Liturgy and the emerging church

May 7th, 2015

Today's church has lost something important, whether we recognize it or not. For centuries it has helped create disciples of Christ and has bound together Christian communities in faith, hope and love. Arguably, it's part of the church's DNA and is an important tool for a Christian's spiritual walk. Yes, I'm talking about liturgy or, in more specific terms, that ordered worship service with those boring creeds, fancy robes, traditional decor, confusing symbols, formal prayers and simple music/hymnody.

I know what some of you are thinking because I've heard it before.

You either 1) think liturgy is representative of the church as an oppressive, institutional entity (i.e. you think it makes you high church or worse: Catholic), 2) think it distracts you from properly worshipping God (i.e. you think some people are too stupid to understand the message behind the liturgy), or 3) think it doesn't allow the Spirit to freely move during worship (i.e. you think you can't put your hands in the air).

If you'd asked me about five years ago, I would completely agree with you on most of those points. But as I've grown in my knowledge of God and what it means to be a Christian, I've come to understand liturgy in a different way than I had before. I realized that this concept I regarded as boring and as a hindrance to worship is actually, at its core, something beautiful and formative in our lives as Christians. What's more, I saw something with the potential to be revolutionary in today's church, something that could possibly pull the church from its slow decline as an influential force in the world.

One problem with today's church is that we've succumbed to the culture of the world in order to become relevant. We've sacrificed our creeds and hymns for loud rock bands, flashing lights, loud speakers, etc. turning worship into more of a show rather than a place where we become engaged with God. The model that we currently have simply isn't sustainable. Only liturgy can sufficiently engage and allow us during worship to be changed by God's presence.

Yet, like many of you, I really enjoy certain aspects of contemporary worship. Some of my most powerful encounters with God have taken place while singing with the worship leader to "How He Loves" during Communion. Often, I find myself experiencing God more during contemporary worship than traditional. Even services that go by the liturgy model can be unengaging. But there is a difference between conformity and innovation. I wonder if there is a way to innovate liturgy into a more relatable model for today's generation. Why can't we sing hymns or praise songs with acoustic instruments instead of rock music? Why can't we wear casual clothing to the traditional service? Why can't we put the Apostle's Creed up on the digital projector? Why can't we engage our members in a way that is relatable yet still fully liturgical?

In the summer of 2012, I attended Duke Divinity School's Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation. It was there as a student that I experienced the most transformational, presence filled worship services ever. They were 100 percent liturgical, but done in a way that I could relate to and engage with.

The chapel was small and simple without very much grandeur and music was played on acoustic instruments. The songs were a mix of hymns, gospel and modern songs. There was hand raising as well as some hallelujahs being shouted but there were still formal prayers and creeds. Many of the prayers, however, were put into terms that we could understand.

The thing I remember most from the worship services at DYA was the dancing. One night, at the end of the service, we sang "Wade in the Water" and began dancing with each other. At some point, someone pulled out some streamers and flags and handed them to us. Immediately, a sort of dancing, conga line of worshippers singing gospel music formed and wound around the whole room. Hands were clapping, ribbons were flying and feet were dancing. It was the definition of a Spirit-filled room.

Never had I had such a profound worship service experience before this in which I felt God filling me and changing me with his presence. The liturgy at these worship services engaged not just me, but everyone around me. Because of it, I was able to see that I was a part of something bigger: a community in which Christ is the head. And that's ultimately what liturgy does: it reconciles all of us to God and each other. Through it, we become bound by God's grace and leave as a single, uplifting, Spirit-led group, able to survive in a world of pain and brokenness that alone we wouldn't be able to do. That's why I believe we need liturgy because I've seen what it can do. It binds the church together, not just in the present, but also in the past, as one single community.

This is something my generation craves: to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to feel connected to others in mutual love and faith in God. But to do this, we have to return to that community that the early church fathers, apostles and even Christ himself intended for us to be: a liturgical church. 

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