Out with the Old, In with the New? Not So Fast!
Revitalizing the Work of the People
Our church has three regular worship services a week.
Two of them are in our smaller chapel space, have minimalist bulletins in lower case letters, pastors on barstools using iPads, Communion bread from the pop-up gluten-free bakery down the street, guitars and keyboards.
The other service is your father’s Oldsmobile: it features a pastor in a robe with a manuscript sermon, a sanctuary with an organ and pews, and “Joys and Concerns” with the occasional political rant or awkward overshare. Also, well, God help you if it goes ten minutes “over.”
Guess which is growing?
Surprise! They all are, although modestly.
It’s taken us a while to figure out why. Frankly, it isn’t what we were expecting.
Like so many churches, over the last few years we have been watching national trends on declining church attendance and involvement (not just giving, but also that). Our new services were a way to try something different–to design one worship experience for a different generation that seems underserved to us, namely, Millennials. The other service was built around a vision of dialogue-as-worship, for the person animated by the opportunity to engage, even disagree (!) with a pastor, who functioned as part-celebrant, and part-convener.
“Church as we know it is dying,” the Associate Pastor and I said to each other. “We have to find our ways into new forms, and we need to start now.”
But how do you work on creating the new?
We decided to start by un-incorporating the parts of our “regular” worship service that we found stale and stodgy.
So there on the whiteboard in his office, we began.
“Prayer time that feels like open-mic night?”
“Starting church with announcements instead of an Invocation?”
“Hymns you need a master’s degree in music to sing?”
The list went on. Doing the listing was cathartic, like stripping off layers of old wallpaper. When we were done, we weren’t sure how the church would respond, but we were more sure than ever that we were looking at The Future.
“Just give us permission to get rid of the things that chase people away,” we argued, “and we’ll be halfway there.”
Well, they did. But a funny thing happened on the way to The Future.
It turned out that several of the components we were eager to strip away as “bad liturgy” were the ones that the congregation called by another name: participation.
We didn’t realize it at first, but many of the items on our whiteboard hadn’t been so much liturgical as theatrical: the moments when people stumbled through their “lines,” the dead air during transitions, the emotional arc of the service as a whole.
We built services designed to minimize those distractions. And at first, congregants noticed and were glad. But then after one Saturday night service, someone came up to me wondering when we were all going to pray, because her sister needed our prayers, and she wasn’t sure when she was supposed to ask for those.
At the 10:30 service, our most traditional, people began shoehorning “announcements” into “Joys and Concerns,” because the announcement time had been “taken away,” which we know because someone said just that by way of introduction to her announcement about the consignment shop sale.
We had been looking for permission to get rid of things. After living into that for a while, the congregation was looking for permission to keep some.
Somehow along the way, we’d fallen into thinking of them as an audience. What they wanted was to be the people of God. Moreover, if that ended up being ragged or awkward at times, well, actually, that was fine.
We might have known. The root of “liturgy” itself, leitourgeia, speaks to this. It means “work of the people.” Its purpose is squarely on formation, which makes it necessarily wider in scope than edification or – good heavens – entertainment (even if some of both is also important to have in the mix).
Our United Church tradition is often described as “non-liturgical,” and compared to other denominations, we have, indeed deliberately traded away some of the pomp, hoping we have done so in order to leave more room for circumstance.
It’s because, historically, we imagined a different kind of formation as necessary if the churches were going to give rise to a different kind of people. It wasn’t an attempt to escape the “work of the people,” but rather an attempt to ask what kind of work was truly capable of creating and sustaining that people.
We realized that as pastors, we hadn’t been asking that question. But our people were. Much later, I was reminded of this lesson after the fact, watching our church children’s pageant on Christmas Eve.
Like many, I’ve seen my fair share of pageants over the years.
Now as a father as well as a pastor, I appreciate the work that small children put into learning their parts – that even saying a single line may be something that someone is practicing non-stop for two weeks, with great meaning attached to the experience. Going from manger animal, to angel, to magus, to Mary is the work of years.
Yet for me (and I suspect for many), a flawless production would be a disappointment.
If all the angels spin the same way during their dance, if the donkey and the lamb don’t wander off, or one of the kings doesn’t lose her crown while kneeling before the babe, something important would be missing, somehow.
What makes a pageant wonderful, and often moving, is not that it’s a seamless recitation of the story, drilled into its players within an inch of its life (and theirs). It’s how the kids tell the story in their own way, for in the telling it becomes, again, the work of the people.
That is, what we love is watching our children as they learn to inhabit the roles, and as we get to hear the old words spoken by new voices, even if the speakers say them less than “perfectly.”
Pageants aren’t about “good theater,” and worship isn’t either.
Along those lines, as we lived into our “worship reboot,” we came to see that it isn’t whether the practices are old or new that matters, but the space they create for people to know they are part of the people of God, however tentatively or awkwardly at any given gathering. Remembering that helped shift our focus. Instead of asking, “What can we do to make Worship better?” we’ve learned to ask “What can we do to help people feel enfolded in the love of God?”
There’s more than one answer to that question, but liturgy is at the heart of almost every one of them.
Emily Scott, the founding pastor of the St. Lydia’s community in Brooklyn, now planting a new church in Baltimore, has a deep gift for blending ancient Christian practices – forms of gathering that are actually older than much of what we tend to think of as “traditional” – with new contexts and an upfront emphasis on inclusion and justice, in order to capture the imaginations of those who gather. In her hands, ritual makes the people, and the people make the ritual, such that an evening of worship doesn’t feel like “going to church.” Everyone joins in doing the old things, often in new contexts, where the meaning of those actions finds renewed power. It’s an experience of the Kingdom.
So for us, the key was finding ways to invite people into the work.
Service by service, we’ve tried to create spaces where people can be more fully a part of holy moments, in any number of roles. We’ve looked to tradition for new guidance and have started to imagine bringing liturgy outside the walls of the church.
Plenty of times, it doesn’t go as planned.
What we’ve learned is that, quite often, this is exactly when the Holy Spirit arrives.