(Blogger’s note: I should’ve known better than to plan a blog entry for Thursday in the middle of one of the more exciting World Series in recent memory. Silly me. Congratulations to the 2011 World Champions of the World, the St. Louis Cardinals. And if you missed part 1 of “Liturgical Fidget,” click here. Now, we return you to your regularly scheduled spiritual crisis, already in progress …)
So I’ve been thinking about the possibility of checking out Sunday morning congregational services again — not to analyze the state of the American church, but to be part of an organized body of believers. Granted that in most Sunday morning services, the opportunities for fellowship (what I discovered I was really missing, as I delineated in part 1) are often limited. But what fellowship there is, I find I miss. I’ve been out of the picture for 30 months now, and while I’ve been able to stay in Christian fellowship via a few close friends, plus contact online with other believers, it would be nice to have more.
But there’s something about the whole liturgy of a Sunday morning meeting that still makes me uncomfortable. It’s also what keeps those fellowship opportunities down. In a word, it’s liturgy.
For those of you who aren’t sure what that means, “liturgy” refers to the customary traditions of public worship of a particular religious group. In essence, it’s what one does every time a congregation meets — what takes place in the service, and in what order. The word comes from the (I think) Greek leitourgia, which means “the people’s work,” and referred originally to the responses of the congregation to the priest or minister.
In practice, liturgy is a systematized schedule for the weekly (or whenever) congregational meeting — the Mass in Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopalian/Anglican churches, for instance. There are usually a few different schedules/”rites” used by a given congregation, but that’s almost all the variation you’ll ever see. Most of what will happen, in some cases all the way down to specific statements, passages of Scripture and congregational responses, are set in concrete, repeated every week, and are never changed without the equivalent of an act of Congress. I’m not sure what happens if someone in the rank and file goes off the pre-arranged plan, but I’m pretty sure it involves being removed from the building by burly ushers. Liturgy is a serious business.
I grew up with that. My mom (God rest her soul) was Episcopalian, and I spent my childhood in that tradition. When I gave my life to Jesus, however, it was in an Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) campus group — very different. And one of the ways I was told it was different was that there was no liturgy. Pentecostals believed in letting God work on them directly, in letting the Holy Spirit lead the meetings and take them wherever He wanted. That was a breath of fresh air after a youth full of Rite Two from the Book of Common Prayer. And at the time and place — among a group of current and former-but-recent collegians, in the late 1980s — it was more or less true.
It took almost two decades for me to find that that argument was largely false, something that was confirmed in spades during my Congregational Journey in early 2009. In fact, I took to referring to The System (note the capital letter) — namely, the order of service in almost every Pentecostal or evangelical congregation I saw. I realized I could go into any Sunday meeting of a Pentecostal or Baptist, and without thinking about it know exactly what was going to happen and in what order. And what (few) variations I found were between one congregation and another, not between services in the same congregation. All these congregations that claimed to disdain liturgy were in fact practicing it — not to the same level of detail as the Catholic church down the road, but doing it just the same and just as rigidly. And largely had been since the end of the Jesus Movement over three decades ago.
I’ve referenced this before, but bear with me … Graham Cooke once remarked that God is consistent in who He is, but unpredictable in what He does and how He does it, and that the problem with the Church today is that we tend to be inconsistent in who we are and totally predictable in what we do and how. That predictability most manifests itself in that tendency toward embracing liturgy in practice even as it’s condemned in concept. And if the Holy Spirit wants to scrap the usual proceedings and do something else, 99 times out of 100 He’s going to be ignored if not actively resisted. II’ve watched that happen — even heard people defend the resistance.) We know what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it — whether God likes it or not.
Any wonder that when God made it clear to me in April 2009 that he wanted my search for a congregation to stop, my immediate reaction was relief?
Now, I have friends who have left evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and have found homes in more traditional congregations — Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, even Roman Catholic. (It’s common enough nowadays that it’s acquired a name: the “ancient-future” movement.) They talk about the beauty of the services and the music, the ornate buildings, the celebrations of the church calendar. They point out how much Scripture is incorporated into the service via the prescribed readings, the hymns, the build-up to Communion. They revel in the thought of centuries of church tradition on which the practices of their congregations rest. Like me, they’re so relieved to have escaped the blank walls and shallow music and “practical” sermons of their previous experience.
And I must admit, my gut reaction to all of their rapturous statements is “oy, gag me with a thurible.”
But I grew up in traditional congregations. I did it every week from the time I was five until I left for college at 17. I had the music, the celebrations, the tradition … and I was as dead as Henry VIII, spiritually speaking. It was only when I got away from it that I found new life in Christ was even possible. So it always feels to me like a dead end. And in addition, that the people who take that route are simply trading in a hidebound liturgical system that dates back to the 1970s for one that is rooted in the 1870s, or 1570s, or 1270s. Not what I’d call progress.
Again, that’s how I’ve felt — that doesn’t automatically make me right. But there were points when I’d read the words “ancient-future” and my eyes would glaze over. I loved my brothers and sisters in Christ who’d taken that route. I was happy they’d found a home. But I was not joining them — no more liturgy for this little black duck, thankyouverymuch …
But at the risk of making this post unconscionably long (and I just hit the 1150-word mark, so the risk is there), three things happened recently that are causing me to rethink my position:
Krell is a fellow blogger, one who went from evangelicalism to (eventually) a Lutheran congregation. And in his post, he talked about the Lutheran concept of the “theology of the cross” (having Jesus and His work as the focus of the Christian life) versus the “theology of glory” (focusing on what we do, and on God making our life on earth better). I knew the basic concepts (though not with that nomenclature), but Krell’s presentation of it sunk my battleship. I realized that the theology of the cross is the antidote for almost every problem in American Pentecostalism today — so much of which is legalistic, or racked by the “prosperity” false gospel, or just plain self-centered instead of Jesus-centered.
- Finding something I wrote after my only visit to a Roman Catholic Sunday service.
That visit was on Easter Sunday, 2007. At the time, God was leading me on a sort of Congregational Journey, just giving me an idea of the types of congregations in my hometown of Stockton, California. That Sunday, He spoke to me about what He called “the Church in tradition,” and I did my best to write down what He seemed to be telling me. I had kind of forgotten about that until a couple of weeks ago, when I was sorting through some old Microsoft Word files and ran across my notes. This is some of what I wrote at the time:
Traditions in the Church cannot be sustained only by human will – the Church is Christ’s body, and He has ordained its history (“His story”). Those who bash historical churches (like those who bash modern ones) do not know either the Scriptures or the power of God, for it is stated clearly that regardless of denomination, “wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.” God has given 2000 years’ worth of wisdom to His saints, and no one should despise His gifts.
There are traditions of man as well as of God – nothing in a fallen world is an unmixed blessing – but just because gold is mixed with clay does not mean you should throw out both. Keep an open mind to old ways of doing things, judging them by Scripture and prayer rather than personal background or inclination.
Ow. (That’s the sound of me being convicted by the Holy Spirit.) In giving the cold shoulder to older forms of liturgy — to liturgy in general — wasn’t I doing exactly what God told me NOT to do? In rejecting those traditions, wasn’t I “despising His gifts”? Wasn’t I closing my mind to old ways of doing things, and judging them by “personal background or inclination”? Sure looks that way. Ow.
- And then, last Sunday, I was making my schedule for the next week.
I’ve talked in previous entries about my current practice of having a Monday-Friday schedule, to keep me on track and help me accomplish stuff. (I’m a guy. Guys have a deep psychological need to accomplish things.) I haven’t been all that consistent in sticking to it, but it’s good to have around to fall back on, and I get a lot more done with that schedule than without one.
But six days ago, as I was making the adjustments to the sked for the week to come, it hit me between the eyes: what was the difference between what I was making, and a liturgy?
What does a liturgy do? It puts everything in a set order, so everyone knows what to expect, and so everything they desire to do gets done. And the point of it is to honor God. What is my schedule supposed to do? It’s supposed to put everything in a set order, so I know what to expect, and so everything I want to do gets done. And the point of it is to get me in a place where I better honor God with my life. Not a lot of difference. So, Ray … why is it okay when you do it for about 75 hours a week, but something’s wrong when First Episcolutheterian Church does it for two hours a week?
I repeat: ow.
Because all of a Christian’s life is meant to be lived in Christ. Yes, I know that for some people, those two hours in a pew are all they want of God, so that’s all they get. But that’s not me. There may be little time for fellowship or allowance for innovation in a congregational service — but there are another 110 or so waking hours where God is still present, where Jesus is in my heart, where there is plenty of room for whatever He cares to throw at me. It’s not like that one bit in a pew or a folding chair — at most, 2% of my week — is keeping God from working on me.
If anything, maybe I’ve been missing out on things He wants to do with me, just because I wasn’t able to receive it in the context of a Sunday service at that point. Maybe he called me out for a while so I could see the situation more as He does, so He could prepare me for something I couldn’t have accepted before. It’s possible. I’ve learned so much in these 2-1/2 years, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I find that I’m now considering the possibility that Outside-the-Camp is not my final destination, that part of my reason for being out here was to cure my Liturgical Fidget, or at least manage it better.
I’ll likely continue to be (as the banner on this page says) a “professional outsider” — I always have been, and I’ve learned to accept it. But maybe it’s coming time for me to be an outsider on the inside again.
More on this as God leads … I’ll keep you posted.