Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Why We Do What We Do"

When applied to the church at worship, this title is my humble offering for a working definition of liturgical theology.

What happens on a Sunday morning, or at many other times for that matter, makes sense. When God’s people are gathered to give praise and make commitments, there are reasons and rationales to the rites and rituals involved. There is a logic to it all—and a theo-logic as well.

Now that doesn’t mean that there is only one correct explanation for every act carried out or word spoken. If that were true, Christian worship would have stalled centuries ago and would be a museum piece now.

On the contrary, Christian worship is an activity of the Spirit in the Body of Christ, and it is living, breathing and constantly growing. There’s always something new, refreshing and surprising taking place.

At the same time, Christian worship is not an orphan discovered on the church’s doorstep. It has a history and heritage, lessons learned in the past to be rehearsed in preparing for the future.

When we worship, there’s always something new or old needing an explanation. The basic question is always, “Why do we do what we do?”

The problem with all this is simply that the question is rarely asked. Pew-sitters, assuming they actually show up to sit in the pew, are usually not interested enough to ask. Too few people pause to reflect on their worship experience, and its meaning in their lives.

Perhaps this is why so many worshippers mumble the creed into their waist-high-held order of service or whisper the words of hymns. They simply do not know what they’re doing, much less why. Their participation is without purpose, lackadaisical and even lazy.

At the same time, it has been my experience that there are always some who do care, who want to worship with understanding. Explanations are helpful to them in making their praise of God intentional and their commitments deliberate. They really want to know “why we do what we do” in worship, so that they can do it better.

I wonder how many congregations have programs that include continuing liturgical education. Not just for children, but for adults as well—maybe particularly for adults.

In most Sunday school programs, I speculate, worship education is a sometime kind of thing. Once or twice a year, perhaps. That’s strange, isn’t it, when worship is the central and formative activity of any congregation. Yet worship is so frequently allowed to be shaped, not by belief and sacred tradition, but by sentimentality and faddish novelty. Education of all ages about Christian worship, old and new, should be a core part of every congregation’s annual program.

In order to accomplish this, of course, we have to have teachers. It’s logical to turn to the theologically trained clergy and professional musicians to provide such a resource in every congregation. Reasonable as that seems, it isn’t as reliable as we’d expect.

For some reason, so many clergy I know have a low level of motivation themselves to understand “why we do what we do” on Sunday mornings. In spite of the fact that they have to preside over such events, it seems not to be a priority. Other things clamor to be first in line in the daily routine, I’m sure, so that even those responsible for the service of worship let preparation slide. Nevertheless, what’s central and fundamental in the life of the church deserves to be at the top of the professional’s agenda.

Another reason for slow reaction time on the part of professional ministers and musicians to understand “why we do what we do,” so I’m told, is that they have not been well-prepared by their seminary training. Musicians rarely get theological foundation for the music they present. Ministers get courses on liturgy and worship, but they are few and often optional. “Liturgical theology”, if it is recognized at all, is considered by seminary professors a “secondary” subject—students should learn biblical, historical, systematic theology, and what they need for worship will trickle down.

One of the forces for renewal in worship life of our churches is for the people in the pews to rise up and demand to know “why we do what we do.” Then, maybe ministers and musicians will bang urgently on the doors of seminaries, pressing for continuing education in liturgical theology. One can only hope.

If you’re a minister or musician, how comfortable are you in explaining to lay people theological background and meaning of Sunday worship? If you are a church member, what questions do you have about worship to ask your pastor/presider or musician?

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