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…