Much has been made of the longing among some believing Millennials for structure, reverence, and beauty in worship. Fewer smoke machines, more incense. I’ve certainly evidence of this desire among this demographic. But I see it among many in my own Boomer demographic, too, in a different form. Those who grew up in Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, or Orthodox churches and made their way through a born-again experience into the Evangelical world (which is predominated by low church worship) found in those churches the promise of accessible, intimate relationship with God and like-minded others they hadn’t experienced in the churches of their youth.
What I do hear from my age peers who’ve spent part of their adulthood in low Church congregations is that they often experience a crystallizing moment or three when their high church childhood experiences come into focus. One friend told me she went to a funeral mass for a relative and realized she heard more Scripture simply being read and proclaimed than she had in years of listening to sermons at her non-denominational congregation. Another friend told me she grew to recognize how much she missed confession and communion being central to her worship. A third has cradle Catholic began attending a liturgical church after three decades in various Evangelical and Charismatic congregations, noting that she was tired of being an audience member and wanted to feel as though she was playing a meaningful role in participating in “the work of the people”.
It would be easy to chalk this up to the old saw that absence makes the heart grow fonder – at least when it comes to the childhood churches from they’ve exited. More likely, the perspective that comes with spiritual maturity lends “ah ha!” meaning to what they once experienced as dry, lifeless worship.
In other cases, some find that what once seemed full of vitality has its own gravity to it. Low church worship can become predictable, then rote, just as easily as high church worship can. It is easy to place blame on the high or low church structure without owning the fact that we ourselves carry some of the responsibility. The positive of our restlessness is that it can be a sign of our own spiritual growth; as we mature in our faith, whatever form of liturgy by which we worship takes on different meaning in our lives in every new stage of our lives. We are vulnerable to temptation when we’re restless with old, too-familiar liturgy because everything around us in our culture tells us our identity is that of consumer, and it is our mission as consumers to seek and find novelty. (IPhone 7, anyone?)
I noted in Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith that a worshipping according to a particular calendar – whether civil, Hebrew, or Christian – doesn’t impart instant faithfulness to adherents. A cursory glance backward through history reminds us that the Chosen People had a calendar given them by God and still drifted into idolatry. The church developed her own calendar and still has her own messy, chaotic, divisive history. As a result of the book’s release, I’ve been a part of lots of conversations in recent weeks about liturgical calendars – and liturgy itself – with people from both high and low church backgrounds. Not surprisingly, because I’m a Jewish follower of Jesus, I’ve fielded plenty of questions about the Jewish calendar, which is less familiar to most readers than the Christian calendar.
But I have been surprised by the Evangelicals with whom I’ve spoken who are telling me they’re seeing their high church childhood experiences in a new, less-negative light. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising to me, but it is. I realized that for many of them, a bit of time and distance from those worship structures suddenly made the structure’s lines come into focus for them. Church leaders and worship planners, I’d like to suggest it would be of help if we could offer this kind of perspective to those who are worshipping with us here and now.
In the book, I urge both high and low church Christians to have some serious conversation and prayerful reflection about the story their church calendar (and, by extension, their approach to worship) is telling them about God, themselves, and others. Both high and low church congregations tend to do much of what they do out of habit. When I was involved in planning worship services, we talked a lot about why we were making the particular choices (music, readings) for a service, but frankly, didn’t do much reflecting about the structure of the service itself. Why did we do what we did each week? Because we spent most of our time thinking about what to plug into that structure, we didn’t consider how to communicate the meaning and intention of the structure of our service, either during the worship service itself or in a class or small group setting.
I’d love to hear from you, Jesus Creed readers – both from high and low church traditions. How do you help orient both new worshippers and long-time attenders to your church’s liturgy? How do you help them understand why you do what you do each week, each season, and each year?