Jim challenged us in the earlier thread to think about how liturgical worship and seekers should fit together. This line of his struck me: We can’t expect people to get out of bed on Sunday mornings to attend a service they don’t understand, or that emphasizes their non-membership, so that they can enjoy 20 minutes of fellowship at the coffee hour or catch an occasional adult ed. lecture. I had a conversation with a student this morning around just this same topic. So—I’ll think out loud around this theme for a little bit.
A few points:
First off, let’s all remember what we’re fundamentally about on Sunday morning—we’re there first and foremost for the worship of God. While we do more things than this and while we do many things for more than one purpose, this one must always be central. That means that everything done in the service is only secondarily oriented towards the people present because everything is primarily oriented towards God.
Second, if worship is primarily oriented towards God and secondarily oriented towards the people present, what does that secondary orientation look like? Forming community seems to be part of it; our communal participation seems to be part of it; reminding one another what’s going on in the larger world seems to be part of it; moral teaching, spiritual teaching, practical help for one another all seem to be part of it… If I had to tease out one strand out of all of these things going on, however, I would suggest that the key part of the secondary orientation is gaining an awareness of who we are as transcendent Body. Now let me unpack that a bit…
When Christians gather together to worship God, we’re doing something unusual, something altogether different than getting a bunch of folks together. A worship service isn’t a committee meeting or even a Bible study. It’s something deeper and more profound. Do we believe what we read in Holy Scripture? Do we believe the words of Paul: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) and further “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19)? What’s hid from our eyes by modern English is that in Paul’s Greek, all of the “you”s are plural—he speaks to us not as individuals but as a body, a community. As he hammers his point home later in the letter: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). This is what Matthew is recording in 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Worship is when the Body of Christ comes together to be Body. This is when we join to not just symbolize but enact a promise of the eschatological Body, to realize the vision of St. John the Divine which consummates not only the Book of Revelation but the whole Scripture of which I have written elsewhere. Here the the local community participates in the mystery of the Church who is the Bride of the Lamb, joined with Christ in intimate communion. Here too, through deep meanings, Bride and Groom cleave into one flesh and we—knit into the Body by the Spirit—participate in the dialogue between Christ and the Godhead.
I’ll apologize if some of this sounds a little strange, if some of this sounds a little mystical. However, I know of no other way to talk about—it’s the nature of the reality that we’ve entered into…
Ok—so what does this little burst of mysticism have to do with seekers? Just this: the key part of the secondary orientation of the liturgy is to offer all present a taste of the transcendent reality experienced by the Church. This reality is our life day in and day out but we so conceal it from ourselves that we need reminding. For the baptized this reality is brought up to and (hopefully) breaks through the surface of our awareness as we join in holy song and holy discourse, as we fulfill our created purpose in the act of praise. Discipleship results in cultivating this awareness and facing the hard decisions and consequences that come when we start to take the reality of a life hid in God seriously. For those who are not baptized, the liturgy should invite them into this reality alive in God, should invite them to learn and discern and enter into the life-giving waters.
Brass tacks, then. How can a liturgy hope to achieve this? When “worshiping the Lord in the beauty of holiness” is more than just a tagline—rather, when it’s tangible:
- Cultivate reverence among the clergy and among the laity regarding this thing that we do together. And no, reverence is neither stuffiness nor snootiness. Rather, it’s thoughtful attentiveness to what we are doing and for Whom we do it.
- Cultivate beauty. In the music, in the flowers, in the liturgical actions. It’s one thing to be informal; it’s another entirely to be sloppy. Yes, this means practicing…
- Cultivate community. This is where we have to be what we are attempting to enact: a body. In the most basic terms, it means knowing the people around you. We humans are creatures of habit—many of us like to sit in the same place each week if at all possible. Can we give a friendly nod to the person one pew over? Can we call them by name? Do we know who “we” are so if a stranger enters in we know to invite them to be one of us as well—or at least to help with the hymnal or answer a question?
Take a second to notice that I’ve said so far absolutely nothing about how high up the candle the liturgy ought to be… Low Church, High Church, it doesn’t matter; these things transcend liturgical boundaries.
Third, hospitality is critical—and we need to be sensitive to the breadth of what hospitality can be. I think there are a very big set of assumptions in the air about who “seekers” are and what “they” want. This set of assumptions is related to the success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church. Yeah, I’ve read it. Multiple times. And learned a lot from it each time—but I don’t buy it hook, line, and sinker. Warren—presumably based on research he and his team have done—emphasize that “seekers” are uncomfortable with Christian signs, symbols, and traditions. So, chuck the cross, the candles, the chant, the colored windows and the other things that warm my heart so… But his experience isn’t mine. Especially here in the South we’re not dealing with the “unchurched”—people who have no familiarity with Christianity except for negative stereotypes—rather we’re dealing with the “dechurched” who grew up in a church but left for a variety of reasons. Furthermore when they come back they’re doing so for a whole host of reasons. Many my age are returning because they have kids they want to raise in a church—they don’t expect a sterile auditorium, they expect a church! But that’s only one of many, many reasons people walk through our doors.
As far as I can tell, they bring more and more complicated reasons and expectations than we can know. We can’t hope to meet them all. So do we try and conform to what we imagine they might want, or do we present them with an honest understanding of who we are?
Another facet of hospitality involves not just we in the local community and those seekers out there; it also includes wandering Episcopalians—travelers away from their local community who stop by as they can. The sign out front offers hospitality in the promise of “common prayer.” Are we offering hospitality to the “sojourner in our midst” if our Book of Common Prayer is nowhere to be seen or experienced?
The most we can reduce it, it seems to me, is to two basic points: people who take the trouble to get up and seek us out on a Sunday morning are either looking for God or they are looking for a community. So why not be intentional about offering both? We offer God in the best way we know how with the full awareness and realization that not all will find God in the places and ways that we do. See points on both the first and the second above. Furthermore, we must realize that there is no substitute for human contact. A loaded bulletin is great—but even better is a friendly human with a sensitivity towards when a seeker needs help and when they need space. A handshake from the priest on the way out the door is great but even better is a midweek follow-up phone call from the priest reiterating what it pleasure it was to have them there and an offer to answer any questions they might have. (Present but not pushy…)
Fourth, clear teaching must be offered to all—regular attendees and newcomers alike. Liturgy is theology in kinetic form. We do what we do for a reason! But we seem to not be terrible good at sharing what that reason is… Learning Episcopal liturgy and learning Episcopal theology should be nigh inseparable because they are mutually interrelated. As I said in my comments below, so often people want to radically alter the liturgy and throw the baby out with the bathwater because they’ve never been taught that there’s a baby there in the first place!! We need clear, simple explanations of the centers of our theology and how these are both reinforced and found in the liturgy. While every seeker may not stick around for adult ed. such knowledge in the congregation will perk and offer itself to others when we least expect it–because once again this leads directly into discipleship. Learning theology, learning liturgy isn’t about learning what to think—it’s about learning what to do. It’s about learning who to be in answer to our high calling as members of the Body. But even deeper than that’s it’s learning what it means to live a life hid in God.