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Pavlovian Pop-Worship versus Traditional Liturgies: On (just) going through the motions at church

A common reaction that I get from fellow twenty-somethings when I say I go to an Anglican church is a mixture of confusion and contempt.  I regularly get befuddled, exasperated, and even concerned queries of Why? when I express my appreciation for ancient, liturgical forms of worship.

Now, I certainly don’t expect it to be obvious to everyone why I should appreciate such practices.  It certainly goes against the grain of our technocratic, novelty-addicted (pop-)culture to revel in the low-tech, centuries-old, highly repetitive, traditional practices of the Anglican liturgy.  To that extent a popular disdain for ancient liturgy is certainly understandable.  But one question I get about these things strikes me as deeply ironic, a question that frequently betrays a misunderstanding of both ancient and “contemporary” forms of worship:

“But aren’t you just going through the motions?”

Yes, Anglican liturgies are highly scripted.  We stand, sit, kneel, pray, cross ourselves, sing, line-up, shake hands, and leave on cue.  And the cues are the same week after week.  The prayers typically are, too.  There is little in the way of variation or spontaneity.  And, to the eyes of many contemporary-worship-loving Christians this can be nothing but deadening ritualism.

But the irony is that so-called contemporary worship is just as predictable as anything that goes on in an Anglican church.  The rock band begins with a peppy song which leads into something a little slower which then segues into a short prayer by the worship leader (who breathlessly keeps imploring God to “just” do this and to “just” do that–are these prayers sponsored by Nike or something?) which is followed by a few more songs, the seven-word choruses of which will be repeated no fewer than eleven times, before the laser lights cease and a crisp video clip preps the congregation (audience?) for the next installment of the cleverly titled sermon series.  At that point a spotlight will settle on a blue-jean wearing, be-flip-flopped thirty or forty year old man with either cool hair, or cool glasses, or both and a wireless microphone.  The stage is set with a bar stool, a bottle of Deer Park water, and a music stand.  The message will have three points and then conclude with a prayer.  While this prayer (sometimes with as many “justs” as the worship leader’s) is happening the band members creep like ninjas back onto the stage, and the guitarist begins softly picking.  The prayer is followed by a few more peppy songs and then the worship leader telling everyone good night or afternoon or whatever.  The lights then come on and then everybody mills about making plans for lunch or dinner.

In such services everyone knows when to stand or sit (nobody kneels), when to clap or raise their hands, when  to close their eyes, when to talk, when to read, and when to get up and leave.  The cues are implicit.  The worship leader doesn’t need to tell everyone to hop up out of their chairs, he just changes key and tempo.  No one has to tell you to sit.  The colored lights dim, the spotlight comes on, and everyone just does it.  The whole thing is as thoroughly scripted as anything the Catholics or Lutherans or Orthodox do, but not explicitly so.  All the scripting is implied and reflexive so that it is carried out unreflectively.  You might call it Pavlovian pop-liturgy.

The fact is that you can just go through the motions just about anywhere.  It’s not a question of whether your church has a liturgy.  It’s a question of what sort of liturgy your church has and what sort of people that liturgy shapes you to be.  Because, folks, the motions you go through every week at church, they get into your bones, they shape your faith, they form people and communities in very important ways.  It’s worth asking, What are the rituals of popular contemporary worship shaping us into?  What are these rituals modeled on?  (The answer is too obvious to need saying, but I’ll put it out there: they’re modeled on the rituals of rock concerts  and motivational speaking seminars).  Is that really what we want to be?  What do the things that we do in worship with our bodies, our voices, our space, our music, our traditions mean, enact and accomplish?

So why do I go to an Anglican church?  Well, because when we pray these ancient prayers in unison we not only join our voices together, we also join the voices of other Anglicans and Catholics and Orthodox who are praying the same prayers the world over, and also those of saints from ages past who prayed these very prayers as well.  The prayers ritually enact our participation in a Body that spans both space and time, a community which exists and has existed across both cultural and geographic lines, and which is more than a homogeneous middle American lifestyle enclave, tailored to our peculiar cultural preferences.  We confess our sins and make peace with one another before we offer our gifts, lest our giving be for naught.  We partake of the one bread and the one cup whereby we participate in the one Body of Christ and call to God’s remembrance He who died on our behalf.  We kneel in prayer, because we are not disembodied souls, but soulful bodies for whom posture and body language is significant.  These rituals have been shaped, developed, and handed down through the generations as means of forming Christians into Christians.  Over time, they get into your bones and, in my view, that’s a good thing.

Here’s a great video explaining the “nuts and bolts” of Anglican worship, the whys and wherefores of all the sitting, kneeling, standing, bowing, crossing, repeating and so on:

I don’t mean any of this as either an unqualified critique of contemporary worship or an unqualified endorsement of Anglicanism.  Nor are these two approaches to worship entirely mutually exclusive.  Some of my most profound worship experiences have come from services that skillfully blended elements of both.  But, whatever sort of worship we engage in, we ought to go into it critically aware of what it is we are doing and of what it is that it is doing to, in, and for us…and not just going through the motions.



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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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