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Raise up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it, teaches Proverbs. For me, this has been the case regarding worship. I was raised a Lutheran, in an older, established congregation belonging to what would become the ELCA, First Lutheran in Minot, ND. I imbibed the ambience of the Lutheran liturgy as most Sundays we used Setting One from the Lutheran Book of Worship, the organist, cantor, and choir leading us in powerful, traditional settings of the Kyrie and Gloria, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. And the glorious hymnody . . . I still get the chills I felt in childhood when I hear “Lift High the Cross.” The high point was Holy Communion: Congregants would process up, take a small silver chalice from the table, and kneel at the octagonal rail encircling the altar, and receive the elements kneeling. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but my experience of good liturgy shaped me, even as a child, both doctrinally in the ordinary, propers, and hymns, as well as experientially, as I encountered the mystery of God in the ambience of our beautiful worship.
But a funny thing happened on my way through the liturgical forum. I got saved as a teen, after a few years of concerning myself chiefly with hockey and heavy metal and dropping out of confirmation in junior high. In brief, I had a profound healing experience relieving me from a severe depression. From that point on, I began taking my faith very seriously, which was good. While remaining active in my Lutheran congregation, I also began to hang out in Baptist and Pentecostal youth groups, wherein traditional liturgy was often disparaged as “dead ritual” or something similar. Given my mad skills on guitar and bass, honed by hours in my basement memorizing every song Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Ozzy Osbourne ever recorded, I took an interest in what’s called “contemporary worship” right about the time (the early 1990s) many congregations affiliated with mainline denominations of longstanding liturgical tradition were experimenting with worship bands. Obviously we weren’t playing Metallica’s “Creeping Death” when the Old Testament reading concerned the exodus, but we were playing music in my Lutheran church as well as my evangelical churches that was peppy and pleasing, modeled of course after the typical 3:05 pop song.
In recent years, however, while continuing to play in worship bands, I began to become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of “contemporary worship.” As Rich Mullins, to this day one of my heroes, once said, contemporary Christian music is great entertainment, but it doesn’t belong in worship. (Ironic, indeed, coming from the guy who gave us “Awesome God” and “Sometimes by Step.”) I realized I was standing up front, on a stage, cranking hard on a guitar, or a bass, or a trap set, while leading a coffee-clutching congregation in singing lyrics that (as one internet graphic has it) involve “bad metaphors about God that seem oddly sexual.” I came to a point a few years ago where I realized our Sunday morning worship has hardly that at all; it looked and felt much more like a Top-40 pop-rock concert geared toward making an audience feel good than something designed to bring us to an encounter with the Almighty God revealed at Sinai and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
Why did many congregations take this turn? I suspect it involved a shift in the philosophy of religion (itself a subset of other cultural and intellectual currents) that came about in the 1960s and 1970s. Painting with a broad brush, before that time, religion concerned doctrine. After that shift, religion concerned experience. It’s easiest to see, I think, in evangelicalism, but the pattern holds for mainline Protestant and Catholic churches too. In any event, Christian worship became all too captive to culture and undergirded by a reflexive pragmatism.
Form and content are not finally separable, for the medium is indeed the message, or more cautiously, the form affects the content greatly. If our modern forms are emotive and superficial, we will wind up with a vision and experience of God that is emotive and superficial. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi—how we worship shapes how we believe and thus how we live.
We need not make up worship, for liturgy is something given, something revealed, something objective, not something we concoct out of our own desires or feelings. In broad strokes, Christian liturgy comes from the Old Testament and Jewish culture fulfilled and interpreted by Jesus and the apostles. The liturgy of the Word comes from the liturgy of the synagogue, which involved prayers, Scripture, and preaching. The liturgy of the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, if you prefer) comes from Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper as the fulfillment of temple sacrifice. Of course there are many different rites across the times and spaces Christian history comprises, but they (should) stand in continuity with liturgical tradition going back to Eden, the first temple, and be theologically informed.
Indeed, perhaps the root of recent liturgical malaise is theological. To say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as many do, is to say that God is in the eye of the beholder, since traditional Christian theology has identified God and Beauty. As St. Augustine exclaimed, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!” And so beauty in liturgy will lead us to divine beauty. Beauty is the attractive element of truth, which when revealed delights us, pleasing intellect and soul, and thus in beautiful liturgy we are presented with the truth about God.
This, then, is the way forward, I think, for real evangelism and discipleship. Instead of providing people with an experience with which they’re already familiar from the culture, we ought to aim for liturgy that makes saints, a liturgy not captive to the culture affirming us but liturgy that reaches back ultimately to Eden through the traditions of the Churches, transcending and thus transforming us, giving us a glimpse of heaven, indeed of Beauty himself, ever ancient, ever new.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
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