Inculturation American-style

In Nathan Chase’s recent post he links his very interesting paper on the Congolese Rite of Mass. In that paper he concludes with the comment that the solution to the lack of relevance of the liturgy to modern Americans “is not to import the Zaire Usage into the United States, but to use the principles found in its creative genius to develop a liturgical expression which speaks to today’s Americans.”

I am not entirely convinced by this claim, in part because the situations in Africa and the U.S. are different in ways that might not make the principles employed in Congo applicable to the U.S. In the former case you have a pre-Christian religious culture serving as a source of symbol and ritual to be drawn upon, while in the latter case you have an increasingly post-Christian culture in which the dominant symbols and rituals are often simply pale vestiges of Christian symbols and rituals (think of the secular celebration of Christmas, for example).

But, putting aside my doubts for the moment, I would be interested in hearing from people of things they think could or should be changed in the liturgy in order to inculturate it for America (or some cognate contemporary western society). I’m not so much interested in what you think would be a good reform, but specifically how this would be a form of inculturation. So, making the Gloria optional on Sundays in Ordinary Time might or might not be a good liturgical reform, but how would it be “a liturgical expression which speaks to today’s Americans”?


  1. Women in more leadership roles than might be customary in other cultures. More egalitarian practices are culturally rich with values that Americans prize.

  2. The most American value would be for Mass to be offered within 20 minutes, as the categorical imperative of many parishes in the USA is Thou Shalt Not Make The Mass Longer Than It Has To Be.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #3:
      I encounter the “get it over with” mentality regularly. Through experience, many people have come to not expect anything even mildly interesting from the Mass, much less profound or life-changing. Years of ho-hum music, presiding and preaching can do that. If the presider looks like he’s bored half to death, it’s not surprising that people want to “get it over with.”

      Meanwhile at the evangelical church up the street, their services typically last 90-120 minutes every week, filled mostly with concert-quality rock/pop music and passionate preaching that makes people stand up and shout Amen. I don’t suppose many of their congregants complain that the services are too long.

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #19:

        filled mostly with concert-quality rock/pop music and passionate preaching

        Good point.

        Chaves ground breaking study of Congregations in America found several things that are very relevant to our topic and your comment.

        It was ground breaking because it was a random sample obtained by first randomly sampling people, asking them for the name and address of their congregation, then interviewing the pastor (or equivalent) about the congregation. Included within the study was an extensive list of questions about the typical weekend service, so we know details like choir, congregational singing, instruments, etc.

        1. The study found that half the congregations in the USA have less than 75 regular participants and less than 50 regularly participating adults. Most of these are off the radar screen since only 11% of Americans go to this half of the congregations.

        The median American actually goes to a congregation of about 400 regular participants; i.e. half of Americans go to congregations with more than 400 and half with less.

        2. Singing by the congregation and a sermon/speech are almost universal. 98% of the attenders worship where there is singing by the congregation. And 96% of all congregations have congregational singing. 97% of attenders at worship services hear a sermon, and 95% of congregations have a sermon at their services.

        Remember that half the congregations are under 75 regular participants, yet most of these have congregational singing and a sermon!

        In some way congregational singing and a sermon have come to characterize worship in America. So we Catholics (who can’t sing and have lousy sermons) are failing at the two things that everyone expects of worship in America. And, of course, those denominations are prospering who do well at these two things!

        I don’t think we need to necessarily do it the same way as the Evangelicals. Francis short, three word focused homilies with a lot of thoughtful preparation plus some ad libs would likely do the trick for the sermon part.

      2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #22:

        “In some way congregational singing and a sermon have come to characterize worship in America. So we Catholics (who can’t sing and have lousy sermons) are failing at the two things that everyone expects of worship in America. ”

        Preaching and music are always fair game for critiquing, but … speaking both as a liturgical musician and a preacher, I don’t think we’re as bad as our reputations would suggest. There is a lot of preaching of a consistently high quality in the Catholic church, and there are parishes with excellent music programs. And it seems to me that the best places to find both is in growing, vibrant parishes, as preaching and music probably are among the reasons that these faith communities are succeeding in this measurable way.

        In both preaching and music, there have been concerted efforts at improvement for decades on the part of the church, and my view is that those efforts are bearing good fruit. I don’t think we need to apologize (well, maybe we still do in some cases …)

  3. The USA is unique sociologically among the advanced economies of the world because its people are as religious as many non-advanced economies. With our advanced economy and Protestant heritage we should be as irreligious as the Scandinavian countries but we are more like Mexico.

    Many sociologists are agreed that this is in part because we have religious competition. However I think that neglects two positives that have grown hand and hand with that religious competition.

    The first aspect of American religious experience is an emphasis on what I would call spirituality, i.e. a personal relationship with the divine. That has been found in the repeated waves of religious fervor that have taken Protestantism from the established religions of the colonies, Episcopal and Congregationalism, to Methodism, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and Pentecostalism. All this very personal religion is very emotional which we can see in the most religious group of people in the country, the Black Protestants.

    So the future American Rite needs to be deeply personal, and emotional and based soundly about religious experience not abstract ideas.

    The second aspect of American religious experience is voluntarism, i.e. it has grown up and depended as much upon voluntary relationships as upon culture. This is very evident in the America Grace study which showed that religious networks of family, close friends, and small groups explained all the many health, life satisfaction, and social benefits of church attendance. Just sitting alone in church absorbing the culture produced none of these benefits!!!

    So the future American Rite needs to based upon and appeal to religious networks of family, close friends and small groups not some abstract idea of community.

    My model of all religious activity including liturgy is three dimensional: psychological, social, and cultural. With regard to culture I think the American Rite should be willing to draw on all the cultures of America but neither be a melting pot nor a politically correct form of multiculturalism.

    Obviously my vision is very radical. It should begin with the creation from below of a Divine Office which fits the needs of individuals, families, close friends, and small groups. It should draw upon all the various ritual traditions that support a Divine Office and be useable by all Christians.

    Informally I have been doing this for a couple of decades without calling it that. Whether it has been RENEW groups, Bible Study or just people who gathered to listen to my liturgical music collection, I have found that scripture, some music CDs, some people who are willing to sing along, several people who are willing to pray extemporaneously, and people who are willing to share their thoughts and feelings about the scripture, the music and their lives and one has the making of a rather good home liturgy.

    I happened this afternoon in preparation for the Feast of Baptism to be reviewing the Service of Readings (15 most not too long) and Hymns from the Byzantine Office for Theophany which concludes with the Great Blessing of Waters. I did this at my house with a group a few years ago. I interlaced the Readings with contemporary hymns but in the booklet included some of the beautiful poetic antiphons of the Byzantine Rite for the feast for people see. I don’t have any designations for Presider, Reader, Congregation etc. in my booklet. Simply two signs: A circle in front of the paragraph says that everybody in the circle says that together. A diamond means we are going around the diamond, i.e. from person to person whether it be reading, prayer, etc. I simply begin the diamond by nodding to someone, and nod whenever its time to move on, more like an MC than a presider. I broke up the long Great Blessing into parts some said by everyone, some by individuals just like in concelebration.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #4:

      “So the future American Rite needs to be deeply personal, and emotional and based soundly about religious experience not abstract ideas.”

      Jack – I think this is very insightful, and I would say it is as descriptive as prescriptive, i.e. my observation is that our worship in America, including in the Catholic church, is becoming more deeply personal and emotional and based on religious experience. I believe that a study of the lyrics of music published for worship would confirm this.

  4. Ignoring for a moment the HUGE difference between Anglos, Hispanics, Africans, African Americans, East Asians, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, etc. in the U.S. (e.g. “what is American?”)… If we can ignore that…

    I can only reflect upon the very individualist nature of American society. “Deeply personal” might be a more positive way of wording, as Jack did. I wonder what ritual actions could be individual, that would point to a deeper meaning. I suspect a lot more individual gestures and physical actions would be easy to adopt. A greater use of applause (replacing the Great Amen?). Turning liturgical East and West for the Creed (profession and renunciation)? More processions for the assembly?

    That’s my musings for a Saturday night… I’ll probably think better of it tomorrow morning.

    Happy Baptism of our Lord everyone!

  5. Just wanted to share the immediate thought I had that some of what could be done has already been done in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979). I remember thinking when discovering that book, “This is an American Catholic liturgy.”

  6. Don’t mega churches provide us with all the American inculturation that’s possible and desirable? Rock bands and power point presentations seem mighty American to me.

    1. @Maximilian Hanlon – comment #7:
      As an English Anglican I was seeking some inspiration for church growth which didn’t involve becoming like an independent evangelical church. I saw the book ‘Rebuilt’ about The R C Church of the Nativity, Timonium, Maryland and thought this might be a model for ‘non-evangelical’ church growth. But the strategy seemed to be one borrowed from the evangelical church round the corner, which itself owes much to modern consumerism and marketing. When I watched a podcast of Mass from Timonium that looked like Mass in an evangelical key. Seems to me Maximilian is sadly right re America and English-speaking world. Some conservative groups do attract a committed following but in my experience this draws on a particular (and in the scheme of things a comparatively small) social sub-group, it does seem to go with right wing politics and a conservative dress code.

      1. @John Corbyn – comment #14:
        There are plenty of progressive Catholics whose preference for liturgy runs to the fairly high side, and conservative Catholics whose preference for liturgy runs to the populist-evangelical side, shall we say. I learned loooooooong ago never to extrapolate the liturgical preferences of people from their politics or vice-versa. It was a howling mistake.

  7. If we’re talking about small groups and gestures and what’s American, how about an occasional high five? (I’m serious.)

  8. Interesting question–actually pondered by our parish as I write this, as it will be for months to come–but one I do not understand, at least not fully. Does not America not already have a rich backlog of Liturgy (e. g. of the Mass) on which to depend, indeed in two Forms? Because the matter quickly devolves to Which part of America, What one means by America in the first place and, to me most of all, Taste and Judgment, I worry how wrong the question could go, since it seems to assume that Liturgy is what the laity makes up, which assumption is false.

  9. For a society that plays a major role in fomenting globalism, in downplaying earlier forms of hereditary royalty and in dominating outer space – in other words, that has turned many of the external domains and expressions of the divine into archaisms – a more interior and inclusive expression of the people’s encounter with God is long overdue. On this matter, in the search for the right perspective and language we may learn much from scripture itself as well as Augustine and the mystics.

  10. Most Americans tend to shy away from symbolism associated w/ anything monarchical ie bowing, the recent example that less than 50% bow at communion. With strong Protestant undercurrents from either intermarriage or associations I think most American Catholics prefer what Protestants are good at: good choirs and good preaching, and of course a well run Mass. Praying before a statue or even having statues in church, a procession through the streets during Corpus Christi or Adoration was popular especially in ethnic neighborhoods but now no longer as popular and typically frowned upon as archaic. So the short answer, good inspiring choirs, good preaching and Mass that is well planned and done.

  11. Karl Liam Saur : The most American value would be for Mass to be offered within 20 minutes, as the categorical imperative of many parishes in the USA is Thou Shalt Not Make The Mass Longer Than It Has To Be.

    This “value” is a sign of not speaking to the congregation. As others have testified, if a service speaks to you, you do not care how long it is. Your supposed value is a product of disengaged, alienated parishioners who were taught that presence was important but not participation.

  12. Wouldn’t there be a school of thought, though, that the liturgy should stand apart from the culture? It seems to me that many of the things that the Catholic liturgy calls us to do, from corporate action to dialogue to congregational singing to offering peace, are profoundly counter-cultural.

    If sacramental life is in decline, as almost surely it is, I believe it is largely because of the counter-cultural demands it makes. E.g. our requirements for initiation and marriage prep are the opposite of instant gratification. The sacrament of penance requires that we reflect, repent, confess, reconcile, make satisfaction – not to mention burn up valuable weekend time. Every single one of these arguably is counter-cultural. No wonder nobody goes to confession anymore.

  13. Speaking admittedly as an outsider, I can only relate two observations.

    1) The root word of “contemporary” is “temporary.” Why sell the 2,000 years of tradition you have and the glories of the Roman Rite for something that is, at best, a flash in the pan every so often?

    2) It doesn’t work. Protestants have been trying to out-relevancy each other for years, and now even the Evangelicals are starting to lose the young because they don’t want “relevant.” They (and I include myself in this) want to be challenged, fed, and transformed by something transcendent.

    Teach them the faith. Don’t water down the liturgy.

    1. @Shaughn Casey – comment #27:
      “The root word of “contemporary” is “temporary.””

      Good heavens — no, it’s not.

      Since you want to be challenged and fed, here’s a start: get your etymology straight.

      The root of both words is the Latin word, tempus, which means time.

  14. Rita Ferrone,

    Good heavens, indeed. Forgive me for saying “root” instead of the “base” for a word with a prefix. I’ll go back to teaching my Latin III Honors class now, head hung in shame, as we plow through the mysteries of result clauses and purpose clauses.

    In all seriousness, “contemporary” means “of the present time,” which means it is a constantly (there’s that con prefix again!) moving target, not unlike the base of the word, “temporary,” which means “not permanent.”

    Now that we have put our pedant hats away, would you actually engage my point?

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