Thursday, January 20, 2011

Worshiping God, or Ourselves? Or, Why We Need a Liturgy

I am in charge of the worship in a church whose worship "style" is decisively "contemporary."  Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven "praise band" (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics).  At the front of the sanctuary we have two large screens on which we digitally project lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the songs we sing have been published within the past decade.

Yet, our services incorporate aspects of fairly traditional/historical or even liturgical worship, although the congregation would not recognize them as such.  While they may not flow in precisely the same order each week, we have identified some "essential elements" of worship which appear in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace, congregational singing (the so-called "worship set"), a time of prayer ("open altar") and communion led by the pastor, an offering, the sermon (including scripture reading), some type of response, the benediction and dismissal.

This formula works well in our context.  We are able to "mix up" the order from time to time, purportedly to keep things from feeling "stale" or overly formalistic (a big "no-no," of course), but when we gather, the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 are always present: the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

I love my church.  I feel very fulfilled nearly all of the time with the ministry to which God as called me for this time and place.  I enjoy leading my congregation and working with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that have been entrusted to my leadership. And yet, often I am left with a nagging feeling that something's not quite right.

It's not that the service wasn't good enough - we usually hit pretty close to the mark we set for ourselves.  If anything, it's perhaps the opposite: some sense that by putting on such a great show, by performing so well, perhaps we imply that maybe, when we're really on, we "got it right." Like we may well have worshiped our great God with all the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). know...God's pretty awesome and all that, and, well, we're pretty awesome at worshiping Him.  Like maybe what we're doing is worshiping ourselves - our skill, ingenuity, creativity - more than our Creator...

It can be a bit overwhelming to essentially create the liturgy every week - to be responsible to choose basically every word that my congregation will corporately say or sing in the service.  Then of course many churches don't create or write their liturgy each week - they have a liturgy, or more often many liturgies collected in books.  While there are variables - songs and readings to select, lectors (readers) to coordinate, communion elements and assistants to prepare - these churches know that they are not responsible to create their worship purely on their own.  Their liturgy has been handed down through generations; it is a gift, not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are "stewards."

Perhaps by the very use of a liturgical text, the Church acknowledges her inability or even incompetence to worship God rightly on her own.  In his monumental book Symbol and Sacrament, the French theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes:
From the narrative viewpoint, if the carrying out of such a program of thanksgiving happened by itself, there simply would be no [liturgical] text. The fact that there is a text signifies that at the outset we are not competent to carry out such an action. In sum, it is not natural for us to render thanks to God in a Christian manner. To carry out the Eucharist requires that the Church first gain this competence. It is precisely the text that allows the ecclesial subject to gain this competence. This text thus makes the assembly follow an itinerary which, by means of certain “transformations,” has for its goal the assembly’s conversion: it is not God but we ourselves who are changed by the Eucharistic prayer. (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 269; italics are mine)
It might take reading that quote a few times before its truth begins to detonate.  It leaves me wondering: is it possible that the reason we think we don't need a liturgy is that we have so much confidence in ourselves that we, in fact, think we "sanctified folk" are perfectly capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?


Michael said...

I think you are on to something here. I believe in addition to your thought, there is also the notion that prayer, et al, done extempore is some how more Spirit-filled, more authentic, or more accurately reflects personal expression. (This might even be behind some who only want to sing more modern songs as worship--"sing a new song"-- over older hymns) There seems to be an assumed (or presumed) belief that God cannot move via the Spirit through the stricture of a more defined liturgy.

I think by pointing worship to God's Story, and synching with that story, or rehearsing it, we see that what we are doing is so much larger than us, it's much more cosmic (without trying to sound New Age)--spanning time and space. In this mode, we need some vessel to carry our worship to reflect this huge, yet local, ancient, yet future, sweeping yet punctiliar, familiar, yet free, that we can experience in worship. We need a vessel to carry us as the localized body of Christ into this beautiful reality as heaven and earth are joined that happens as we worship: "holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty. Heaven and earth are full of his glory." For me a more defined liturgy steers us that way.

Eric + said...

I think the previous discussion about the "come-out-ism" that was formative in our early years is the root of this. I think you (Brannon) made the comment that while many of our early leaders were Methodist, part of their coming out had to do with the whole "no one is going to tell me what to do" mentality. Not only does a defined liturgy help accomplish all that Michael has described, it also forces us to submit. To the liturgy. To the church. To Almighty God. It is NOT about me, after all, it is about giving myself to God as a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. I am reminded of the great words of the litugy, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you..." Formal liturgy starts with our unworthiness; for that I am grateful.

So, Brannon, you all do weekly communion as well?

Brannon Hancock said...

Eric: yes, we do communion every week. Perhaps I should post about how we do this, and open it up to others to discuss how it is done in their contexts...

Thanks for the comments, guys. What Eric said about "submission" is huge, I think. While I've been reading Timothy Smith's early history of the COTN and doing this discussion group for my History & Polity credit, I'm often left wondering if we are, in some way that is almost built into our DNA, a movement that has no need for a church (or The Church). Even when it didn't go as far as the "come-outism" of some of the early leaders, there was still that "suspicion toward ecclesiastical machinery" - like, "if the church is slowing me down, getting in my way, getting on my nerves, inconveniencing me...well...maybe it's time to go...surely the church is the problem, not me."

I'm not saying it was a decision made lightly or without sadness or agony...and I'm not saying the church (Methodist) didn't have some rotten leaders who were quite obviously acting with dubious motives and personal agendas (bishop Vincent, who interfered w/ Brisee's work so much, comes to mind)...but still. At the core, they believed they could - not just could, but perhaps *must* - dispense with the church to do what they felt God was calling them to do.

So when we find ourselves feeling like our pews are lined with people who just come to church when it's convenient for this perhaps a consequence of an inner logic that is simply part of who we always have been? My history & polity teacher wants to attribute that more to our "secular" "American" culture than to the church...but that's ignoring the influence that American Protestant Christianity has had on our culture over the past few centuries (but that's another lengthy excursus).

Eric + said...


Who is teaching the class? Where are you taking it?

Brannon Hancock said...

I'm taking it through my district's ministerial development center. It's being taught by a pastor on our district.

Eric + said...

Thanks... I wasn't sure if your district was participating in the partnership with MVNU or not. It sounds like not.

SusanU said...

This is another reason why a service with the main point of the service being the sermon was never enough for me. No sermon could really be everything I needed it to be. But a service with the highlight being the Eucharist does that. I have yet to find a service that ends with the Eurcharist to leave me unsatisfied or left feelign I've wasted my time like it always did with services with songs or sermons as the highlight.

Brannon Hancock said...

Susan: I completely relate to your sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Doesn’t formal liturgical paucity itself constitute official Nazarene liturgy? Haha.

But seriously, as a Nazarene who just by happenstance managed to stumble upon this blog, I’ve been wondering: As the local Nazarene congregation is able to create (or rearrange) its own liturgical service as it seems fit, is not this itself constitutive of a larger operative Nazarene liturgy. If the Nazarene service looks like an Episcopal service or a Pentecostal service seems inconsequential from such a standpoint, for the meta-Nazarene liturgy of “local church liturgical freedom/choosing” encompasses both extremes. The senior pastor (albeit with the backing of the board and congregation) can largely, at his/her own discretion, create and/or rearrange anything he or she wishes in the worship service. This might be the quintessence of Nazarene liturgy, and, for me, it represents the real poverty of the whole thing. It appears to spawn out of modern liberal notions of the ‘secular’ where ‘choice’ and ‘choosing’ are the predominate undergirding values, and this is regardless of how ‘high’ or ‘low’ the liturgy actually is.

Mark Cummings said...

I can't add much to what's already been said other than, being Nazcopalian, I often finding myself answering questions from Nazarenes as to why I cross myself or how I can worship in a liturgical setting using read prayers, long scripture readings, etc. I don't mind the questions as it gives me the opportunity to explain how meaningful those times of worship are to me and help them better understand how things are on the other side (or perhaps in their minds, the dark side) and give them an appreciation for their liturgical brothers and sisters in Christ.

I attended a community service last week at my in-laws Nazarene church in Michigan. It included several local denoms including the local Catholic church. They used some liturgical prayers and collects, but I went in knowing that communion would not be served since those who were Catholic would not be able to join us. Throughout the prayers they gave pretty good instruction to the congregation and everyone seemed to participate with no problem, but when the worship leader gave instruction to pass the peace I was the only one in my section to stand for a few seconds. I turned around to a few members of the Nazarene church and said "the peace of the Lord" and held out my hand and they sat there and laughed for a few seconds.... they thought I was joking around. The biggest disappointment to me was that we did not stand together at any point and say the Apostle's creed together. I don't know if this would have been objectionable to those who were Catholic and this was their reasoning, but I found it very sad personally.

Eric + said...


I think you have hit the nail on the head. Just about everyone on this blog is "Liturgical." Most of us, I think, even prefer high church liturgy. As we have discussed, one of the strengths of the liturgical tradition is the unity the liturgy brings to the body (across both time and space). One of the great ironies of this whole enterprise is that we all advocate this liturgical understanding of worship, yet week in and week out we all have to create "our own" liturgies.

Maybe it would be a worth while exercise to see if we could all work together to find a common liturgy we could all embrace. Maybe starting with Middendorf's service for Word and Table and going from there...

SusanU said...

"Maybe starting with Middendorf's service for Word and Table and going from there... "

Is this in the book Church rituals handbook? I got it in CD form but lost it this summer so I can't check it in the contents page.

Eric + said...

Yes. Rite 2 "A Service for Word and Table"

Anonymous said...

Eric +,

Thanks for responding. Though I would love to see something like what you described happen, I’m not sure if it would really-really solve the underlining problem. Let’s say, for instance, that four or five of us started celebrating the Catholic liturgy during our respective morning worship services. I would still argue that we wouldn’t be celebrating the Mass, and this is because we would still be celebrating it within a larger meta-liturgy of “local church liturgical freedom/choosing” which the Mass would not allow. In other words, we would, more foundationally, still be celebrating the meta-liturgy of “local church liturgical freedom/choosing”.

This contrasts sharply with some other traditions, most notably the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Alexander Schmemann argues for more of a meta-liturgical (meta-narrative) status of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy in his book listed over on the right panel of this blog, and Catherine Pickstock does something similar but in reference to the Tridentine Mass in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Both writers largely argue that the respective liturgies “make sense” and “order” all other liturgies, and as such, they envelope said liturgies within themselves. They are, in other words, master-narratives/liturgies (i.e., metanarratives). This is done “for the life of the world” (Schmemann) and to grant the world meaning (Pickstock).

In the Nazarene Church, even if we celebrate such a liturgy, it is only because we are operating within the more foundational liturgical framework described above. This is the master-narrative/liturgy which encompasses all other liturgies (even the Orthodox Liturgy and Catholic Mass), and it is one I’m becoming increasingly and increasingly uncomfortable with. From Brannon’s post, it seems he might be a tad uncomfortable with it to. That the Manual provides no denominational liturgy concerning our worship service says a great deal, however paradoxical, about our denominational liturgy. It’s kind-of scary . . . but after perusing around this blog, it seems I might be in good company (haha).


Todd Stepp said...

I don't know, but I'm going to express an appreciation for our not having a set liturgy.

Many of you know me, and you know my strong Wesleyan/Anglican commitments. However, even in the Anglican Communion (or related Anglican churches), there are changes to the BCP that have taken place. The American '79 BCP is not the '28 BCP, even with the older rites. Neither of those are the 1662 BCP of the Church of England. Wesley's Sunday Service is much closer to the CoE, but still made some theological shifts (shifts that I am largely fine with).

The issue is that I'm (yes me, the big "I") not happy with all of the changes. I have (theological) issues with certain parts of the '79 BCP & certain parts of the UM Book of Worship.

Again, I argue that we would likely not be happy with a "Nazarene liturgy." For example, how many of us would want the Infant Baptismal rite (as un-Wesleyan as it is) to be required? Or worse, an infant dedication rite?

I appreciate the liturgical freedom in the CotN. I just wish there were more "liturgical" materials to work with, and that the denomination was more open to liturgical/sacramental worship.

Middendorf's Rite two is pretty good. However, there is no confession of sin (except in the Lord's Prayer). I'm sure most of us will recognize the theological and political issues involved in such an omission in a Nazarene liturgy. And it could be argued that the invitation to the table, given at the location in the service, is over simplified, not requiring a prayer of confession, either.

Those may be very minor things, and it has been a while since I looked more thoroughly at Middendorf's book.

I would say that I think it is interesting, given our heritage, that the notes at the end of Middendorf's book only cites one prayer from the UM Book of Worship and does not even mention the BCP or The Sunday Service.

Having said all of that, I am very appreciative of the work and thankful for NPH putting it out, along with Tracy's Intro to the book.

However, I admit that, within the broad structure of the liturgy of the church catholic (and as I have expressed in my dissertation and my WTJ article, I believe there is a rather clear structure within the historic church, even with the various Roman, Eastern and Anglican, etc. rites), I do appreciate freedom. I appreciate being able to adapt the different versions of the BCP & the UM Book of Worship, etc.

I suppose, if I were putting together a liturgy, I would want it to include, at least as one rite among others, Wesley's S.S. in contemporary language.


SusanU said...

"I have (theological) issues with certain parts of the '79 BCP & certain parts of the UM Book of Worship."

Todd, could you give some examples? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Todd Stepp,

I would agree with you that a great many of us would probably be disappointed if the CotN finally did propose some kind of mandatory liturgy. The examples you used (infant baptism, etc.) made me cringe at the very thought, for the CotN is not known for its amenability to high church liturgy.

However, I would push on two statements that you made, though I don’t think I’m necessarily disagreeing with anything you’ve said. First, though NPH hasn't published many liturgical resources, I think the CotN has an infinite number of liturgical materials out there because it permits the use of anything. You can literally use any liturgical resource/material out there; nothing is prohibited. That said, I confess that NPH hasn’t put a lot out on the market. Second, I would make a distinction between the CotN in regards to its theology and praxis, especially as it pertains to being “open to liturgical/sacramental worship”. Theologically (or idealistically) there is nothing that prohibits “liturgical/sacramental worship” (that I’m currently aware of anyway), but I would readily confess that there remain very distinct pragmatic issues that inhibit such worship, particularly the fact that congregations have been enculturated into a very different worship liturgy.

But it’s this aspect of “picking and choosing” (that Brannon alluded to in the original post) that really bothers me. I think it may be because it depends on the presupposition that we stand completely outside of a liturgy/narrative, objectively looking at all the other liturgies on a smorgasbord while picking and choosing what we like to form our own hodge-podge liturgy/narrative (kind of like how a non-denominational church often pulls from rather disparate theological traditions to form its own hodge-podge tradition). I can’t help but view this largely as synonymous with modern liberal notions of the ‘secular’ or ‘public’. This is to say, I think this presupposition is really just a more foundational narrative/liturgy (meta-liturgy/narrative) that we’re worshiping/participating in. If I’m right, this would be true for both charismatic Nazarenes and sacramental ones (like myself). I’m digressing, though.

Conclusion: I find having no denominational liturgy very troubling (because it means that we do, in fact, have a liturgy), but I would also probably be completely disappointed with a proposed denominational liturgy. I guess that means I’m screwed. Thanks for pointing that out, Todd :)

Eric + said...

Join the club.

A friend of mine us to say that while he didn't agree with every aspect of the UM Book of Worship, because he was UM it was his duty to follow it.

Since this is purely hypothetical -- as it will never in a million years happen -- I think I would prefer any liturgy to be made official than none. Once there is an official liturgy, the issue becomes tweaking it as we do with Manual issues. The hard part is getting one.

Heck, even if the only mandated liturgy was "Gathering, Word, Communion, Sending" it is a starting point and gives us the larger meta-liturgy from which to work (similar to what the UMC does -- although I still can't comprehend why the UMC doesn't mandate weekly communion -- OK, so I can comprehend)

Todd Stepp said...

I will give one example of an issue I have with the '79 BCP & the UMBoW:

The prayer of confession in the '79 BCP, (Holy Eucharist II) uses language as follows:

". . . we confess that we have sinned agaiinst you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves . . ." (It is the same in Rite I, only with "thees" and "thous.")

The UMBoW, in Service of W&T I uses this language:

". . . we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the need . . ."

Compare this to the Wesley's S.S. & the 1662 BCP:

". . . We acknowledge and bewal our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grivously have committed, By thought, word , and deed against thy Divine Majesty . . ."
(Sevice of W&T IV, in the UMBoW does retain this language.)

Now, my problem is not contemporary language. I wish someone would contemporize the language of the 1662 prayer. (Then new ACNA has worked on that.)

I also understand the corporate nature of the prayer.

Nevertheless, there is a theological shift from the sins that we commit "from time to time," to the blanket statement which implies (at least in the minds of most worshippers) that our (active) sinning is a constant reality and forgone conclusion.

It seems to me that the newer versions reinforce a "sinning religon" (to quoe Uncle Buddy) and thus deny even the possibility of living above "willful" sin in this life.

I see no conflict in Wesley's theology of sin (both properly so called and "inproperly so called;" personal and corporate) and the prayer of confession in the 1662 BCP & the S.S. - That prayer could be prayed in a "holiness church" without any conflict (in my estimation. That is not to say that others might not have a problem with it.)

On the other hand, I would have some difficulty praying the "new" prayers in a "holiness church."

I also think that, unless only understands it to be historical (i.e., we have at one time sinned), then there is a theological conflict with the Collect of Purity, which summerizes the "holiness message." Is there no expectation that God might possibly answer that prayer?

Thus, those of us wanting to use the official liturgies of Anglicans or UMs but wanting the content of the older prayer must use Elizabethean English. - This is one reason I like the freedom to choose to update the language of the older prayer, because the denominations haven't done that without making theological shifts.

SusanU said...


Thanks for your examples. I am so used to ignoring that part of the service [prayer of confession] that I had forgotten to even think that that might be what you are refering to.

I guess with the Collect of Purity, I hadn't noticed any problem with it before.