Finding a place for ancient liturgy in the 21st century church

I was raised in a non-liturgically based Christian denomination and have since spent the vast majority of my adult life in a Pentecostal/Charismatic context. Suffice it to say, I was not well-versed in church liturgy. At least not in the traditional sense of the word.

However, my experience in more formal liturgically-based church gatherings have always caused me to be more thoughtfully engaged in the service. Not just intellectually, but in contemplative, reflective, and prayerful ways as well.

And, you know what I’ve learned? Liturgical cues give me the space to pause and ponder. Liturgical cues give me the space to reflect more deeply on the biblical passage being read, the creed being recited or the symbol being emphasized. And, this ‘pause’ has helped me to better appreciate the teaching emphasis in that moment.

I’ve also discovered that I have a greater tendency to remember the lessons long after the service has ended.

In my experience contemporary church service styles rarely yield the same results as those I've experienced in more formal liturgically-based settings. Why? For three reasons.

1. Most contemporary church gatherings rarely incorporate formal liturgical mechanisms into their order of service

For example, if there is any scripture reading at all, it almost always comes in the form of the pastor's text and little more. From my vantage point, we rarely create the space and time to just read the bible as a community, without commentary.

To allow the words and stories to enter our hearts and minds for pondering.
To imagine ourselves within the stories, as characters in the unfolding drama.

To pause and listen to the scriptures being read as a community.
To pause and allow the bible to speak to us and for us, as it forms us into a Jesus-looking community.

We need these liturgical moments and most contemporary church gatherings rarely have them.

What are we missing?

The same can be said for our lack of symbols.

Symbols are often viewed negatively within most evangelical circles, except for the cross, which is itself becoming less visible.

From my perspective, icons should have a place within our gatherings. They have a way of sparking our imagination, creating pictures of the stories of scripture, drawing our attention to those who have gone before us, while inviting us into the ongoing story.

A carving that showcases a biblical character; a stained-glass image that depicts a biblical story; a table that invites us into the Jesus story; a cross that points us towards our dying Lord and the death it invites us to embrace.

Our contemporary gatherings need to create space for scripture reading and symbol if we hope to give people the opportunity to reflect and imagine on our ancient-future faith.

2. Most contemporary church gatherings simply do not create space for reflection

We've become so fast-paced. Life is always in a rush. As a result, we’re not accustomed to having any time to pause and ponder.

The problem is only exacerbated in our church services. Why? Because we have a second or third service starting in an hour or so, we often don't have the time to incorporate liturgical cues that give space for pause and wonder.

After all, we have to keep the ship moving forward and maintain a schedule.

What are we missing?

It’s almost as if quiet and liturgical pauses make us feel uncomfortable. Like we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves. Like we’re wasting precious time.

In my particular church circles, I can almost guarantee that every moment of silence will be interrupted with someone in the congregation feeling the need to speak out loud. It’s like we’ve been trained to believe silence is deadly and must be disrupted with noise.

Silence makes us uncomfortable. Silence scares us. Silence is not entertaining.

What are we missing?

3. Most contemporary church gatherings are more concerned about creating a performance-based program that seeks to keep people entertained, not liturgically engaged

However, while an entertainment-based church service model may keep people from falling asleep, it will rarely, if ever, cause them to engage with the Gospel and encourage active, thoughtful, and meaningful community-based participation.

When people grade a church service as either good or bad, you know you've entered into a performance-based mindset. Click To Tweet

In fact, over time, people will become conditioned not to respond. And, the result will be a group of people who end up being more concerned with the quality of the performance, than with the quality of the liturgy. When people grade a church service as either good or bad, you know you've entered into a performance-based mindset.

An entertainment-based model of church can also foster a “what's in it for me” kind of attitude. However, a “serve me, entertain me, perform for me” kind of posture creates consumers, not disciples. And, as Alan Hirsch has so often said, "you cannot build a church on consumers, only disciples."

Where do we go from here?

First and foremost, we need to intentionally, and gradually, create space for scripture reading, symbol, and silence.

If we truly want to move forward and remove ourselves from the entertainment-based style of church we’ve come to expect, we need to look for ways to interrupt existing patterns. If we don't, we will wear ourselves out trying to keep up with the latest church trends and expectations. This will take us nowhere fast.

There is a better way.

We need to look for ways to slowly incorporate a variety of liturgical practices into our church services. Click To Tweet

I'm not saying we need to arrange our services in ways that reflect the high-liturgical styles representative of our Anglican or Catholic families, but we should at least create space for scripture reading, art, symbol, and quiet reflection.

We need to look for ways to slowly incorporate a variety of liturgical practices into our church services.

If we do, I believe we will reap the benefits of a people who will...

  • become more biblically-informed and biblically-aware,
  • embrace the beauty and value of symbol,
  • begin to slow down and incorporate moments of peace, quiet, and thoughtful reflection into their lives,
  • no longer be satisfied with being entertained, but seek for ways to actively contribute to the life of the body.

There is a better way.

There is a liturgical way.

Let's begin.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Jeff is a columnist with ChristianWeek, a public speaker, blogger, and award-winning published writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. He also blogs at jeffkclarke.com