Guest Post by Abram K-J
Officiant Lord, open our lips.
People And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Officiant and People
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
The above call to worship, from the Episcopal Morning Prayer service of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, is less culturally recognizable than this liturgical summons:
Are you ready?
Are you ready?
Are you ready, ready?
Are you ready for some football?
A Monday night party!
I’d venture to say that even most Christians could tell you what event the second set of lines calls people to, but not the first.
I once had a seminary professor ask, “Have you ever seen a church that didn’t have some kind of ritual?” I’ve always been mildly perturbed when people refer to the Episcopal Church as a liturgical church, or as a church with a liturgy—as if some churches don’t have any liturgy. If liturgy is the work of the people in the context of a worship service, then every church and worshiping community has a liturgy (or liturgies). Or, as I defined it when I was teaching a group of youth about liturgy some years ago, liturgy is “the stuff we do when we are together.” The question is not if a church is liturgical, but what kind of liturgy the church has.
But if it’s true that it’s not just the Episcopal (or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Lutheran, etc.) Church that has a liturgy, it’s true that it’s not just churches that have liturgy. Liturgy and ritual pervade life. Think about this little liturgy, for example:
Teenage son: Dad?
Father of teenager: Yes?
Teenage son: I like that shirt. How are you doing?
Father of teenager: What do you need….
Teenage son: Can I have $10 to go to Chipotle and meet my friends for dinner…
and a ride?
It’s as if each party knows his or her speaking part. To effectively ask for something, the teenager starts with flattery (or doing chores he/she wasn’t asked to do); the parent knows to cut to the chase. It’s the stuff they do when they are together, at least in the context of one asking the other for money.
Football has liturgy, too. Hank Williams, Jr. calls the people to order in the sanctuary-stadium on Monday nights. Sunday morning organ preludes on the organ are replaced by the prelude of parking lot tailgating before the game, as follower-fans substitute beer and bratwurst for Body and Blood. The linebackers repeatedly lift their hands in the air to encourage the people in the stadium to lift their voices, like so many hand-raising worship leaders trying to get their congregation to give the Lord a round of applause.
Fans know their teams’ players by their jersey numbers like Bible-memorizing kids in AWANA know their verses by reference. Season-ticket holders offer the equivalent of a tithe to their team. And the same churchgoer who doesn’t dare let out a peep of an “Amen” during a sermon, or lift even one hand in worship during the Doxology—this same person holds hands high at the game, shouting at the top of his lungs.
Excuse my cynicism, please. I don’t mean to be negative. I like sports. I can generally tell you who’s playoff-bound in the NFL each year (and why) and who the top 5 BCS teams in college football are at any given time.
It’s just that I’ve too often heard complaints about “liturgical” churches and liturgies that require too much of the people. Like, “Why all the sitting and then standing and then kneeling? That’s a lot to keep track of during the service!” Or, “Do you really expect people to study their Bibles in-depth during the week, between Sunday school classes?”
I don’t mean to turn this into an Imagine-What-This-Country-Would-Be-Like-If-People-Spent-Half-The-Time-They-Spend-On-Their-Fantasy-Football-Teams-Reading-Their-Bibles-Instead kind of rant. (Although can you imagine the possibilities?)
I simply want to say this. Having realized how truly liturgical fans are in their interaction with the NFL, I feel zero compunction about being part of a worshiping tradition that really requires something of worshipers. Of course I think we in the church should make efforts to bridge any undue gaps from liturgy to worshiper, so that the worshipers know why we do the things we do in Church and how they can engage.
But people can generally figure out a liturgy if they want to. Folks at Pittsburgh Steelers games don’t receive catechetical instruction on how to use a Terrible Towel and why it’s an important aid to their engagement with the game. They just sort of figure it out by using it. Which is how I’ve made sense over the years of my church’s liturgy. I’ve read books, taken classes, and taught others various liturgical elements, but the Gathering-Word-Table-Sending tetrad has made the most sense to me when I’ve just shown up and participated.
That’s not too much to ask of someone coming to church—to just show up and start doing the stuff. We live in a culture that gives the NFL nearly 10 billion (yes, billion) dollars a year in revenue; that gives who-knows-how-many hours a week to managing fantasy football teams; that paints their faces, dons weird costumes, and thrusts their arms into the air and shouts praises to their team; that spends hours on Sunday at the stadium or watching at home. When was the last time you heard of someone getting impatient when a football game passed the hour mark?
So to those of us in “liturgical” traditions, I say—don’t get too anxious about whether or not your tradition is accessible. Pastors and priests, don’t sweat keeping your people in church for more than an hour. Parishioners, don’t feel like you have to apologize to the friend you want to bring to church as you help her flip between the pages of three different books.
People have it in them to do liturgy on a Sunday. And we Christians who believe that “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again” may just have the best liturgy of them all.
Abram K-J is a seminarian, director of worship at a Christian undergraduate school, husband and father, and follower of Jesus. He blogs at Words on the Word.