Liturgical reform and worship renewal

Ken Sehested, Alliance of Baptists Convocation
17-19 April 2015 [expanded version]


Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and
to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.

The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement,
seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to
destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

            I don’t think I ever heard the word “liturgy” until I went to an ecumenical seminary. Before then, I thought Lent was what balled up in your navel when you wore cotton t-shirts. It’s not that the Southern Baptist churches of my rearing didn’t have a liturgical year. We did. It started with Valentine’s Day (usually a youth banquet), followed by Easter, Mother’s Day, Vacation Bible School, Fourth of July, youth camp, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas; and, of course, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for Home Missions and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions, and a floating date for the annual revival. For the truly rigorous, there was also Watch Night prayer service on New Year’s Eve.

            It’s a pretty substantial calendar; we just didn’t call it “liturgical.”

            Sunday worship services had a very predictable lineup, including 3 hymns, a choir special, sermon, altar call, with prayers and announcements mixed in. Not exactly the Book of Common Prayer, but fully ritualized nonetheless.

            There’s good news and there’s bad news about renewed interest in liturgical reform and revitalization of worship. The good news is that some of us baptist-flavored folk are coming out of our historical shell, discovering a much deeper and wider worship tradition, moving beyond the anti-Catholic reflex which shaped so much of our worship life, not to mention going back further into pre-Augustinian history to recover the more earthy-fleshly part of the church’s history commonly referred to as Celtic Christianity. The openness to more sensuous and artistic forms of worship are bringing needed refreshment.

            On more than one occasion I’ve mentioned to my congregation that if I had the power to unilaterally reshape our common life, it would be in two ways: One, that everyone would bring their bodies to church (and not just their brains). And two, that they would make space for mysticism. Mystical experience is more common than we assume. We just lack the language to identify and foster it.

            There’s also some bad news to this heightened interest in the move toward liturgical literacy.

            1. The powerful privatizing dynamic affecting our culture means fewer people are actually interested in communal practices. It’s a very short step between “me-and-Jesus” spirituality to the demographics of the “nones,” the dramatic rise in religious disaffiliation. Worship is normatively a communal undertaking. Tragically, the values of carnivorous capitalism have turned us into private consumers.

            I understand the disillusionment—even disgust—that the “spiritual-but-not-religious” sense in organized religion. But note the solitariness of so many emergent forms of spirituality: from centering prayer, lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, to the more generic practices of meditation and exercise regimens like yoga and Tai chi. According to newer-age spirituality guru Deepak Chopra, “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.” But there is a profound difference between personal faith and private faith. When faith is privatized, spirituality becomes a voyeuristic escapade—and not that different from pornography, where the “other” is used rather than cherished, where personal fulfillment trumps common good. I live among the Southern Appalachians, among the oldest mountains on earth. Real estate ads for expensive homes highlight “great views.”  Spirituality—of the biblical sort—is more than great views.

            2. I sometimes fear that interest in expanded liturgical practices reflects the thirst for cultural novelty, even upward mobility, more than spiritual fluency. Nowadays, some people collect “experiences” the way others collect stock portfolios. Both of these realities are evidence of spiritual decay. Both inhibit our ability to bring the earth-tilting vision of faith to bear on a world predicated on violence.

            Will Willimon writes of overhearing the conversation between two church-goers. One asked the other why she came to worship. "I come to worship to be quiet, at peace, alone; to get rest and refuge from the problems that confront me in my everyday life," was the response. "What about you?"

      “Oh, I disagree," said the other. “I come to worship to get motivated to live a better life in the real world."

      One saw worship as an escape from the world while the other saw worship as motivation for involvement in the world. Both agreed that, whatever happened in worship, it was not an integral part of life in the real world.

            Let me mention briefly two theological themes I employ as guides toward a richer land of liturgical milk and honey.

            First: God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven. Be forewarned of any new practices which result in added insulation between your worshipping community and the battered neighborhoods in which it lives. It concerns me that interest in liturgical expansion too often reflects rising educational standards more than expanded Gospel imperatives. Be prepared to raise some hard questions if worship renewal does not heighten your congregation’s sensitivity to the world’s broken places.

            Second: There’s no getting right with God, there’s only getting soaked. In my experience, newer-age spiritualities are no less prone than the old-fashioned kinds in creating self-referencing forms of faith. The work of grace is to free us from self-absorption in ways that generate joyfully sustained alignment with God’s redemptive presence in the world.  If liturgy is limited to stress-reduction therapy, we have lost our way.


From theological reflection to concrete liturgical practices

            There is an expansive list of liturgical practices that may be employed to deepen the kind of worship that reminds us of God’s intention in creation and propels us on the road to the coming new heaven and new earth. Here are eight key commitments of my own congregation’s worship life. (I make no claim that we are good at these—only that we keep coming back to them for guidance and clarification.)

            1. From the beginning we said we wanted to be a singing church. Developing our musical culture was by far our most challenging pastoral work. Our members come from so many different musical cultures—literally from Quaker to Roman Catholic. We finally realized there wasn’t one musical culture out there to be discovered. We would have to develop our own, which meant a lot of trial and error, slowly accumulating an eclectic mixture of “go-to” music, from the spirituals, old hymns (some with new lyrics), Taizé and Iona chorus-type songs, as well as a number of modern hymns. Our Sunday service has music at eight different places.

            2. We also said from the beginning that we wanted to be a kid-friendly church. This is harder than you think! Our educational institutions have so enslaved us to the notion that important learning comes through cognition.

            There are many ways to experiment with this. One is surely having “children’s story” times that move beyond telling morality tales and object lessons. Creating a climate where our younger members participate in our “joys and concerns” times has been one of our successes. Using home-grown drama, providing worship leadership roles for children, making sure some of our music is lively, even having hand motions—these are but a few ideas.

            3. You may have noticed that one of the hottest new trends in worship renewal is . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . personal testimonies! We deep-water baptists thought we were moving to the big city when we stopped doing testimonies. Of course, the newfangled word for personal testimonies is “faith stories.” (The creators of National Public Radio’s “This I believe” and “StoryCorps” series understand the dynamic power of this practice.) Unfortunately, many in our churches are intimidated by public speaking. One of the most important pastoral tasks is to work with members to help them develop a framework for indicating what they believe by way of specific personal narratives.

            4. Far and away the most favored time in our weekly service is our “joys and concerns” time. We have over the years managed to establish a free, unscripted space where both hallelujahs and heartaches can be shared, whether these be small and personal or large and public. There is no part of reality for which God is not passionately interested. I realize there are logistical problems for larger congregations (we average 60 for worship). And in our case it helps that we sit in a semi-circle (with the communion table in the center). It takes some cultural training. (e.g., We don’t need every detail of the doctor’s diagnosis.) Occasionally it gets long-winded. But the payoff is worth the risk.

            5. Our most distinctive, homegrown liturgical practice is the “commissioning” rituals we plan for those in our Circle making significant life changes and/or journeys of faith. We’ve performed these for a host of circumstances, including: welcoming a new child (biological or adopted); doing trauma counseling training after disasters in Haiti and the Philippines; visiting our partner church in Cuba; preparing for an act of civil disobedience; sending our youth off to college; welcoming a troubled niece into the family for an interim stay, or a terminally-ill mother home from a medical facility to die with dignity. We ask the person(s) being commissioned to sit just beyond those serving communion, allowing others in the Eucharistic parade to offer a hand of blessing on the head and a word of encouragement in the ear.

            6. Speaking of the Lord’s Supper, we do it every week, by intinction, with a variety of servers, the congregation coming forward as we sing, sometimes soberly, sometimes brightly, sometimes animated with hands clapping, even bodies swaying. It’s the culmination of our worship. Until recently—when the cleanup process began to weary our collective hands—we had a potluck dinner immediately after worship (at 5 p.m. Sunday afternoons), with leftover communion bread going to the dinner table, making the connection between our ritual meal and the sacrament of our common table.

            7. The ritual observance of silence is typically the hardest habit to form, especially for those of us from wordy Protestant traditions. We do it twice, once between the welcome and the call to worship litany, then again following the sermon, 60 seconds each time. We were pleasantly surprised that even our young children quickly adapted. Each quarter we have a Taizé service of musical chants, lectionary readings, and more extended periods of silence.

            8. Maybe our steepest learning curve is designing sensuous worship, communicating through as many of the senses as possible. It doesn’t require exotic effort: banners, flowers, communion table cloth colors and timely artifacts, and worship bulletin art are common. Besides our frequent music, we are initially called to worship by chiming a metal prayer bowl. I keep hoping someone will volunteer to bake communion bread, just prior to worship in our rented space in an Episcopal church parish hall kitchen, for its aroma—since incense is out, given the allergies. “Passing the peace” during our opening hymn interlude allows hugs and handshakes. There’s the communion cup and bread—occasionally for dipping in honey, occasionally followed by foreheads anointed by oil, and occasionally with hands dipped in water in remembrance of baptismal vows. From time to time we are blessed by liturgical dance; occasionally with drama by our youth. And we have learned, mostly, not to be distracted by the cries of infants.

            Back to the Willimon story, about whether or not worship is the “real” world. For our liturgies to be renewed and revitalized—however high church or low, however quiet or exuberant, however traditional or innovative—we must become convinced again that worship involves a fierce ideological struggle over whose promises of power and strength and well-being are more worthy. To worship is to discern worthiness. Vital liturgy depends on bringing to worship our experiences of ongoing crucifixion in the world, alongside stories of resurrecting transformation. These are laid on the anvil of memory, of God’s saving activity in the past; and by wielding the hammer of ritual acts we forge ploughshares from each season’s bloody swords.

            Every day, ever hour, we are bombarded from every direction with claims that only the strong survive, that you get what you earn, that calculated violence holds the key to the future, that the meek may inherit the earth but not the mineral rights. Until these questions become front and center, all liturgical innovations, however vigorous, will remain “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We must again understand that, in the words of Karl Barth, “To clasp hands in prayer is an uprising against the world’s disordered ways.”

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©Ken Sehested @