There is a phenomenon which you have probably heard about if you are an evangelical Christian, which is that Young People These Days Are Really Into Liturgy.
Christianity Today may be responsible for this perception, since there has been a trend among its younger writers to promote liturgical forms of worship. Now, the backlash has begun. In an online Christianity Today piece which basic anti-liturgical protestants are no doubt posting all over Facebook, writer Kirsten Guidero paints a picture of a liturgical service full of people who take Holy Communion and then hours later are back on the streets murdering people:
The service was undeniably beautiful. Dedicated pastors and volunteers had planned it for weeks. There were banners, incense, and altar decorations. The sanctuary was packed: more than 1,000 folks overflowed the seats, latecomers standing along the sides and back. The congregation participated with gusto. But after receiving Communion, they marched out of the sanctuary. By the closing hymn, only a few folks dotted the pews that just five minutes before had been filled to bursting.
Some left to cram in work, but many in this particular group were on their way to that night’s parties. In another five hours, many would be passed out on the couches of friends or strangers, a few would be rushed by ambulance for alcohol poisoning treatment, and, most horrific, some would be sexually assaulting their peers or suffering such violence. It was the weekend, and the community in question was a Christian university.
Now if any fool had actually been going around claiming that “liturgy” was going to replace discipleship, I can see why we would be having this conversation. Except precisely nobody is that stupid. James K.A. Smith, whose work Ms. Guidero’s piece misrepresents, has published a devastating response which you should read.
How precisely is the above scenario any different from what is surely also going on at St. Guitar or Low Commitment Worship Warehouse across town? The real-life problem the scenario depicts is young heathen churchgoers who want Jesus to make them feel good but don’t want to change their lives, and you’re going to have that problem in any college church, liturgy or not.
If you don’t understand what “liturgy” is for, it’s probably not a good idea to call yourself a “liturgical Christian.” Ms. Guidero seems to think “liturgy” has something to do with kneeling and incense, or that it is a kind of flavorful sauce that you sort of ladle on top of your evangelical worship service, or vestments that you wear like an ironic t-shirt. Giving her the benedict of the doubt, perhaps there are evangelical churches out there, maybe in Nashville (Christian hipster central), which are doing liturgy like this. But that’s not the real deal.
The smells, the bells, the embroidered vestments, the gorgeous dishes, and all the other stuff of “liturgy” are not there just to be beautiful or to encourage a certain subjective feeling. These things are all signs: physical symbols of a reality that is both spiritual and physical.
The liturgy centers the church community around the Sacrament of the Altar–the bread and wine that become, through grace, the Body and Blood of the Lord. “Liturgy” is nothing more (or less) than thousands of years of developed thought about Christ’s relationship with the church, acted out by the church. It is the Church’s attempt to align our worship of Christ on earth with the way Christ is worshiped in heaven.
The liturgy contains and, if you will, “embodies” a theological statement. That statement is, more or less:
We are worshiping as if Christ, the incarnate, crucified, died, risen, and ascended King, is actually here, because we believe he becomes present in the Sacrament of the Altar.
This is why the first part of the liturgy emulates the first-century Jewish synagogue service, centered around the public reading and interpretation of the Word, and the second part of the liturgy acts out its fulfillment in Christ through the Lord’s Supper.
For more about this, I recommend that anyone who is interested in “liturgy” immediately read Joseph Ratzinger’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy [B&N]. (Joseph Ratzinger is the mild-mannered alter ego of Pope Benedict XVI, but you don’t need to be Catholic to appreciate his work.) Other explorations of the liturgy that I have personally benefited from include Anglican Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, which explains how the liturgy developed, and Lutheran Gene Veith’s The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, which briefly discusses not only liturgical topics but also explains practically quite a number of areas in which contemporary evangelicalism misses the boat. Ms. Guidero’s byline suggests she aspires to holy orders; I recommend that she study these books.
But returning to that regrettable article, one of the worst misunderstandings it perpetrates is the idea that “liturgy” focuses too much on the body to the detriment of the mind. Which is just too silly a point to take seriously since everything in the liturgy is intended to focus both body and mind on the truth. But one of the important aspects of the liturgy is that it is an extended, solemn, majestic theological pun (if you will) on the phrase “the body of Christ.” The body of Christ is doubly present, first, as the universal Church represented by the congregation; second, as Christ himself manifested in the sacramental elements, which Christians eat. Thus, the liturgy acts out the unity of Christ and the Church at the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Oh, so about the title. I do happen to be a member of a congregation in the Episcopal Church, although I don’t recommend that particular denomination for everyone. But I do think that the liturgy is best practiced in its natural habitat, which is a church with a long history of liturgical practice and thought. It’s worth observing that those in my own denomination who have gone off the rails theologically are the very same people who are taking a wrecking ball to the liturgies.
For me, becoming an Episcopalian was about more than just going to a church that practiced “liturgy” on Sunday mornings. It was about becoming part of a congregation that believed in embodied worship and corporal fellowship; that recognized and acted like it was part of something bigger than itself, whose worship was more than personal spiritual gratification.