Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why does the liturgy feel unnatural?

It seems that we place a premium upon that which feels at home to us. Hardly anyone ever feels at home in the early stages of their life within the liturgy of the Church. Why? Some would suggest that liturgical worship is outmoded, irrelevent, out of keeping with our culture, behind the technology curve, uses music from an antique style, etc... I suppose some of those could be true but the real reason why the liturgy feels unnatural to us is that it IS unnatural.

The natural inclination of our hearts (original sin) is on us. We naturally judge all things by what we like, what we want, what we feel, what we desire, etc... Scripture tells us that the natural heart is at enmity with God and finds the things of God strange and unfamiliar. We are not at home on the holy ground of God's presence and neither should we be. Worship is a learned activity that proceeds from faith and the liturgy is the domain of the Word of the Lord and the Sacraments of the Lord. It is not our "home ground" but remains the holy ground and alien place where we come because we are bidden and not because it appeals to us. That is not to say that we do not learn to love the liturgy and love the means of grace. Of course we do. But it is learned love and, as long as we wear this flesh and blood, a part of us will always seek to rebel against the House of the Lord and what the Lord does within His House.

I will admit that often liturgical congregations seem intent upon adding to the strangeness of God's House and the mystery of liturgical worship by failing to welcome, to assist the new person, and communicate how the liturgy flows (both in the page number wherein the liturgy and hymns may be found and in form -- saying back to God what He has said to us...).  As irritating as it is to enter a liturgical congregation for the first time and have no one pay attention to you or your lack of familiarity, the main reason why the liturgy feels unnatural is sin.  Our sinful natures remain like the tired old ruts of road.  When left without instruction, we revert to that which is natural.  I am bored.  I don't like this.  I don't get it.  I don't want to be here...

One does not have to be a stranger to liturgical worship to feel this distance.  Many of those who have been participants in the liturgy for years remain on the fringes.  They fight, resist, and remain in the dark about the who, what, and why of liturgical worship.  It is easier to remain aloof from what is going on than to surrender our preoccupation with self.  We carry our smart phones with us, we treat the things of God casually and wander in and out instead of paying attention to what God is doing, and we give in to the incessant need to talk about, comment on, or converse about anything rather than listen to the rhythm of the liturgy.  We complain about the music or the ambiance (hard pews, too much sitting, standing, kneeling, etc...) or the people (focusing on them instead of their liturgical roles).  In the end we are choosing the easy path of giving in to self rather than yielding by the aid of the Spirit to the Lord and His gracious actions.

"Liturgical worship feels unnatural to us because does not reflect our "natural" feelings. Rather, it teaches us what to feel when God meets us in His Word and sacrament."—Harold Senkbeil, Sanctification: Christ in Action, p. 180.

That is the point.  We must learn what to feel, what to look for, what to focus upon...  The Spirit's primary work is not delivering God's gifts to His people but preparing us to receive them.  The Spirit has a herculean task in this regard.  We do not want to learn new feelings, to learn new desires, to hear and heed something besides the voice of our own hearts.  This is the Spirit's work from baptism.  Killing the old nature declared dead in baptism and raising up the new person created in Christ Jesus to hear and heed the Word of the Lord, to rejoice in His gifts, and to delight in His service.

The liturgy is not our natural home because of sin but God is at work in the Spirit so that we might desire that which is His domain, His gifts, and His holy ground.  It is a life-long process that is fed and nourished by constant participation in the liturgy, regular catechesis in how God works to deliver Christ's gifts to His people, and by learning to pray the liturgy as the voice of faith and the faithful.

Entertainment worship only works when it offers us something we like or want.  There is no guarantee that on a given Sunday we will be convinced that what entertainment worship offers is something worth getting out of bed and going for...  In fact, the Christian world is filled with people who go from church to church solely because they have grown tired, bored, or disenchanted with the entertainment of one church and look for something new, exciting, and different.  Hence the constant pursuit of novelty by some Christian churches.  The problem with this is that the pursuit of that which is new, exciting, and different is squarely at odds with the God who gives Himself to us in predictable places (Word and Sacrament).

God help us, Amen.


Anonymous said...

When I think of liturgy, I think of the Divine Service, which was put together by man. Why is it then held up on the level of Scripture? If the means of grace are present without the liturgy, how can that be wrong? Could we, as LCMS Lutherans, be guilty of idolizing the liturgy?
I personally prefer the liturgy, which at my church, has largely been thrown away in favor of an entertainment style service. I don't like that decision, but I thought that fell under adiaphora?

Chris Jones said...

the Divine Service, which was put together by man

Yes and no. Yes, the specific words of the prayers and hymns (most of them, anyway) were "put together by man"; but the essential structure, intent, and function of the liturgy were not, and are not, "put together by man." The fundamental structure and function of the liturgy come to us from the Apostles just as surely as the Scriptures do. That structure and function are part of what St Paul was talking about -- indeed, the most important part of what he was talking about -- when he commanded us to "hold fast to the traditions" in 2 Thess 2.15.

If the means of grace are present without the liturgy ...

That is a big "IF." How can we be sure that "the means of grace are present" if we are not administering them in the manner that the Apostolic Church has always done? If the structure of the Church's worship is obscured or lost in a sea of "entertainment," the Word of God is not clearly proclaimed according to the Church's orthodox confession, and the Lord's Supper is tacked onto the end of the entertainment as a not-all-that-important afterthought, does that constitute the Gospel rightly taught and the Sacrament rightly administered? I am not at all sure that it does; and if not, then the means of grace are indeed not present.

It is the contemporary "entertainment service" that is made by man, not the liturgy of the Apostolic Church.

Chris Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Tighe said...

It would be interesting to discuss the question of whether liturgy, liturgical worship I mean, falls "under adiaphora." I wish Lutherans could give a firm response of "no," but this would be hard to reconcile with the historical fact that the Lutheran territorial churches of SW Germany (primarily Wuerttemberg, but including those of other smaller territories and free cities) adopted a pattern of worship that jettisoned the Western liturgical tradition entirely, especially for the Communion rite, and replaced it with ones very closely following those of the Swiss Reformed cantons -- even those these SW German territorial churches had fully subscribed to all the Lutheran confessional documents by the end of the 16th Century. Other Lutheran churches never criticized these churches for the way in which they ordered their worship lives.

This seems a strong precedent for regarding "liturgical worship" as indeed adiaphora, as well as furnishing grist for the mills of the proponents of CW (or "an entertainment style service").

Chris Jones said...

hard to reconcile with the historical fact

Not hard to reconcile at all. You reconcile it by (1) admitting that the historical fact happened; (2) acknowledging that it should not have happened that way; (3) repenting of the error; and (4) returning to the truth that the liturgy is not adiaphora.

Not everything that happens in Church history is irreformable.

Pastor Peters said...

There is no reference in the Lutheran Confessions that posits the liturgy as adiaphora. There are references on the variety of ceremonies as adiaphora. In other words, church usages and ceremonies do not have to be uniform and therefore cannot be required as condition of faithfulness but there are just as many references that indicate that they must not be disparaged or treated as unimportant.

It is a modern day invention dating back not more than a generation or two that liturgy is considered something indifferent. Indeed, it stands in completely contrast to the history of Lutheranism in which jurisdictions enforced liturgical forms and rules and in the USA struggled toward a liturgical identity that had been absent in the earliest days of Lutherans in this country (the result of which is the Common Service).

It represents an incredible stretch of the imagination to go from Augustana's insistence that Lutherans are falsely accused of having abolished the Mass to the idea that the liturgy (here meaning not order in general but the Divine Service or Mass) is a thing indifferent. Those who signed the Augustana did not presume Mass to mean some unimportant frills around the Words of Institution.

Really, Some Lutherans are there own darn worst enemies, making little of that which is important and much of that which is trivial.

Anonymous said...

So help a layperson out then. The liturgy (the Divine Service or Mass) is a thing not indifferent. But certain usages and ceremonies do not have to be uniform and required as condition of faithfulness. Can you give some references where they say that they should not be treated as unimportant?

Pastor Peters said...

Here are some previous posts to help define adiaphora:

I am sure there are more but start here...

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,
I read all of the links listed, and I agree that our liturgy is beautiful, meaningful, and helps to accurately teach pure doctrine, but I don't see where it is commanded of us in Scripture. Do you have any references on how the liturgy was formed and why Lutherans maintain that it is the Scriptural way to do a service?

Bystander said...

The liturgy is nothing less than sung and spoken Scripture (more than 95%).

St. Paul passes on what was entrusted to him... not just narrowly in the Words of Institution but the Eucharist. Building on a framework of synagogue, temple, and Upper Room, the liturgy was not written per se but developed naturally from this.

Lutherans are not Biblicists. We do not insist that everything be word for word in Scripture. We have received the apostolic tradition in the liturgy, the creeds, and confessions in the councils. Scripture norms them all to be sure but we are not proof texters.