Liturgy for the Unaffiliated

Dorothy Day once said that human beings have a great need to reverence, to worship, to adore. She saw worship as part of our psychological make-up, a need that requires our attention. We were created to praise, reverence, and serve God. Without God, we have idols. Given her context, Day was undoubtedly thinking of the adoration of Lenin and Stalin by Soviet devotees. Today she might apply this logic to Wall Street. But her larger point, one that others have made as well, is that we cannot do without worship.

The Liturgists get Day’s point. Hosted by science-tech-spiritual writer Mike McHargue a.k.a. “Science Mike” and musician Michael Gungor, they develop a weekly podcast with guests who speak to various topics, in-person “experiences,” and a collection of downloadable “liturgies” for sale, which include a mix of music and guided meditations. Both Mikes found themselves alienated from their evangelical religious formation and yet understand the importance of community in worship. McHargue told the New York Times, “As America deinstitutionalizes and moves away from religion, people—especially millennials—have lost something. Their community becomes primarily virtual, they’re seeing people through a screen and not flesh and blood, and there’s great data that this leads them to loneliness and depression. The core of every podcast is, ‘you’re not alone,’ and that draws people in, but we can’t stay there. We have to draw them into some kind of communal practice.”

Studies show that the “nones”—those who mark “none” on a survey when asked for their religious affiliation—are not only a growing segment of the American population, but are a quite diverse group. Under that mantle are militant atheists and skeptical agnostics, but also those who are disaffected from their religious upbringing, the “spiritual but not religious,” and even those who are in the midst of an unfolding conversion. A significant percentage reports that science is the reason that they left the religion in which they were raised. Thus, many in this category are not closed off to encounter with God, but for a variety of reasons, they feel alienated from standard forms of communal worship.

The Liturgists aim for that group. And they don’t make the “mistake to think that music is music is music” to quote Alan’s recent post. The Liturgists see themselves in the “long line of musical composers through history who have composed musical works intended for specifically ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ purposes.” As McHargue says, the goal is to meet people where they are in the spiritual appreciation of quality music and to lead them to communal practice and conversation. “It’s easier to follow Jesus when you walk along with others. There are few things more powerful in shaping our beliefs than social identity. If you want to believe in God, it’s going to be easier if you spend time with people who believe in God. Jesus knew this, and that’s why one of his most enduring acts was to create the church.” The Liturgists are a refuge for those frustrated with a wooden approach to religious life and literalistic biblical hermeneutics. Both Mikes discuss on their blogs and in interviews their frustration with American fundamentalism.

When she went to college, Dorothy Day read Marx and met those inspired by his vision. Thereafter, Marx’s sympathetic distain for religion rang in her head when she went to pray. She repeatedly heard some variant of “stop numbing the pain!” echo throughout her being. Like Day, McHargue describes a haunting skepticism when he went to pray. Rather than Marx in his head, it’s Dawkins and his pseudo-scientific disproval of the efficaciousness of prayer. McHargue embarks on a rigorous course of study in particle physics and neurology in order that he “won’t feel like an idiot when [he] prays.” At the very least, he concludes, prayer has psychological benefits, and it may be more than that.

Like Day, The Liturgists understand alienation, loneliness, and frustration with their religious communities. McHargue says that he and Gungor started The Liturgists “out of a sense of existential loneliness.” Day called her autobiography The Long Loneliness. At the end of her journey from nominal Christian to anarchist social activist to Catholic Worker founder, she discovers community as the answer to the long loneliness. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality are a rambunctious and varied form of community. But there was also Day’s daily Mass attendance.

The Liturgists have clearly drawn people in. 250,000 subscribers and 1-2 million downloads per podcast are clear evidence of this. Gungor is no lightweight musician. He and his wife, Lisa, have received Grammy nominations in Gospel categories. The Liturgists regularly work with similarly talented musicians to compose their “liturgies.” An interesting interplay of folksy rock and electronica, their stuff is not another version of the “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” track that characterizes some versions of praise and worship or contemporary Christian pop. The Liturgists draw upon the tradition, musically, and sometimes theologically, reinventing the Our Father, the Creed, or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in addition to more original compositions. They explicitly aim for the beautiful in their work, as expressed in the credo posted on the website: “We believe that beauty is the heart and perhaps primary truth of the Gospel. If it’s not beautiful, it’s not worth speaking of or working on.”

But Alan’s warning to attend to the differences between spiritual listening and liturgical participation is worth heeding. Just how successful The Liturgists are at the latter of McHargue’s goals—facilitating communal practice—remains a question. To what extent is The Liturgists’ work participatory?

One might argue that early modern greats didn’t compose participatory liturgical music either. But their sacred work—like Mozart’s Requiem and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli—often fit into an established liturgical form, in which the Church gathered for a funeral or for a papal installation. But in their day, Mozart and Palestrina didn’t have to negotiate the challenge of that music being a mere individual experience. This is a particular challenge for those formed in evangelicalism, which to quote my Baptist friend is “cacophonous.” In other words, the approaches to liturgy are so diverse as to create difficulty gaining any traction. Those moved by various elements of the tradition—and The Liturgists clearly are—tend to struggle to make their contributions truly liturgical, “the work of the people,” as the front page of their website boldly proclaims.

It also occurred to me that I should think about The Liturgists’ work as I do other composers of liturgical music who make their work available for use in liturgies. The “Store” page indicates precisely that possibility. But their events, podcasts, and general intentions make them rather different. They encourage people to join a church, any church, that works for them, where presumably people will find a regular community and perhaps sustaining practices. I don’t know exactly how successful The Liturgists’ communal events are, but their goal is important. A recent “Do It Rite” video from Fr. Anthony instructs cantors to step back from the mic in order that the congregation find its song. Is such a thing possible for The Liturgists?

I second The Liturgists’ goals for a beautiful liturgy. We fail at beautiful liturgy all too often. But beautiful liturgy is distinct from entertaining liturgy. As The Liturgists demonstrate, the stage lights and glitz of some evangelical contemporary worship services leave something to be desired, and it’s not only by “liturgical elites,” like ourselves at Pray Tell.

Yet, the beauty of the gospel is the self-emptying beauty of the cross. We must get out of the way sometimes to let that beauty shine through, and that can even be in quirky expressions of joy, crying babies, blessed captivity, ritual boredom, or even monotony. This last article, which my students found rather moving, was originally shared by Fritz here. Much of this self-emptying can happen through ritual. It seems that in order for the The Liturgists to sustain their goals of community and common participation, ritual will have to emerge. Perhaps there’s something to learn from Day’s hard-won journey, “I could worship, adore, praise, and thank Him in the company of others. It is difficult to do that without a ritual, without a body with which to love and move, love and praise.”

One comment

  1. Thanks for this informative article, Tim. I think this is one of the most interesting new phenomena we’ve seen on the American religious landscape in a while.

    As a footnote, I would add that it astonishes and pleases me that this group of evangelicals have claimed the word “liturgist” and are increasing its currency in the world outside of liturgical churches by their use of the term. And the use of the term is not even an abrogation of the religious connection! (Unlike “icon” which has been so taken over by computing and as a shorthand reference for pop stars that the religious use seems obscure by comparison.)

    Postmodern borrowings? Trans-denominational cross-fertilization? Whatever it is I like it. Refreshingly, these people don’t have to worry about their ministry being made the butt of terrorist jokes.

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