If the church’s mission centers around Jesus as incarnated in the local congregation, then liturgy becomes extremely important in terms of spiritual formation. That is, if God wants the church formed in the image of Jesus, then how we conduct the assembly becomes a question of mission.
Now, for the last 30 years or so, the assumption has been that the assembly is missional (good) and that its mission is to be achieved by being “seeker sensitive.” That is, the mission of the assembly has become evangelistic — rather than spiritually formative for the church itself.
What we hoped for when we created liturgy focused on the seeker:
- Acceptance – Unchurched Mary and Harry would find value in our gatherings and want to join us (and Jesus).
- Practicality – Unchurched Mary and Harry would discover that the Good News could help them with their problems.
- Relevance – Unchurched Mary and Harry would see that we were in constant conversation with pop culture, and not think of us as weirdo religious outliers.
- Creativity – Those old-school liturgies were b-o-r-i-n-g. Mary and Harry were used to being entertained.
- A Magnifying Mirror – Let’s be honest. Our seeker liturgies weren’t just about Mary and Harry. They were and are a reflection of us.
What we’re reaping a generation later:
- Predictability – Our seeker liturgies can be just as stagnant and lifeless as the older forms of liturgy we replaced them with.
- Rootlessness – Seeker liturgies tend to be light on actual Bible proclamation in favor of a few verses or a story. They may omit entirely most other elements of corporate worship such as congregational prayer, confession, communion, benediction. (Oddly, they still manage to receive an offering, which has never seemed especially seeker-sensitive to me.) There’s been a steady stream of those who grew up in seeker-sensitive churches moving to more traditional liturgical churches – and a river of those who’ve walked out the exit door, never to return because there was nothing other than flash and novelty holding them there.
- Cluelessness About Community – When everything we do in a church service is focused on the individual, we don’t rehearse and remember that we are part of the Body.
Now, the traditional services in my own Churches of Christ suffer from many of these same criticisms.
- Predictability — is considered a virtue. Change is bad and threatens our comfort as, if we need to do something different, that might mean we’ve been wrong. And if we’ve been wrong, well, just about any error can damn. Therefore, to change is to admit the damnation of our spiritual forebears.
- Rootlessness. Our tradition rejects lengthy readings from scripture and we certainly don’t follow anyone’s lectionary, as “lectionary” is not found in the Bible. We do always — always! — celebrate communion, but we never engage in congregational confession of sin. We might ask for forgiveness seven times in the space of an hour, but we don’t admit to sin! And a benediction assumes an active, personal presence of God rather than a merely intangible, unknowable Providence — and we feel far more comfortable with a distant, Providential God.
- Cluelessness About Community — this one varies a good bit from congregation to congregation, with some enjoying a very robust community life and others denying any reason to be together other than to take weekly communion. Even though we take communion weekly, we do so in the most vertical way possible and deny the propriety of any horizontality. No talking. No singing. No readings. Just a brief remembrance talk. We know we are supposed to gather to take communion, but we don’t know why we need to be gathered as we can pray, meditate, and stare at the floor just as well — if not better — at home.
So what do we do?
- Break the single-service mold. I would think in terms not of “the assembly” but a combination of small groups and the assembly. People behave differently in differently sized groups. And we can grow closer together and build each other up much better in small groups than in the assembly. But there’s a temptation for small groups to become little more than a party. To make certain that small groups are spiritually forming, we should include communion and a common meal — because this gets us far closer to First Century practice and “sanctifies” the gathering to something more than a party and small talk.
- Go heavy on Bible study. This is not a problem for most Churches of Christ, but is a serious problem for many non-denominational churches that wish to appear relevant to the lost. Bible study is assumed to be boring — but that’s just because the leaders grew up in churches with bad teachers. There’s nothing inherently boring about the scriptures — taught well.
- Focus on the members. 1 Cor 14 and Acts 2 make clear that the First Century assembly was about the members. They were taught to act with sensitivity toward the unbelieving guest, but the assembly was established by God for the church –– for its edification or spiritual formation. Therefore, design the services to form the members into the image of Christ — and the visitors will be impressed by the relevance and meaning of what they find.
- Liturgy. I grew up and presently worship in a non-liturgical tradition. Liturgy is very foreign to me. But when we say prayers and otherwise undertake practices that are over a thousand years old, we are tied to the church-universal and to the church-future and -past. We become connected. And this is not hard: say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. And maybe have someone explain what one line of it means each Sunday. Then start over. Just an idea … but an idea commanded by our Lord (Luke 11:2).
- Bible reading. I don’t know how this passage failed to make the list of Five Acts of Worship:
(1 Tim. 4:13 ESV) 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
Reading the text has the same benefits of liturgical prayer, except it elevates God’s words over ours.
- Testimony. God does amazing things in the lives of our members. He speaks. He heals. He comforts. And one reason he does these things is so we’ll test each other about it. And yet we look for every silly excuse in the world not to share. We confess faith in the Son of the Living God. Tell each other about what the Living God is doing in our lives!
- The liturgical calendar. Now, remember that I’m from a 100% non-liturgical tradition, and therefore do not know what I’m talking about. But for centuries, the Christian church celebrated not only Christmas and Easter but also Pentecost and any number of other days and weeks. This is not a bad thing. The Puritans objected because the Bible does not command any such thing, but neither does the Bible command a weekly sermon and invitation. But wouldn’t it be great to remember Pentecost each year and have a sermon on the outpouring of the Spirit rather than on the necessity of knowing the meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 as a condition of salvation? And knowing that, as we do this, churches across the globe are celebrating the same event — just as they have for countless centuries — would give us a deep sense of rootedness.
Now, getting all this done during the worship hour could be a challenge — which is yet another reason to include small groups in our planning. It’s all spiritual formation. It’s all edification. And it can be made to work together.