Liturgy as Evangelization

The following is an interview by Pray Tell Blog with Fr. Michael White, author of the Rebuilt series of books and Evan Ponton, both of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md.

How does the Liturgy evangelize? Is the Liturgy for those who are already active in their faith lives or is it for the unchurched?

Evangelization means making disciples- it describes what the Church is and what the Church does. Of course, liturgy is an essential element of who we are and what we do as Catholics. So yes, liturgy plays a major role both in evangelization and discipleship. At Nativity, we call this “growing deeper and wider”- we grow wider as a church through evangelization and deeper through discipleship.

Certain parts of the liturgy have a greater impact than others for the unchurched. For example, many of the unchurched (and many Catholics) don’t yet have a deep grasp or appreciation for the Eucharist. We request non-Catholics abstain from receiving and participating in that way directly, but they can nevertheless have their spirits fed through great music and a great message. If liturgy isn’t for the unchurched at some level, then whom are we evangelizing?

How does the weekend experience as a whole relate to liturgy and how does the weekend experience evangelize?

The weekend experience is what we call the sum total of a visitor or member’s time on our campus, from the parking lot, to the front door, to the music and the message and everything in between. It might not all matter to [someone], but for some people it makes a world of difference. By creating “layers of hospitality,” our hope is that by the time they reach their seat, they are at ease and hopefully even smiling.

Every person approaches church with a background made up of different experiences and prejudices about church. While we can’t change how they come to church, we hope to change how they leave, even in a small way. For someone who is new or not solid in their faith, the experience in the parking lot before or after church, for example, impacts their experience in the liturgy itself.

Throughout your books, the key audience that Rebuilt is trying to reach is the unchurched. Can you define for our readers who this group is and how is the liturgical life of your parish tailored to them?

Some people talk about the “Nones,” the terms are probably related. How you define the unchurched depends on your community. They are not strangers- they are our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers. They are usually good people who do not go to church or see the need, for whatever reason. At Nativity we gave him a name, “Timonium Tim.” We try to define who he is, his felt needs, what he believes about church (usually what he thinks he remembers from Confirmation class mixed with Da Vinci Code) and then we evaluate our approach to ministry, music and the message with Tim and his family in mind. Over time we witness the growth of families as they progress along the discipleship path, including participation in the liturgy itself.

Nativity is building a new campus. Can you talk about how the liturgy played a role in its design and how will liturgy change because of this new campus?

Absolutely. We hope to finish our building project in the fall of 2017. I would highlight two concepts that played a major role in both the design and hopefully, function of our new campus. The first is “dynamic orthodoxy.” We’re not out to change the content and traditions of our faith but update the way it is expressed and shared so that it connects with our local community in our time and place.

Second, we want to embody the liturgical principle of “progressive solemnity.” We talk about that when it comes to the Mass itself, but we apply it to the experience communicated by our church design as a whole. It is contemporary, but we tried to avoid anything abstract or esoteric on the one hand, or the trite and cliché on the other. Thanks to our great building team and liturgy and design consultants, I think we’ve done that very well. People are greeted by a very modern building that maybe doesn’t look very churchy, but as you progress from the lobby into the nave and sanctuary, your perception shifts. You will find truly stunning traditional hand-carved altarpieces and liturgical furnishings. One of my favorite features is a Mary and Joseph statue on either side of the tabernacle- an image of the Nativity, and we are his Church.

As far as changes, it’s just about continuing to create an irresistible environment and excellent Sunday experience in a new and bigger space, which requires more volunteer ministers and rethinking some logistics. But for us, that’s just part of continuing to live out our church’s vision that brought us here. We’re not building a bigger clubhouse for the convinced, but a place that is relevant and welcoming to the unchurched. It’s about vision.

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4 comments

  1. Two things stood out to me here:
    1) “If liturgy isn’t for the unchurched at some level, then whom are we evangelizing?”
    I thought the confidence of this assumption – that liturgy is meant to evangelize and thus must be oriented to some extent to the unchurched – surprising, if only because the interview question pointed to what I consider a solidly unresolved issue in the modern Church. In the days of ostiarii and the disciplina arcana, liturgy was simply NOT for the “unchurched”; evangelization took place elsewhere, but the liturgy was only for those who already belonged to the household of faith. So many centuries after allowing unbelievers to witness our mysteries, it is probably right to expect that the liturgy serve non-Catholic visitors *somehow*, but I think we need some good hard thought to figure out whether it does this essentially (because liturgy is, by its nature, evangelical) or accidentally (because truth, beauty, and goodness attract and nourish even those whom the liturgy is not designed to serve).

    2) “Second, we want to embody the liturgical principle of ‘progressive solemnity.'”
    This is not the first time I have heard this phrase employed to speak of architecture introducing a church-goer by perceptible stages into the heart of the church at the altar, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why this design strategy should invoke a principle that created room for intermediate levels of musicality between a fully sung and fully recited Office. It debuted, AFAIK, in MusSac 38. “When the Divine Office is to be celebrated in sung form, a principle of ‘progressive’ solemnity can be used, inasmuch as those parts which lend themselves more directly to a sung form, e.g. dialogues, hymns, verses and canticles, may be sung, and the rest recited.” Unless we’re making it “possible for the public praise of the Church to be sung more frequently than formerly and to be adapted in a variety of ways to different circumstances” (GILOTH 273), when did this principle expand to architecture in se?

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      In the “days of ostiarii and the disciplina arcana” the world could be more neatly divided into the unbaptized/uncatechized who had never heard the Gospel and the baptized/catechized who were actively living lives of faith. Today we are dealing with a third category of those who are baptized/catechized (perhaps poorly, but still) but have stopped practicing the faith for various reasons. This actually describes a large majority of self-identified Catholics in this country today. I believe the scale of this situation is unprecedented in the history of the Church and so requires a new approach to liturgy and to evangelization. The Rebuilt Church movement is one model of how to revitalize a dying parish.

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