“This is unbearable.” It says more about me than I care to disclose that I mutter this unholy complaint so predictably every third Sunday when it is my turn to escort my wheelchair-bound, 90 year-old father to his home church, not incidentally the church of my upbringing as well. It says much more about me than it says about this mid-size (it would be by far the largest Episcopal church in our state) evangelical church that for me the non-liturgical worship commences with this instinctive litany. But I suspect readers of this blog could sympathize with the sentiment. All the usual coordinates are in place to evoke my self-righteous, smart-ass contempt for modes of worship so tacky and trite. I can’t be the only one to notice that these empty songs in which melodies and lyrics compete for blandness do not improve with the endless repetition. I can’t be alone in sensing that the whole “experience” is “without form and void,” a parachute drop into a vague orthopathos. Yet the Spirit (of whom one might expect better taste) broods also over these waters — maybe not also but especially. And the goodness of the Lord is evident at every turn for anyone willing to taste and see rather than study the menu for nutritional values.
Yes, I am an almost classic case of the evangelical on the Canterbury Trail, save, perhaps, for one thing: I am not yet persuaded that my preferred modes of worship actually carry the formative payload so frequently claimed on their behalf. I don’t say that they couldn’t. I just don’t see the evidence that the graceful aestheticism of liturgy “produces” gracious persons or that worshiping in the beauty of holiness makes holy persons. At least not with any causal predictability. I realize that I speak as a heretic in admitting this, not least in my setting, Nashotah House, a seminary community committed to just these practices as the foundation for a rich vision of formation. But, as a sage colleague once put it to me, “Nashotah House is the ideal place for the formation of well-formed persons.” I think that’s right. And I think it is no less true of our churches. There is a formation gap — of the intellect, will, and affections — that renders the profound banal and the holy common. Never mind our theories of “how it works,” more often than not the spark doesn’t jump the gap.
This is why I found Kirsten Guidero’s recent piece for Christianity Today (“We Need More than Liturgy”) spot on and worthy fodder for serious soul-searching as it concerns liturgy and formation. Kirsten (full disclosure: a friend of mine) takes to task what she regards as an eminently intelligent and theoretically compelling account of liturgy and formation. With some real candor and insight Kirsten is asking the same sort of questions that have been nagging me for a while. I commend her piece especially to erstwhile evangelicals with jaundiced memories of their non-liturgical pasts. Similarly, if you haven’t read James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, I commend it wholeheartedly. I suspect, like me, you will not only find it stimulating and persuasive, you will wish that it were true.
Meanwhile, I am rebuked by the mercy of Christ every third Sunday in the encounter with this Spirit-graced community. It never fails to move me how many people who would never genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament take a knee before my dad’s wheelchair to venerate a lay presbyter — and to love a dear brother in Christ in the final days of his earthly sojourn. This community having once brought me up well now brings me up short. Thanks be to God.
The image is a photo of worship at Grace Evangelical Free Church of La Mirada on January 18, 2009 by Brian A. Petersen and is licensed under Creative Commons.