I recently returned from the 32nd Mississippi Conference on Church Music & Liturgy. Spending almost six days immersed in music, singing in a choir, and learning about liturgy made it a fantastic continuing education experience.
On the faculty this year was the Rev. Dr. Paul Westermeyer. He’s an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he is professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Among his books is Te Deum: The Church and Music (Augsburg Fortress, 1998).
It’s unusual to find someone who has the training and experience to be both a pastor and a church musician. But Dr. Westermeyer very gracefully and intelligently bridges these vocations in ways that address the needs and concerns of both clergy and organists/choirmasters/choristers.
In the course of his presentations, Dr. Westermeyer said one thing that really struck me (I’m paraphrasing his words from memory):
“The reason we have set forms for prayer in the Church is to protect us from each other.”
There was quite a bit of laughter in response to this statement, and for precisely that reason, I think that most of the conferees understood what he was driving at.
What are some of the dangers of worship without liturgy? What exactly do we need protection from?
I’m moving beyond (but hopefully not contradicting) Dr. Westermeyer in offering some brief reflections of my own on three interrelated dangers of worship without liturgy.
One danger of worship without liturgy is the tyranny of taste. If I’m presiding over worship and there are no set forms for what we do and say and in what order, then it’s awfully tempting for me to just do what I like. I say prayers I want to say about things I want to pray about. I read and preach on my favorite passages of scripture (neatly avoiding all of those passages that are difficult or that I’m not sure I really understand). And I allow only the music I personally like, whether the congregation knows it or not. This is tyrannical because it makes the presider’s personal likes and dislikes the ultimate arbiter of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Another danger that is related to the tyranny of taste is the cult of personality. Instead of the focus being on God, worship becomes all about the minister or the presider. If I put on a good show, if I’m entertaining and say things that people want to hear, then maybe they will love and adore me. And I’ll not only feel good about myself, but perhaps even come to believe that my role as the presider at worship is indispensable for everybody else’s relationship with God (when, in actuality, I’m consciously or unconsciously cultivating dependency on a certain kind of relationship with me rather than with God). Note, also, that this elevates the status of the presider/preacher/priest at the expense of the laity, thus slipping in through the backdoor a clericalism that undermines the equality and ministries of all the baptized.
And finally, worship without liturgy runs the risk of reducing worship to a consumer commodity – the idolatrous pursuit of entertainment and “religious experiences” as substitutes for praising and giving thanks to God. Eugene Peterson offers some illuminating comments on this in his book The Jesus Way (William B. Eerdmans, 2007). Expounding on Elijah’s prophetic denunciation of the worship of Baal as a form of harlotry, Peterson is worth quoting at length:
While the prophetic accusation of “harlotry” has a literal reference to the sacred prostitution of the Baal cult, it is also a metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passion of the worshipers as its baseline. “Harlotry” is worship that says, “I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most arousing to you.” A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible to Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that it should be interesting, relevant, exciting – that I “get something out of it.” [p. 110]
A frequently used phrase in North American culture that is symptomatic of Baalistic tendencies in worship is “let’s have a worship experience.” It is the Baalistic perversion of “let us worship God.” It is the difference between cultivating something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. In a “worship experience,” a person sees something that excites him or her and goes about putting spiritual wrappings around it. A person experiences something in the realm of dependency, anxiety, love, loss, or joy and a connection is made with the ultimate. Worship becomes a movement from what I see or experience or hear, to prayer or celebration or discussion in a religious setting. Individual feelings trump the word of God. [p. 111]
Peterson’s warnings are particularly important as churches – all churches, both liturgical and non-liturgical – seek to draw people into the way of Jesus in an increasingly post-Christian, Baalistic culture. If we’re not careful, we can so accommodate ourselves to this culture in how we evangelize and conduct worship that we end up eradicating the distinctive and counter-cultural message of the Gospel.
In conclusion, I hasten to add that just because a church’s worship is liturgical, it does not necessarily follow that it is free from the dangers outlined above. For example, I’ve been to an Episcopal church where the ego of the celebrating priest was so big that he would consistently talk about himself from the pulpit rather than preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve also been to an Episcopal church where the priest was so adored by the congregation that people would literally stay away from worship if they found out that she would not be preaching on a particular Sunday.
And, of course, there’s always the danger that using set forms for prayer can hinder rather than facilitate worship if it becomes a mere matter of rote recitation from memory rather than an intentional engagement of the whole person in relation to God.
So the point is not that liturgical churches always get it right or that non-liturgical churches don’t really worship God. Hardly.
The point, rather, is that liturgy provides (imperfect, to be sure) checks and balances against the three dangers of the tyranny of taste, the cult of personality, and the reduction of worship to a consumer commodity. And for that reason, liturgy offers a means of keeping ourselves – our egos, our agendas, our likes and dislikes – in check so that there’s sufficient time and space for us to corporately keep company with God ... and be transformed.