From the Fall, 1996 issue of Touchstone

Is <title>Liturgical Revival? by Gillis J. Harp

Liturgical Revival?

Gillis J. Harp on Two Evangelical Approaches with the Same Mistake

Attitudes toward worship among American evangelicals are undergoing some of the most significant changes in a century. How this liturgical revival actually manifests itself in Sunday morning services says some interesting things about the current evangelical scene and the role historical, theological and cultural factors are playing in this awakening. More importantly, the revised services suggest that the changes have failed to cut to the heart of the problem.

My own recent visits to evangelical churches in the Midwest suggest that there are at least two distinctive approaches to liturgical worship taken within the broad evangelical spectrum in America. The two representative congregations referred to here are in fact composite portraits drawn from several churches visited this summer.

Church A belongs to a mostly conservative Reformed denomination with a moderate liberal wing. (I mean comparatively liberal; liberals in this denomination would be dismissed as “fundamentalists” by Episcopalian liberals.) The members of congregation A are solidly upper middle class, a significant number are professionals. Its leadership is decidedly on the neo-evangelical end of the spectrum.

The pastor takes care to greet the congregation with the politically correct “sisters and brothers” phrase, he “affirms” women’s ministry (meaning women should be ruling and teaching elders) and preaches sermons filled with gentle criticism of confessionalist conservatives. Nevertheless, the church still styles itself “evangelical” and has not yet replaced the NIV pew Bibles with the more correct NRSV.

Given my own theological commitments, I should not like church A, but much of it is definitely appealing. Its members are welcoming in a sincere, unforced way, and the pastor’s sermons are thoughtful and carefully prepared (even if they sometimes push the text in a questionable direction).

More to the point, church A folk are attempting to be more liturgical. The overall structure of the service follows a traditional pattern; there is usually a confession of sin followed by an assurance of pardon, a substantial Scripture lesson or lessons and intercessory prayer. There is congregational participation (though even these otherwise enlightened worshippers still adamantly refuse to say “Amen” with the pastor). Morning worship is not longer a hodge podge of hymns and rambling extemporaneous prayer.

Also appealing is the music that is thoughtfully chosen and well performed. In short, the entire service is tastefully executed. Indeed, I leave the service feeling slightly guilty that I have enjoyed it as much as I have. Do my Anglican roots betray me? Is good taste more important to me than doctrine, especially some of Scripture’s hard truths (i.e. God’s sovereignty in election, male headship, etc.)? Still that Mozart trio was lovely. . . .

Yet even the tasteful, well-heeled folk at church A appear not to have understood some fundamentals of liturgical worship. Their approach reflects the eclecticism of the dilettante, borrowing practices or vesture from other traditions even if these undermine teachings central to their own Reformed tradition. Thus the pastor wears a brightly colored stole, presumably because that is what clergy in liturgical churches do (never mind its doctrinal history or that the Roman ordinal traditionally called it “the sacerdotal vestment”). Liturgical churches have a pascal candle and so church A does and so on.

Few seem to understand that the Continental Reformed tradition (from which this denomination arose) has its own legitimate liturgical forms and traditions. Some of these traditions are evident but most of the service reflects the un-Reformed eclecticism of Wheaton worship-guru Robert Webber rather than the sober traditionalism of a Calvin or a Martin Bucer.

Congregation B is associated with an emphatically conservative Presbyterian body. Its services are decidedly more folksy and informal, with more contemporary choruses and far fewer set prayers. Instead of an organ, there is an electric piano. One might think that this congregation would be immune from the liturgical revival but its didacticism is evident here, too. Each part of the service is now earnestly labeled as reflecting a certain movement of worship, be it confession, instruction, supplication or adoration. Also, the services are usually organized around some central theme drawn from the Scripture reading.

The pastor explains that he has been influenced by Webber’s approach (though he remains suitably skeptical about some of Webber’s eclecticism). And yet, oddly, one of the central lessons he has drawn from the new liturgical teaching is that variety should be the hallmark of Sunday worship. Another pastor in the same denomination remarked to a friend of mine that he wants to ensure that members of his congregation will never be able to predict what they will encounter on Sunday mornings. “If we ever do the same thing twice, we run the risk of getting into a rut,” echoes the pastor of church B.

There is much that irritates me at church B: The informality. The choruses. The choruses. Then there are the choruses. (There is something in the ever popular “I Love You, Lord and I Lift My Voice” that irritates me; perhaps it is the presumptuous line that has worshippers commanding God to “take joy” in the worship they offer.)

And yet, I like church B. The pastor is youthful and energetic, his sermons are expository and doctrinally sound. He has certainly not compromised the robust biblicism of his tradition. Members of the congregation clearly see their faith as a radical call to be salt and light in an increasingly dark age.

Despite their differences, both ends of the evangelical spectrum appear to share a basic misunderstanding of liturgical worship. Traditional Protestant worship (like, say, the order for Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, 1662) does not draw one’s attention to the minister, who thereby avoids becoming the folksy worship “emcee” who dominates so many evangelical churches. It seems that American evangelicalism has incorrectly concluded that the centrality of the ministry of the Word (a good Reformation principle) should mean the centrality of the minister.

The experimental eclecticism of the new evangelical liturgics only further underlines the personality of the worship leader. He chooses the hymns/choruses that cleverly reinforce the themes of that Sunday’s reading(s). The readings themselves are usually not from a standard lectionary (or the product of the sort of sequential reading through the entire Old and New Testaments that the Westminster Divines prescribed). Rather, the pastor himself selects the readings and, though thematic sermon series are popular, this freedom makes grinding one’s particular theological axe easier. Moreover, the prayers printed in the bulletins of both churches are notably not drawn from the wonderful historical sources that Reformed/Presbyterian clergy have at their disposal. There are no prayers from Calvin’s or Knox’s services.

Despite their claim to fidelity to the Westminster standards, you will find the very specific guidelines contained in the Directory of Public Worship almost entirely ignored in church B. Instead, the prayers read in both churches are the creative contributions of the pastor. My least favorite are the prayers of confession. They are notoriously specific about the sins worshippers have committed. Rather than the more broadly defined, even poetic “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,” we confess to having “condoned poverty” (obviously a prayer from church A—the new liturgics have a definite ideological dimension as well).

Though some of what motivates this evangelical liturgical experiment is a laudable concern for true catholicity, much of it is profoundly anti-traditional. What the evangelical liturgists give with one hand, they take away with the other. Thus when church A includes, appropriately, a statement of belief in their service of Holy Communion, it is not the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creed (both languishing unused in the back of their hymnal) but some idiosyncratic contemporary composition by a member of the congregation. Of course, one is grateful in this case that the concern for novelty will ensure that we never encounter this “creed” again. Indeed, perhaps this is the reason that endless variety is the order of the day. While Cranmer’s “immortal bequest” has worn miraculously well over the last four centuries, our evangelical liturgists may recognize that pastor A’s prayer of confession could get on one’s nerves pretty quickly.

This, of course, is the whole point of traditional liturgical worship. At its best, its thoughtful use over time can allow one to focus not on the clever pastor or the gifted choir director but on the God who is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

I have found such formal worship in the Book of Common Prayer, especially in its classic 1662 form. When it is used the way its authors intended (i.e., unencumbered by the fanciful medieval ceremonial they expunged but nineteenth-century ritualists revived), it is solemn yet joyful and thoroughly scriptural. I also have read it in the liturgies of Luther, Calvin, Knox and even in the plainer (but nonetheless carefully structured and meaty) worship of the Puritans.

Why these key sources have been completely overlooked by most evangelicals dismays me. This myopia serves only to confirm two unattractive features of contemporary American evangelicalism rooted in its nineteenth-century revivalist past—its ahistorical perspective and its penchant for personality cults. Some may be now seeking liturgical worship but their love of novelty and service to the cult of informality keep them essentially anti-traditional. Meanwhile, their individualism continues to promote a misplaced emphasis on the stylings of the officiating minister. The result is worship that is a step up from the revival tent but neither truly liturgical nor authentically Reformed, never mind something in which God can “take joy.”

Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

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