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.

Why another worship blog?

A friend once asked me if I thought it was absolutely necessary to add my own words to the repository of books – short and long, hard cover and soft, good, middling, and awful – in the world. Weren’t there enough books out there already; did I really have anything new to say?

The same question could be asked of me now: why add my own voice to the throbbing millions pushing to be heard in the blogosphere?

I have yet to write the books I was discussing with my friend – but I still intend to do so. Yes, there are a lot of books out there already, but no, there are not enough. Yes, I have something new to say, several new things to say in fact. Yes, I am vain enough to believe that it is important for me to say them, and vain enough to believe that people (at least a few) will read them. I feel the same way about this blog.

As I considered whether or not to begin my own worship blog, I decided to research other blogs on the topic. Here’s what I found

  • set-lists
  • “Sunday evening ramblings”
  • tips for worship in a certain style
  • music advice
  • presentations of new songs/music
  • advice on the use of various technologies
  • arguments for the adoption of various trends
  • post after post after post entitled “worship is…” containing a vague list of personal opinions about the nature of worship, usually making no reference to scripture and almost entirely dependent on the etymology of the English word “worship”

Some of the above I read with interest. Some of the above I found quite helpful. Some of the above made me extremely nervous. Some of the above made me want to tear my hair out. None of the above addressed theology of worship.

I’m not saying there is no place for practical worship blogs that explore the real challenges of leading worship, including all the technical elements involved. I’m not saying that there are no hard-hitting theology of worship blogs out there (if you know of any good ones, please let me know!).

I am saying that there seems to be a need for a blog that bridges theology and practice. J.I. Packer says, at the start of every theology course that he teaches (and sometimes, if he forgets he said it already, at the start of every class!), “all good theology leads to doxology.” The two are to be inextricably linked. Worship is tied to every aspect of theology, and therefore good and careful theology should under-gird every act of worship.

You can read more about my perspective on worship in the church on the Thinking Worship page of this blog. I hope you will. And if you feel I’m off track, I hope you’ll let me know. And if you feel I’m on to something, I hope you’ll join in the discussion.

Warmly,

Stacey Gleddiesmith