By David F. Watson –
Many have noted that what we call “contemporary” worship isn’t so contemporary anymore. It’s a feature of the “attractional” model of church growth, embodied so well in Willow Creek and like-minded megachurches that popped up in the 80’s and 90’s.
The basic philosophy of the attractional model is that if we can create a church experience that reflects popular elements of the wider culture, people will like our churches enough to give up an hour of their time on Sunday morning. Once we have them in the building, we can begin to evangelize them. This model has been most effective with baby boomers. As the culture has continued to change, however, the question arises of whether or not we can become enough like the culture to attract the “unchurched,” or even to retain the “churched.”
At the outset, I’d like to clarify that my point isn’t to hammer on contemporary worship. I’ve worshiped in contemporary services many, many times. I’ve had some amazing experiences of God in contemporary services. I’ll worship in contemporary services many more times, and I anticipate that I will meet God in those services as well.
Perhaps, though, we who worship in such settings might consider incorporating some more traditional elements of Christian worship into our services.
I’m no expert on worship or liturgy, but I do care deeply about Christian formation, and worship forms us. How many Christians have grown up in services where the congregation never says the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father)? How many have grown up in church and yet don’t know the Apostles’ Creed, and perhaps have never said the Nicene Creed? Worship forms us in the faith. The way we speak about God, the way we pray, the way we use Scripture, and the way we sing. Week after week, these practices shape our beliefs. As the old saying goes, lex orandi lex credenda — loosely translated, “as we pray, so we believe.”
Those of us who are concerned to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy in our traditions should take special note. We tend to use the word “orthodoxy” to mean “right doctrine,” but more literally it means “right praise.” The ways in which we praise God will shape what we believe about God. There are liturgical elements from the tradition that can help to shape our praise in service to the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints.
Recently I read a book by Winfied Bevins called Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation (Zondervan, 2019). This is one of the supplementary readings for the DMin group that Justus Hunter and I lead at United Theological Seminary, called “Living the Historic Faith.” It’s a group about finding ways to reclaim some of the treasures of the Christian tradition for the church today. Bevins’s book was a natural fit.
I commend it to your reading. It’s both accessible and informative. It offers numerous real-life examples of young people who have been attracted to liturgical worship experiences, and it explains why they find such worship experiences so fulfilling. For example, Bevins writes:
“Moral and religious relativism has infiltrated the church and profoundly influenced the religious thinking of many young people. Thankfully, in some cases they are responding to this relativism in positive ways. Instead of embracing these nebulous and rootless beliefs, they are looking for firm ground on which to stand. Because they have not been introduced to creeds, confessions, and catechisms in the youth programs or discipleship ministries of their church, they are turning to other Christian traditions that embrace liturgy and creedal affirmations” (67).
Some of these young worshipers have joined the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church. Some have joined with the Anglican/Episcopal denominations. Others, however, have remained within evangelical or mainline churches but reincorporated time-honored practices of Christian worship into their services. Chapter 6, “Something Ancient, Something New,” focuses specifically on churches that have moved in this direction.
In many churches, if a service began with acolytes, a robed processional, and organ music, people would fall out of their chairs. But the reincorporation of liturgy doesn’t have to look like that. There are myriad ways in which historic practices around prayer, song, Scripture, creed, communion, and baptism can find their way into the lives of churches that have long been beholden to the attractional model.
Think, for example, about the sacrament of Holy Communion. What are we doing when we celebrate communion? I realize that different traditions understand communion differently from one another. In my tradition however, communion is supposed to be more than a remembrance. Rather, we believe in the real presence of Christ in the communion elements. We are receiving Christ’s body and blood, and we believe that we are thereby transformed. Communion is a means of grace –– or, put differently, a reliable way in which we receive the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
The basic idea is this: we were once dead in our sins, but because of Christ’s sacrifice we are alive. We get to celebrate what Christ has done for us, and thus we call our liturgy the “Great Thanksgiving.” We begin with a confession of sin, we pronounce forgiveness over one another, we recite God’s mighty acts of salvation, we remember Christ’s instructions to his disciples during his final meal with them, and then we call upon the Holy Spirit to move us from remembrance to sacrament.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and forever.
I don’t know how many times I’ve recited that part of the liturgy, but without exception when I do I’m confronted by the sacredness of the moment. In the liturgy we are marking off sacred space, setting ourselves apart. We are entering into communion with a holy God, and God in turn blesses us with the real presence of Christ as we eat and drink.
Church today doesn’t have to look like mid-twentieth century “traditional” mainline Protestant worship, but neither does it have to look like 1980’s evangelicalism. We can bring together the ancient and the new in ways that will enliven the faith of our worshipers each Sunday.
David Watson is the academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. This article first appeared on his blog HERE. Dr. Watson is the author of Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed) and co-author of Key United Methodist Beliefs with William J. Abraham (Abingdon).