Liturgy doesn’t have to be dumbed down

Worship is a funny subject.  Some people have strong opinions on what worship is, is not, should be, or should not be.  Other people don’t care, considering worship to be sort of a nice but non-essential add-on to the Christian faith.  Others still (and perhaps the majority) have never given worship much critical thought before.  They’re used to a certain way of doing things, they generally know what they like and what they don’t like, and as long as the Church doesn’t throw them too many curve-balls they’ll never give it a second thought.

One such curve-ball, however, is when said Christian visits a church that’s part of the ancient liturgical tradition.  Then the reactions boil down to two general groups.  First are those who’re inspired, in awe, overwhelmed but deeply touched by the experience.  They see something more to worship than what they were used to.  Whether they pursue it or not from there is another story for another day.  The second group of responses to high liturgy is one of amusement, disdain, suspicion, and questioning.  “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

That, Miss Lavigne, is the question that I’m aiming at today.  First of all, I’d like to give credit to a website I peruse from time to time called New Liturgical Movement which re-posted an article by a Dominican Brother back in January.  It inspired much of what I’ve written here.

One of the basic facts about worship that we too easily miss in our self-driven (or work-driven or materialist-driven) culture is that worship is a lot bigger than what my local church and I do on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening or whenever.  Lots of local churches are gathering for worship all over the world.  Lots of local churches have gathered for worship on many days throughout history.  Jesus participated in worship in various ways during his earthly life, and even altered the Jewish Passover liturgy to kickstart New Covenant worship.  Several times in the Bible we read visions of the worship going on in heaven, especially thanks to Isaiah, Ezekiel, and St. John.  And not only do humans and angels worship God, but so does creation itself, in a sense.  Psalms such as Psalm 148 explicitly invite everyone and everything to praise and worship their Creator.

Some people say that they connect with God better alone, walking through the woods or otherwise enjoying nature, compared to the programmatic goings-on of Sunday morning.  Certainly there’s something to that on the personal level: creation does praise God in its own way and, if you have the spiritual eyes to see it, it can draw you in to a state of worship as well along with it.  But here’s an interesting thought: how complex is nature?  Extremely!  The beauty of God’s creation is enormously complex; the more we study and observe it, the more amazing and complicated it gets, and yet its beauty never fades.  It’s a fitting reflection of its Creator, who is so simple on the outside (for example, a poor Jewish carpenter from Nazareth) and yet extraordinarily complex as we get to know him.

For many, myself included, a scene like this communicates God’s peace in a way that very little else can.

Going back to the Church’s worship, as we realize that we are part of a bigger gathering – the Communion of Saints spanning the entire world and all of history – and that the natural and supernatural worlds are caught up with the Church in this constant offering of praise to its Creator, we find that this thing that we call worship is actually pretty huge, pretty complicated, and pretty beautiful.  With that in mind, the question shouldn’t be why liturgy should be so complicated, but why liturgy should be so simple!  If we, in our local churches, are really participating in something so grand and beautiful that it includes the worship of angels, the sun and moon and stars, the earth and everything in it, then shouldn’t our local church manifestation of that also reflect the complexity and beauty of our complex and beautiful God?  Just as someone could spend hours enjoying the hand of God in a mountainous vista, a thick forest, a sandy beach, or a shifting sand dune, shouldn’t one also be able to spend hours taking in the beauty of the worship liturgy of the Church?

Just like a beautiful view outside, it’s hard to decide where to start taking this in.

Sometimes I wonder if those who seek God’s face in nature are, in part, searching for a depth and complexity that their local church’s liturgy is missing.  Western culture, especially American culture, very highly values utilitarianism.  If it’s useful, it’s good; if it’s not useful, it’s unnecessary.  Utilitarianism is a arch-enemy of aesthetics and beauty.  And yet, we have not entirely lost our sense of beauty.  I bet almost every fellow American who has been on a state university campus has noticed just how ugly some of the buildings are.  You know, those concrete monstrosities built in the 1960’s and 70’s… back when utilitarianism was a prevailing force in the world of art and architecture.  We grimace at the products of that age!  We may not ask for much, but we have some sense that at least a classic brick school building looks a lot nicer than a gray concrete slab that turns kinda brownish when it rains.

Much the same thing has happened to Christian worship in America.  And, unsurprisingly, at much the same time, too: many evangelical churches abandoned the remnants of their liturgical roots in the mid-20th century in favor of visitor-friendly worship services that are nice and simple and cut right to the chase: “prayer & praise plus preaching.”  Forget the public reading of Scripture, that can be rolled into the sermon.  Forget the responsive or unison readings, modern songs are much more fun.  Ditch the “Sunday best” look; it’s “more natural” to dress like we always do.  Put away those books with scripted prayers, people want creativity and freshness.

Imagine if we did that to nature: chop down the forest and plant ten trees next to each other to be a more accessible & clean forest, install a duck pond with a neat row of stones around it and a bench five feet from its banks…  and while we’re at it, let’s paint a pretty landscape on the back of the groundskeeper’s hut since too many city buildings are blocking the view of the mountains that are only ten miles away.  Sure, you end up with a nice little park, but give it a year and it’ll be full of cigarette butts and graffiti because nobody’s really impressed by that kind of thing.  People who are into nature are drawn by the beauty of the real thing, not a simplified bite-sized version.  Given the chance, why would they settle for anything less?

It’s much the same with worship within the Church.  If we don’t seek to beautify, to invest in, and to deepen our worship practices, we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if people start getting bored and uninterested.  If there’s nothing to engage in beside singing along with the semi-professional band up front and listening to the pastor preach and pray, we shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if people feel and become disengaged from corporate worship.

So for all you worship leaders, pastors, liturgical planners, or other such decision-makers, movers, and shakers out there who happen to read this, this is my simple plea: liturgy doesn’t have to be dumbed down!  Let it be beautiful, let it be deep.  Sure, there is such thing as going overboard.  But in our culture of oversimplicity and utilitarianism, I don’t think we’re anywhere near the danger of the opposite right now.  Don’t be shy; be bold, and go for it!

O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve [and worship] you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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2 Responses to Liturgy doesn’t have to be dumbed down

  1. I love this. What a great way to sum up exactly how I feel. I have had so many conversations on this exact topic. Also, way to go on linking Avril Lavigne to worship. Really.

  2. Bill Harper says:

    Right on target Father Brench! If you want two superb books on the subject, try: “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” & “A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God”, both by Marva Dawn. She’s trained both theologically and musically. A Lutheran, but she’s speaks as well for Anglicans. Bill Harper, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, MA. , where we practice what Father Brench and Marva Dawn preach.

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