Liturgic or Lethargic?

by vernsanders on June 2, 2009

A recent comment by Cort Bender to last week’s “Stop Calling it Worship” blog post got me to thinking…

I grew up in the Lutheran (actually Augustana Synod…which is now part of ELCA) church, with the attendant liturgical worship service. Over the years, for a variety of reasons which aren’t important at the moment, I have migrated to my current service in the Presbyterian church (essentially since 1984, with a short “stop out” in a small Methodist church earlier in this decade).

(An aside: when I say Presbyterian, I mean that apparently different sub-set of the PCUSA denomination that seems to exist in California…not the “southern” Presbyterian tradition which is often more generally associated with the term.)

The Presbyterians are certainly more “free,” liturgically speaking, than my childhood Lutheran experiences. And yet… the Presbyterians (and the Methodists…and most certainly the Canadian Anglicans for/with whom I’ve served) are very much liturgical when it comes to worship. The service might not be exactly the same from week to week, but the differences (from week to week) are not so significant that you would experience worship whiplash if you were to attend over a given time period.

It has also been my experience, when attending worship as a visitor, and most especially at conferences, that there is a liturgical prerequisite. Whether or not I’ve been associated with the planning process, it is quite clear that there is a plan, and that the plan is the result of a felt need to include certain elements of worship…whether that be the Lord’s Supper, or hands waving in the air.

There are logical reasons for this, not the least of which is that whomever is doing the planning has certain pre-conceived notions about what is “appropriate” for worship. This is where, I believe, our “liturgical” bretheren have an advantage…the combination of a prescribed worship order and the use of the lectionary make worship planning, at the basic level, so much “easier.” And yes, that is in quotes because nothing is “easy” when it comes to worship, and worship planning.

But let’s be honest here…how many of you reading this who serve in “free”‘ liturgical churches start with a worship “template” into which you enter “this week’s data”? The task of designing worship from a completely blank page every week is not only time-consuming, it can, when carried to the extreme, produce a visceral sense among congregants that there is nothing to hang on to from week to week. At some point even the most committed worship leaders fall back on something that has been done before…even if only because we remember what worked and we want to re-create that experience.

So let’s stop dividing ourselves by the term liturgical, shall we?

More to the point, don’t we divide ourselves by the term lethargical? If we simply “fill in the blanks”…whether in a worship order set down by a denominational hymnal or a template that was divined by the pastor and worshp leader…are we not, at some level, just going through the motions?

Isn’t this where the disconnect really is? Celebration or Lament or whatever, if we are not intentional, and intentionally passionate about this week’s gathering, and pointing to God, not just showing up, then what is the point? If we “fill in the blanks” is it any wonder that we get back a blank faced response?

Last Sunday was this year’s annual celebration of Pentecost. Think about this for a moment. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate an event that went almost un-noticed at the time…there was no thought that there would be a “church.” When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate an event that seemed only important after the fact…when the disciples figured out what actually happened…there were believers, certainly, but still no “church.” But at Pentecost there was CHURCH…certainly like never before, and perhaps like never again on this planet.

I think lethargy is a much bigger issue than liturgy. What do you think? Please make a comment. I’d like to know what you think…

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Shelley Reel June 3, 2009 at 4:26 am

Vern—there’s liturgy and there’s liturgy. Having served in 5 denominations, there’s quite an array out there, as you know. When I served an ELCA congregation, it was quite a learning curve for this born and bred Southern Presbyterian girl! But it was good in its own way and sometimes, I miss the comfort of it. But you talk about liturgy in the Presbyterian church…that can vary so far. I know of Presbyterian congregations that we call the Presby-baptists. The church I serve, while using the same “form” each week, is far from “formal” which is what I think of when you use the term “liturgy.” But of all, I certainly agree that lethargy is abounding in many mainline denominations. They are afraid to try something new. The famous “seven last words of the church” rule–”we’ve never done it that waybefore.” Yes, I plan according to the “template” but I also do not hesitate to step out of the box. I am a rabid believer in doing the unexpected. And it truly makes a difference in the congregation’s worship experience. I’ve moved parts of worship, I’ve added art, drama, dance, all in places never heard of in this congregation. I’ve turned lights on and off to make a point. Readings done from the congregation or choir loft rather than just from the pulpit. While I may not be worshiping as they are–it’s my job to prepare it for them and I will do my best to make it fresh and exciting to engage them in focusing on the subject of the day and why we are worshiping in the first place.

vernsanders June 3, 2009 at 9:49 am

I like your ideas about how to vary “within the system.” One of the things that I’ve been doing at my current church is to move the choir around the building. They never sing from the same place two weeks in a row. It started out as a response to the fact that the choir is too big to share the platform with the band stuff, including instruments, and pulpit. It turns out that it has been a source of delight and expectation when the anthem time comes around now…and when the choir sings, seated, from within and scattered among the congregation, it never fails to move the people…the most common response I get on those Sundays is how moving it was…that the choir seems(ed) to speak to God what the congregation was feeling.

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