There arrived on my doormat last month the most recent edition of Church Building magazine (Gabriel Communications UK) featuring a multi-million pound community facility for worship, teaching and mission in the West Yorkshire textile town where I previously served as a parish priest. The building includes a state-of-the-art worship space seating 2,000, together with bookshop, coffee shop, crèche and function rooms, and office space for 20 pastoral and administrative staff. The building is spacious and impressive, a ‘cathedral’ of our age (and its banner tells us so!).
Please do not waste a moment wondering which mainstream church this building belongs to, for such a project would be inconceivable for either of the local dioceses – Anglican or Roman – let alone for any of the parishes of the town. No, this new project is in fact just one manifestation of the phenomenon of the ‘Christian Fellowship’ or ‘Community Church’ which has established itself in every city in the UK in recent decades, as in America, North and South.
Emerging chiefly from the Pentecostal tradition, these new ecclesial communities do not represent a revival of traditional Protestantism (often as blind-sided by this new growth as the rest of us) but a new creation. They draw their burgeoning membership, in part from those disaffected by mainstream religion, but increasingly from a whole segment of the population previously considered un-churched or even un-churchable.
This situation should not just be of interest to the mainstream churches, it should both puzzle and distress us. For here is a veritable army of new Christians, springing up everywhere, who have apparently, as far as worship is concerned, turned their back on all we hold dear in the liturgical churches.
In that textile town in West Yorkshire this Sunday, as in most of our cities, a very sizeable proportion of those who will assemble to give praise and glory to God in the name of Jesus the Christ will be doing so outside any liturgical framework recognisable to those of us in the mainstream. In fact we must accept that for most worshippers in that tradition ‘liturgy’ is a dirty word, or at least an incomprehensible one.
While every community at worship, being made up of creatures of habit, will develop quite inevitably its own ‘ritual’ or usual sequence of events, customs and procedures, those who share a non-liturgical approach will regard with suspicion the sacred liturgy of the Church with its set texts and lectionaries. For them, liturgy will be thought of as quenching the Spirit, a form of worship redolent of praying by rote, of the ‘heaping up of empty phrases’ warned against by Our Lord. The incomparable treasures of our tradition mean nothing to them.
What should be our response? Do we ignore the rapid rise of the ‘community church’ and hope for the best, or dismiss it as an aberration? Or might we perhaps pause to look and ponder? There are, I suggest, several aspects of their approach we might learn from. Before we dismiss them, we should reflect that these aspects of worship are at least part of the reason why the crowds are flocking to them, rather than to us;
- The primacy of music, and its character as a work of the whole assembly. Whereas it is customary for music in liturgical churches to be a desirable ‘extra’, in the community churches it is integral. Whereas liturgical churches customarily depend on a solo performer, and a single instrument , music in the new ‘community church’ experience is provided by a band of musicians using a variety of instruments, who see their playing as a ministry. In these churches, it could be said that worship rests upon a bed of music which undergirds everything, including spoken prayer or healing, and is highly participatory.
- Emotional response as a valid component of worship. Mainstream liturgical churches play lip service to the notion of worship which stirs all our senses, but the Enlightenment left its mark, instilling in us a cerebral approach to the worship of God, suspicious of any display of emotion. In the new churches, there is an unashamed appeal to the emotions, seen as a necessary preliminary stage in the process of surrendering to God.
- Welcome and hospitality at worship as a vital ministry of God’s people to the stranger or seeker. These tasks are not left to chance, but meticulously planned and again seen as a ministry. Those who welcome others are trained, equipped and prepared. Compare this with the casual attitude to the welcome of the newcomer so often encountered in mainstream churches (yes we know our own community is wonderful, but do you remember the last time you visited a church on vacation?).
- Worship is rediscovered in small groups, which both flow from the large Sunday gathering and feed it. Mainstream churches are good at big Sunday liturgies on the whole, but pretty hopeless at small group worship for Christian formation during the week. We are not talking here of simply saying an office or hearing a Mass, but of a weekly experience of worship in a domestic setting where people are re-formed in the pattern of Christ, learning discipleship, spirituality and sacrificial giving. This is the experience of the early Church, of the Wesley’s class system, of the base communities of South America, and we neglect this lesson at our peril.
- Worship is seen as a highly effective tool in the work of evangelism. It is in the final analysis not just an activity for the chosen few, but a celebration of God’s presence so powerful that it will draw others into the life it offers and the glory it glimpses.
When our preoccupation with detail causes us to turn inwards, we forget that, from earliest times, there was an awareness of the transforming power of the liturgy on others not just ourselves. The mass is part of our mission as well as our devotion.
Perhaps the most famous description of the liturgy as a conversion experience comes from the 10th century account of Vladimir, pagan Prince of Kiev, who desired to find the true religion and sent his emissaries across Europe, searching in vain for an answer to the mystery of life. Eventually they arrived at Constantinople and attended the Divine Liturgy in the great church of the Holy Wisdom. They reported back; ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men.’ Thus was Vladimir, and all his peoples with him, converted to the Christian Way, and to the Orthodox tradition.
Worship at the Christian fellowship in a northern mill town in 2010 may not bear much resemblance in outward form to that in 10th century Constantinople, but the end effect may be the same, in heaven glimpsed and lives changed. It should be our experience too, but are we too busy with our arcane disputes to notice?
Much of the discussion on this Blog concerns details of rites and texts and ceremonies, and this is as fascinating as it is unavoidable, and we would expect nothing less of a gathering of, or interchange between, liturgy buffs. But is there not a grave danger that in doing so we resemble (to use an overworked but still vivid analogy) those who occupied themselves rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic moments before it went down?
We are proud of our heritage, passionate in our convictions, and dismissive of those less liturgically fortunate than ourselves. We know the difference between a rite with an impeccable pedigree and one concocted by a local committee; we know who may receive and who shall be excluded; who is valid and who is tainted. But the question remains; is there anybody out there listening?