As early as the fifth century, the church proclaimed Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of praying is the law of believing, or more commonly put, “as we pray, so we believe”. This means if you want to know what Christians believe, you study what we do and say in worship. And what we say and do in worship not only expresses what we believe, it also forms what we believe. And what we do.
Ideally, worship strikes a balance of awareness of both the immanent and the transcendent nature of God — that God is among us and forever beyond us. At its best, liturgy also forms our individual faith and forms us as a community of people, the church, for ministry in the world.
I wonder if, in a world that is increasingly polarized and detached from the moorings of faith and meaning, God might be calling the church to consider anew how we can more intentionally form faithful people through worship to be witnesses in the world, a witness not just to the teachings of faith, but to the way of faith, engaging with others and offering an alternative to the dominant self-serving, profit-seeking narrative of the world and culture, helping others to find meaning and goodness. If so, how we might adjust our week-in and week-out worshipping practices to that end? Before we get to the liturgical benediction, how might worship strengthen people to engage with others faithfully “out there”?
We can start by finding ways to engage with each other in worship.
- See and hear each other.
Anything we can do in worship to break free of the idea that we are there as individuals to get our own needs met and to worship God for our own sakes, will help us to be attentive and engaging in the space outside of church. Pews facing forward can inhibit this move, but turning to face one another in occasions in worship can break things open. To have some form of an exchange of the peace is a good start, as is extending a welcome at the beginning of worship. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, regularly encourages people to turn to one another at the start of the service and say, “I’m glad you are here.” or “I’m glad to see you.” It’s corny perhaps and uncomfortable even, but it’s formative. Whatever we practice in church we can more readily do in the world.
Processions provide another opportunity to see others and be pulled from our personal-needs-based worship. Too often limited to the clergy and the choir and to the beginning of worship, processions often serve as a means of getting worship leaders into the room and calling the attention of the worshippers to the front of the worship space. Thus, processions are vastly underutilized in the church. For churches that have a processional cross, what if it, as a point of focus and a symbol of Christ coming among us, encircled the congregation? Or what if the procession could wind its way among and through the people, just as God moves among and through us all the time, sometimes inconveniently, sometimes causing us to adjust our posture? What if this happened, not just at the start, but after the reading of the Gospel, too? What if we add a procession at the offering, as many of the churches in Africa, and their descendants, do, acknowledging that we give ourselves to God, as well as whatever we might otherwise passively drop in the basket as it goes by? What if we, on occasion, processed the whole congregation out of the church into the world, even if the world looks much like our own parking lot?
Hearing others can make also us more attentive to God and the other. Singing a cappella invites us to hear God in the voices of those around us. Allowing for prayers from the congregation does too. Is it just a coincidence that Quakers, who speak so that others may hear, and Mennonites who sing in such a way as to be attentive to each other’s voices, are also among the most consistent moral voices for the common good in our society?
- Pray for the laity in their life and work in the world. Pray so they can hear it. Consider commissioning lay ministers, not just as Sunday School teachers and church board members, but as caregivers in the world, as people who work in business or government, or law, or the arts. Let the congregation say to them: “We commission you to this work and pledge to you our prayers, encouragement, and support. May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen you, that in this and in all things, you may do God’s will in the service of Jesus Christ.”
- Find opportunities to worship in the public square.
Take the liturgy to town. Be on the lookout for occasions to gather in prayer in public spaces, and to invite others to join. Any time we worship in a public rather than within the walls of a church building, our awareness of our identity as Christians and people of the Way, is heightened. Two Holy Week services are especially suited to public worship — Palm Sunday, in which we are invited to re-enact Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem, and Good Friday, in which we are invited to re-enact Jesus’ way to the Cross. Prayers in response to a natural or societal disaster can also be shared in public. While we may experience some discomfort in public expressions of faith, moving through it can be empowering and formative.
- Let go of perfect worship and the perfectionism it models.
The downside of carefully thought out, even perfect, worship, is that it suggests that anything to do with faith and faithful living needs also to be carefully thought out, even perfect. This inhibits a whole lot of spontaneous faithful interaction outside of church. Many of us with liturgical sensibilities may fear a free-for-all. But the truth is, there is a whole lot of space between what we usually practice and what we fear. Without letting go of the reins altogether, we can show that it’s okay to make mistakes, we can model the giving and receiving of forgiveness, and good humor, too.
Do we believe that our worship can empower us as a people to engage with the world for the common good? If so, let’s consider how our worship might form us to make that known.