Liturgical Theology

Liturgy is one of those unavoidable issues.  If you gather in church, you’re going to do something.  The word for that something is liturgy.

To my considerable detriment, and the great shame of my tradition, I managed to get through 4 years of Bible college and 4 more years of seminary, graduate from both, and be ordained as a minister of the gospel, all without receiving any training in liturgical theology.  Not one course; not one recommended book; not so much as a casual conversation over coffee.

If you paid close attention to my first paragraph, you’re probably wondering, “What? First you say it’s unavoidable to have liturgy, and then you say you got no training in liturgy?  How’s that possible?”

It’s not.  Everyone gets training in liturgy every time they go to church.  I was no exception.  I even got a little formal training in liturgy.  Not much, but enough to get me through my first church service, first communion service, first wedding, etc., without disaster.  What I didn’t get was training in liturgical theology — being conscious of what the liturgy communicates, understanding the underlying theology of it.  I had lots of training in the theology of what I say in church, but none at all in the theology of what we do in church.

God be praised, He maneuvered me into a pastoral situation where a couple of very divergent liturgical traditions were coming together, and this forced me to confront these issues.  If I’d taken a pastorate in a normal church in my tradition, I could have gone to my grave having never thought these things through.

But it was not to be.  The only way we could have church at all without fighting about what to do was to agree that nobody, including the pastor, was allowed to import traditions into our church without a discussion of the issues and a biblical grounding in why we were doing that particular thing.  The resulting ground-up examination of every last facet of the service has been excruciating for me, very slow going for everyone, and generally a difficult process, but very, very rewarding.

Why excruciating?  Not through any fault of my congregation, I can assure you.  They’ve been unfailingly loving, patient, and helpful throughout the process.  I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellow believers to hash through these things with, and I couldn’t possibly have gotten where I am without them.  I thank God for them constantly.  In spite of that, this process has been very painful for me because I had thought of myself as pretty well prepared for the ministry.  Oh, I knew I had a lot of experiential learning to do, just like every young pastorling does, but I though I was pretty solid in terms of what I knew.  Liturgical reform forced me to confront my abysmal ignorance in a very basic area of church practice.  Worse yet, about half of the little I thought I knew has turned out to be, not just wrong, but utterly indefensible.  So far.  I’m not making any bets about the reliability of the rest of my tiny fund of knowledge, either.

Unfortunately, I am far from alone in my benighted ignorance.  I recently heard a former Presbyterian minister bewailing the fact that there’s not a Reformed seminary on this continent where a student can get a course in liturgical theology.

Why is that?

I suspect because it would force us to confront areas of weakness and sin that make us very, very uncomfortable.  The implicit theology of a church service from my tradition is heartily gnostic.  The focus of the service is on delivery of information from pastor to people.  The hymns are screened for doctrinal content (and little else), the Lord’s Table is an occasion for a sermonette on the cross and resurrection, and the baptismal services are used as occasions to preach the gospel to unsaved loved ones who are invited to the service.  Everything is a sermon — spoken, set to music, or presented as an object lesson.  In some subsets of my tradition, even the word “service” has been replaced with the term “Bible class” — because that’s all it is.

It’s all about the ideas, disconnected from historical, experiential reality.

Now someone will justly complain that of course, the preaching — musical, spoken, and object lessons — hammers unceasingly on the need for the ideas to be applied into daily life.  Sad to say, there are occasional exceptions to this, but for the most part, this is true.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  While what we say certainly passes all the tests of orthodoxy, what we do in the church service pictures a different theology entirely.  The entire service is delivery of intellectual content from pastor (or choir) to people.  It pictures a theology in which pleasing God is all about knowing things, and the more content you know, the more pleased God will be with you.

That’s gnosticism.

And it leads to believers who have heavy notebooks bursting with information, and unholy lives empty of meaning.  And as much as we might decry the results from the pulpit in the next week’s ‘Bible class’, those very problems we so despise are results of our bankrupt worship.

As opposed to what?

Thought you’d never ask.

As opposed to the Church gathering consciously as the Cabinet of the New Jerusalem (temporarily in exile), in order that we, as royal priests ordained through baptism into Christ’s one body, might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies to confess our sins, receive grace to help us in need, offer up the new covenant sacrifices of praise, hear His Word to us, and be fed by Him at His Table.  Gathering as royal priests to bring the world before God in prayer, that God will bring HImself to the world through us, and gathering as royal priests that we might wage war in the heavenly places against the ruling powers of that same world, secure in the knowledge that its many kingdoms will become the single Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

In other words, an actual, Christian worship service,  a time in which we serve God through worship rather than just downloading some content from the pastor’s head.

Now what does the liturgy look like when that is the implicit theology behind it?

I don’t know.  (I have no training in this, remember?)

But by God’s providence, through study and prayer and lots of trial and error, we’re going to find out together.

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2 Responses to Liturgical Theology

  1. Steve Dehner says:

    Ouch.
    You just reminded me that I have a back pocket (the kind you sit on and forget about) in my theology, and that the last time I looked it was empty. I blogged about about it briefly here: http://thegiftandtheprize.blogspot.com/2008/12/experience-of-worship.html

    I’m nearly crippled by having been brought up in the Catholic liturgy, which was beautiful but empty for me, then being a practicing charismatic for two years, and now having partaken of the weekly data dump for most of my Christian life. I’m a mess!

    I don’t expect my seminary studies to help me in this area. So, keep blogging, friend. I’m all ears.

    By the way, I loved your last post on church history. I love history, but I had made a conscious decision to not spend much time studying it. Have to re-think that now.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Steve,

    Your Roman background will be more help than any seminary you’re likely to attend.

    Yeah, I know how that sounds, but the situation really is that bad.

    I’ll do what I can to continue posting provocative thoughts. I have to admit, I feel like a kindergartener here, but that’s because I am a liturgical kindergartener. So what qualifies as a ‘provocative thought’ may, in retrospect, turn out to be a little sad. But it’s like learning any other skill — the only way to grow is to keep doing it, publicly enough that you can receive correction, until you start to get it right. The historical study will be an important part of that; lots of other people have passed this way, and there are lots of solutions out there to examine — some really terrible, but others very helpful and productive, at least in their own time and place. As for adapting them, well…that’s where the fun begins.

    I’ll welcome your input along the way, especially if you think I’m deranged. This is not the kind of journey one makes alone.

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