Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Retreat Towards Liturgical Worship

“TEN! NINE! EIGHT!” The crowd shouted, “SEVEN! SIX! FIVE! FOUR!” The smoke filled the auditorium, the strobe lights flickered as the gigantic screen in the center of the stage followed the countdown. “THREE! TWO! ONE!” Everyone erupted in a glorious uproar as about ten hipsters ran on the stage and began jumping around the stage as they played loud music with ripping guitar solos, cool sound effects, and a light show that would make a lot of bands jealous. This wasn't a rock concert I was at. It was a church service.

In a world bent on disrupting norms and destroying structures, there is a groundswell of Christians who are beginning to understand the necessity of some structures and are willing to cling to it. Society’s drive for individuality at the expense of the community and its insatiable insistence for the removal of structures has successfully infiltrated today’s contemporary Evangelical Protestantism. This has been clearly seen by the dramatic increase in Christians who claim no affiliation to a particular variant of the faith, clinging instead to vague terms like “Christian spirituality,”  and the sharp rise in non-denominational churches who are largely unaccountable to a larger body (though they claim they are answerable to the universal body of Christ, there is no proper mechanism to enforce that). In this atmosphere of raucous music accompanied by smoke machines and shallow three point sermons, attending a more conservative, respectful liturgical service can be like a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, there seems to be a resurgence of this form of worship in the rest of the world which will hopefully be followed by Americans.

I am not writing to bash every single non-denominational church out there, or to say that those who attend churches who do not participate in a liturgical style of worship are wrong, or that they need to turn from their wicked ways lest they burn. To keep this in perspective, this is absolutely an issue of preference. I will however, lay out reasons this more formal, reverent style brings more positives to the table for Christianity than status quo contemporary worship does. At the end of the day, we are all walking our Christian path and we need to work our own faith with fear and trembling. Its merely a question of how we walk. It is still vital to maintain unity in the universal catholic church (which includes but is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church).

A lot of times when I’m talking to the average Evangelical Christian today and they find out that I have been exploring going to liturgical services with the Anglican Church, they tend to inform me there is no exact Biblical formula for worship laid out for New Testament Christians. I agree, but does that automatically preclude the tradition found in celebrating the Eucharist in a liturgical way. Even if there is no formula for what we do on Sunday mornings found in the Bible, the liturgy is absolutely a reflection and reminder of Scripture—from the incense (a sweet aroma offered to God), to the crossing of oneself after prayer (an invocation of the Trinity). The symbolism is both intentional and powerful. Perhaps one of the reasons people misunderstand it is because of poor theological training in the past, when Churches neglect to really teach what the symbolism is there for. Just because there are misinformed people in some Churches does not mean that we should ignore liturgical church, rather it means we should improve the knowledge of those who are ignorant of the meaning and spirit behind the traditions. The Eucharist is incredibly beautiful. It features the gathering of the community where the recitation and acclamation of some rich doctrinal statements and Scriptures are made. Scripture is read by both the Priest and the congregants, followed by other prayers, readings, and a homily which is typically centered around the church calendar. The most emphasis is placed on communion, it is at the center of the entire service. Everything culminates in our remembrance of who Christ is and what He did for us through the cross and His resurrection.

The history of the liturgy begins in the Old Testament. It is centered around the program of sacrifices laid out in Leviticus, making it a paradigm for the agenda of Mass. No matter how you cut it, the celebration of the Eucharist is one tradition that can be traced as a norm of the Early Church which survived until the Reformation and even some of the Reformers attempted to keep some semblance of it (I’m looking at you John Calvin). As early as 155 A.D. there are records of the Church celebrating the Eucharist in a liturgical manner. Why is that important? Church tradition, when lining up with Scripture, should absolutely be one of the top priorities we have. Through traditions, we gain wisdom from those who came before us. If a tradition came from those who were taught directly by Christ and His disciples we should think twice before disregarding it just so we can hear the kind of music we are used to hearing on the radio. Currently, our society dictates much of what goes on in the walls of the Church. That should not be so. Tradition is countercultural because instead of deferring to the newest, shiniest, most popular thing, we are heeding ancient wisdom, uniting ourselves to those members of the Body of Christ who came before us, and tuning out those contemporary influences which can distort our view of God and His Church.

I believe the liturgical Church is the most reasonable form of worship for many different reasons. The Reverend Canon J. Scott Houser keenly observed, “Worship is not entertainment for believers; it is not designed to make believers feel good...Worship is designed to delight God, to please and glorify Him. Worship is God-centered.” That is a spectacular criteria for determining which style of worship is most preferable; that which pleases God and puts Him at the very center should be considered the most valid expression of our worship. When the contemporary American church has become infused with the marketplace (which is not necessarily bad, but should be kept out of our worship) and tried to become “seeker-friendly,” compromising to a hostile culture, the very sacred act of worship is often mediated onto institutions such as the church, the music, the “brand”, etc., displacing the God-centeredness that should be the pinnacle of the Church. The most reasonable thing to do is shift into more liturgical modes of worship because it represents a denial of the way the contemporary church has slowly taken the focus off of God and placed a spotlight on the glam and glitz of their own worship “production” and re-focuses on the Christ.

I live in a college town where churches tend to bend over backwards to cater towards growing college populations. My generation is the next one to take over the helm of the grand march into the next era of Church History. I’m seeing troubling signs already though because we are increasingly allowing culture to guide the Church like a master controls his or her puppets. Unfortunately, with the rise of the “Seeker-friendly” church, believers are fed milk and taught not to confront culture but only to compromise. I have been retreating towards a liturgical style of worship for a while now because it is inherently countercultural, cutting directly to the heart of Christ’s teachings. Its time to start a revolution where we stand up to society with the real Gospel that has been untainted by culture’s obsession with the self and the influence of the market. We need to take seriously the way our Christian forefathers worshipped. We need to celebrate the Eucharist in a more traditional and orthodox way.

Here's an interesting and encouraging video about the growth of the Anglican church in America: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFbCPw6qzMA