The new edition of Lark News takes a shot at--what?--blended worship? Lark is The Onion of evangelical Protestantism--a humor and satire site devoted to evangelical foibles. Its latest effort talks about evangelical churches offering "Orthodox lite" services, complete with "candles, non-specific iconography ... other religious-looking items ... generic vestments and ... a more somber manner."
The piece was supposed to be funny, but I find the phenomenon it was satirizing to be sad. So if you read it and chuckle, that's fine. But since satire is supposed to have a point, let me comment on what I take to be the barb in the Lark's "news item."
According to the fictional EV Free pastor featured in the item,
"It’s the same sermon, same worship songs in many cases, just done in a more liturgical style," Fitzgerald says. "I don’t mind changing the packaging for people. It freshens it up for them and for me."
There's the rub. As long it's about "packaging," adding liturgical elements to a service is pretty empty.
"I like the reverence and the mood," says one girl, 16. "It feels more spiritual.""Packaging" or "feel" or "mood" are all about marketing. But liturgical worship is about other things:
"I like the candles," her friend chimes in.
- It is about doing what the people of God have done for nearly two millennia: Word and Sacrament. (Candles and incense really are optional.) The round of Scripture reading and sacramental practices shape us and mold us--keep us from being squeezed into the world's mold (Rom. 12:2).
- It is about worshiping as embodied souls. Physical acts (kneeling, singing, bowing, lifting our hands) and the use of physical substances (bread, wine, oil, water, incense, salt) remind us that we are not just here to learn, but to participate. The life of a Jesus follower is about believing and doing. And worship needs to order both our thoughts and actions.
- It is about objectivity (the opposite of "feel" and "mood"). Ritual actions are designed to help us praise God whether or not we "feel like it." And they are about opening us to God's action in our lives, about placing ourselves at his disposal, rather than creating a subjective, emotional response.
- It is about setting aside our own "creativity" and opening ourselves to God's re-creating grace. This is the "sabbath" nature of worship. We've been doing all week. With long to-do lists in hand, we've been responsible for making things happen in our homes and our workplaces. On the Sabbath, we don't need to engage in a lot of innovation. Worship doesn't depend on us. The saints are already casting their crowns before the throne and crying alleluia. The pressure on us to be original, creative, and subjective is off. All we have to do is join the chorus.
- It is about making sure that we proclaim God's story. Non-liturgical worship can easily become oriented to felt needs or therapeutic self-help discourse: How to be a good parent. How to manage your finances Christianly. How to deal with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. All good topics, but they are not of the substance of worship. Liturgical worship ensures that we read the full range of the scriptural story and walk through the cycle of Jesus' story every year. And within that context, we will be shaped as parents and financial stewards.
- Okay, okay, it is about mood and atmosphere, but only to the extent that it signals a break from a world that tells us stories other than God's story. In the world's stories, you are an individual who is a consumer (your worth is in what you own) or an achiever (your worth is in what you or your family accomplish) or a cool person (your worth is in your ability to keep up with trends in music, clothing, coffee, electronics, and so forth). But when you come to worship, the narration of all those stories is put on "pause," and you listen once more the God's story and how you are part of a called-out and redeemed community destined to play a role in the restoration of creation.
I could go on. But my point is made. The Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future says we should have "public worship that sings, preaches and enacts God's story" and and we must "recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God's saving acts." This is about liturgical worship as substance, not as surface. The things we do in liturgy "shape our lives and signify the meaning of the world."
Now, I'm all for blending historic liturgical elements into worship services that also feature contemporary song and drama and elements from the non-liturgical traditions. But we must do the blending with an eye to telling God's story comprehensively to people who are daily squeezed into the world's mold, and who need instead a vision of God's way and God's future.
So, was the Lark News item funny? Well, I did laugh at the very end, when "the Bartel family of suburban Cleveland, Ohio, tried the local Orthodox church for a month, but 'couldn’t make the cultural shift long-term' ... When they walked back into an evangelical service, 'the drums and guitars sounded pretty good for once.' "
Liturgy takes work and commitment and even "cultural shift." But it doesn't exclude drums and guitars.
Lark News updates its satirical news items the first of every month. In addition to humor, you can find religious artifacts for the cynical, including tee-shirts that say "Homeschooled & Wild," "Heard You Got into That Christian College. Bummer," and "Jesus Loves You! Then again he loves everybody."