Category Archives: Worship

Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

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Recovering Our Mother Tongue

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.
Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

-St. Augustine

Languages are best learned through immersion.  One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside.  Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed.  Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)

Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2)  By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ.  Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)

St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):

“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible.  This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass.  Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.

“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)

We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion.  And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands.  Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.

1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.

The Lord’s Prayer for Today’s Christians

In conversation with some theologically gifted friends recently, it was mentioned that many contemporary Christians seem to make Christianity all about them.  That gave me the idea to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer based on many conversations I have had or that I have overheard.   Without further adieu, I give you the Lord’s Prayer for Today’s Christians.
Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.
Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.
Our deity who art everywhere and in everything,
hallowed be every possible name for you.
Please make things here a little better,
and give us all the things we want
which is exactly what heaven will be like.
 
Deprive us not of our daily mochaccinos, 
and don’t make us feel guilty for the bad things we do,
but definitely punish everyone we dislike.
Deliver us unto many pleasing things,
for nothing that we want
could possibly be evil.
For the world is ours,
our self-actualization knows no bounds,
and we are pretty freaking awesome.
Amen.

Get Your Ash in Church: One Blizzard Does Not A Diaspora Make (#AshesAtHome)

A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of heaven.  Why settle for less than the real thing?
A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of Heaven. Why settle for less than the real thing?

A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me.  Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion.  A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread.  No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room.  Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food.  Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle.  Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox.  Horrifying.

But wait! some will object.  If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of  King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?

We’ve all had that argument at some point.  Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point.  The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures.  And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?

This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.”  The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family.  After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:

“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.  

Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”

Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.”  I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church.  But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:

12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone.  The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:

“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”

ASH WEDNESDAYAs any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute.  Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?).  And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.

The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp.  Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time.  A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room.  The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent.  That’s what I will be doing.  Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible.  One blizzard does not a Diaspora make.  Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.

So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room.  Get your ash in church.  I’ll see you there Sunday.  And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion.  Discipleship is difficult work.  God, in His grace,  doesn’t intend us to do it alone.  It takes a church.  Thanks be to God.

Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.
Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

Disappointed in Bethlehem: Then and Now

The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Christmas season is upon us.  Of course, the world thinks Christmas is already over; a few more sales and the shelves will be making way for Valentine’s Day.  For many folks, Christmas is a disappointment: we don’t get the gifts we want or don’t get to see all the people we want.  On a more serious note, many of us have Christmases whose joy is broken by addiction, grief, anger, or loss.  Christmas comes around each year but no joy ever does.

I take comfort in knowing Bethlehem has always been a disappointment.  Jews, captive under Roman rule, were disappointed when the Messiah turned out to be a humble baby born to a carpenter’s family, rather than the royal conqueror they had expected.  Pagans were disappointed to hear this little sect, based on a supposed miracle in Bethlehem, was pathetic enough to worship a peasant who came from no place special and died in humiliation on a cross.

Today, Bethlehem is still a disappointment.  I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity twice, and both times – though grateful for the experience – I was struck by the ugliness of the place and, especially, the rudeness of the resident monks.  I resonate with Annie Dillard’s observation:

“Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver start impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains, the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum, the crosiers the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance – bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put with it. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.”

I am often disappointed by what we do with Bethlehem.  Even the church, whose life is based on that dingy miracle outside of Jerusalem, too often turns Bethlehem into something cute, something tame and touching and saccharin.  But the Incarnation – that’s the name we give to God’s invasion of the world in Bethlehem – was never meant to be.

So perhaps Bethlehem has always been a disappointment, and might always will be.  There is hardly a fitting response to such a strange happening.  We do our best with smoky marble and kitschy plays, but our best is still ugly.

Thankfully, God hangs with us anyway – with all those who are disappointed in, and all those who add to the disappointment of – this place, this miracle, this mystery that is Bethlehem.  Dillard concludes her above observation with this line from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

“Every day, the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”

May the true glory of Bethlehem be manifest in us and in our communities, and may God continue to bear with us – every day.

watch for the light

Source: “Bethlehem,” by Annie Dillard, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (New York: Orbis 2001), 220.

Wasting Time With God

Image
The Monks of St. Mary Magdalene at Mass

Could you live every day wasting time with God? In the majestic documentary Watchmen of the Night, viewers follow along the daily routine in the life at St. Mary Magdalene Monastery in Le Barroux, France. These holy men, following the Rule of St. Benedict, have their whole lives shaped by prayer, and everything that is not prayer and worship (either corporate or personal) is lived under obedience to the Abbot (a term derived from “Abba,” or Father, who is in charge of the monastery).

As one of the monks interviewed put it, “You make one choice: to become a monk. After that, you have no more choice.”

And yet, there is a profound freedom in the discipline and order of their days, and we see joy interspersed in and with their work and worship. For me, the most profound statement came near the end, in a voiceover during Compline (the last of eight offices of prayer celebrated each day). This addresses what many viewers no doubt wonder as they watch the Benedictine day unfold:

“People often say to us,
‘You serve no purpose. What do you do? Praising God for 5 or 6 hours a day. That’s pointless.’

That’s the highest compliment we can be paid.
It’s true, it serves no purpose.
We do not serve a purpose.
We serve someone.
We serve God.”

As Marva Dawn put it, worship is A Royal “Waste” of TIme. It serves no purpose, it has no utility in the conventional sense. The purpose of worship is union with and adoration of God.

Who needs a “purpose” when you can have that?

I recorded Watchmen of the Night on EWTN, but it is also available in its entirety on YouTube. I commend it to your viewing and would love your own feedback. What appeals to you about the monastic life? What would you ask these monks? Have Protestants lost something in largely rejecting the monastic vocation?

Michael Pollan, Online Communion, and Table Manners

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The work of the people?

The UMC has just had a rather interesting public debate: is it appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of communion online? While this is something that is being done in various churches, including some experimentation in United Methodist communities, this is the first time significant leadership of the church has gathered to discuss it. Many things are at issue:

  • To what extent is online community real community?
  • How do we balance the call to be missional with the call to liturgical and ecumenical integrity?
  • How does the classical Christian rejection of Gnosticism and affirmation of Incarnation play into this discussion?
  • How are the Eucharistic elements blessed, and can that blessing be extended via technological means?

Larry Hollon and other thoughtful folks have weighed in on this, but I want to offer my own reflection. This debate has been in my back yard, so to speak, as the precipitating event for this discussion was Central UMC Concord’s plan to celebrate communion as part of their new online campus. I have already spilled much ink on this (and if you want more, email me) but I just found something helpful in an unlikely place: Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Pollan is a renowned food journalist, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and an outspoken critic of pretty much everything about Western eating habits.  Rule 59 reads,

“Americans are increasingly eating in solitude. Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we’re less likely to stuff ourselves when others are watching.  We also tend to eat more slowly, since there’s usually more going on at the table than ingestion. This is precisely why so much food marketing is designed to encourage us to eat in front of the TV or in the car: When we eat alone, we eat more. But regulating appetite is only part of the story: The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.”

Like all good eating, the Eucharist is a ritual of family and community, a shared meal in which much more is going on than mere ingestion. Pollan is on to something when he says the marketers are driving us to eat alone for a reason: we eat badly when we eat alone, separate from a community of friends who would elevate our dining to something sacred.

Pollan is trying to help us recover something that is at the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality: the beauty of table fellowship.

Christians, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on the Burger King-ing of worship (your way, right away). When it comes to our own peculiar form of communal eating, in which Jesus is both host and offering, I pray we listen more to Pollan and less to Burger King.

Decades ago, Albert Outler put his finger on the origin of this debate within Methodism:

“One of the most obvious of Methodism’s paradoxes . . . is that we are the only major ‘church family’ in Christian history that began as an evangelical sect within a sacramental church and then evolved into a quasi-sacramental church . . . without an adequate self-understanding for doing so.”

The journey from “quasi-sacramental” back to our roots – and really, the deeper taproot of the wider Body of Christ – is really just beginning.  For now, at least, the center holds.

Secular Worship

What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol.  This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole.  This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:

But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas.  Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan.  No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament.  And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.

It seems to me that the  elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.”  As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!”  Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols.  There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market.  Schmemann concludes this section with the following:

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is.  He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship.  And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)

 

Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation.  I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp.  I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans  – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe.  Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.

Worshiping at St. Relevant of the Contemporary

Your Growtivation for the Day

In the closing chapter of his highly enjoyable For Our Salvation, Geoffrey Wainwright pauses to reflect upon the usefulness of the munus triplex (Christ’s “threefold office” of Prophet, Priest, and King) for today’s church:

“First, the reference of prophet, priest, and king should have some relevance to the human condition.  While the ‘cult of relevance’ is deplorable, it would be a betrayal to think that the gospel were irrelevant to human needs and possibilities, properly understood.”

There is a world of meaning implied in the phrase, “properly understood.”  There is the rub.  The ‘cult of relevance’ operates on the assumption that people’s needs felt needs should determine both the medium and the message (for they are not really as separable as many adherents to the cult would claim).  Church, worship, faith, and worst of all, Jesus, thereby become means to all kinds of ends that have little to nothing to do with the gospel.  Warm feelings are felt, children are entertained, and all can go home satisfied that they have had some kind of meaningful “experience” (which is not really meaningful at all, because in fact they have merely imbibed a product that was marketed, designed, and sold to produce that very effect).  This runs utterly counter to the first principle of Christian discipleship, which tells us that our needs are not needs at all: denial of self.

As Wainwright points out, this “cult” (and it is not too strong a term) really is deplorable.  And yet, as is so often the case, there is a nugget of truth in the lie.  The gospel is by no means irrelevant to our real needs: to our brokenness, our alienation from self and other, our need for meaning and value and worship.  To really address those things, we must stay focused on the One who really is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem: Jesus.  If you seek Christ, the rest will work itself out. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”

P.S. Watch the video above, but be warned: you may not be able to look at your worship service the same afterwards.

P.P.S. For a better, more thoughtful argument similar to what I have made above – and a theology of worship that goes deeper than “whatever works” – check out Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn.