Worship in Something and Something II: Rescuing Liturgy

Depending on where you go to church you may or may not have heard of the “worship wars.” Now again depending on where you go to church such a thing may have gone on from the 1970s to the 1990s, the 1990s till now, or some other timeline in roughly the last forty years. These sorts of “wars” saw choirs, organs and liturgy pitted against contemporary worship teams composed of guitar, bass, drums, keys.

As an unintended consequence of these conflicts most Christians in the West are presented with a sort of a la carte menu that has two choices. First on the menu: you accept a traditional liturgical service with organ, choir, certain prescribed prayers, certain recited creeds. There is a system to the entire service. Our second menu item is as follows: Contemporary music, and by contemporary I mean something that probably sounds like Coldplay or Joshua Tree-era U2. The order for these services is vastly simplified compared to their liturgical counterparts. A typical example might go: three songs, prayers, reading, offering, sermon, two songs. It’s unlikely you’ll say any creeds or that you’ll know the words to any of the prayers in advance.

Now I have oversimplified, and yes, there are churches that fuse various of these elements together, but look around churches in North America, the UK, or Australia/New Zealand (the Anglosphere?) and these are likely the choices with which you’ll be presented. Sometimes denominations can be a good predictor with mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and some Reformed types preferring liturgy while Evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals/Charismatics, and some other Reformed types going with contemporary services. Again this is an oversimplification and denomination is not always a good predictor of service type.

lou-reed-sizedWhat I want to ask in this post though is why do we have to choose sides here? I want to break these two sides apart and argue for something that is neither of the two most common choices: contemporary liturgy. I have found that I like liturgy, and I like it for the very reason that most people say they don’t like it, it’s repetitive. Repetition gets rid of maudlin sentimentality, glurge as it is sometimes called. This is something that American avant-rock icon Lou Reed has observed, and given that he’s songs usually subsist on 2-4 repeating chords, I’d say he practices what he preaches. Liturgy’s repetition avoids those agonizing prayers that we too often hear in its absence, you know the ones, heartfelt as they may be, that ask for vague things like God “coming into our lives” or “being here” or something. Instead we have content, a focus, we can ask God for that which we need, we can express what we are truly thankful for, we can confess, in those wonderful words, sins “both of omission and commission.”

Liturgy focuses us on the ways in which we are to encounter God, it gets our egos out of the way. I confess that I often despise being asked to pray in public, because no sooner than I am asked and I start to think what I’ll say and surely the thought starts welling up in my mind, “how clever will I sound with this reference or that allusion” and before I know it, I’m knee-deep in spiritual pride. This is of course a personal weakness, but I’m sure that I’m not the only who falls prey to this mentality.

Now, if you’ll backtrack with me for a second, you’ll note that I have another word in there, “contemporary.” What I mean by this is that there is no reason to think that liturgy requires a choir or an organist or hymns. We can say certain prayers, recite certain creeds, do the service in a particular way that can give us a meaningful encounter with God without having to sing something written by Martin Luther himself – and if we do do a Luther hymn, we should have the freedom to re-imagine it.

Now what does “contemporary” music mean? What’s good about it, what’s bad about it? I’m going to get to that next time.