Friday, December 17, 2010

The Divine Liturgy is Relevant

Call me a lawyer. My appellate practice professor in law school told me once that "every damn thing is argument," and so it is I title this post with a declaratory statement -- an argument -- rather than a question. The Divine Liturgy is relevant. It "meets people where they are." It is sufficient and appropriate to feed Christians Word and Sacrament.

What brings this topic to bear? I am still on a handful of Lutheran e-mail lists, and one of them currently has a quite interesting discussion going on now about worship practices. As is typical among Lutherans, the split is between those who want to maintain the historic liturgy, practice and confession of the Lutheran Church versus those who wish to introduce novel worship practices in order to "meet people where they are" and make the "worship experience" more "relevant." These statements are in quotes not to mock those who made them, but rather to highlight that these are direct quotes -- they are in fact the argument of those proposing novelty.

If I seem to be picking on Lutherans, rest assured that is not the case. For one, most Lutherans I know (i.e., those who might read this) will likely agree with what I say here. For another, while it is a Lutheran e-mail list under discussion, the mindset that says we have to introduce novelty in order to "meet people where they are" is, to be blunt, not Lutheran. To the contrary, it is anti-Lutheran, and I would argue further, outside the unified tradition of the Christian Church.

What struck me about these claims initially is that they epitomize the logical fallacy of question begging. They are not made as questions (hence, I will not respond to them as questions), but rather as assertions. "I am just trying to meet people where they are." "Why is it a problem to try to make the worship experience more relevant to our modern culture?" The question at issue -- whether the Divine Liturgy DOES in fact meet people where they are, and whether it IS in fact, relevant to our modern culture -- is assumed in the negative. The Divine Liturgy, claim the novelists, is not relevant, and does not meet people where they are. I reject both claims. A further assumption is made that the purpose of the Sunday morning worship service is to "meet people where they are" and to be "relevant" to modern culture. I reject this claim as well.

For 2000 years, the Holy Orthodox Church has used the same basic form of liturgy. Has it changed? In small measure, yes. And we, like many more modern liturgical traditions, have different settings. The main setting for the Divine Liturgy is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which dates back nearly 1700 years. On certain days, we will also celebrate the Liturgy of St. Basil or the Liturgy of St. James, the latter being the most ancient form currently in use. Western Rite Orthodox Churches celebrate the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great. The Lutheran Common Service is a variation of the Liturgy of St. Gregory. All of these liturgies have commonality. They all can be divided into the Service of the Word and the Service of the Eucharist. They have basic elements in common. And the Christian Church has used this same base form of liturgy for 2000 years to feed the faithful. Are those who would introduce novelty into the Church seriously suggesting that what was presumably "effective" for 1900 years suddenly became "ineffective" in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

In addition, the purpose of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning is not to be "seeker friendly," nor is it primarily to evangelize. The purpose of the Divine Liturgy is to feed. To comfort. To provide. To serve those in need of salvation. My participation in the Divine Liturgy is not to measure relevance, nor to be entertained, nor to convince friends and guests who may visit on Sunday Morning that the Christian faith is the One True Faith. Certainly, the Divine Liturgy may assist in those things, but that is not its purpose. My participation in the Divine Liturgy is to receive God's gifts and return thanks for those gifts. Put another way, it is the purpose of outreach and catechesis to explain the relevance of the Divine Liturgy, but it is not the purpose of the Divine Liturgy to do outreach.

The Church certainly has a mission to spread the Gospel. And this mission may well be overlooked among many Christians of all stripes. To the extent that is a problem, we ought to be about fixing it. But this mission is not predominately centered in the Sunday morning services of the Church nor in the various prayer services of the Church. The Church seeks unbelievers in the world, and invites them to the Church to receive the gifts of God. The means of distributing those gifts have not changed for 2000 years. They should not change now merely because we, in our modern sensibilities, think we have found a better way.


Bill M said...

Your thoughts here echo some of the insights and feelings I've struggled with for the past several years. I did not grow up in a liturgical setting - all my Christian experience has been in the anabaptist and charismatic streams - so the awakening that worship is not about being "seeker friendly" and "relevant" (as that term is commonly used) has been a difficult one. :)

Thanks for your story on this blog. I look forward to reading more.

David Garner said...

Thanks, Bill!