On occasion, I am lucky enough to have a conversation with a visitor to our rather “traditional” congregation. They often, not surprisingly, recently experienced a more “contemporary” worship style. Sometimes, if they are not totally turned off with our 18th century hymns and sung versicles, they’ll express some surprise that they didn’t dislike it all as much as they though they would. The questions below are reflections on those conversations. I simply took the areas in which they were surprised and framed them as questions to engage someone who has never gone to a liturgical service and may even hold misperceptions about it.
In other words, rather than debating some of the usual superficial topics dealing with worship (how to attract a younger crowd, etc.), I wanted to get at the heart of what we actually believe about worship. I assume that most people of good faith agree on principles of worship, even if and when they disagree about style. I wanted to get behind the usual arguments to look at assumptions and challenge them. I wanted to ask what is a problem based on your perceptions or bias’ rather than what is necessarily a problem in Christian worship.
It’s important that both “sides” of this debate have good reasons to reject or accept certain trends or historical practices in worship. Rejecting contemporary worship for bad reasons is no better than rejecting traditional worship for bad reasons. When we choose how we will come to God in our corporate acts of worship, we should know why, and we should know the difference between things that are necessarily better reasons than others. Trotting out the same old stereotypes again and again just won’t cut it. So here are my five questions to ask the non-liturgical Christian to help distinguish between what may be mere biases and not necessarily good arguments.
1. Should the bulk of what you say and do in worship be inspired by or derived from the scriptures? Those who are quick to criticize traditional or liturgical worship may not know that much of what is said and/or sung is straight from the Bible. Either by a direct quotation or a paraphrase, one element after another of most traditional liturgies is the Bible speaking. In our Lutheran liturgy, the confession, the greeting, the hymn of praise, the reading of scripture itself, the Words of Institution, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sanctus, the Te Deum and the benediction are just a few of the liturgical pieces that are straight from the Bible. The hymns and the sermon should also be based on specific biblical passages.
I would challenge the notion that a “Bible-based” contemporary worship service has as much scripture quoted as a good liturgical service. Indeed, sermon series are often based on concepts and themes with the scripture serving that purpose, not the other way around. So if you believe the answer to the question above is “yes”, you should be open to liturgical worship on biblical grounds.
2. Does repeating something over and over make it either less true or less meaningful? A frequent critique of traditional worship is that it is “dead” because it is merely repeating the same thing over and over again. But we don’t actually live as though this were true for things outside of worship. There are many things we repeat every day and such a repetition doesn’t carry any assumptions of falsehood or being less meaningful. I tell my children I love them everyday. It is always true and always meaningful. Now, it is true that some religious traditions can turn repetition into mere mantras and even associate a response from God with these mantras. Such repetition, especially if it is connected in any way to mysticism, may not be good.
But while it may bore you to say the same thing every week in worship, if the words themselves honor God, repeating them surely isn’t a problem for God. It seems to me God is quite content with repetition, and indeed welcomes it. Read Genesis 1 and Psalm 136 for two very quick examples of liturgical repetition. If repeating something again and again makes it less meaningful to you, that is a reflection, perhaps, of your impatience and a lack of discipline, not the veracity of what is being said. I think the answer to the above question is a firm “No,” so this argument shouldn’t be used to avoid traditional or liturgical worship.
3. Do you associate liturgical worship with a dead church you have experienced in the past? Of course, there have been churches that have maintained liturgical worship but have lost a heart for worship or life together as a community. There are routinely connections made between congregations that are truly off mission and seem to engage in conflict and the worship style they continue to use. There is also latent anti-Roman Catholic sentiment in some critiques of liturgy. Since you know, as a good Protestant, that Rome is wrong on several key issues, you assume the liturgy is also fraught with peril.
I would suggest, though, that “dead” congregations – if we even dared to ever make such a judgment! – and their connection to liturgical worship are separate issues entirely. I would only need to present one congregation that embraced the liturgy and was very much still kicking to prove the connection is anecdotal and not necessary. Perhaps you will need to look for and even drive far for a congregation that embraces traditional liturgy and outreach and evangelism and discipleship. But they do exist. For there is no necessary connection between liturgical worship and “dead” churches.
4. Do you associate liturgical worship with a church that contains false teaching? I alluded to this in the previous paragraph, but in addition to Roman Catholicism, there are a number of Mainline Protestant churches that continue on with the liturgy but have embraced false teaching. Obviously liturgy is not a full-proof protective against false teaching, although it generally helps if congregations submit to historical liturgical forms, quit monkeying around with it, and actually believe the words they say!
If you have only experienced liturgy in a church that ends up teaching falsely, the two aren’t necessarily connected. So challenge that association. There’s also no shortage of false teaching in contemporary circles.
5. Are you concerned that we are losing the next generation of Christians? Aren’t we all? The question is, what is the best way to engage the culture. On the one hand, we can resemble the culture. On the other, we can offer an alternative. It strikes me that the best balance is to offer a truly otherworldly and disciplined approach to worshiping God with truly contemporary preaching. Preaching is where the eternal Word is applied to our contemporary world. So in that sense, worship with halfway decent preaching is always contemporary.
What the liturgy adds is a sense of timelessness. If we lose the next generation, well, perhaps we were going to lose them anyway. I have no doubt, for example, that the withdrawal of the world from the Church is simply God’s judgment, and no amount of appeasing is going to combat that. But if we are willing to engage for God’s glory alone, then let’s offer a different worldview and a deep trust in God. It seems that worship can be both contemporary and still offer this difference, and the liturgy offers possibilities for both.
You may have other reasons for rejecting “traditional” worship. But I hope the five questions above answers some common objections and at least draws a line between what we don’t like and what are necessarily problematic practices. If we can agree on the five points above, let’s keep the conversation going and take on the next round of issues.