What’s So Great About the Past?
It may surprise you, but I don’t think all churches should “go liturgical.” That’s missing the point. Too often, discussion on worship gets framed as a “style” or “preference” issue: Some people like ancient; others like modern. Some like organs and choirs; others sense God’s presence with drums and electric guitars, peopel say. But in this view, corporate worship, in so far as it relates to us, is about expression. Choose the expression that works for you.
For others, it’s about what will “reach the people we want to reach.” This isn’t about tailoring an approach to your “demographic” or “target audience.” Our obsession with missiology has made even Sunday worship about mission.
Both these approaches miss a crucial point:
Corporate worship is the gathered witness in the world to the Gospel and the glory of God in Christ Jesus. When it comes to decsions about the particulars and how it relates to us, we ought not think first about expression or even mission but formation.
[For the academic philosophical and theological underpinnings of this claim, this interview with Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith is GOLD.]
So, now to the question again: What’s so great about the past?
Lots. There is a lot to learn from the way the Church has worshipped throughout the centuries. The Church has always believed that the way you worship becomes the way you believe. For Christians, what we have believed, we have received. But there’s another reason the past matters…
C. S. Lewis wrote in essay on the necessity of reading old books on the reason to study the past:
We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
For Lewis, studying the past is the only way to escape the tyranny of the trend, the grip of the present moment. How do we know if “modern worship” is forming us in the right way? We must compare it to the rich, Christ-centered, Trinitarian, Gospel-shaped narrative-formed liturgy of the past.
Let me suggest a few exercises:
1. Familiarize yourself with ancient worship practices and services.This is going to sound harsh, but it’s true: many of the most influential voices in “modern worship” know very little about the worship practices that the church has lived out for centuries… When the Reformers made changes to the worship service, they did so with deliberate theological reflection and careful attention to what the service said.
…[V]isit a few churches that practice a historic approach to worship. Go to an Eastern Orthodox Church and sing with them through the Divine Liturgy that Saint John Chrysostom wrote over 1500 years ago. Go to a Catholic Mass. Attend an Anglican service. Or go find a Lutheran church. Check out a traditional Good Friday service, where the room is dark and the altar is covered. Ask to meet with the priests—from each of these churches—and ask them to explain why they do what they do and where it all began. I’m sure they’d be happy to talk to you.
2. Reflect on what we’ve changed and why. Before evaluating each practice, just train your mind to notice the differences. Journal it. Mark down as many things—from the visual layout to the spoken words to the songs—that are different from your own worship tradition (and yes, “modern worship” too now has a form, a predictable pattern). As you ask why you’ve made changes, be suspicious of the pragmatic reasons. Don’t be easily satisfied with answers such as, “Because it works!” or, “It’s reaching people!”…Don’t sacrifice the theology and content, the beauty and the narrative of our services on the altar of pragmatism. Think beyond what works.
3. Think about your context. Context matters. Knowing your city and your people is important. I know I’m emphasizing theological reflection, but for the Word to become flesh, for us to live as the people of God here and now, context matters. Just as every good gardener must know the soil he works in, the field he is working, so every laborer in the kingdom must know his or her people…The gospel does not work in a sterilized laboratory; it works within the dirt of our world. Jesus came not as an angelic being or a generic “human,” but as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham and of David. God works from within.
So think about the particularities of your people. I’ve had people tell me that they could never use written prayers or the creed or even call Communion “the Eucharist” because of the baggage or the negative associations people in their area have with cold, unbelieving rituals or burdensome, angry religion. I get it. Others have told me that they had never prayed a written prayer corporately before, but doing it before Communion made them weep. I get that, too.
Who are your people? What “language” do they speak? How can you translate the rich, Christ-centered content and practices that the Church has said and sung and lived for centuries into their common, marketplace words? How can you retell the story of creation and fall and redemption and restoration in the services you hold?
4. Invite the Spirit to lead you. The Spirit who filled the disciples of Jesus to carry out the mission of Jesus—the One who led the Church through the valley of death and persecution, through the dark forests of syncretism and superstition, through the wilderness of atheism and humanism—is the same Spirit with you and with me. He breathes on our churches. Invite Him into this. Ask Him to help you shape a gathering that unmistakably reveals Jesus. After all, the liturgy is not the point; Jesus is the point. The practices are not the center; Jesus is the center. The question is, what practices, what “liturgy,” or work of the people that we do when we gather in worship, point to Jesus as the center?