Friday, February 10, 2012
“The Crisis of the Church is Above All a Crisis of the Liturgy”
Just as the problems in Rome will not be solved by a return to the Tridentine Mass as the normal Sunday liturgy for the people, the problems in Lutheranism are not going to be solved by changing a page number. But that does not mean that they are not liturgical.
For many congregations, especially larger congregations, worship has become one of the many programs of the Church. What happens on Sunday morning is approached the same way you decide how to tackle the problem of visitor follow up or VBS timing or staffing the day care. What works? What do the people want? What is the goal you are seeking? So for many congregations worship is a confusing array of menu options designed to mirror the choices in the marketplace and the Pastors and worship leaders survey the lastest and greatest in order to stay on top of the rapidly changing landscape of what is in and what is out. The values that once accompanied Lutheran identity on Sunday morning have taken second place to what works and what will achieve the desired result.
This is a liturgical problem. Since the liturgy is Word and Sacrament, the liturgical problem here is that we have lost confidence in the means of grace. We think nothing of shoving aside not simply a form but the Word and Table of the Lord in order to focus upon the person, upon their felt needs, and upon ways to answer those needs. If you need to, you can ditch the altar to stick a bed on stage in order to talk about the real and legitimate problems of husband and wife. The once central focus of forgiveness, life and salvation and the twin poles of Law and Gospel have given way to Scripture as a book to help us have that better life now.
Preaching the Word of the Cross has not disappeared but it suffers from the limited amount of time left to the preacher and the need to expand the focus to include other things. Nobody is saying that Lutheran preachers are not preaching Christ crucified but it is clear that the Word of the Cross is not predominant either for justification or sanctification. I believe that the preaching crisis is a liturgical crisis. Preaching should not and cannot be separated from the context of the Word and the Table of the Lord (liturgy). Preaching that does not flow from the liturgy and lead us back into the liturgy is preaching that either treats the liturgy as unimportant window dressing or the sermon as the real reason for worship. Lutherans have insisted that good preaching is liturgical preaching (by the way, there is a decent book by that name, recently revised by CPH and you would do well to read it).
When we treat the outreach of the congregation as distinct from what happens on Sunday morning, then we also have problems. I do NOT mean to say that the worship service is itself outreach. It is not. That is another liturgical problem in the Church -- we use Sunday morning as evangelism. No, what I am saying is that the purpose of outreach is not to bring people to Jesus in the abstract but to proclaim the Christ who is still present among us and doing what He has promised through the means of grace. The goal of outreach is to incorporate people into the baptized community on Sunday morning that they may continue to be fed and nourished by Christ and His gifts in the Word and Sacraments. We are not interested in numbers but in people and not in counting decisions for Jesus but numbering those who hear the Word among the assembly of God's people around the Word, Font, and Table of the Lord.
This is why I believe that the crisis of the Church is above all a crisis of the liturgy. But don't get me wrong. It is not simply about which page number we shall use. And that leads up to the final element of the liturgical crisis we face -- catechesis. Real catechesis does not merely teach information as if Jesus were in the abstract but conveys the Christ of the Scriptures, of the baptismal water, and of the Holy Supper. Real catechesis is drawn from the liturgical life of God's people and draws them back into that liturgical life. Our people need to know what is happening on Sunday morning and how to talk about this to those outside the kingdom. Without this tie between catechesis, witness, and worship, we lose sight of what we say in the canon: "As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."