Justin Taylor linked to two articles that have, each in their own way, vindicated my preference for a return to a more liturgical form of worship.
As I wrote a couple years ago (how time flies!):
Let us pursue a contemporary—stylish but not faddish, historical—orthodox but not dank, theological—deepening but not boring, and, most importantly, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated way of doing worship. . . . if we are successful it won’t be because we’re brilliant or because of our celebrity persona. Rather, the moving worship will come because we tapped into something bigger than ourselves—centuries of truth about Almighty God—and he visited us in power, inhabiting the praises of his people and honoring the exposition of his word.
So the first article that I read today that made me feel vindicated is by Sally Morgenthaler. Though I don’t agree with everything in the article (for instance, I think she makes a false dichotomy between gathering for worship at church and pursuing Christian life as worship–this is a “both/and” not an “either/or”), here are some quotes that, as I read them, defend my view:
“The upshot? For all the money, time, and effort we’ve spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all.”
“The question is, should cultural and missional realities have anything to do with worship? Perhaps not. It would appear that we’re more than capable of creating our own view of the world, and we tend to promote and perpetuate that view in our sanctuaries and worship centers.”
“I began challenging leaders to give up their mythologies about how they were reaching the unchurched on Sunday morning.”
“The 100-year-old congregation that’s down to 43 members and having a hard time paying the light bill doesn’t want to be told that the “answer” is living life with the people in their neighborhoods. Relationships take time, and they need an attendance infusion now.
“I understood their dilemma, and secretly, I wished I had a magic bullet. But I didn’t. And I wasn’t going to give them false hope. Some newfangled worship service wasn’t going to save their church, and it wasn’t going to build God’s kingdom. It wasn’t going to attract the strange neighbors who had moved into their communities or the generations they had managed to ignore for the last 39 years.”
“the primary meeting place with our unchurched friends is now outside the church building.”
“May you, as leader of your congregation, have the courage to leave the ‘if we build it, they will come’ world of the last two decades behind.”
And then the second essay is by Donald Williams in Touchstone magazine on what evangelicals can learn from Flannery O’Connor. Again, here are some statements that, as I read them, validate my desire for a more liturgical worship service:
My fellow Evangelicals publish reams upon reams of prose. What we have not tended to write is anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world. What makes this failure remarkable is that our Protestant forebears include a number of people who did: Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan, to mention a few.
Equally remarkable is the host of near contemporary conservative Christians—sometimes quite evangelical and even evangelistic, though not “Evangelicals”—who were also important writers. G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor are all recognized as important literary figures even by people who do not share their Christian commitment.
Where is the contemporary American Evangelical who can make such a claim?
No Ranking Names
The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox. The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a mainstream Evangelical but a Lutheran—again, from a liturgical tradition.
Try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. (Some have mentioned writers who used to be in those churches—but the phrase “used to” in the observation is telling.)
The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Catholic Church was a sense of mystery. Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the Good?
“It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners,” she wrote. Therefore, “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.”
Does their theology of the sacraments preclude Evangelicals from nurturing their writers in this way? Not necessarily. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way in which we evoke and assimilate mystery.
One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor does a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But Evangelicals have too quickly and too often reacted to what they perceive as the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in their worship.
Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call.
Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers.