We Can Do Better Than “Loving Liturgy”

I grew up in an almost totally non-liturgical family and church tradition. “Non-denominational charismatic” is how I’ve often described by background to people who ask.

My parents and most of their friends had been mainliners and/or Catholics with a marginal faith before they encountered God in the person of the Holy Spirit in camp meetings and revivals sometime in the 70s. What was born out of those early interactions with the Holy Spirit was the church I grew up in. Alive, vibrant, full of vitality.

I loved that church and will always have fond memories of it. It gave me my identity, my sense of connection to God, my love for his people. The thing about that group of people was—God was SO immediate and present, and kind. I have vivid memories of being in prayer meetings and worship services where the Holy Spirit went from being a vague intellectual concept to being a sort of aura that you could very nearly see with your eyes, that you could interact with with a sort of tangible immediacy. When my friends and I began discovering our own faith in high school, the energy of our love for God found expression in prayer and worship meetings that we would organize, where God would utterly show up. I’ll never forget some of those times… snot and worship and tears flowing, prophetic words and discerning prayer over each other… hours later the atmosphere would lighten and we’d wonder where the time went.

Oh man… my heart burns just writing that.

Years later I started discovering the liturgical stream of the Church and it began to dawn on me that in so many ways, this was the missing piece of my early experiences of God. For in the ancient creeds and prayers and liturgies, what we had were channels that could take that raw energy of our hearts and direct it into the depths of God. Instinctively I knew, as a charismatic, that liturgy at its best was not antagonistic to the Spirit, but complementary and, even better, enabling of the Spirit’s presence and power.

I say that to say that my love for liturgy was and is always about God, about his Spirit, first. It was, and is, about answering the question, “How do we create handles for our worship? How do we construct theologically and aesthetically rich trellises upon which our raw spiritual passion and energy can grow and flourish? How do we help ensure that our worship is not just zealous, but true, knowing that truth enriches our experience of the Spirit of God?” But see… always about God. About a very real and personal interaction with him that cleanses and changes and transforms. Always. Always. Always about promoting and enabling that, and never about some kind of substitution, where liturgy co-opts longing for God.

Liturgy is all the rage in evangelicalism now. Which is fine. And I think mostly good. For the better part of the last decade or so, I’ve been a pretty damn liturgical guy. I love it. I think it’s vital. I don’t foresee myself leaving it behind for something else. I want to go deeper.

But.

BUT.

The thing that I am so much more aware of now that I’ve journeyed for awhile with liturgy and whatnot is that liturgy is a great enabler, but an utterly horrendous substitute for pure spiritual longing. And even more than that, as a pastor, one of the things I am keenly aware of is that part of the reason that many people like liturgy is because it helps them keep a safe distance from the immediacy of a holy God.

Boom. There. I said it.

I actually think that’s part of the reason that many church leaders like it right now. Because in an age where liturgy is all the rage, you can convince people that you’ve really got something good going on in your ministry, what with your incense and candles and call-and-response prayers and contemplative practices and ancient-future whatevers and high eucharistic celebrations and whatever… and no one these days will question it because having kick-ass liturgy has all of a sudden become some kind of rubber-stamp that God is present and active in a church’s ministry.

What we FORGET, or at least we 2nd and 3rd generation charismatics forget, is that there was something called “dead religion” that many of parents fought like mad to escape. THEY OVER-CORRECTED, no doubt, in abandoning the rich liturgical traditions of their forebears. But their core intuition that spiritual energy could be co-opted by or devolve simply into rote ritual was right on the money. God forbid we should fall into the same trap.

And yet… my impression is that many of us are. We’re forgetting. We’re forgetting the love and passion and desire that drove us into deep places of prayer and worship in the first place, that made us dream about planting churches that would change the world. Forgetting what made us love the liturgy when we first discovered it. Forgetting what and for Whom it was all about. Our Love. Our Light. Our God.

I’m reminded of a really stirring passage out of Lewis’ The Great Divorce (please, yes, I know, I’m on a CSL kick). Two friends—one of the redeemed, and one of the “ghosts” from hell—meet. The exchange is memorable, and straight to my point:

“Come, then,” said the spirit, offering it his arm.

“How soon do you think I could begin painting?” the ghost asked. The spirit broke into laughter. “Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about?” he said. “What do you mean?” asked the ghost. “Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.” “But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.” “No. You’re forgetting,” said the spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.” “Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the ghost. “One grows out of that…” “One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare…Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

I think that nails it straight on the head. And I know… I KNOW… because I have TAUGHT it… that these things need not be in opposition to one another. At our best moments they are not. In principle they are not. And yet the snare that Lewis speaks of is there… the endless conversations around liturgy and effort expended to perfect and continue to craft beautiful liturgy when the truth that we dare not admit is that we’ve lost and are losing the love of God that drove us into it in the first place. We’ve grown timid of God. And so we lead ministries that are increasingly timid of God. And instead of God we give liturgy, instead of the Spirit we give form, instead of Christ, we give contemplative practices. And the timid sons and daughters of God among us, sons and daughters who would love to know but a taste of genuine freedom in the Spirit, are confirmed in their timidity because we’ve substituted structure for the dynamism of the Spirit who calls out to each one of us “Come, reach out, and take the free gift of the water of life…and it will become a wellspring surging up from within you.”

God, I want that again. An upsurge of Spirit that cuts through the fog and the doubts and the cynicism and the ridiculous feeling that we cannot possibly be mature or educated in faith unless we are constantly depressed and struggling with our latest dark night of the soul… I would give everything to see that. EVERYTHING.

I loved God, and was utterly enamored with his Spirit, before I loved liturgy.

I will not lose that.

Not for anything.

I hope that you, especially if you’re a pastor, can say the same. Liturgy by itself will not and cannot transform the world.

But a people hungry for God… full of his Spirit, in ways that are outrageously evident…

It has happened before.

It can happen again.

So be it.

Come, Holy Spirit.

  • I love that you brought up overcorrecting. Overcorrecting happens when you react instead of respond. May we not throw the “positive-encouraging”, “seeker-friendly”, “come-as-you-are” baby out with the bath water! As soon as we become described as the opposite, (“negative-discouraging”, “seeker-repelent”, “get-your-shit-together”) we will complete the circle in a cycle of trends and reactions from one generation to the next and our children follow our lead. The attitude is contagious.

    I remember when the term “seeker-friendly” was seen as a bad thing among many. I laugh at that now! What else are we supposed to be?! Seeker-haters?! I was reacting instead of responding and because of it, I threw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a sign of immaturity. And the funny part is that if you listen closely, everyone loves the word “inclusive” now. …… .. It’s the same thing!!! I was reacting to what I saw as “watered-down” when instead I should have thought, “How can our liturgies be rich and meaningful but also inclusive instead of exclusive?”.

    If we humbly consider what our parent’s generation has learned from their experience, we can respond with gratitude and inclusion instead of ostracizing and reacting. My wife has told me before that if she sees a church that isn’t multi-generational, she worries for it. I’m starting to agree with her.

  • This is precisely why I left the Lutheran church a couple years ago. While I remain convinced that their theological teachings are true to Scripture, the leadership (and many of the clergy) of the LCMS are a bit too keen on talking about how they hold “the pure doctrine” and about how they have such a rich liturgical heritage. They are unable to divorce their identity as christians from their Lutheran-ness. I think that is unhealthy. It gives rise to denominational arrogance. Ironically, most people sitting in Lutheran pews on Sunday mornings have no clue as to why the worship service is structured as it is. The meaning and significance of it is hidden from them because they don’t receive instruction. I love liturgy. I love how the lectionary cycle re-tells the story. I love singing the old songs, and chanting gives me goosebumps. I have this appreciation for liturgy because I have been instructed and because I keep it in the proper perspective. I see it as a tool that I use to work the soil, but I do not draw my identity from it. My identity comes only from Christ.

    • Amen Keith! That is my concern also for all those evangelicals who are flocking back to the mainline and high churches… they forget that many of them have historically done a terrible job not only illuminating the “why” behind their forms and structures, but even more, they have often done a terrible job at leading people into a deep, personal relationship with Jesus. We’ve gotta do both, and do them well.

  • For years I’ve enjoyed creating creative experiences of worship that enable & encourage emotions. I’m all about emotions being involved in a worship gathering… but lately, I’ve not felt very emotional. I struggled with that for a while, wondering what the hell was wrong with me.

    I know in years past I’ve struggled with “loving worship” & obsessing over the new songs being sung (& the visuals being projected). I would constantly remind myself… “don’t worship the ‘worship’. keep Christ, not creativity, at the center.” I love creativity & the arts & believe they have a role to play in the Church, but there’s also a line… a line that has been crossed many times throughout history.

    “Liturgy” (i.e., more prayers, posture, practices, creeds, confession, sacraments, etc… things of the Great Tradition nature that takes a worship service beyond the approach that celebrates a seamless setlist & sermon delivered by well rehearsed & polished performers & presenters)… – yeah… no thoughts on that at all! ha… – anyway, the “liturgy” has felt like solid ground… and though I may still have emotional moments here & there, it’s not dependent on me having a cool “experience”, so to speak. I have found solace, rest, & awareness of God’s Presence in these ancient ways.

    And yet the trap is, especially for me, is falling in love with the very tool that leads me in worship. And just like I used to worship those worship songs more than the Triune God, it would be so easy to worship the liturgy rather than the One whom the Liturgy points to.

    This is a vital conversation for those of us exploring what it looks like to re-integrate the Great Tradition in our modern worship settings.

    Thank you, Andrew.

  • One of the fine lines I feel like we have to walk is embracing liturgy as a push against performance-driven ministry and dealing with tension found in realizing liturgy has become a stylistic element in its own right. My concern is there are communities that embrace liturgy simply on a pragmatic level – it’s cool and trendy – but ignore the fact that liturgy is intended to form us.

    What I’m wrestling with as someone with a background very similar to yours is how to resist the temptation of applying my personal piety to the liturgy in attempt to MAKE the Spirit move, and instead allow the liturgy to form me in ways I would never be formed if it were left up to my personal piety alone.

    Such interesting times we live in…

  • I’m pretty tired of liturgy, in the same way I became tired of doctrine. Talking about talking about liturgy? No, that makes my head hurt. (Smile; I was kidding.) I have been thinking this same thing for a long time but lacked the skills to articulate it as sharply as you did here. Thank you for saying this. It is deeply true.

  • Can’t stop coming back to this. Hoping this finds and challenges the people it needs to -as it sincerely has for me.

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