Look, I get it. Really, I do. In many Christian denominations across America, traditional liturgical worship is growing more and more out of step with the world by the day. By now it is a safe bet that well over half of all Christian churches have dropped liturgical worship entirely or degraded it to the point of being unrecognizable.
Proud churches with traditional histories – I’m thinking of the Methodist Church I grew up in before becoming Lutheran – once held worship services with all of the clergy in vestments, they sang of multiple hymns, the congregation followed along in the rites hymnal, there was a plethora of biblical texts being read out loud, and there was regular communion. Nowadays, there are fewer hymns (with fewer verses of those hymns sung), one hand-picked scriptural passage, no vestments, and a one-page bulletin that summarizes the five events of the entire service, with the announcements being one of them. And that is your “modern” traditional service.
With the exception of the Catholic Church, which is seeing a significant rise in the popularity of the Latin Mass (especially among Millennials and Gen Z) and the Eastern Orthodox churches which generally never succumbed to this problem, there appears to be a pronounced embarrassment and estrangement in other Christian churches when it comes to liturgical worship. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who has been paying attention for some time now: those under 50 are simply less “churched” than ever, and thus worship services are viewed as participating in a kind of corporate event that are almost never employed in any other sphere of life, so it just looks weirder and weirder, especially when the guy in the robe chants!
The Vacuum Created When Liturgy Disappears
In fact, liturgical or public rites themselves are virtually dead. Maybe there are children somewhere out there in America who still say the Pledge of Allegiance in schools to start their day (Is God still mentioned?). Maybe sometimes the National Anthem is respectfully sung at the beginning of a ball game, but this is usually done by a performer who sings it on our behalf (amiright?). Courtrooms and oaths of office have retained some dignity and remain formal rites with the placing of one’s hand on a Bible, swearing to tell the truth and uphold the Constitution, etc. But, I really can’t think of any other times or places where we perform the kinds of actions that we do on Sunday mornings: speaking and singing together, chanting, or heck, even listening to a guy talk for 15 minutes without a screen in sight.
Well, the obvious solution to the rapid decline in the use of public rites was to adapt, right? How many times have I been told: “Adapt or die [Luddite!].” It is certainly fantastic business advice, but how has it worked out for the Church? Well, at one level it seems to have worked, with the existence of these new kind of churches, the ones they call the “megachurch” – which have rewritten and epitomize the rites and rules on the aesthetics and music of corporate worship today.
These churches have been highly successful in drawing thousands of people into a building over the course of a weekend using catchy music, promises of whole family services (I think they call it a “wraparound” service in the biz), and no awkward chanting or confessing. Professional speakers and musicians will do everything for you. All you have to do is show up, jive to the music, and use your credit card to tithe at the kiosks placed at every entrance and exit for your convenience.
Problem. Solution. Fantastic! Amiright!? Not really, as megachurches constitute less than 10% of all congregations in the country and their success has done nothing to stem the tide of a dying Christianity in America. There were some congregations that abandoned their traditional roots to ape the megachurch model, only to look ridiculous in the process as well as alienating their most generous and faithful base of support: those who cut their teeth on traditional worship.
Every single study or poll on religious life in America (take your pick, Google “decline of church participation” and read for yourself) tells us that America is a far less Christian place than it once was. So, bully for the guy who has managed to amass a mega-following. But for the rest of the Christian multitude, the other 90% of churches who have under 100 souls present on any given Sunday morning, they have not found that path to be universal, easily replicated, or, most importantly, theologically tenable.
But behind all of this is the reality that we as Americans are becoming more and more a collection of individuals and less and less a functioning culture or society. For all of the faddish talk of “community” these days, we actually really suck at it. The Church was the last bastion of robust, public rites that expressed the unity, purpose, and hope of the people who gathered together to worship. But when Sunday worship started embracing a performative aesthetic, Christians found themselves without a pre-Heaven experience.
The Reason for the Rites and Liturgy
Yes, you read that right. Christian worship regards the space and time in church as holy and is actually meant to bring us as close as possible to the edge of God’s Kingdom, at least on this side of Heaven. Our time at worship, is a time to set all of our embarrassment and self-awareness to the side and to truly be ourselves in the presence of our brothers and sisters, so that we can engage in sacred rites in a disciplined fashion in order to acknowledge God and express proper behavior in light of his presence.
While I am not saying that we will be endlessly going through the Lutheran Book of Worship Setting 3 in Heaven (but one can hope!), we will be in the presence of a holy God with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. While I can’t say how formal our eternal existence will be, I am fairly certain it will not be in our comfort zone. Because nothing concerning our relationship with God is supposed to be in our comfort zone. He is our creator! He is all holy! He is all-powerful! We are nothing like Him and we never will be. Yes, God became one of us out of love for us, but that doesn’t mean that we became God or more like him. We became righteous in his sight, but we will never cross the threshold from creature to creator, even in heaven.
So, if liturgical worship in the presence of God feels a little weird to you now, get used to it. If you fully intend and hope to spend all of eternity in God’s presence, we should get in the habit of subsuming our personal (and worldly) tastes and preferences now. For when we are fully “face to face” with God and no longer only looking at a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13), we should expect that the experience will be, well, weird. At least until we get the hang of it.
In the end, I suppose I can’t blame the consumers of religious worship services devoid of any sense of holiness. For all they know, the absurd rock show that is called “worship” at the local big box megachurch– and the accompanying rotten theology found there– is the apex of Christian worship. For such “consumers” it is far more fun to blame the Church which has, again and again, proven to be so embarrassed by its traditions, its claims, and even their Lord that they will sell out the very limited time their congregation actually has together in an effort – I guess – to attract unbelievers. Or, to call a spade a spade, to recruit believers from other congregations. The bottom line is that if traditional, liturgical worship is boring and weird to you now, wait till you get to heaven. God, in all of his holiness and splendor will be fully present. So, the weirdness of a Sunday morning now is just the dress rehearsal. Might as well embrace it and sing your little heart out.
Photo Credit- patheos.com