I live liturgy. Every morning, I wake up to a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal and a shower. I take the J Church light rail downtown to my office, where I open my MacBook and begin my day. My daily liturgy.* We are a liturgical people in the sense that we live by habits, practices, rituals and routines that give form to our days. And all of our churches are liturgical—all of them—in the sense that each has a certain set of guiding practices and rhythms that form people.
Let’s be honest: The debate is not whether or not our churches do liturgy. The debate is about how we understand and practice it.
Back to the Future
Several decades ago, the Western church integrated new experiments in musical expression, aesthetics, communication and more. Responding to the stagnancy of churches caught in endless intellectual debates between fundamentalism and liberalism, some chose to put the past behind them, creating the contemporary American church. The Church needed renewal, and it needed to engage the demands of modern life.
But the response was extreme. It critiqued traditionalism but threw out tradition in the process. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan has said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The longing for a rooted faith re-emerged in young men and women who, in the 1990s, left contemporary churches in significant numbers for Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches. Some in the U.K., New Zealand and the U.S. began experimenting with classic liturgical expressions re-presented in new forms and music. It was the resurrection of the living faith of the dead.
The “father” of this new movement was the late Robert Webber, a prolific writer and gifted teacher who put words around this seismic shift in liturgical expression. In Webber’s many works, he argued a hopeful future of the Church resided in a new articulation of the historic liturgical tradition of the Church. As one friend who teaches worship said, “Robert Webber made liturgy cool again.”
Though I’m glad liturgy is “cool again,” renewed interest in traditional liturgical expressions seems to be accompanied by the notion that classic practices like the Eucharist or the Call to Worship are choices in a grand liturgical buffet. In other words, renewed liturgical expression can come with a lack of good thinking around liturgical integrity—the purpose of the liturgy as a whole.
The elements of liturgical worship are not choices in an ecclesial buffet line. Rather, as a whole, they tell a Story. And that Story counters the stories we are told in the many liturgies we practice every day. The elements of the liturgy are not merely cool sacred opportunities. Together, they form (and re-form) us, telling a different Story than we typically encounter.
Consider this as it applies to social media. Because liturgies are habits, practices and rituals that give form to our lives, we might consider our online social engagement liturgical. What strikes me is how we can create a kind of social identity in and through our status updates, tweets and more. We might tell of good things, but we might also confess something—a bad breakup, exhaustion, anger toward our boss. Soon, however, we’ll receive comments and be assured of our acceptance by friends. We’ll feel connected, perhaps even empowered, to plug in more. We learn all kinds of things about ourselves, others and the world. We join a group, enjoy photos, watch YouTube uploads, play games—we eat and drink of the total social media feast. And we don’t just take. We offer ourselves, our talents, our thoughts, the things that make us laugh. Closing our laptop, we feel blessed, perhaps, to have had good words spoken to us, good connections made.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, my friend Jamie Smith argues these social practices are not merely habit-forming, but desire-forming. He writes, “Liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.” Does our use of social media shape what we love? Maybe not for everyone. But for many of us, it’s addictive. We feed on the connection we experience. We feel a sense of acceptance when we’re followed or friended. We’re creatures of desire. That’s how God made us. But a lot competes for our affections.
Shaping Our Lives
Certain words are italicized in the previous section to highlight the connection, and perhaps the contrast, between different liturgies. Go back and re-read them. Consider this: The time-honored elements of liturgical worship are all geared around forming our habits, identities and desires. Now, hear the same italicized words in this context. God calls us into worship to remind us of our identity in light of His grace. We confess sin because we’re all convinced something is wrong with the world, and us. We are assured by words that speak acceptance into our lives. We connect as we pass the peace of God to one another. We learn as we’re challenged to become followers in the sermon. We participate more fully as we eat and drink of what will satisfy us more than anything. We offer our resources to God. And we are dismissed with the benediction, literally the “good word” spoken over us—a word of blessing.
The liturgies we practice speak of what we love. Our lives are aligned around the narrative(s) most compelling to us. Liturgy invites our lives to be re-shaped, our loves to be re-aligned, our desires to be re-directed. It is not a call to disconnect from all of the competing liturgies we’re engaged with. Perhaps it’s a call to reify them, to transform them, to infuse them with the possibility of real connection, real identity, real love.
I live liturgy. And so do you. So, step back and look at the shape of your life. Maybe you’ll ask the question I ask myself: What do I really love?
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.