Worship, Spirituality, and Liturgy: Bringing the Triplets Together Again

by Betty Lynn Schwab

Whether we preside within a ‘fixed,’ ‘ordered liberty,’ or ‘free’ liturgical context, we share some interesting realities, here, in our western setting. As the Minister for Worship, Music and Spirituality in The United Church of Canada, I was privileged to discover a wonderful shift taking place among our worship leaders.

A significantly increasing number of our ordained clergy have also become fully trained and practicing spiritual directors. Their training takes place in Roman Catholic institutions for the most part yet they are even more deeply committed to their Protestant faith than before their training.

Parallel to this shift, there is a noted international growth in the numbers of monastic oblates, particularly of those oblates who are rooted in a wide spectrum of Protestant denominations. Most of these oblates are, likewise, ordained people who are also worship leaders. They are asking similar questions to the worship leaders who are also spiritual directors.

A group from both streams gathered to meet one another and to share about the connections between their spiritual training and their worship leadership. All of them hunger for worship with a lot less words and with spiritual practices intentionally integrated throughout.

There is a third stream flowing in our times – the growing prominence of and comfort with the concept of ‘spirituality. ’ Across Christian denominations, spirituality is no longer only ‘what Catholics do.’ The word is now part of many Protestants’ faith language and of congregational programs. This comfort level is buttressed by the enormous growth of spirituality resources in ‘secular’ bookstores. And on our campuses, ‘INRIS’ is a common acronym for “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” With all our theological, pastoral and liturgical training, you and I may dismiss this last development in various ways both positive and negative. However, among the INRIS are many of the young and mature adults whom congregations long to see in their church.

A New York Times article “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” (Ross Douthat, July 14, 2012) concludes that mainline denominations need to be ‘doing’ something ‘religious’ if they are to survive. Again, with all our seminary training, you and I can rationalize that comment. However, important questions echo quietly within such a statement.  So often in worship, God is thought about and talked about, and sung about and to and prayed to. Yet do the worshiper experience God’s Presence?

  • How much wonder and awe does anyone experience in our services?
  • Beyond the institutional requirements, does my personal presiding manner move worshipers into the sheer Mystery of God?
  • How emotionally stirring is my absolution?
  • During each service, do I model the spiritual depth that lies within the words of the service, a depth modeled by how I speak the words week by week?

One ordained clergy writes, “we deepen our worship when we…invite people…out of their in-control, evaluating, thinking, selves, …and they encounter their true selves – and God.”  It “happens when we get out of our heads, when we move beyond words and concepts and thinking. It happens when we go beyond talking…when we make friends with stillness…when we let go.” Such “deep worship can happen in any church, whatever its worship tradition…in a Catholic Mass and in Quaker silence, in a small rural congregation and in a massive French cathedral.” [J. J. Springer, Nurturing Spiritual Depth in Christian Worship, Resource Publications, 2009, pages 132, 3, xi.]

Much is at stake in how worship leaders respond to the opportunities and challenges of spiritually hungry people today. But, they are attracted to something organic, not institutional. Their hunger is not an idea but an inborn instinct that safeguards life. Hunger is powerful. It drives people to know what they need and to search for that until they find it. Hunger drives people even to leaving their ‘homeland.’ Such hunger is a sacred gift for the whole church. Do we risk ignoring the triplets – worship, spirituality, liturgy – that long to be re-united?

The Rev. Dr. Betty Lynn Schwab M.Div. PhD, is a member of The United Church of Canada. After 26 years of parish ministry, she became the national Co-ordonator for Worship, Music and Spirituality.


  1. “Their training takes place in Roman Catholic institutions for the most part yet they are even more deeply committed to their Protestant faith than before their training.”

    The candor is refreshing.

  2. I think we RC’s are slightly one step ahead of our Reformed brothers and sisters (I dislike the term Protestant) because we have something that cannot be found outside of the church and that is Eucharist.
    But we don’t have a mass influx into the church because we are our “own worst enemies” with clericalism, sex abuse scandals, etc. And, IMO our most grevious shortcoming is that we do not communicate and defend all the good stuff we do that far outweighs the bad stuff. So people prefer to be “Spiritual” rather than “religious” or as they used to say in the ’60’s “without the baggage”.

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #3:
      Yes – they do. Although from the Catholic perspective, not all “Eucharists” are “equal” (i.e., valid, licit, etc.). IMHO, there’s still too many “turf wars” being waged by (some) churches over the ultimate reality & meaning of the Eucharist – largely on philosophical & theological grounds – and wedded to a very exclusivist & time-bound ecclesiology. Pastoral considerations are given much lower importance. So we find many situations where not all are welcome at certain Communion tables. Sadly this doesn’t apply only to the Catholic and Reformation churches – but also to the Eastern Orthodox churches! Seriously, WWJD in these situations???

      1. @Richard Novak – comment #4:
        Richard, in the Episcopal Church and Lutheran Church (ELCA not Missouri Synod) one only need be baptized in any denonmination in order to receive Holy Communion. Most other reformed Churches are less strict and anyone can receive except the strict Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and possibly the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church. I cannot comment about their European cousins.
        It seems the three strictest are, RC, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran Missouri Synod.
        WWJD? I don’t know exactly but he wouldn’t be very happy about our divisions, that you can be sure of.

    2. @Brian Duffy – comment #3:
      Brian, many churches have “communion services” but they are not considered necessary and many do not hold them frequently, some maybe monthly some annually and some never do.
      My point was not to question the validity of other church Eucharists. Rather, my point was that Eucharist is central to RC worship and in the RC world it is difficult to be wholly “Spiritual” without going to church for Eucharist. Whereas in many reformed churches Eucharist/Communion services are not central but rather an aside to good preaching and reading the bible especially in Fundamental and Evangelical circles. Thus it makes it easier to be “Spiritual” without attending services if the primary mode of worship is reading the bible and praying which can be done at home.

  3. Betty Lynn raises a very important question for us. There is, in my experience, a real reluctance on the part of too many to address this hunger for God. There is a presumption that because we’re celebrating Eucharist, the hungers of the human heart are being satisfied. Betty Lynn asks, “Do the worshipers experience God’s presence?” Roman Catholic liturgical theology speaks of a four-fold presence of Christ in the liturgy. But her question still stands at the experiential level: do the worshiper’s experience God’s presence, in the assembly, in the Word proclaimed, in the sacrament, in the priest presiding? How? What’s this experience like? If we are going to enable people to experience God in this way, we’re going to have to become much more adept at mystagogy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *