as by no measure superior to a older evangelical liturgy.

His comments are fascinating, and from the perspective of someone who has been a part of a few different types of church, largely correct. You get your welcome, your block of worship songs, your notices, a sermon, a closing song. You may also get some prayer thrown in before, during or at the end of the worship. DeYoung summarises his critique by saying: “I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more pray? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which one anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?”

Firstly, he makes a point so obvious it is almost axiomatic, which is, all churches, denominations and congregations have a liturgy. They have a form and practice they use to structure their worship and teaching. There is order even in apparent chaos, there is order in refusing to conform. Many churches threw off the shackles of traditional liturgy because they felt it had become rote and devoid of the passionate intent with which they wished to worship God. And then they created new forms to structure their services, which are just as liable to become stale, routine and devoid of the orginal intent. DeYoung’s point is that all liturgies run that risk and he would rather have the older form than the newer.

I read the article and nodded as I scrolled down the column inches. I agreed with statement after statement. And then I read it again because while I had little to dispute with each point he made, the sum of them left me feeling uncomfortable. My first instinct was to doubt my discomfort, and excuse it as an exercise in self preservation – I wanted the type of worship I participated in and enjoyed to be fine.

And then a couple of days later it struck me. The problem wasn’t what was said but what wasn’t. I went back and read it again, and then read the comments and realised I wasn’t alone.

The article is all about what we do in worship, what our actions are, what the words we say are. I agree that newer (and they are not really that novel) forms of worship have often dispensed with creedal statements and acts of confession. And I agree that sometimes that side-lining can serve to obscure the truths of the gospel. The current interest in redressing this is part of the reliturgicalisation of the church, and it’s not just happening in the reformed evangelical movement, it emerges in unlikely corners as well, Rachel Held Evans indicated as much in her comments about Millennials hankering after the authenticity and the decidedly uncool traditional style of service over glossy seeker sensitive presentations.

An important comment on a potential area of dissonance on this issue: in the UK when referring to liturgy, the common picture conjured up is that of Anglican, prayer book, liturgy. Whereas, the form de Young appears to reference has some relation to that but is more centred on the Westminster Confessional style of reformed Christianity. This is where de Young and Held Evans diverge, I can’t imagine DeYoung applauding Catholic or Eastern Orthodox liturgy as the answer to the problem he analyses.

A desire for something intentionally uncool can be just as much a preference for style over substance as the predominance of charismatic worship services across all forms of church.

And there’s the problem. What DeYoung critiques is a charismatic form of worship, with roots in revivalist meetings yes, but its spread is principally down to the emergence of new church movements such as the Vineyard, restoration and house churches, and the wider Contemporary Christian Music scene.

While DeYoung’s reasons for preferring the older form of evangelical liturgy contain little to disagree with, they miss something. They miss giving space to hear from God rather than just speak to him.

It is a model that is charismatic in its origin and its theology transported into an ecclesial environment without the same theological groundings or foundation. While it might not have the weight of theological reflection of the previous forms de Young refers to, it is not without theological reflection.

The problem is that the practice has been adopted but the theology has not. That doesn’t mean everything is all okay for those charismatic churches using the same form, often the theological reflection is forgotten, often the reason for doing things this way rather than the other is ignored, sidelined and even maligned.

Charismatic worship services are based on the belief that God wants to speak to us and not just hear from us. They are also, at their best, participatory services where the role of the leaders is to enable other people to take part in worship. They are also, at their worst, consumer led, pop-culture infused, lowest common denominator seeking, performances that leaves the person in the padded chair far more detached than high liturgy.

When charismatic worship – and this is what DeYoung labels as the New Evangelical Liturgy – becomes a consumer experience it has failed. And it is acting contrary to its intent. Sometimes it can place too high a value on providing an ‘encounter with God’, and this becomes a spiritual quest, the fulfilment of which is an affirmation of your faith. That might be participatory but it’s not the point of worship, it is just another consumer experience.

I don’t want a stale liturgy that might say the right words but without any meaning. And nor do I want passionate songs of worship disconnected from what I believe, and what as a community of Christians we affirm we believe. Liturgy can provide for passion and it can provide for truth. And I also believe it can provide space to hear from God rather than just a space for us to tell him and each other what we believe about him.

3 thoughts on “The reliturgicalisation of the church

  1. I believe an important matter omitted from the discussion of liturgy is its purpose. Is it valuable beyond its provision of structure and connection to the past? The original Roman Catholic liturgy was assembled using the visions of John in the book of Revelations. The Mass, if one is inclined to think of a Church service that way, is an attempt to recreate the glory of God prophesied to us in the End Times. The white robes of the priests, the incense, the “hallelujah”, the kneeling, the standing, the supper of the Lamb, they are all inspired from the words of John. It certainly connects us with the “old” as DeYoung suggests, but more importantly, it connects us to a promised future of unity with Christ. It is this promise of eternity that I would like to see discussed more. Yes, it’s about the past, and yes, it’s about the present. But oh so importantly it is about providing a small glimpse of the hope of Glory. The structures of traditional Christian liturgies are all rich with purpose and symbolism that emerge from an original common desire to imitate the visions of John.

  2. Like you, I read DeYoung’s article and found myself agreeing with much of what he said, but also feeling like something was missing. This is a nice addition to the conversation.

  3. I wonder a little, about how ‘church’ is done, and why. Liturgy – pretty much all of it – seems designed around us fulfilling obligations and meeting requirements in a convenient manner. Is it possible to transition to a form that shapes itself around God’s participation than the other way around?

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