Subliminal Liturgy

A week or so ago Andrew (my husband) and I attended a “church planting boot camp” put on by the Evangelical Free Church of Canada (EFCC). The workshop was a helpful step back from our day-to-day work with a church plant just north of Edmonton – a good way to re-evaluate the church’s mission and goals, and re-assess our progress toward them. Upon returning to our place here, we found ourselves excited about deepening our engagement with the community in which our church is planted and – for the first time – I found myself excited about evangelism. These would be positive outcomes enough – but add to them that our congregation already seems to have latched on to the increased energy with which we returned. We had a congregational meeting this Sunday in which our congregation committed to a firm movement (with clearly defined first steps) toward community service and engagement. So first of all, a very sincere thank you to our three presenters, to our fellow classmates, and to the EFCC.

There was one thing, however, which I found lacking in the workshop. While there was a genuine sense of wanting to address the topic of congregational worship, and there were some good steps taken toward that, most conversation about worship centered on issues of style, of getting people in the doors, and of making it an experience to which people would want to return. These are important considerations, but they don’t address and consider the formative aspect of worship, an important concept to grasp for any congregation, but perhaps especially for a new church plant.

A few years ago I completed a paper on the ethics of Christian worship. Every ethics book I picked up, every anthropological paper I read said the same thing: a community is formed by its shared ritual actions. Some of these papers and books were speaking directly of the church, but many were speaking generally of societal groupings. The consensus seemed to be that actions consistently repeated as a group are formational not only for the group itself (forming the basis for identity and behaviour of the group), but also for individuals (forming the basis for individual identity and behaviour when outside the group).

Now I could take this information and write it off as a bunch of anthropological/psychological mumbo-jumbo (to use the professional term), but I find it difficult to do this when scripture so clearly tells us, again and again, that we are designed to be in community. Not only that, but we consistently see God setting up shared ritual actions for his people: from the time that Adam walked with God in the garden, to the instructions given for the tabernacle, to the ritual of the Lord’s supper established by Christ. Why is this? Might it be that God himself is concerned with forming us through shared ritual activity? And if this is the case, as I would argue it is, why oh why don’t we pay attention to the rituals and patterns we establish in our gathered worship?

Every church, every single one, whether it calls itself liturgical or not, has a liturgy: a set of actions its people engage in every time they meet. In non-liturgical churches, however, this liturgy is hidden, and therefore subliminal (below the threshold of our noticing). But this “subliminal liturgy” – whether or not we want to admit it’s there – is shaping our congregations and the individuals within them as surely as a river gradually carves and shapes a canyon.

We can talk about mission, vision, and goals. We can set them, and work toward their accomplishment. But unless our worship is consistent with them, they will stay out of reach.

As we moved through the church planting workshop, Andrew and I spoke together of the danger of our congregation developing an inward focus. Having taught workshops on the topic of subliminal liturgy previously (see https://thinkingworship.com/workshops for details), I realize that it’s time to really put the rubber to the road and see if this works. So this is what we will do. We will ensure that our “congregational prayer” is never limited to inside concerns; we will pray consistently and passionately for our little town each Sunday. We will choose at least one or two songs a week with a definite outward focus. We will consider carefully what outward response is required by each text we preach, so that we can guide the congregation into it. And we will try to end every service with a “sending benediction.”

Will it work? I think it will. I think it’s already beginning to.

10 Comments

  1. Subliminal FTW! Andrea was trying to the think of the right word for this.

    People who object to thinking about liturgy don’t seem to grasp that people in the congregation are learning from and being shaped by the liturgy, subliminal or not, regardless of how much care you put into it.

    So if you don’t think and plan, they will still learn and be guided, only more or less at random, and often in unexpected directions.

    Reply

    1. I’ve considered trademarking the phrase, but somehow that seems selfish. :) And to the rest of your comment, Gordon: exactly. If we don’t pay attention to our subliminal liturgy, then our congregations may be shaped without reference to any biblical principles at all! Occasionally, when people have talked about difficulties in their congregations, I’ve asked them to outline what happens during the church’s gathered worship. Almost invariably we can pinpoint the root of their problem by tracing it back to something they are doing or not doing during their gathered worship service.

      Reply

  2. Do you think we could encourage/foster an openness or willingness to change by doing a different element or by doing a particular element in a different way as a routine?

    Naturally we will be preaching and teaching on the necessity of adaptation and change, but I would like to infuse this value in the body in a holistic manner.

    Reply

    1. Hi Michael,

      Yes, I would think that including new and creative things in worship services (or changing up existing elements) as a matter of course would be a good way to keep a congregation flexible, or to move them toward being more flexible. Change is hard for congregations, though, so I would start small and then gradually add new and more challenging elements. And stability is also important, so I think I would probably shoot for every second or third week rather than every week.

      Have you ever played with a high concentration of corn starch in water? When you hit the substance, or apply any amount of force it acts like a solid, but when you move slowly, the substance moves like a liquid. Sometimes I think congregations are the same way. If you try to instigate big changes really quickly and without much warning, then everyone lines up (like the molecules in a cornstarch suspension) and you face a solid wall of opposition. If, however, you approach them gradually and give them time to get used to the idea, then often you meet little if any resistance. Here’s a kid’s science project if you want to see the cornstarch in action: http://youtu.be/fazPiaHvFcg

      By changing up one element of the service every couple of weeks, your congregation will gradually become accustomed to a culture of change. At our little church plant, we (being the whole congregation) made a commitment at the beginning not to get too stuck in our ways, so we will often change one, two, or even three elements in the service (or rearrange the whole thing!). We do, however, have a general pattern that is often in play. What this does for us is give the stability of tradition, while not locking the congregation into it in such a way that they are not ready for new and fresh things that the Spirit might place before us. After all, we do serve a God who “makes all things new.”

      How’s that for a lengthy reply to your query!

      Reply

  3. Good post. I share your observations about the tendency of worship seminars and conferences to focus on style, and external structures of worship. I think about the worship wars; the tendency of folks to talk about the likes/dislikes of songs; and of course WHO gets on stage to worship lead. Sometimes, I feel that even by asking basic question of “How to get a more Worshipful Experience?” sounds more like a self-centered, narcissistic expression of Christian consumerism. Yet, any forms of teaching that talks only about God, ignores the humble reality that humans are still very needy people.

    In true Regent style, worship needs to be both God-centered, and People-scentered. Linking the two together will be truly subliminal, and that I suggest is only possible in the Spirit of God. I prefer to see the styles-forms-structures of worship as simply a preface, an introduction that God is so big, and we are so small, and that without God we are nothing.

    conrade

    Reply

  4. Stacey! Just a quick not to say that I just discovered your blog and am so glad I did. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on worship. You do it well. I look forward to hearing more!
    Sheryl

    Reply

  5. Great blog post and everything, but when will the book, “Subliminal Liturgy” by Stacey Gleddiesmith, hit the shelves? That’s what I have been waiting for. And then you wouldn’t have to worry about the trademark. Of course, you cannot copyright a title. It matters not.

    But seriously, all kidding aside, you should write a book about this.

    But seriously, a book.

    But seriously, :)

    Reply

    1. Ah, you’re all too kind. Thanks Brian, I’ve got to bang out the “biblical lament” work first. Maybe. Of course now I’m too busy writing blog posts… When’s your book coming out?

      Reply

  6. Hi Stacey,

    Some really good thoughts here – thanks. I’m challenged to look at the
    “subliminal liturgy” in our church and discern what we’re communicating as important.

    I enjoyed boot camp as well – thanks for your involvement.

    Dan

    Reply

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