The Challenge of Non-Liturgical Churches

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;

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?).
  4. 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.
  5. 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?


  1. I’m not up to the level of discourse on this Blog most of the time, being just an average layman with no liturgical or music training, but this is something I would like to comment on.

    I agree with having some concern for how we welcome people to the our Catholic parishes, particularly new comers and visitors. There is a serious tension between reverent liturgical worship and being open and welcoming socially.

    Partly we need to recognize that liturgical worship inherently presumes that the participants are part of the community! We aren’t ever going to get around or over this fact without destroying the liturgy.

    It can seem disappointing, but really I think coffee and doughnuts (or some better version) after Mass really is about our best option as far as associated with the Mass. Other events, services, community building or outreach efforts can be explored outside of the Mass.

    Getting back to the Non-Liturgical Churches. I’d recommend reading a blog called “The InternetMonk by a Baptist minister who call’s himself “post evangelical.” This blog has a very big following and is one of the top 10 protestant blogs! And what a lot of what Michael Spencer – the InternetMonk – talks about is the banality and shallowness of evangelical worship and the overemphasis of emotion and praise music.

    So personally, I don’t think we can find much that we want to emulate or adopt in terms of worship from the non-liturgical mega-churches.

    What I find among younger Catholics like myself, and also even among young adults from other traditions, is that we are drawn to GOOD LITURGY and GOOD MUSIC that encourage prayer and transcendence. The music can be contemporary, or traditional or Gregorian Chant, but it MUST be reverent and conducive to prayer adding to the Mass not distracting from it.

    My 2 cents for now


  2. This is interesting to think about. Initially, I found myself reacting negatively to this post, but then I realized that this is because of what I believe about liturgy. Does it not come down to this – either one believes that liturgy is the action of God (exitus) which man receives, participates in, and returns to God (redditus), OR it is the action of man created by man… just one way of engaging God among many (take it or leave it – it’s about taste). It seems to me that everything in this post hinges on which of these ideas one believes, and more importantly, which of these is true. As one who believes liturgy is received by man and not created by him, non-liturgical Christianity will always remain something less-than, and in fact, an impossible consideration for me. I know some wonderful Christians who belong to these communities, but it seems to me that these are lacking something which God has revealed… in some ways similar to the way Muslims or Jews have portions of Truth yet fail to recognize Jesus Christ – God in the flesh. That’s an extreme example… but one which helps to make my point.

    The question is – what is true about liturgy? Does it come from God or man? What one believes about that will form the basis of their reaction to this post.

  3. While the questions posed are interesting, and I agree that there is a seductive attraction to Pentecostal “free-form” worship, the reaction, at least for Catholics should definitely NOT be to try and adopt the external aspects of non-liturgical worship, or even adapt the Sacred Liturgy to make it more “attractive”, etc. As Mark noted…we have been given the liturgy by God and it is ours to pray perfectly or imperfectly. Trying to make it the “latest” and “most exciting” does nothing to bring us closer to the perfect.

    It would seem to me that the best route would be to remain thoroughly and unambiguously Catholic…and yes, I mean in terms of tradition and liturgical practices. I think the multiplicity and variety of non-liturgical churches which come and go makes it quite clear who is on the Titanic. The Barque of Peter is truly un- sinkable.

  4. Lurking behind these issues is a deeper issue that is not usually discussed: the issue of spiritual dryness, desolations and dark nights of the senses and soul. You can actually see hints (and more) of this in the New Testament, as the hopeful fervor of the Apostolic generation gradually gave way to anxiety and doubt and a loss of the sense of immediacy in the post-Apostolic generations.

    Modern culture cultivates a desire for immediate, sensible, affective consolation. But the spiritual testimony of many many centuries is that souls must be prepared to do without such consolations for very long stretches of time (the recent exemplum of Bl Teresa of Calcutta leaps immediately to mind as a reference point some people in the pews may be aware of), for it is in that desert that God can more readily work our souls to his greater glory.

    While the worship forms of the liturgical churches evolved in part with this spiritual reality in mind, the problem is that people in the pews rarely hear this reality described and connection made from pulpits and in catechesis.

    So, I guess my question to preachers and catechists (even of youth) is: how do you prepare your flock for the likelihood that their spiritual lives will look more like a journey through a desert than repose in lush oasis? Does the worship provide the manna needed in such a desert?

  5. Great postings here above! The descriptions offered by Richard Giles in the article mirror closely what goes on in my diocese. We latter-day Catholics have all this and more. We do well to listen to those yearning for more beauty and transcendence–prizing what is universal as opposed to that which is fleeting, pedestrian.

  6. There is much food for thought here. I would like to highlight one particular passage that struck me:

    “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?”

    I would like to take this challenge to heart. “Heaven glimpsed and lives changed” may seem like a lot to expect, but I believe it succinctly sums up the goal toward which we should be striving. Thank you, Richard, for reminding us of something essential.

  7. The big difference I see here is the notion of worship as that which pleases me, rather than that which pleases God.

    Also, I simply cannot let supposition no. 1 above, about the role of music, stand unchallenged. Traditional liturgy, especially traditional Anglican liturgy, supposes a major role for the assembled congregation to sing; and Catholics have been trying for years (Msgr. Hellrigel in St. Louis in the 1950s, for example) to reclaim the people’s role in singing the liturgy. The liturgy as mosh pit is something entirely other, where the assembled worshipers dance and sway as at a secular rock concert, while the bright lights shine on the musicians just as much as if they were on the Tonight Show. The conclusion just doesn’t hold — in fact, the opposite is true.

  8. “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”

    It is in a way weird to make this comparison since Vladimir would certainly have been appalled if he walked into an evangelical church today. But you do have a point. I had broad contact to Charismatic Protestantism for many years and had awesome experiences with ‘Praise & Worship’ music – at least that was how it seemed. I did get ‘in contact’ emotionally with God, but I have since realized that the experience was somewhat shallow and sentimental.

    Since I became a Catholic, I have had vastly more profound ‘encounters’ with the divine from the simplest private Mass said almost inaudibly at breakneck speed than I had from these massive P&W ‘events.’

  9. “the Enlightenment left its mark, instilling in us a cerebral approach to the worship of God, suspicious of any display of emotion.”

    I do not think this is at all true. The Enlightenment has nothing to do with the fact that in ‘traditional’ churches people do not scream or run up and down the aisle in church, if it is that kind of ’emotion’ you are referring to (I have seen both things, and worse, happen in Charismatic contexts). This has something to do with the commandment given by St. Paul to the Corinthians to conduct themselves in an orderly manner during their assemblies.

    Traditional liturgy, especially of the Catholic/Orthodox variety, leaves plenty of room for emotion, but it is first and foremost of the inward and modest kind, known only to the believer and God: contrition for sins, awe, joy, thankfulness. I often cry after having received Communion and I think that is both common and accepted, and even provided for in the rite.

  10. “We are not talking here of simply saying an office or hearing a Mass, but 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.”

    I’d argue that is pretty much what happens when attending daily Mass, at least if you have a reasonably properly formed sacramental spirituality (which most don’t, but that is the main challenge for us – and of course weekly catachesis and spiritual exercises can help achieve this goal, but they are not themselves the goal: the goal of all Christian catechesis and spiritual training must be the Eucharist!)

  11. “1.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.”

    The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the opposite of what should be the case. In the Roman Rite liturgy properly executed, ALL music is integral to the liturgy (propers/ordinary/dialogues)…that is the stated purpose and definition of music. That we have moved away from this has been a major mistake. In the “Community churches”, music is by definition an “add-on” since there is no liturgical structure for them to be integral to.

    The authors observation is easy to understand though. Walking into an average Catholic parish on a Sunday morning, the music would most likely not be integral to the liturgy. Changing that fact can only be acheived by recognizing which music IS integral to the liturgy (yes…there is such a thing) and developing liturgical music with that as a foundation.

    1. It’s getting tiresome to have to say over and over that the Church permits strophic hymnody at Mass for good reason. Well-chosen hymns ARE integral to the rite — according to Sing to the Lord, such hymns fulfill a liturgical function. I love propers and I do them all the time. But I wish that some pro-propers people would acknowledge that the mind of the Church is rather broad on this point and stop acting like their proof-texting of a few quotations equals the only Catholic liturgical position.

      1. Perhaps this trouble arises, P. Anthony, because there doesn’t seem to be any distinction between a Low (spoken) and High (sung) Mass within the Novus Ordo. Formerly, congregational singing of vernacular hymns was tolerated at Low Mass, but not at High Mass (at least not after the Introit and not before the final blessing) where the use of Latin was de rigueure.

      2. I guess I would not like to encourage a pro vs anti propers division re hymnody other than to suggest that an attitude that consigns propers to the experiental category of rarity, oddity or stranger to the Roman liturgy is to be discouraged quite forthrightly.

        My main concern with hymnody is where it is the primary expression of music in the liturgy – where the old Low Mass hymn sandwich mentality obtains. And that is sadly all too common in the US. How many Masses in churches I have visited have featured a gathering hymn but hurried recitation of the Gloria (or even just omitted the Gloria when that omission is not called for)? I would hope we are all on the *same* “side” of this altogether more common failure in the realm of liturgical music.

        PS: Is it my browser (Firefox) or does the comment field truncate on the right side when typing in comments, so that you need to load and then fix typos thereafter?

      3. Regarding William’s comment on Low and High Mass, those distinctions are no longer in place. The assumption is one of Roman sensibility and progressive solemnity. All Sunday and holy day Masses are “high” in the sense of the old term: a full set of ministries and appropriate parts of the Mass sung.

  12. In response to Gideon earlier: yet it is precisely the Vladimirs and Olgas of today who, for some reason, are much more attracted to evangelicalism than they are to classic liturgical forms. Witness the often stated reality that Latin America is becoming the next Protestant continent (and that does not mean Anglican or Lutheran but fundamentalist/evangelical).

    Whoever it was who used the phrase “barque of Peter” here, might I ask for a bit more civil discourse under the realization that this blog is, like it or not, designed to be ecumenical. Phrases like this are not necessary and tend to be divisive. Thanks. Max

  13. A question for which there might be data: Are things such that no matter the nonliturgical content, if it is marketed by one particular liturgical church, it will always be the wrong “brand” and so rejected? What portion of the folks keen on nonliturgical worship just don’t like the Catholic Church for various reasons?

    Other liturgical churches might not have the same problem. And depending upon the data, maybe the Catholic Church does not have this problem.

  14. I have heard anecdotally that the only churches in the US that experience growth in congregation numbers are the Orthodox ones. I don’t know what nationwide statistics say, but I think it is well established that the Antiochian Orthodox diocese of North America is now mostly made up of converts.

  15. “Well-chosen hymns ARE integral to the rite”

    Oh, sure. The traditional Good Friday liturgy incorporates both the hymn Pange lingua (along with the strophe Crux Fidelis) and the hymn Vexilla Regis. But this is a very isolated phenomenon.

    As for the New Rite, yes metrical hymns are allowed, but they are not an integral part of the rite (please show me where they are in the Missal) and may only be used as substitutes for the propers where it is not possible to sing the latter from either the Graduale Romanum, the Graduale Simplex or another setting (cf. the GIRM).

    I seriously doubt there are any places where this is applicable, at least for Sunday Mass.

  16. I am not liturgically trained, but I have spent a life memorizing and contemplating the Word in prayer. I have also spent years responsible for a parish ministry.

    This article touches upon a fundamental question, “Is litergical service serving the Word of God?” Those who see modern Christian “charismatic” communities as emotional and lacking in litergical discerment, may actually be missing the point as the author also points out.

    I thought a personal aside might be of some use to readers here. Before I became Christian, I read the Bible from cover to cover and did not come to understand it. I went to a local church and asked for help. I recounted that the conclusion my secular intellect came to was that the Bible was a story of “how God made a covenant that seems pretty simple to obey, yet is a book filled with a reality that few kept either that covenant or the new one.”

    The priest said something to me that changed my life. He told me that “the Word without Spirit is devoid of life and truth.” It was not the litergy, it was not Latin or English, it was not church tradition, it was not the service or even the denomination. It was and is the Holy Spirit that spoke to my life.

    I have watched as my diocese and my parish, while dedicating themselves to evangelism, have eliminated every “charismatic” expression of that spirit and find themselves unable to bring people to an active life with Christ inside the diocese without having even a small insight into why.

    That insight, in my experience, is not a subject that can be debated, you cannot teach it, we can not cause it. I have been present when more than a thousand people asked Christ to forgive them and fill them with His Spirit so they could grow to be members of His church.

    In every case they immediately started declaring Jesus the Christ, without reservation to people they had never before met and enthusiastically reorganized their lives to seek His presence and to testify, in the Franciscan sense that our lives may be the only Bible some people ever read.

    I am sorry to say in my experience, at least in this parish, those who became Catholic continued that joyous testimony until training in litergy and tradition subdued them.

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