03 May 2008

A Deeper Relevance

This article appeared in the May issue of Christianity Today. It is the second article on liturgical churches and their worship this year. What is happening in the evangelical world?

… Many evangelicals are attracted to liturgical worship, and as one of those evangelicals, I’d like to explain what the attraction is for me, and perhaps for many others. A closer look suggests that something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. “The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world,” writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to “make Christianity understandable to this mythical ‘modern’ man on the street”, we have forgotten this necessary separation.

It is precisely the point of the liturgy to take people out of their worlds and usher them into a strange, new world—to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they’ve come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day…

Worshiping in the liturgical tradition is no panacea. When not approached wisely, it can be misused and abused; it can tempt participants to substitute mere religious ritual for a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this tradition does have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism. Take our fascination with relevance: the first thing this liturgy asks us to rethink is what we mean by “relevant” worship…

This is one reason I thank God for the liturgy. The liturgy does not target any age or cultural subgroup. It does not even target this century. (It does not imagine, as we moderns and postmoderns are tempted to do, that this is the best of all possible ages, the most significant era of history.) Instead, the liturgy draws us into worship that transcends our time and place. Its earliest forms took shape in ancient Israel, and its subsequent development occurred in a variety of cultures and subcultures—Greco-Roman, North African, German, Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, and so on. It has been prayed meaningfully by bakers, housewives, tailors, teachers, philosophers, priests, monks, kings, and slaves. As such, it has not been shaped to meet a particular group’s needs. It seeks only to enable people—people in general—to see God…

The liturgy, from beginning to end, is not about meeting our needs. The liturgy is about God. It’s not even about God-as-the-fulfiller-of-our-need-for-spiritual-meaning. It’s about God as he is himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not about our blessedness but his. The liturgy immediately signals that our needs are not nearly as relevant as we imagine. There is something infinitely more worthy of our attention—something, someone, who lies outside the self.

With talk of “God” and “kingdom”, it announces another order of reality we are being called into. We are in the habit of thinking that our culture—the reality we strive to be relevant to—is the measure of meaning. That’s why we’re tempted to shape our churches to look like that culture, because that is what people in this culture will find meaningful. It is logical on one level, and there is no question that we have to be culturally sensitive in our outreach. But the liturgy wants to show us a deeper logic and relevance.

The liturgy begins by saying that our culture needs not so much to have its “presenting needs” met as to be gently and calmly invited into a wiser culture—the culture of a Trinitarian God and his kingdom. This is what is blessed, now and forever. Our culture is the transitory thing, an apparition that will someday have to pass away, just as childhood has to pass away. The liturgy says to us as we enter, “You’re in the culture of God and his kingdom now. Things will be different from now on.” …

In what’s now an old essay, F. H. Brabant put it this way: “All liturgical acts … have a double function: one directed Godwards, expressing in outward form the thoughts and feelings of the worshippers, the other directed manwards, teaching worshippers how they ought to think and feel by setting before them the Church’s standard of worship.”

We have to pay attention to cultural context, no question. The history of liturgy has been in part about finding words and ritual that help people in a given culture express their thoughts and feelings to God in ways that make cultural sense. The liturgy has always had freedom and variety within its basic structure.

But it has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. The liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the “necessary separation” from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.

You can read it all here.

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