For those who are just finding this series, I am responding to the charge that liturgical Protestant churches are inevitably “on the road to Rome.” Those who say this often cite as “proof” the phenomenon of people who are initially attracted to such churches who eventually end up in the Roman Catholic church. I contend that this proves nothing of the sort, but that a possible reason for this migration is that many Reformed and/or evangelical churches who try to “do” liturgical worship do it so poorly (for a number of reasons) that those who long for this type of worship eventually decide that they really need to go elsewhere.
We’ve looked at the church that tries its hand at liturgical worship to try to appear more suave and sophisticated, and we’ve also looked at a sort of general cluelessness that pervades too many services. That’s our story so far.
Scenario 3: The Overly-innovative Church
Sometimes when pastors and others involved in planning and leading worship get interested in liturgy, they get into innovation a little too much. The philosophy behind liturgical worship is participation, both in the sense of affording maximum participation on the part of as many members of the assembly as possible (inclusivity), and in the sense of participating in the worship of the church at large, both down through the ages and around the world (catholicity). Over-innovation can often serve to eliminate participation, both inclusivity and catholicity, from worship, and then, what’s the point?
On losing inclusivity: I’ve had pastors, especially Reformed ones, tell me they think it’s a good idea to have a completely different liturgy every week, “so it doesn’t become routine.” They miss the point that parts of the liturgy need to become “routine” so that the body of worshipers may enter into them enthusiastically. C.S. Lewis famously said, “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best…when, through familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping.” (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, p. 4.)
Besides Lewis’ observation that we cannot really dance to the music until we have learned the steps, pastors need to consider who they are excluding through too-frequent changes in the liturgy. Those with poor eyesight (such as the elderly) and those who cannot read (young children and those with disabilities) will be left out of a service that is completely different every week. I once worked with a pastor who got rid of the Doxology (which had opened the service) and the Gloria Patri (which had been sung after the Creed) in favor of singing a new “Ascription of Praise” every week. When I mentioned that those two elements of worship were the only two elements that some in our congregation were able to participate in (for the reasons listed above) he seemed particularly unconcerned. Inclusivity was important to the one who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” It should be important to those who worship him, too.
Innovations that remove catholicity from our worship are just as common, and they come both from right-leaning worship leaders as well as left-leaning ones. The overly-innovative right-wing liturgists tend to fall into the “cult” category. By that I don’t mean that they have started religious cults, but that the liturgies they produce tend to give off a cultlike vibe.
When I arrived at my current church, my predecessor had borrowed some parts of the liturgy from some of the overly-innovative churches. (I don’t mind mentioning this now, as he is now in the Church of England and is now do doubt embarrassed by some of the things he experimented with while he was here.) One of them was the following versicle. I will step on some toes by printing this, because it is now in use in a handful of churches that I am aware of. Allow me to try to absolve myself in advance by saying that I have absolutely no idea who came up with this first and who copied whom, so it is not my intention to malign any particular individual. At any rate, here is the versicle. It was used at the presentation of the offering.
Minister: What gifts have you brought for your Lord?
People: We offer ourselves through confession, praise, and thanksgiving; we give our prayers and alms for the sake of the world, and we participate in this Supper as a memorial of Christ our Lord.
Now, there’s nothing egregiously amiss with the theology expressed in those words: the Offertory is a giving not only of our gifts (both the Eucharistic gifts and our money) but also of ourselves. The offertory is an expression of Romans 12:1: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices to God, holy and acceptable, which is your spiritual worship.” Having the congregation answer this question on the part of the minister (“What gifts have you brought for your Lord?”) first of all places an enormous, unhealthy chasm between clergy and laity (“what do we bring to our Lord” would be a thousand times better). Secondly, the people’s required response reminds me of one of those speeches Thumper’s father required him to recite in the movie Bambi (“Eating greens is a special treat/It makes long ears and great big feet”). It’s a good thing to educate people as to why we do what we do in worship, but to attempt to do so through an exchange such as this is pedantic and smarmy. It always made me feel like David Koresh leading the Branch Davidians in worship.
But overzealous innovation is not only the territory of conservatives. There are plenty examples on the left too. In recent years, this has been most noticeable in prayers of confession. If you consult some contemporary books and web sites on worship, you won’t have to look too long to find prayers of confession in which we confess the sins of not using compact fluorescent bulbs and not bringing our own bags to the grocery store. OK, I’m exaggerating, but most of you have experienced what I’m talking about. (For the record, I do use compact fluorescent bulbs and I do take my own bags to the grocery store.) There’s a reason we call it the “general confession of sin.” Not only is it general in the sense of being used by everyone collectively, but also it should be sufficiently general in content that everyone can use it. No committee on worship in New York, Grand Rapids, Chicago, Louisville, or anywhere else should pretend to know what the specific sins of any congregation are. Besides, that’s why we have a time of silent confession either before or after the general confession: so people can confess (silently) their specific sins.
Besides, putting too many current issues into the confession of sin guarantees that the liturgy will become really dated, really fast. Trying to make the liturgy too contemporary consigns the liturgy to a very short life. Presbyterians, any of you still use the 1970 Worshipbook? I didn’t think so. Episcopalians, do you find it hard to listen to the Star Trek prayer (Eucharistic Prayer C in Rite II) without hearing William Shatner reading it in your mind? There’s nothing bad about worship being timely, but it should also be timeless. Sometimes when we try to make it too timely, we just ensure that it will be hopelessly dated in a short while.
The urge to tinker with the liturgy endlessly is neither a conservative nor a liberal urge, it seems. It’s human: we always think we can improve something. Some things can be improved. From time to time, things don’t need improvement but they do need updating for the sake of understanding. (One thinks of modern translations of the Bible versus the 1611 King James Version in this context.) Generally, I think, when it comes to innovations in the liturgy, less is more. Our attempts at improvement to the liturgy should keep these two facets of participation in mind: inclusivity and catholicity.