An Argument for Liturgy

Jeff S. Clarke, senior editor and writer at Christian Week, has written an interesting essay arguing that non-liturgical churches need more liturgy.

He describes himself as one who “was raised in a non-liturgically based Christian denomination and have since spent the vast majority of my adult life in a Pentecostal/Charismatic context.” His thoughtful and eloquent argument for more “liturgical moments” in contemporary evangelical services of worship raises a number of issues worth reflecting upon.

Specifically, he calls for more silence, more space for contemplative reflection and the encounter with Scripture, the use of symbols and icons, and an ordering of time not guided by merely pragmatic concerns or performance values.

Speaking out of his own experience of liturgical services, he writes:

Liturgical cues give me the space to pause and ponder. Liturgical cues give me the space to reflect more deeply on the biblical passage being read, the creed being recited or the symbol being emphasized. And, this ‘pause’ has helped me to better appreciate the teaching emphasis in that moment.

I’ve also discovered that I have a greater tendency to remember the lessons long after the service has ended.

In my experience contemporary church service styles rarely yield the same results as those I’ve experienced in more formal liturgically-based settings.

The aspects of liturgical worship he names and values — silence, time for contemplative reflection, symbolic richness that creates a deep and lasting impression — might well serve as an examination of conscience for those of us who prepare for and celebrate liturgy. Do we create the sort of space he describes as uniquely valuable? Or do we fill up the space, watch the clock, and invest more in performance values so that people won’t “get bored”? Do we cultivate symbolic richness, or do we foster a poor, minimalist use of symbol, falling into what Andrea Grillo rightly derides in his book, Beyond Pius V, as assuming it’s enough to merely “think the symbol”?

Clarke observes, devastatingly, that

Most contemporary church gatherings are more concerned about creating a performance-based program that seeks to keep people entertained, not liturgically engaged. However, while an entertainment-based church service model may keep people from falling asleep, it will rarely, if ever, cause them to engage with the Gospel and encourage active, thoughtful, and meaningful community-based participation.

You can read the whole thing here.

One final note. I find it interesting that Clarke uses the atypical term “cue” for what liturgy does for him. The point that, of course, interests him the most is how the worshiper engages with and responds to Christ and the Word through the liturgy. The thing in itself (liturgy) does not hold the same objective status for him (or at least not in the same way) as it does for, say, Catholics. Nevertheless, thinking about elements of rite as “cues” for the assembly can also be salutary for liturgists in liturgical churches. The theater term, “cue,” embodies the notion that the assembly (together and individually) is active spiritually, intellectually, and physically and not merely a consumer or an audience/observer. The worshiper has a distinct role and dignity. We may miss our cues fairly often, but when we take them, we flourish as faithful disciples.

If liturgists, pastors, and teachers are to succeed in guiding the faithful to grow in their fruitful engagement with the liturgy, we need an awareness of the interaction between the corporate actions of liturgy and the individual’s response. In a broader scope, what Clarke is on to here is the potential of liturgy to be mystagogical (my word, not his).

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