Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this essay, one of the IRT’s Public Lectures, to the Bulletin’s readers. Dr. Riggs delivered this lecture on March 11, 2002 in the Watts Chapel of Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia.
Several years ago, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Two divergent roads to the Christian life: megachurches vs. the liturgical legacy.” The author reported on a December 1994 meeting in Nashville called the North American Summit on the Future of Christian Prayer. The article observed that:
The issue is simple enough. For nearly a century, Protestant churches of almost all denominations have been restoring ancient forms of worship, newly revised for new times and places. Within both Lutheranism and Anglicanism, for instance, the late 19th century saw a restoration of traditional liturgical forms. More recently, the liturgical renewal movement of the late 20th century has affected most U.S. and many European Protestant traditions. In the United States the Lutherans (both the former ALC, and the LCA), Episcopalians, Methodists (UMC), Presbyterians (PC(USA)), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Church of Christ (UCC), have all produced new books of worship that borrow heavily from the scholarship of the postwar liturgical movement.
There have been a number of typical liturgical reforms. First, the sacrament of baptism has been reshaped according to a model of Christian initiation that first appeared around the year 200 C.E. The new baptism rites have emphasized personal and communal responsibility for the baptism about to take place. The ancient liturgical elements of renouncing Satan and professing Christ have been restored or given more emphasis. Luther’s famous “Flood Prayer” has become the norm for constructing thanksgiving prayers over the baptism water. Invocations of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) are more prominent, often connected to the symbolic act of sealing with the sign of the cross (consignation). Symbolic activities such as giving a lighted baptism candle and new baptismal clothing have been suggested.
The rites for the Supper also have been reworked according to a common pattern. The central thanksgiving (Eucharistic) prayer has taken on a shape first seen in the patristic era. The prayer begins with an opening dialogue (Sursum corda). Then comes a retelling of God’s work through history (Preface), usually divided into two parts, separated by the Sanctus, with the second part of the Preface being christological. This leads to the institution narrative which itself is followed by the recalling of Jesus’ work into the present (anamnesis). Finally, we find the invocation of the Spirit on the community and the eucharistic elements (epiclesis). The Prefaces of the modern Eucharistic prayers have varied in content and theological direction. In some cases, creation has become an important part of the prayer as communities have wrestled with the human abuse of the created order; in other cases, for instance, the role of women through so-called salvation history has been given a greater emphasis.
The late patristic/early medieval pattern of the church year, coupled with lectionary readings, have become de rigueur for a variety of reasons. The use of the lectionary, so the argument goes, opens up a range of scripture for preaching wider than a particular pastor’s favorite passages. Furthermore, in the spirit of ecumenism, Christians throughout the world can share the same readings on a given day. Some emphasize the importance of shaping the worship patterns of a church’s life according to the meta-narrative that has shaped Christians for centuries.
Perhaps the most valuable part of this reclamation (and perhaps least used in Protestant traditions) has been the restoration of daily prayer services according to pastoral models that first developed from the second through the fourth centuries of the Common Era. The changes in the pattern of daily prayer have been very important for Roman Catholicism, especially for the clergy. In these communities, older monastic based models of daily prayer have been supplanted by more reasonable patterns. However, daily prayer has had little effect among Protestants. For Anglicans and Episcopalians, the restoration of daily prayer has been “preaching to the choir,” so to speak. Cranmer’s genius has long been influential, and his Morning Prayer and Evensong hard to improve upon. Most other Protestant traditions have services for daily prayer in the worship books, although the United Church of Christ does not, but these have tended to be little used.
There have also been numerous reforms in the so-called occasional services such as weddings, funerals, consecrations, rites of passage, and so on. The UCC Book of Worship, by the way, has a well-meant but quite useless rite marking the dissolution of a marriage. The problem there is not so much the idea of a rite that marks a significant passage in people’s lives, but the execution of the rite itself.
In the last fifteen years or so this liturgical movement has run up against a very different and popular phenomenonthe so-called “megachurches.” These congregations have worship attendance that can run to several thousand or more at a single service. Many of these huge churches have rejected more traditional forms of worship for mixtures of drama, avant-garde and popular music, high-class technology, and sanctuaries that look like massive theaters for stage shows. Greatly reduced, or even absent, are all traditional Christian symbols. These hugely popular churches attempt to attract the so-called “seekers,” trying to integrate them ever more fully into the church’s life through a variety of programs and worship services.
Allied in perspective with the megachurch movement, and contributing to its liturgical forms, has been the “Praise and Worship movement” that had its roots in the late 1960’s in Christian rock music and the so-called “Jesus movement,” not to be confused with the significant scholarly efforts by the Jesus Seminar.
The remainder of this essay will examine the history and theology behind the modern liturgical renewal movement (section 2). Then, the history and theology of the megachurch movement will be taken up, including within it some comments on the Praise and Worship movement (section 3). The final section will suggest, first, strengths and weaknesses of both approaches to worship; and, second, a lesson learned from John Calvin that can help develop a via media between these two apparently divergent positions (section 4).
THE MODERN LITURGICAL RENEWAL MOVEMENT
The liturgical renewal movement began in Europe in the mid-19th century among Benedictine scholars seeking the renewal of the church by turning to ancient forms of worship. By the mid-20th century, this scholarly endeavor had produced two significant results. First, using a wide variety of modern research approaches, scholars made significant progress in both liturgical history and theology. Second, by the mid-20th century these scholarly efforts, joined by the spiritual yearnings spawned by world wars and international recessions, produced a significant interest in the Roman Catholic Church for renewal of its worship life. A notable landmark was the 1947 promulgation by Pius XII of Mediator Dei, the first papal encyclical devoted entirely to liturgical concerns. The encyclical encouraged participation in worship, and it spoke of the worship life of the church as the work of the entire people. By the early years of the 1950’s, official worship reform had begun to put the encyclical into action, attempting to encourage understanding, participation, and ownership of the liturgical life of the church by the people.
Pius XII died in October 1958. Within three months John XXIII, who himself was significantly formed by the liturgical renewal movement, announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council. Most of the leading scholars of the liturgical movement assisted the worship reforms of Vatican II by working with various Council committees.
In October 1962, the Council began work on the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (De sacra liturgia). After many sessions, it was passed overwhelmingly in 1963 and promulgated by Paul IV in December of that same year. Its contents were to affect profoundly the Roman Catholic Church and other faith traditions as well. Both academic and pastoral in content, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy exemplified the principles of the liturgical movement: to encourage understanding, participation, and ownership of the worship life of the church, in ways that were ecumenical, mission oriented, and appropriate to the work of the church in the world. Implementation of the Constitution began thereafter with vernacular eucharistic rites, and a complete revision and issuing of the various rites of the church.
The four norms for liturgical reform set forth by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy were that
The crown jewel of this worship renewal was the 1972 mandating of the rite of Christian initiation of adults (RCIA) for all Roman Catholicism. What was key about the RCIA? Two things: First, it attempted to supplant the older, medieval, and Augustinian view of baptismcleansing from original sin and giving the supernatural gift that capacitated future faithwith a model for baptism based on the adult initiation rites that developed between the second and fourth centuries of the common era. Adult baptism became normative with its vision of empowering the laity for their ministries through the bestowal of the Spirit upon them.
Naturally, this implied a second important change, that in ecclesiology. The RCIA implicitly abandoned (what among some Catholic scholars is called) a christo-monistic model for church that began with the Pope and descended downward through the clergy who also represented Christ. Instead, the church was conceived as fundamentally built upward from the ministries of the people, upon whom the Spirit has bestowed spiritual gifts.
Working through a sophisticated liturgical theology based either in phenomenology or in analytic philosophy, more particularly linguistic philosophy, liturgical scholars envisioned the RCIA as the cornerstone for the renewal of the church and its worship life. At baptism, it was argued, one is initiated into the “paschal mystery” through initiation into the church. This initiation into Christ’s redemptive work and presence happens in the liturgy itself because the liturgy is conceived as “epiphanic,” or as “revelation-in-motion.”
On this view, the liturgy comprises the verbal and nonverbal language that, as a complex and carefully interconnected symbol system, creates the world in which God self-reveals. To enter into the liturgy is to become that reality, so that “what happened by Christ happens to us.” As the Benedictine liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh put it,
Thus at one’s baptism one enters into and becomes shaped by this liturgy because, in actuality, one becomes this liturgy. The individual becomes theological, becomes doxological, in the divine encounter, and likewise the gathered people actually become what they had not been previously, the mystical body of Christ. Having entered into and become part of this body through Christian initiation, the individual and the community continue to realize themselves as the body of Christ through continued life within the liturgy of the church broadly understood as daily prayer, lectionary readings and church year, and Eucharistic celebration.
THE MEGACHURCH MOVEMENT
Let me begin with an observation borrowed from the liturgical historian, James F. White. The most prominent liturgical changes in American Christianity came predominately in the 19th century as Christianity spread along the American frontier. Itinerant preachers, camp revival meetings, carefully arranged programs of music and stirring preaching designed to convert new believers, altar calls, and an overall belief that one should use whatever works to win Christians, became the dominant force in American religion.
The megachurch movement, suggests White, is the direct descendent of this utilitarian, frontier religion that shaped most American Christianityfrom Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists, to German Lutherans and Indiana Quakers. Coupled with the Enlightenment acquiescence to reason, and the Enlightenment view of the world as science-governed rather than divinely imbued, worship became reduced to moralistic preaching designed to produce moral transformation.
The megachurch movement, with its “seeker services,” is typified by Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Growing from the original experiences of alternative worship for youth at South Park Church in Ridge Park, Illinois, Hybels and others founded Willow Creek Church. Currently three different worship services happen at Willow Creek. On the weekends, there are Weekend Services that happen four times. A description of Weekend Services from the Willow Creek website says
The second type of services are called the Axis services:
The third worship type is the Midweek Services designated as the “New Community.” Here those who seek more than what they find during the Weekend Services, and those who attend the Axis Services, “can gather with your new church family, check out the sometimes quiet, sometimes high-voltage, always worshipful experience we call New Community.” The New Community services, in actuality, look not that much different from the Weekend Services.
In short, we see utilitarian, frontier Christianity alive in the early twenty-first century. Carefully manage the music and worship in order to move people to the edge of transformation. An important influence towards the use of current music, drama, and dance forms was the so-called Praise and Worship movement that has had its own strong influence on evangelical worship.
The beginnings of the Praise and Worship movement can largely be traced to the Jesus Movement that began in 1967 with the opening of the Living Room mission in Haight- Ashbury. Soon the Jesus People Movement spread north to Seattle and south to the greater Los Angeles area. In short order, evangelical pastors throughout California had hippie ministry folks on their staff, enlarging and eventually changing their traditional church.
The Jesus Movement looked to already existing forms of communication. Alternative Christian newspapers became popular. Dance, drama, mime and other media were used. And, in perhaps the most lasting development, the Jesus movement turned to rock music. Modern Jesus music was invented and artists such as Agape, and the All Saved Freak Band, burst on the scene. Jesus coffee houses and rock festivals occurred.
Now, why put this Praise and Worship movement together with the megachurch movement, and put them both over and against the liturgical renewal movement? Certainly, we have the historical influence of the Praise and Worship movement on current megachurch worship services. But more than that, both the megachurch movement and the Praise and Worship movement show the frontier, revival heritage of worship as means of bringing people to God and people expressing that they have in fact been brought to God. Modern music, dance, and drama are used in order to bring someone to transformation. These same culturally current forms are also used to express that one has begun to be transformed. We have both speaking about God, through words and actions, and speaking to God, through words and actions. But conspicuously lacking is God speaking to us, through words and actions.
For the moment, we can recognize that the liturgical renewal movement and the frontier/megachurch movement represent two distinct approaches to Christian worship. One looks to traditional and even ancient liturgical forms because in and through these forms the Christian community has claimed that God addresses us, and addresses us in a way that differs from secular culture. The other approach looks to secular culture and, for the sake of the gospel, draws from it means of expression that interest and move people, and means by which people can express that they have indeed been moved.
Both approaches, let me suggest, have something to commend them, and both have problematic aspects as well. While the frontier/megachurch tradition remains flexible and able to relate to people as they live life in American culture, this tradition risks accommodation to the culture and the loss of what is distinctively Christian. At the same time, the liturgical renewal tradition seeks to shape Christians and develop their spiritual growth through traditional liturgical forms through which God encounters us. The danger is that tradition risks ossification or what is worse, loyalty to the symbols rather than that which is conveyed through the symbols. Can there be a middle ground?
THE MIDDLE WAYCALVIN’S SACRAMENTAL THEOLOGY
There is a liturgical position that attempts to credit the strengths of each view while avoiding the weaknesses inherent in each view. Seeing this via media might best be accomplished by noting that the three options before us nowliturgical renewal, megachurch, and some other middle positionare structurally akin to Reformation era sacramental distinctions held by Roman Catholics, the Radical Reformers (so-called Anabaptists and others), and the magisterial Reformation as represented by Luther and Calvin.
As we all recall, at the time of the Reformation the medieval church had elaborated a technical doctrine to explain how during the Lord’s Supper the substance of the bread and the wine became the substantial body and blood of Christ. The doctrine was called transubstantiation and it served to hold sign and reality in an indissoluble bond. Simply put, the grace of God offered to believers was really given in the signs of bread and wine.
Then came the great medieval doctor, Martin Luther, who argued that grace is not a material substance but rather the omnibeneficent attitude of God towards all that is God’s. The human person appropriated this grace when the heart trusted God’s promise of forgiveness. And so, in his famous Babylonian Captivity written in 1520, Luther said that we partake in the grace of the Supper only insofar as we trusted God’s promise of grace given with the sign. In fact, all sacramental celebrations consisted of God’s promise attached to the sign and human faith that appropriates that promise. Whether Luther remained consistent in his own eucharistic theology is another question, and one that has prompted much historical and theological debate.
A quick result of Luther’s insight about the sacraments was that certain more radical Reformers, such as Luther’s colleague Karlstadt, argued that the Supper was merely a sign. The Supper pointed back to the grace offered once and for all time through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians gathered for the Supper in order to memorialize what once was done for them and, in response, to recommit their lives to God. Such was, and still is, the position of churches that developed from the Radical Reformation perspective. The Supper is not a sacrament but an ordinance. Grace is not sacramentally offered and realized, but rather the gathered community recalls the one offer of grace given long ago by Christ.
Now there was a young humanist Christian, a second-generation Reformer, who observed this debate between the medieval church, Martin Luther, and the Radical Reformation. John Calvin saw that two extremes were being posed: either God’s grace is really present in the signs of bread and wine, or the signs of bread and wine were merely signs that pointed to grace offered once, long ago. Calvin offered a middle ground that, by the way, he believed was like Luther’s true position. In the 1539 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin argued:
In sum, Calvin thought that both the medieval church and the radical reformers destroyed the connection between sign and reality when it came to sacramental theology. Rome mistakenly held sign and reality so closely together that they became identifiedGod’s grace was truly present in and as the signs. The Radical Reformation so separated them that sign and reality were torn asunderGod’s grace had no connection to the signs which serve only to have us remember the past. Calvin answered with a middle position. During the Supper, when the bread and wine are offered, the real presence of Christ, God’s grace, is truly offered to the believers because of the signs, or through the agency of the signs. So, on the one hand, Rome was right that grace is offered during the Supper but wrong to identify it in the signs themselves. So, on the other hand, the Reformation’s radicals were right that grace is really other than the signs, but wrong to deny that it is completely disassociated from the signs. Again, I want to make an aside: whether Calvin was entirely consistent with his own insight is another question.
The relationship to be observed, which is directly applicable to the megachurch and liturgical renewal discussion, is the relationship between the three positions concerning God’s grace and sacramental theology:
Simply, but not unfairly, put the liturgical renewal movement argues that God’s grace is present in the particular signs, not only in the bread and wine at the Supper, and in the waters of baptism, but also in the language and symbols of the entire liturgy of the church itself.
There are basically four aspects to this liturgy: the rite of Christian initiation by which a person is initiated into the sign-system wherein divine grace occurs; the liturgical year with its lectionary readings by which a person continually reenters the grace sign-system wherein divine grace occurs; daily prayer by which people connect their daily stories to that witnessed in the liturgy; and the Supper by which the initiated person most directly is encountered by God’s grace present in the sign-systemthe liturgy. The signs fit together to convey the Christian liturgy in which (notice the words) God’s grace occurs.
Here Kavanagh’s comments about the RCIA come to mind. Speaking about the genius of the liturgical form, Kavanagh said that through the structure of the rite (its internal grammar),
Now, if the current liturgical renewal movement continues the Roman Catholic tradition that grace occurs in the signs, albeit broadening the understanding of signs to comprise the entire liturgy of the church, then the megachurch phenomenon continues the Radical Reformation tradition. Signs and grace are dissociated. In the tradition of frontier worship, in which new signs can be used so that a person is brought to see what God has once done for them on Calvary, the megachurch tradition freely uses whatever cultural signs it needs, even avoiding the “church” symbols or music that turn people off. For the megachurches, in place of traditional symbols one encounters professionally done rock and fusion jazz bands, dramas and situation comedies, sermons on human growth, and the most pleasant of atmospheres. For the Praise and Worship movement, we find Jesus music and Christian arts that borrow from culture to express the experience that one has had of Jesus.
Once someone is attracted to a church with these forms of worship, there are Bible studies, smaller circles of more committed members, smaller worship gatherings, more committed levels of discipleship to the church itselfall in response to the grace given on the cross long ago. The parallels to the frontier and radical reformation tradition are striking: encourage people to convert (anew), and to attach themselves emotionally to a particular community, and then tell them the Christian stories that will help them become better Christians. Furthermore, the liturgical signs themselves are not means of grace but merely aids to encourage people to commit themselves to the one and only source of grace, the God whose forgiveness was once revealed in the cross of Christ.
At this point, Calvin’s insight about the relationship between sign and reality helps clarify the current liturgical scene. On this view, we should not so identify the liturgical signs with God’s grace that they become confused with that grace. Neither should we so dissociate the liturgical signs nor God’s grace that the signs become mere signs, merely memorial aids or forms for personal expression. Rather, liturgical signs are the present means through which the grace of God comes to us.
Let me now summarize by appraising these three positions. First, the liturgical renewal movement is right to insist that liturgical signs are the source of God’s real presence that renews us, but wrong to insist that in and only in certain signs does this grace encounter us. A near endless variety of signs might in fact be the means of grace. Consider for a moment that for nearly two millennia, Christians have venerated the ancient world’s version of the electric chair, putting electric chairs on top of their churches, kissing them on the altar prior to the beginning of service, or making the sign of electric chair on their bodies. The liturgical renewal movement ought to be open to the wide variety of sign-acts that have appeared with the megachurch movement. With the cyber-age upon us, there will be possibilities we have yet to consider that may become liturgical means of grace.
Second, the megachurch movement correctly sees that the signs used in Christian worship are flexible and ought to vary according to the power to convey meaning. Old symbols that have ossified ought to be avoided. What the modern day frontier traditions are wrong about is the assertion that liturgical signs are merely means by which to remember the grace offered once, long ago; or, merely signs which communicate to the worshiper; or, merely signs by which the worshipers express their praise. In fact, a number of current evangelical thinkers have described this as just the problem with evangelical worship that easily becomes subjective and eventually unfulfilling. How long can you entertain or praise before you tire of your own voice? Where is the embodied presence of God that encounters us through that which is earthly? If the scriptures can be the means of grace through which God actually encounters us, why can the liturgical signs not be what historically they have been taken to bemeans of grace?[vi]
Third, the Calvin-type middle position argues that the Christian liturgical signs we employ, whether traditional or contemporary, can be the present means of grace through which God encounters us. The critical concern is not which signs are used, but that whatever signs are used must faithfully re-present in their context the offer of divine grace that is witnessed to by the earliest apostolic witnesses to Jesus. Insofar as the signs are appropriate to such apostolic witness, they meet the traditional criterion of so-called dominical institution, whose material point was that we do in our setting that which Jesus did in his setting.
The only other criterion such signs would need would be fittingness to contextthe fourth norm from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The apostolic witness that the sign represents must be embodied in a way that enables its signification to be grasped. The Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, for instance, may not be able to convey the Lenten proclamation of the Easter to come when the one who receives the ashes has been a victim of physical abuse. A different sign is needed, which is the correct point behind the liturgies for Women-Church, or the Sophia rituals of the reimagining conferences.
Once a liturgical sign is appropriate to the apostolic witness to Jesus, and thus is faithful to the tradition that norms all other traditions, and once it is fitting to its particular context, a sign has the possibility of becoming the real presence of Christ in that context. Let me suggest that here the megachurch movement and the liturgical renewal movement can find sure rapprochement: who could be against the encounter with Christ that renews us and through us renews
[i] Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1984), 97.
[ii] http://www.willowcreek.org/services.asp (italics theirs).
[v] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978), 53.
[vi] As an example, see Robert E. Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1985).
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SUMMER 2002, VOL. 2, #4.
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