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liturgy and christian formation

September 1, 2011
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(Note: Today’s guest blogger is Sam Wheatley. Sam is the Pastor of New Song Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.)

As a pastor of a church that has a clear liturgical structure to its public worship.  I often get questions from people who are unfamiliar with such an approach. Contemporary people, whether experienced with Christian worship or not, haven’t thought much about the role that liturgy and ritual play in our lives.

A key insight when beginning to understand liturgical worship is to see that all people are powerfully shaped by liturgy, yet most are wholly unaware of it’s shaping force in their lives. James Smith in his book Desiring The Kingdom does a nice job of showing how the patterns and practices of our daily lives shape our beliefs and attitudes.

If our behaviors, especially our patterns as a Christian community, make a difference in how we think, feel and behave (i.e. what we worship), then the church has a choice to make. Do we bring our worship patterns, our liturgy, to light so that people can understand and change their behavior to be more in line with the grace of God as revealed in Jesus? Or do we just let the established assumptions about worship remain unexamined?  Do we wake one another from our slumber about worship or do we continue to sleep?

From my experience allowing “sleeping dogs to lie” will lead to greater immediate and tangible success (numbers/giving/people visiting) while simultaneously creating a back-door where some maturing and sensitive believers will leave the church and assume they are leaving the Church catholic.  Examples of this abound within the Evangelical movement.  Those that don’t leave, can over time to grow odd through a diet rich in “mission” teaching but short on worship experience. Within our own PCA tradition, liturgy-lite ministries produce older members who go to theology as a hobby to meet what they are missing in worship.  Without a worship/liturgy-centered ministry the “center cannot hold”. The church tends to grow into a bag of marbles where each marble is a different and competing niche ministry.

Waking ourselves from slumber and becoming more liturgically aware is trickier and takes a longer time.  Since many in our churches are not drawing on a tradition of liturgy, our work has to be both elementary and evocative.  Waking the sleeper involves rousing someone from the sleep of ignorance to wakefulness.  This will mean we will get drowsy, “just waking up” kind of questions that we have to constantly and graciously field. Questions like “why do we have written prayers?” or “What does ‘catholic’ mean in the Apostles’ Creed?” will have to be answered eagerly and brightly.  Because if we say something cross to people just waking up, they will balk and go back to bed or get combative (Proverbs 27:14).

The good news is that liturgical instruction and regular practice mutually reinforce one another. For example, at the Lord’s Supper we come forward in our service.  Over the years, I have used just about every possible metaphor and example about the table and it’s meaning. But people now understand these things on a deeper level for a number of reasons. First, they see the biblical case for the table as a regular practice of the church. Second, they now have experience with it personally (I say each person’s name and pray for their children by name as I hand out the elements). Third, they have seen me get choked up, or laugh, etc. as I lead them in this practice, they are now freer with their emotions at the table too.

This leads to the other dimension of what I wanted to say, which is this all takes time.  I’ve been at this 11 years here and I’d say it’s only in the last 3 years has it begun to take root in our congregation in such a way that were I to die, would they demand the next pastor lead in a similar way.

Another thing about liturgical self-consciousness is that it anchors the Christian life within the means of grace (word, prayer, sacrament) as expressed corporately.  It is when those means of grace are privatized when they go sour.  When we divorce word, sacrament and prayer from their corporate expression as a church body, they atrophy and turn in on themselves. Word becomes theological armed combat; prayer becomes pietistic neo-Platonic gymnastics and sacrament becomes heretical practice.

Liturgical commitment, because it takes time, has a fall off rate at the front end rather than the back end. It takes time and patience, trial and error, theological wrestling, historical understanding and insightful cultural awareness to develop a liturgical pattern for worship.  Such a process counters the instant gratification addictions of our age. Some simply can’t stand the process and opt out for other worship that demands less of them.

Why then engage in this?

Liturgical awareness as a church is important because liturgy shapes people into real, living breathing Christians who know, feel and act as followers of Jesus.  Liturgy is the tool to produce mature disciples who embody grace thoroughly in their lives and worship.

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