Liturgy and Seekers

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.

13 thoughts on “Liturgy and Seekers

  1. Christopher

    Missouri has a new resource which I wish we had a parallel to. I just ordered a copy “Worship, Gottesdienst, Cultus Dei”:

    Written in catechetical form (with questions and answers), this unique reference examines the texts of the Lutheran confessions in terms of worship. Directly interacting with primary sources, readers come away with a renewed appreciation for the meaning of the divine service. 240 pages, hardcover. Concordia.

    I was reminded of Schmemann’s observation that our gathering is already the Holy Spirit at work as we get up, get dressed for church, walk out the door, that the gospel is what makes us, or we Episcopalians might say “with thy word and Spirit”. Our liturgical theologies on the public and official level need some work in reflecting on the actuality that in worship we can find that we’re not only enacting the New, but that much of the Old may be in play, say making African Americans sit in the balcony, for example. In that sense I’ve grown leary of our descriptors of worship that don’t account for human sinfulness in our often lovely descriptions of encounter with Eternity. It can lead to sacralization of treating others poorly and much talk about ourselves rather than He who speaks outside of us and not only gathers us into the New but confronts us as well.

  2. Anastasia

    To me, there’s nothing worse than people apologizing for what they do liturgically. our priest does this weekly at the announcements “I’m sorry our liturgy is a little strange. I know it’s impossible to keep up. Just bear with us!” It’s borne of his assumption that he knows what visitors are thinking. I think he’s wrong. Even among the genuinely unchurched. My friend HC’s husband was completely unchurched–raised by atheistic hippies in berkeley california–and when he converted to Christianity, he didn’t go someplace seeker sensitive. He became an eastern rite catholic. Maybe some “seekers” want warren’s church and its ilk but I think there’s good evidence that isn’t the case for everyone.

    in any case, I think we can give people a little credit. When I visit an unfamiliar gathering or church service–and i find eastern liturgies disorienting–I expect it to seem a little strange. I don’t need or want an apology for that. I cringe when they feel the need. It seems desperate. Being welcoming is one thing but that doesn’t include disparaging yourselves to make me feel better.

    i got caught one booth over a seeker sensitive pastor and worship pastor this morning at breakfast this morning. All I could think was that they would have no idea how to reach me.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    I think a lot of people our age are fed up with disposable culture and want something with some depth and authenticity to it. Most of the denomination-switchers I know have been going more liturgical rather than less.

    Of course–that could also reflect the circles I move in too…

  4. bls

    I’m a good example, I guess; I came back to church after 9/11 after 35+ years. I even self-identify as a “seeker” (still!).

    I first went back to one of those do-it-yourself liturgical places, because I had some friends who went there, and because I knew it was gay-friendly. (The latter was of primary importance, actually; I wasn’t going to go anyplace at that particular moment that was going to give me any kind of hard time.)

    One of the clergy there was traditional-minded (the others were into “innovations”), and the parts of the liturgy he was involved in showed it. It was actually quite a good thing to have that kind of push-pull going on; it allowed for the traditions to be given a different and interesting spin. For instance – I was just thinking about this this morning – the parish did not have Easter Vigil; they processed with the Paschal candle at the Easter morning service, and sing the Exsultet then, too. It’s beautiful done that way, with the odor of the flowers all around and the church packed with worshippers. (This particular liturgical action is the thing that made me take the plunge and join the church, BTW.)

    This is different from the priest who posted at the Lead, who was more interested in throwing a large amount of the tradition away, as far as I could tell. Anyway, I left the do-it-yourself parish for a deeper experience of God. (That clergyperson has since left, also. We needed more.)

    So there is a place for parishes like this, I’d say – but only a small place, I think. These kinds of parishes aren’t bursting at the seams these days, either – but they might be good for a few people.

    I didn’t remember anything I’d learned as a child about faith or worship, and many of the Episcopal practices were strange to me – but I liked that. I liked learning something new; I think we really sell people short when we assume they might be “put off” by what we do. They might, instead, be attracted by it.

    But in any case, you’re right: our primary reason for being there is the worship of God. And that means that putting people in the pews in touch with God is of utmost importance.

  5. bls

    (The problem with do-it-yourself liturgy is that it becomes very self-conscious and “thinky,” and really is all about the individual, whether the priest or the composer of the liturgical piece itself. It’s like grade-school, actually, with everybody patting everybody else on the back for their “great work” – instead of engaging in self-forgetting and prayer.

    Self-conscious over-thinking is pretty much the opposite of the whole point, in my view.

    These weren’t bad people; it was just bad worship. Some seem not to care, though, and some seem to feel the need to throw off whatever shackles they feel upon themselves by doing this. It’s probably a good thing for them to have this available – but it’s certainly not for everybody, which is why I object to lectures about “worshipping the BCP” from liberal fundamentalists.)

  6. Marshall Scott

    (Posted a bit ago in response to the Episcopal Cafe post that started it all:)

    All right, I’m about to show my age….

    In the Early Devouring Period (kudos to anyone who recognizes the cultural reference), I learned my liturgy and liturgical theology under Marion Hatchett. His posture was that it was important to stay within the tradition – first the Episcopal tradition, then somewhere else in the Anglican tradition, and then somewhere in the Christian tradition – in determining how to adapt the liturgy to needs of the congregation. He encouraged awareness of the breadth of Christian tradition (Adai and Mari anyone?), so as to be able to draw on elements that have served somewhere in the Christian community in our shared history. However, the point was always to consider the needs of the congregation. And note that what someone needs is not necessarily what someone wants. Liturgy is the work of the people, and we need not apologize if sometimes we really mean work. It really is possible to “dumb down” liturgy: to make it so easy, so full of passion and empty of content, so much fun with so little challenge, that we really are reduced to entertaining people we should be engaging with God and with us.

    What this means, then, is that we also need to do the work ahead of time – work understanding our history, work understanding our congregations, and work developing the structures that express hospitality, in the liturgy as well as after it. If we make some effort at these things, and appreciate just how much room there is in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we have significant options.

    What are some of those needs? Balance, I think, mostly: enough repetition to contribute to formation with enough introduction to keep folks alert; enough didactic information to help folks understand what we’re doing with enough appeal to passion to keep folks engaged; enough time to really transmit meaning with enough of a steady pace to keep everyone together.

    Now, I’ve said in a variety of places that I’m ready for a new Prayer Book. My reason is not that I dislike the 1979 Book. Rather, it is that I think there is a good deal of good, new stuff available, and already approved by General Convention for trial use, that very few will experience without incorporation into a new book, or at least into a process toward a new book. And isn’t that a wonderful thought: liturgical tools already vetted by the Church, reflective of our tradition, already within our grasp but undiscovered. There’s also some good contemporary hymnody out there. Why, then, should we settle for chants that my best beloved describes (and charitably) as

    “I love Jesus, yes I do!
    I love Jesus. So should you!”

    The question isn’t really new vs old. It’s putting in the effort to understand the congregation we’re serving, all the tools already at our disposal, preparing our welcome, doing our “work” well, and trusting that if we do new folks are capable of doing that work with us, and will find joy in doing so.

  7. bls

    BTW, where’s Fr. John-Julian these days? I haven’t seen him post for a long time.

    Hope all is OK, Fr…..

  8. revdrmom

    Derek, most excellent post! Thank you.

    As I move into my third year as an ordained person, I am more and more clear about my particular calling–and it is entwined in teaching preaching and liturgy. So I do teach about liturgy every chance I get–formally and informally, and people seem to appreciate it.

    I’m interested in Marshall’s comment about it being time for a new prayerbook. I’m heavily influenced by my liturgics prof, obviously, but I don’t think we are ready for a new prayer book largely because there has not been the kind of theological shift that occurred between the 1928 (or really the 1892) and the 1979. But I do agree that we should work with the supplemental materials we have, and continue to develop more. We have been using Eucharistic prayers from EOW seasonally–they certainly aren’t perfect, but I think varying the language with the context of a familiar liturgy can open things up a bit for some people. And if the parish where I serve now is at all representative, we haven’t plumbed the depths of our current prayer book. There is lots there that even long time Episcopalians aren’t aware of or don’t understand.

  9. bls

    I for one like Enriching Our Worship. Not all, but most; there are excellent prayers in there, and actually I’m very happy that the women of the Bible are included. Why ever not?

    There are some excellent things in there, even better than some things in the BCP itself. I’m glad to use them.

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