Liturgical Snobbery

We’ve been talking about the habits and practices that form us in our Newbigin Fellowship cohorts thanks, in part, to a stimulating first retreat of the year led by theologian and author James K.A. Smith.  The Fellows loved Jamie’s cultural exegesis, but the discussion became a bit more animated when the subject turned to worship and liturgy.  The Fellows wrestled with the ‘ritualism’ of liturgy, questioned the potential arrogance that comes with prescribing a formal practice, noted how it might restrict times for reflection or possibilities of uniquely experiencing God on our own terms.  In other words, they put words to what we all struggle with when engaging God – more often than not, we’re stumbling along the way in our attempt to find him.

But consider this.  Our habits, as American Christians, have been formed in the crucible of individualism, consumerism, and the therapeutic.  We’d like worship served on a buffet – “Pastor, I’ll order a clearly applicable sermon with a pinch of confession, a quick Communion, a tasty selection of songs, sprinkling in a little Jesus.”  If we commit an hour to something, we want it to have a kick.  If not, we’ll take our worship appetites elsewhere.

Yes, liturgical worship ought to irritate us precisely because it doesn’t promise instant delivery of all our needs.  Rather, it does really boring stuff – it re-uses prayers, features predictable rhythms, highlights our low moments (like Confession of Sin), invites prayer for everyone and their mothers (couldn’t we just focus on personal prayer?), and kills spontaneity.  For the over-achievers, daily prayer (aka The Daily Office) is even more irritating, particularly for someone like me…inclined to self-focus, with all the prayer buffet trimmings (the give me’s, I really need’s, I’ve been waiting too long for’s, etc.).

Yes, the liturgy is a downer.  It irritates me.  It seems way too un-concerned with my immediate gratification.

Why the liturgy?  For one, it’s chock-full of 4000 years of wisdom about how people grow and mature.  It’s also accessible.  During our Newbigin retreat, Jamie Smith argued that worship ought to be accessible to everyone, including the mentally disabled.  In other words, it’s not elitist…in fact, it’s welcoming to all.  Even more, it’s been used throughout history and is used by more Christians across the world than anything else.  You’ll find the liturgical rhythms contextualized in the unique practices of Africans, Asians, Latin American’s, or Eastern Europeans.  It is in America, perhaps more than in any other part of the world, that we insist on custom-tailored, personally gratifying worship.  We like the Buffet.

More compelling to me, though, is that thought that this might actually be a diet that would be good for me.  You see, I think I know what’s good for me.  I’d like to think that I need to manufacture my own instant fulfillment, my own way.  After all, the world I live in tells me I ought to have it my way.  But what if 4000 years of wisdom tells me otherwise?  The liturgy does strange things…it focuses on God, it requires me to look at my own crap, it tells me that I’m not going to find my hunger and thirst fulfilled elsewhere, it slows me down.  Could this be the diet that I need?

I’m convinced that I’ve been trying to find myself for 40 years.  The world I live in has tried to narrate me.  “Chuck, you need to be loved a bit more.  Chuck, you need to be respected.  Chuck, you need to be recognized.  Chuck, it’s not your fault.  Chuck, have it your way.”  The pattern of the liturgy, however, is counter-narrative.  In fact, it tells me that I’ve been narrated by the dominant worldviews of my day – individualism, consumerism, the therapeutic.  And it promises to re-narrate me.  It promises, in other words, that I’ll find myself…only as I find myself participating in the Grand Narrative of a God who calls me into a mission of redeeming and restoring a broken world for a better happy ending than any Disney movie could conceive.

Am I a liturgical snob?  I suppose so.  But it’s not because I think I’ve figured it out.  Yes, I think the liturgy has the benefit of history, wisdom, theological substance, and more.  But, I’m a liturgical snob because I need the liturgy.  My life needs to be re-narrated.

I think I’ll skip the buffet.

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10 comments

  1. I guess I don’t get most of what you write about. Isn’t worship something we do daily between the believer and his Lord. I get up, spend time with my Savior through the Word and prayer. His life fills my life, so I can meditate upon Him. I love corporate worship too, when I come together with other Christians, singing, praising and worshipping through the spoken Word and the Lord’s Table.

  2. Thanks for writing. Yes, it’s also something we do personally. My thoughts were more geared to corporate worship and how it forms us, particularly as we reflect on all of the other “narratives” that form us. My sense is that there have been particular ways of engaging God that have been practiced for hundreds of years, even for personal prayer. Engaging these practices is a way of dis-engaging from the radical individualism and consumerism that pervades our lives and hearts…

  3. I like the liturgy because:
    a) no matter how bad Fred’s sermon was, no matter how often we’ve heard Fred’s (ahem) “jokes” before, there’s always the liturgy to rely on (and I speculate that Fred would agree!)
    b) the liturgy reminds me of God’s own denomination, the Church of England

    On a marginally more serious note, one reason the liturgy is helpful I think is that, in practice “uniquely experiencing God on our own terms” frequently means seeing God through the lens of our own culture and our own self-interest. The liturgy isn’t from our own culture and isn’t about our own self interest (as defined by our culture) so it helps people to see God from a better perspective.

    Of course, given the highly individualistic nature of our culture, some people won’t see the liturgy that way because, for them, “uniquely experiencing God on our own terms” is what religion is all about so a liturgy is “boring” and “irrelevant”.

    One legitimate problem with the liturgy is that people who had bad experiences growing up in a liturgical church can, as adults, find any church with a liturgy so off-putting that they won’t attend. I don’t know if there’s a solution to this but I know it’s an issue for some people.

  4. Hmm,
    This blog doesn’t like people who use greater than and less than signs.
    The first line of my post should read:
    The following paragraph should not be taken completely seriously

  5. Chuck,
    I have just started reading your blog and I find it interesting. Thanks for putting the effort into it.
    I do have a comment on what you just wrote. You wrote: “You’ll find the liturgical rhythms contextualized in the unique practices of Africans, Asians, Latin American’s, or Eastern Europeans.” Having grown up in Latin America and having lived in Peru for the last fifteen years, I am surprised by that comment. Because I have not encounterd much of a liturgical pattern in the churches outside of the Anglican tradition, which is not well represented in Latin America. It seems that Latin American Liturgy sometimes borders on the “feeling good” rather than on the uncomfortable liturgy that you mentioned.

    Could you help me out in understanding your comment because I may be a bit off base with comment?

    Thanks again for your blog,

    Craig Querfeld

    T

  6. I just love James K.A. Smith, but I say that from reading his review of Hipster Chrsitianity. I’ve read nothing else of his but for me that’s enough to say I lurve him.

    Our church is currently in turmoil over the pastor having written his worship vision for us. It’s 9 pages long. I feel a worship vision should be maybe two sentences at the most. Anyway, the church is completely split over it and it’s scary because it’s my community. But my point being…isn’t worship anything that reminds us of our fallenness and God’s grace? Eugene Peterson puts it some rad way but I forget what it is offhand. I just tried to look it up but an’t find it.

  7. Chuck, loved your piece, and I’m in total agreement. We need the counternarrative of the liturgy in our lives. But there is the temptation of snobbery. In Chicago last weekend my wife and I and three tween grand daughters attended a “solemn high mass” at an Episcopal church. I loved the smells and bells, but I couldn’t shake the snooty quality I felt hung over it all. It all seemed over-choreograped, more a show of punctilious litirgical exactness than joyful earnest worship.
    So, when it comes to worship, the golden calves ar everywhere.
    Len

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