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.