What would cause a surfer-culture, non-creedal, evangelical, Californian named Gary to become an Anglican priest? Believe it or not, he states that it was the structure and order that drew him in. For most of his life spontaneity was one of Gary’s defining traits. Yet, it was the liturgical tradition’s ability to articulate a clear and concise picture of belief that played a vital role in why he embraced it.
The historic creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian, etc.) are surprisingly popular among a new generation of believers who desire to connect to the historic faith of past generations. In the postmodern world of today, young adults seek “spirituality” wherever they can find it. Often, they seek it in eastern religion, yoga or other places but some are rediscovering “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Christian sociologists are researching the beliefs of postmodern youth and finding that the majority believe in something that isn’t necessarily Christian: a god exists who created and orders the worlds and looks after life on earth; a god who wants people to be nice and fair as taught by most world religions; the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; a god doesn’t need to be involved in one’s life except when needed; and, good people go to heaven when they die.
The shift to postmodernism isn’t an isolated influence. Other factors that are impacting change in the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today include the shift from an age of certainty in which people basically trusted authorities, to an environment of uncertainty. Winfield Bevins states, “Today many young people are searching for the truth that has been tested and tried…. Looking beyond the modern age, they are looking to the premodern roots of our history” (Ever Ancient, Ever New, p.31).
What is it about ancient forms of liturgical worship that are so compelling? In other words, what are the benefits? For one thing, liturgy tells a story. It is a re-enactment of the divine drama and is a reminder of the redemption story from Scripture. In fact, liturgy invites us to find our place in the story. Those people with a hunger for or at least an openness to experience, like many young adults, find that the story-form is interesting and even spiritually appealing. Scripture teaches the grand story of God’s plan to redeem creation using real people and real events to form the narrative. The words of James illustrate this: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its
crops” (James 5:17-18).
Stories have had a diminishing place in society since the intellectual influence of the philosophical movements of the last two centuries. People are uncertain about where they have come from or where they are going but the church’s ancient story can act as a compass to give direction to the journey. When people, even Christian believers, have lost collective memory of God’s great story, liturgy offers them a way to re-enter the story; to re-engage with the narrative.
Maybe liturgy needs to be defined or explained before going further. A simple definition offered by Keith Drury in his book, The Wonder of Worship, states “a formula for public worship; the usual order of worship.” Some churches from the “free worship” tradition might claim to have no liturgy, but they actually use a form of it whether it is stated/ written or not. Liturgy (from Greek “latreia” as in Romans 12:1, Hebrews 9:6) is like a blueprint or map to guide the service of worship being offered to God.
Then again, liturgy frees us from ourselves. It does this by retelling the grand story of God again and again so that we are formed by it – it becomes part of who we are. In the three-year cycle of the common lectionary, the major movements of the story (and some minor ones) are retold so that a person who attended worship for thirty years, let’s say, hears the full scope of the story ten times at least.
Much contemporary worship focuses on the self; it is “me-centered.” It emphasizes feelings and what the worshipper must do to please Christ. Liturgical worship is designed to free us from self to focus on the Trinity of God. One young adult, who had left an Episcopal congregation for a while, returned explaining that he longed for a deeper expression of his faith. He believed that the liturgy counterbalanced the consumer culture he lived in by directing his attention away from the worship of the person!
As already indicated, liturgy forms us. As Christians gather in worship week after week they are being formed into the image of Jesus by the readings, prayers, music, and rhythms of the liturgy. These rhythms are at work forming worshipers quietly, almost subversively without being aware of them. Formation takes place not only in the congregation but also privately as believers set aside time to worship God in their “prayer closets.” Instead of wandering from one devotional book to the next or praying only when the need is greatest, a follower of Christ can use the liturgy of The Book of Common Prayer, for example, to give stability, balance, and direction to his/her devotional life. There are also many other devotional books available either in print or as e-books such as Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, Richard Foster’s Devotional Classics, and A Pocket Guide to Prayer by Steve Harper.
Furthermore, liturgy sanctifies time. Keith Drury insists that “Christians have a theological and philosophical reason for treating time differently” (p.127). He reminds us that in Christianity time is not cyclical but linear in that the Judeo-Christian heritage sees time moving toward an end point – a consummation of all things. Liturgy reminds us that we belong to another time and place beyond secular time which is bound by the calendar and events: kingdom time. There is a Christian calendar that encompasses six “seasons” – Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Ordinary Time. The focus is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Each season has unique features that illuminate gospel truths and center our devotion for the next steps on the journey with God. The Christian calendar can be a powerful reminder of the rhythms of the spiritual life. The Christian year points us to the mystery that transcends this finite life, revealing in various ways the reality that is beyond this existence.
Perhaps the most powerful benefit is that liturgy is participatory. Some young adults, and older ones, have become tired of entertainment and consumer approaches to worship and desire to participate directly. Liturgy helps each person to have the opportunity to be involved at a deep level of faith rather than passively consuming knowledge. We are all engaged in the work of worship centered around Jesus. Part of liturgical worship is movement: standing, perhaps kneeling, receiving the sacraments, and making various gestures such as the sign of the cross. Our body, mind, and emotions are included in ancient worship. We are not merely sitting and receiving.
In this blog we have only looked at one part of the Christian world of worship – the ancient liturgical stream; there are many others such as Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Anabaptist, Revivalism/camp meeting, Charismatic, Quaker and others. These all have a liturgical form of some kind.
This is written during the difficult and strange coronavirus pandemic. People have worshipped on-line mostly but as Dr. Timothy Tennent of Asbury Theological Seminary stated, “You can’t cancel church” since the church is the people. In a sense, we cannot cancel worship either. God put into our nature the urge to worship. As St. Augustine prayed fifteen centuries ago, lamenting his wasted years before surrendering to Christ, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you…. You touched me and I burned for your peace.”