Liturgical Theater

Contemporary corporate worship services in evangelical churches emerged from the formative influence of the patterns and rhythms of our surrounding culture. Modern cultural rhythms promote a disposition toward instant gratification, entertaining spectatorship, and unprepared spontaneity. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that modern evangelicals, as true children of contemporary America, intuitively prefer forms of public worship that tend to emphasize ecstatic adrenaline rushes and eschew inside knowledge (i.e. highly scripted traditional worship forms). Of course, this is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with excitement or ease of access. The contemporary form is akin to attending a rock concert or sporting event. There’s an enthusiastic engagement with what’s happening out front but still a sense that what’s happening is centered on the stage or field surrounded by cheering spectators.

Blessedly, contemporary worship hasn’t degenerated into the worst sort of passive non-participation so common in late medieval Roman Catholic masses where the laity sat in solemn silence behind railings (quarantine fences), watching strange priestcraft enacted in the babel of foreign tongues and fearfully receiving half a sacrament (i.e. bread only). It’s also heartening to see that modern Roman Catholicism has a much more active participation on the part of the congregants. Still, our contemporary rhythms of consumerism and convenience do tempt Christian worship in a trajectory toward a place that the medieval Western Church arrived at through elitism and superstition.

Liturgy is, quite literally, the work of the people. Corporate worship has an active character to it, and it’s a corporate endeavor. This is at the heart of the medieval Protestant emphasis on restoring the reality of the priesthood of all believers. It is not just a restoration of the truth of our freedom to come directly before Christ. It is the right and responsibility of participation of all believers in the corporate worship of the Lord.

Again, one foreign rhythm assailing contemporary evangelical worship is spectatorship. The congregant sees himself as something of an observer, like a viewer in the seats at a stage play or movie. (And to be fair, there are observational aspects to public worship.) However, in the drama of worship, the congregant is more akin to an actor on the stage or screen. All worshipers have a part to play. Therefore, it should not be surprising that worship prescribes roles (scripts) to the actors in order to achieve an organized worship service.

A related foreign rhythm assailing contemporary evangelical worship is authenticity through spontaneity. Part of the modern mind’s intuitive revulsion to prescripted roles in worship is the belief that something scripted is lacking in authenticity. But this simply doesn’t follow. There are many other areas in our lives where we follow habits and patterns, and those routines validate the authenticity of what we’re doing by the very fact that they are habitual (i.e. character-forming). Heartfelt genuineness is an attitude we choose to bring to a routine or rather that the routine forms in us with time.

Another related foreign rhythm assailing contemporary worship is leisureliness. There is an unspoken expectation as consumers that worship should not be demanding on the faculties of the worshiper. But there’s simply no basis for that expectation in the very meaning of worship as the work of the people. Worship that is rigorous is more consistent with the definition of a worship service.

Evangelicalism would do well to push back against these corrupting foreign rhythms from the surrounding culture and work toward a form of worship that is more reflective of a true liturgy — the active participation of the congregation in biblically informed rhythms of life. Blessedly, an awareness of this duty and need has already been spreading in recent years among evangelical churches seeking more participatory and immersive worship. Reform of Christian worship is laborious and will require patience, but the fruit is a rich, well-polished public performance.