Worship Movements 1/5: Making Ritual 'Rich-You-All'

Many leaders I work with bemoan the fact that their folks don’t seem to want to get involved in worship. However, I’ve experienced that when we facilitate meaningful and memorable ways to be actively involved, people join in gladly.

The “active participation of the people” was a tenet of the mid-20th century liturgical movement. During this liturgical movement, scholarship relating to early church practices added to our understanding of the riches of our Christian practices through the ages. Originating in the Roman Catholic tradition, this scholarship soon engaged Orthodox and Protestant liturgical theologians and historians which informed, and still informs, our modern worship practices. Reinstating ancient rituals of the liturgical year, using the lectionary, and offering a deeper sacramental theology leading to more frequent communion rituals are all modern results of the liturgical movement impacting our worship today.

I remember the first Ash Wednesday service ever done in my little rural mainline church where I grew up. I was in middle school at the time. Pastors of little rural churches are often right out of seminary and not (yet) afraid to try out what they’ve learned. Our new pastor announced we would have Ash Wednesday services and that ashes would be “imposed.” Now, in my small midwestern town, I could count on one finger the Roman Catholics I knew, and this “Ash Wednesday” service sure felt very “Catholic.” Unfortunately, the reason I remember the service so well is that this new pastor mixed ashes with water, not oil, which produces a lye mixture that actually burned the crosses onto our foreheads. Yep, the unfortunate rookie mistake led to our little church wondering if this practice was actually “Catholic” or perhaps “satanic!”

The ancient practices revealed to us by liturgical scholars have taken a while for mainline, and even longer for evangelical, churches to begin to reclaim. But at last, we have come to understand a more holistic relationship with our ancient origins. Nowadays, you can even find Easter Vigil services lasting long into the night complete with bonfires and baptisms.

Emerging generations are drawing on this important knowledge as they embrace an “ancient-future” perspective on worship. Rather than “seeker” worship that was popular in the beginning of the contemporary movement (“don’t look TOO Christian”), post-modern avenues of worship are embracing deeply sacramental practices and drawing on rich symbolism, inviting even new church-goers to experience God and be actively involved in Christian rituals that are “rich.” I’m convinced this is a huge gift to the church.

In many churches that are in touch with this embrace of the liturgical movement (even evangelical churches), a great number of new “alternative” services are incorporating weekly communion–right from the git-go. As the practice deepens, so does the congregation’s yearning for active participation in those practices and “ritual” becomes “rich-you-all”!

In the next four articles, we will continue to explore various worship movements of the 20th and 21st centuries as we consider how we might enhance what we already do in our worship. The hallmark of good application of any learning is that incorporating new ideas doesn’t overturn the practices of the congregation, but rather deepens them. How could your “traditional” service become even more deeply traditional?

Consider reading the Gospel text in the midst of the people as they stand. Many churches stand for the Gospel, unaware of the ancient origins of the reader actually standing in the midst with them””a sign of the incarnate nature of God’s Word. Invite the whole congregation to the “orans” position (hands raised, palms up) during the epliclesis (“pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here”) part of the Great Thanksgiving prayer. This was originally the prayer posture for the whole assembly, not just the presider. Check out your denomination’s suggestions for the Easter Vigil. The vigil has morphed over the centuries into the sunrise service, but can be a rich experience late on Easter Eve as the congregation encounters light, water, word, and table. Incorporate confirmands in creating and leading the service as a way for them to enter more fully into the history and theology of their faith. Rather than having acolytes come down the aisles as everyone is singing a song or hymn, therefore not noticing the entrance of the light, make a bigger deal of it by asking the congregation to turn and face the light, ringing chimes or handbells as it processes or singing a short, congregational refrain.

No matter the “style” of your worship, the more rich you make symbolic moments, the more you stand in line with a tradition that has recognized the depth of the intersections of life and faith. I invite you to have a conversation with your worship design team about these five blogs in this series as we seek to learn from the gifts of the worship movements of our time. For more ideas in opening up conversations about worship in your church, join us in the Worship Design Studio!