The Counter Liturgical Practices Needed in our Church
The Church as counter liturgy to the world’s practices must be more than a jesufied version of secular liturgies. If all we do in the church is produce head knowledge and don’t intentionally practice liturgy that shapes us towards a kingdom of God, then we’ll likely produce people who desire a kingdom that is antithetical to God’s.
James K.A. Smith states that, “Christian worship should be seen and understood as counter formation to the secular. . . . Not all that currently passes as Christian worship will do that. . . .If you’ve just turned Christian worship into a jesufied version of the mall, don’t be surprised if your worship doesn’t function as a counter to consumerism. You’ve just made Jesus another commodity” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom presentation).
So what should the church look like if it is to be counter formative? Smith provides a list of necessary practices that should be integrated into our worship. They are practices that have been formed and shaped over the centuries of church history. Not only does he show us what we should do, he shows us what desires they form in us as we do them, and thus, why they are important as counter liturgies.
These counter liturgies include: a call to worship, greetings, song, reading of the law, confession, assurance of pardon, baptism, the creed, prayers of the people, prayers of illumination, scripture reading, the sermon, the Eucharist, offering, sending as witnesses (benediction), worship, discipleship, and discipline, to name a few. These liturgies are meant to instill in us a certain vision of the kingdom. In the different congregations I’ve been a part of, we were often lacking between 10 to 13 of these liturgies. In fact, when Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale) was here about a month ago he told us about his experience at a church service where he was invited to speak. He said the band came up and played loud concert type praise music and then he came up to give his guest talk (not sermon, but talk). That was it. There was no recognizable form of liturgy in the service at all – no scripture reading, no prayer, no confession. This happens to such a great extent that churches often cannot be distinguished from a secular concert or a speaking engagement.
If Church is meant to be counter formative, then the liturgical practices are crucial. Smith takes some time talking about each practice but I’ll go through only a few of them here, especially those that are often missing in church services.
I previously hadn’t been to a church that practiced public confession each Sunday until moving here to Canada. During this confession, that is said out loud and in unison with the congregation, we acknowledge that we fail to love rightly. However, unlike the billboard that tells us we are lacking and in need of a cure, the time of confession at church ends with forgiveness. Christ gives assurance of pardon. The following is an example of what might be said together as a church body, presented by Smith and taken from the Book of Common Prayer:
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
By what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with out whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will,
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your name. Amen.
A liturgy of confession and assurance forms us to both realize our own guilt and responsibility as well as be assured of reconciliation. It does not leave us in despair, but gives us hope for the coming kingdom where creation is renewed.
While this next one, prayer, might not seem neglected in most churches, I’d venture to say that it is. Not that prayer isn’t included even in the churches that reflect the mall or the concert hall, it usually is. But there does seem to be some form missing. When Smith speaks of prayer he’s talking specifically about intercessory prayer and prayer of illumination – said right before the Word is read (193). Intercessory prayer, commonly known as prayers for the people, is a time where we pray for those within our congregation, those within our community, and people throughout the world. We take the time to name those who are sick, families who have lost loved ones or families who have just given birth to new life. Prayers are given for the poor and suffering, for those in government leadership, and for those who are suffering in other countries. Smith states: “. . . in intercessory prayer we give words to articulate the vision of justice that is at the heart of the biblical vision of shalom. Often we do this in a backward sort of way: we pray precisely for the things that are continued evidence of the curse, of the way things are not supposed to be, and that thus makes us hunger after the kingdom” (194). Intercessory prayer is often a lament at the way the world is – a place of sickness, disease, war, and racism – and thus, it is a looking forward and a hope for the kingdom to come.
I’ll briefly touch on the Eucharist, knowing that this is something taken in most churches – some quarterly, some monthly, and some weekly. But as I’ve read the Church Fathers and studied this practice that has been done through the centuries of the Church, I’ve come to see how important it is – so important that I’d implore churches to make this a weekly practice. According to Smith, the Eucharist “rehearses God’s blessing of creation” (200). Christ blesses the wine and the bread, there by blessing His creation – for He is the Creator of grapes and wheat. But also implicit in the taking of the Lord’s Supper, Christ is blessing the work of human hands – the making of wine and the baking of bread.
In addition to it being a blessing on creation, it is also a meal that is looking forward to the time when Christ comes and no longer will anyone hunger or thirst. All people from all tongues and all tribes can come and partake in communion with the Son. The poor man will not be shunned and given scraps, there will be no one who hoards a surplus allowing others to suffer and die in poverty and hunger, the refugee will have a place even if he cannot speak the language or understand the culture (201). The Church, in taking the Eucharist, looks forward to a time when all who are struggling in this world will find rest.
The Eucharist also requires that we forgive one another. We take this meal in communion – “it is a witness of the renewal of creation, required to be a community of dependence – a body that can’t possibly function, let alone flourish, without the collaborative contribution of each member” (201). I recall Easter service at our church, and we took the Eucharist in a very unique way. We got up as a row or two of pews, stood around a table together as the disciples might have, passed the bread and wine (or juice in this case) stating “He is risen” as we passed. We took it together and standing there I felt such unity – and yet with people I did not know or hardly knew. Yet, there, at that table with very different people who led very separate lives, I felt as though I was part of a community. That practice on Easter Sunday was far more formative than the information that was being put into my head. In fact, while I can’t recall what was said in the sermon, I can remember that formative moment taking the Eucharist in communion. The Eucharist is not simply a time to remember or a symbol of what is past. Rather, it actively does something to us when we take it. It is a formative act of worship.
The last liturgy I’ll mention here is what I call benediction and it’s become one of my favorite parts of liturgy. At the end of each service, our pastor reaches out his hands over us, palms down, in a gesture of giving, and we place our hands out palms up, in a gesture of receiving. During that time he sends us away with a blessing often from a scripture passage and usually something like this:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
The Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace (Num 6:24-26)
And in this sending, we go with the knowledge that we are to be servants to the world “by showing what redeemed human community and culture look like, as modeled by the One whose cultural work led Him to the cross. In short, we are sent to be martyrs, witnesses of the Crucified One” (207). We leave blessed and with hope of a new kingdom.
Smith elaborates on each one of these liturgical practices in his book and many more, but for the sake of this blog post not being insanely long, I’ll stop there. At least, I hope, the picture is clear. What we practice shapes our desires for the good life. The Church as a historical body has worshiped for centuries, putting together a form of worship that is meant to be counter cultural and formative. A jesufied rock concert service, or a jesufied mall is formative – but perhaps it is forming us in the wrong way. Perhaps it is forming us to believe that Jesus is a commodity – something that I need to make my life better or perhaps it is forming us to believe that Jesus is our entertainment – fulfilling our desires in the moment.