Reflection #4 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number four in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #4:  Where contemporary worship is concerned, some “liturgical” churches seem to be muting elements of traditional liturgy, and some “non-liturgical” churches seem to embracing elements of traditional liturgy.

First, nomenclature.  In layman’s terms, liturgy simply means “the work of the people Mark[in worship]”; hence, as my Judson University colleague Mark Torgerson likes to point out, all churches are liturgical.  But in the culture of the contemporary American church, historically “liturgical” churches tend to utilize tools such as creeds, responsive readings, corporate confessions, times of silence, and weekly observance of the Eucharist (or communion or the Lord’s Table/Supper).  Historically “non-liturgical” churches tend to eschew these activities–except for communion (very rarely “the Eucharist”), which is observed monthly, quarterly, or even annually.  “Liturgical” churches are often referred to via the adjective “high-church,” and “non-liturgical” churches are often referred to via the adjective “low-church.”  (I’m going to abandon the quotation marks henceforth, but please understand them to be there in spirit.)

In the churches my wife and I have visited during this season of ecclesial free agency, it has been interesting to see that some liturgical churches have abandoned pretty much all vestiges of liturgy in their contemporary worship services.  These churches typically have a service (usually earlier on Sunday morning and labeled its “traditional” service) in which they recite the Apostle’s Creed together, pray prayers of confession corporately, and engage in dialogical rhetoric at key moments in the service (celebrant: “The Lord be with you!”; congregation: “And also with you!”).

In one Lutheran church we have visited a few times, the contemporary service is hardly indistinguishable from what one would expect at an Assemblies of God church (minus outward manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit [1 Cor. 12: 8-10], anyway).  They don’t shy away from proclaiming their standing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, yet they don’t embrace the kind of liturgy in their contemporary service that has, historically, helped define Lutheranism.  The absence of liturgy doesn’t seem to be a turn off for the congregants.

Contrast that with our visits to one of the many megachurches in Chicagoland, one that has, with some frequency, utilized corporate confessions and creedal recitations and, every week, following the reading of Scripture, engages in the dialogical “The Word of the Lord”/”Thanks be to God!”–usually prefaced by a brief word of explanation from the pastor.  (They even used an Advent wreath and candles, classic elements of Advent liturgies, last December.)  The presence of liturgy doesn’t seem to be a turn off for the congregants.

What does all this mean?  Time will tell, but it does seem that historically liturgical churches that mute their liturgical practices in contemporary worship services are perhaps operating with a similar set of motivations that drove those who championed seeker-sensitivity in the 70’s and 80’s.  Much good came from that movement, to be sure, but what ended up being lost, as often as not, was an understanding that Sunday-morning worship can and should be transformative for both parishioners and congregations–i.e., worship should be spiritually formative for both individuals and churches as a whole.  Could it be that more churches pursuing contemporary worship will swing the pendulum back a bit to reclaim a few liturgical practices now and again?  As more and more millennials and Gen Z leaders come into position of influence at churches, perhaps.

IWSLogoNameLeft-144Last week my wife and I attended a gathering of members of the community of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies (Jacksonville, Fla.), where I did my doctoral work in worship.  Seated round the table were administrators, alumni, and prospective students, one of whom was a 25-year-old former worship arts student of mine at Judson University who is contemplating pursuing a master’s in worship at IWS.  Among the topics of discussion was the notion, confirmed by my former student, that millennials and members of Gen Z are not turned off by liturgical practices anywhere near to the extent that many of their parents’ generation seemed to be–that, in fact, many long for something more substantive in worship, and many seem to find more substance in liturgy.

Do liturgical practices in worship, in and of themselves, form us spiritually?  Many would say they do, based on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst when we gather and share in the experience of proclaiming words Christians have uttered in worship for centuries.  But even if, for the sake of the argument, we disagree, we can at least assert that liturgies that have stood the test of time could possibly, especially when facilitated by a trained and passionate worship leader, benefit the assembly in ways that might not untitledbe readily apparent for those who have never experienced them before.  I look forward to seeing how all of this plays out in the years to come; in the meantime, if the exploration of anything above appeals to you, consider picking up a copy of Aaron Niequist’s forthcoming new book, The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning.

Coming next week (Lord willing): The prevalence of two-fold worship.

The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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