Times are a-changing! From where I sit, the greater challenge in worship is not the change itself, but rather the rationale for change and the theology of emerging forms. We do not contextualize worship for the sake of making ourselves appear more attractive to seekers, but change is needed when the old ways of saying, doing, singing, or communicating no longer convey the message to new (or existing) ears.
A time of liturgical renewal
We are living through several major shifts in worship. One obvious shift has been the huge change in the music and worship styles of weekly worship. Another, less obvious shift is in how and when we use liturgy and ritual forms. Some regard liturgy as fragments of historical faith, transmitted to us alongside the Bible that we are obliged to use dutifully. Others regard liturgy as dated artifacts of the faith of saints past to be abandoned. Exceptions would include several songs that have attained universality, and certain service music – like the doxology – that, for some have become synonymous with Christian culture.
How could such a large body of tried and true liturgy fail to connect with twenty-first-century worshippers? Most frequently cited: “those people do not sound like us.” And, there is some truth to this. We no longer think, speak, write or sing in iambic pentameter. Vocabulary is shrinking in one area and expanding in another. But, I would like to suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps we experience this disconnect with older liturgy because liturgy is often written from both theological perspective and social location. So, while we might resonate with the universal theological needs of human nature found in centuries’-old liturgies, we are still left with the glaring spiritual needs created by a culture characterized by individuality, leisure time, affluenza, and other postmodern concerns. My suggestion: don’t just throw out the old! Why not write new liturgy or rewrite existing rituals that are also mindful of the spiritual needs attendant to our present social location?
New rituals for new times
For more than a decade, notables like Dan Kimball, Sally Morgenthaler, Marsha McFee, Brad Berglund, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro and others have been experimenting with new forms of liturgy, presented in recognizable and understandable forms that function to assist congregational approaches to God in corporate settings. Hundreds of congregations have adopted this “new liturgy” for weekly worship. Hundreds of pastors have found value in writing their own liturgy.
This is why I assign students in WSHP600 the task of writing a wedding liturgy without the benefit of their denominational handbooks, commercial publications or other assists. This requires that the student understand the function of the wedding ceremony in order to supply understandable forms — language, symbolic actions and gestures — that convey meaning and accomplish the task. The results have been encouraging.
One area of contextualization that I had always hoped students would examine is the traditional practice of giving away the bride. To me, that portion of the traditional ceremony has always felt as irrelevant as an arranged marriage or the bride price. Over the years I have seen students have both parents give the bride away, make provisions for a male relative in the absence of a father or father figure, or have the bride and groom walk down the aisle together. This semester, however, I was delighted and surprised by a number of students who decided that both the bride and the groom should be given away, publicly, by their families, citing Matthew 19:4-6 (NRSV):
4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
What an excellent redemption of traditional liturgy! In one new gesture accompanied by pastoral instruction and scripture, these emerging theologians have managed to reframe the traditional ritual of giving away the bride, by nuancing it toward leaving and cleaving for both parties–one of the first developmental tasks of the new couple! Truly ears have not heard and eyes have not seen what God has in store for us liturgically.
Liturgy, simply defined, is the work of the people. This includes the people in the pews and not just the people up front. My prayer for you is that the winds of liturgical renewal will blow through your congregation.
Berglund, B. (2006). Reinventing worship: Prayers, readings, special services, and more. Valley Forge, PA: Judson.
Claiborne, S., Wilson-Hartgrove, J., and Okoro, E. (2010). Common prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Kimball, D. (2004) Emerging worship: Creating new worship gatherings for emerging generations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
McFee, M. (2002). The worship workshop: Creative ways to design worship together. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.