This is part 10 (the final installment) of a 10-part series.
A few weeks ago I had a riveting conversation with a man here in Tyler, a prominent academic, about liturgy and worship. “Episcopal liturgy is boring,” he honestly expressed. “It’s not exciting; I never learn anything new in the liturgy.”
And then, just last week, I was honored to be a part of another conversation about church and ministry and worship, this time with a couple of local Starbucks baristas, one in her twenties and the other probably in his 30’s.
They extolled the worship at their church, because (unlike the local megachurch they had once attended but then had left) the worship was not over-programmed. There was far less of a sense of manipulation and infinitesimally planned, staged, and choreographed performance.
“At our new church, the worship is free. If the Spirit leads, then we might keep on worshiping for hours,” she said with a deep sense of satisfaction.
I’m really grateful that, having been in Tyler now for ten months, it seems like I’m at the point that people are willing to have real, authentic conversations with me. These two examples above have been particularly important because they center on the great strength of our Anglican tradition: worship.
In these and other discussions (including in my Christian Formation class), I have used a couple of different analogies to help folks imagine what the purpose and point of the liturgy might be. (For Thomas Aquinas, analogy is perhaps the foundation of his whole theology.)
The first is language learning. How does a small child (one year old, two years old) begin to learn language? Does she learn it from a book? From an owner’s manual? From a Power Point Presentation? No. Instead, the little one is thrust into an already existing community (which, by the way, she did not choose). Then, over time and with lots of repetition, the muscles in her tongue and lips begin the difficult work of forming habits. (Habit is a key word for thinking about what the liturgy is.) In this way, the child learns, gradually, over time, and with fits and starts, how to say, “da da,” an utterance which eventually gives way to the fully formed “daddy.”
What are we doing in the liturgy if not learning a new language, which will then form us into a different way of thinking and living (Rom 12:1-2)?
A second analogy comes from ancient Roman military practice. When the Roman armies would move into a new territory of battle, they would always set up their camps in the exact same way. The bunks and the latrine and the fire place and the kitchen were always in the same place in the camp.
Why did they do this? To be sure, efficiency was one reason. But in addition to that they knew that what the soldiers needed was a measure of stability, familiarity, and even comfort in a disorienting, chaotic, and stressful situation.
Today more than ever we live in a world (even here in Tyler) which is more fragmented, more rootless, more anxious than ever. One more entertaining and distracting venue is about the last thing we need. As Neil Postman wrote well over a decade ago, we are “entertaining ourselves to death,” primarily as a way to escape the stressful anxiety of the world we live in.
We don’t need more stimulation; we don’t need more dopamine. We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.
For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.