One of the persistent objections to liturgical worship is that it doesn’t actively involve the congregation enough in worship.
Sometimes people who are adverse to liturgy came from liturgical backgrounds where the meaning of the liturgy wasn’t adequately taught (or possibly adequately learned…). Thus these people have come to associate liturgy with the “meaningless repetitions” of the Gentiles. Indeed anything spoken without understanding can turn into an empty phrase. But that’s not the liturgy’s fault.
As an aside, sometimes liturgical prayer can help us avoid another kind of meaningless repetition; the kind one hears when some people try to pray spontaneously and end up saying “Lord” every other word (“Lord thank you Lord that you said Lord that Lord you’re a good God Lord hallelujah praise Jesus”). Or the kind you hear when people pile up religious-sounding phrases they’ve heard other people pray (“Oh, dear God, thank you, you are such a good God to us. A kind and gentle and accommodating God, and we thank You oh sweet, sweet Lord of hosts for the smörgåsbord You have so aptly laid at our table this day, and each day, by day, day by day, by day oh dear Lord three things we pray to love Thee more dearly, to see Thee more clearly, to follow Thee more nearly, day, by day, by day. Amen.” – bonus points for knowing what movie that is from). There are all kinds of ways to “keep babbling like the pagans do” (Matt 6:7).
When done properly (with understanding, consistently, appreciatively), liturgical worship actually provides more opportunities for active participation than does a service dominated by a sermon. Many people are leaving the church in droves because they long for participation but find that unless they can perform music or speak publicly, there’s not much for them to do. “One of the most frequently heard complaints in Protestant churches is that leaders do all the ‘real’ work while the people are reduced to passive observers… modern liturgical worship actually allows for far more congregational expressions and in many more ways.” The congregation actively involved in responsive readings, in prayers and physical gestures, in eating and drinking and blessing and touching.
Another resistance to liturgical worship is that the prayers and words of the liturgy don’t reflect my feelings about God. “I’m looking for something that reflects how I see God.” A theologian named Philip Phatteicher sets us straight here, though:
The purpose of the liturgy is not to express our thoughts and feelings but to develop them, and like any good school the liturgy expands our horizon, liberating us from captivity to the moment and to the familiar. . . Because the liturgy does not always express what we think or feel it has the potential to transform those who share in it.
Joyce Ann Zimmerman can chime in here, too:
When we celebrate the liturgy and experience emptiness or boredom, we might see this as a critique of our life. Pastorally, we generally assume there is a problem with the ritual itself or the way we celebrate liturgy (and often there is). But there is another possible explanation: If the thrust of our Christian living is not response to the Paschal Mystery, then no matter what we do the ritual, its depth meaning will still escape us. We worship neither to be entertained nor to feel good but to be transformed into the Body of Christ.
The point is that we have some responsibility when we come to worship. We cannot always blame the ritual when we are not transformed, like a schoolchild who keeps blaming his teachers for his failing grades. So how can we foster active participation in worship, the kind of participation that leads to real transformation? Chan gives some pretty good advice.
The first part is to begin with some understanding of the what and why of liturgy. Chan says that “without meaningful participation, a liturgical practice is quickly turned into mere ritualism.” Understanding produces active participation.
The second part is to examine how the liturgy is to be done. More on that in a few days…
thnaks for those insights. and–
Benjamin Sternke says
Thanks for playing, but no, Godspell is not the movie the “babbling” prayer is from.
Ryan Imel says
Interesting stuff. I’ve been keeping up with your blog, and enjoying it.
Meet the Parents 😉
Benjamin Sternke says
Glad you’re enjoying it, Ryan. And you are correct, sir! One of the funniest moments in the movie.
Ben, I’ve appreciated reading the things you’ve written on liturgy. It is difficult for me, but I can see good points and value in the point of views Chan and others have expressed (at least the ones you’ve shared).
I can truly say my church experience as a child and youth was filled with what I’ll call useless repitition. I say that with sadness, sincerely, because the folks saying the “Our Father” 50 times in 20 minutes (not an exaggeration) really thought that was accomplishing something. (Now, this is the point where my wife jumps in and tells me to appreciate liturgy more. And, she’s right, but not that kind of liturgy).
Since I was re-born, I found meaning and life in the liturgy of my childhood like never before – and even in other “high church” settings also. As the Proverb says, “to him who is hungry, even what is bitter tastes sweet.” As you say, we can’t always blame the liturgy. When mixed with faith, certain group prayers can be deep and meaningful.
Of course, I think you’d agree there’s a reason why the Psalmist said, “Sing a new song to the Lord…” We all tend to get into a rut with familiar things, and I believe strongly in spontaneity for that reason, and praying from my heart what is fresh and new. Now, lest you think that’s all I’m about, I pray to the Father in the words of the “Lord’s Prayer” (which I call the “Son’s Prayer”) probably every day – and often more than once a day. How about that?
Sidenote opinion: your comment about people not feeling involved in the gatherings – to me this emphasizes more the importance of one-on-one and small-group interaction than it does having the large group involved in liturgy. Again, I know you’ll agree – this is the place where the connections are really made. (Like our parenting group awhile back, which Miriam and I so appreciated).
I always appreciate your thoughtfulness and openness.
ah- i thought you meant the song lyrics. i haven’t seen the movie.
I can’t thank you enough for this series. I must get this book.
Benjamin Sternke says
Glad you enjoyed it, X!