A Deeper Relevance
A recent book on the missional church argues that we need to "reinvent the church" in "revolutionary" ways so that we can "incarnate the gospel within a specific cultural context."
I found one example of such a church on the Internet, a congregation in Florida whose very name is Relevant.
Relevant is a casual, contemporary, Christian church meeting at the Italian Club in Ybor City, Florida. Our service is designed specifically for college students, urban professionals and young families. At Relevant, we feel that it's our responsibility to "clear the way" for you to come to church. We want you to be able to experience the great music, encouraging messages, friendly people and enjoyable atmosphere that are a part of Relevant.
The church recently made a media splash with its "30-Day Sex Challenge," encouraging marrieds to have sex every day for a month—a reverse Lenten discipline, I suppose. This church, like many others, is no doubt making a difference in the lives of "urban professionals" and "young families" in large part because it appears to be relevant.
Put the liturgical church in this context, and it's easy to see why liturgy is a stumbling block to many. We've recently featured in CT's pages a story about evangelicals who are attracted to liturgical worship, but in the context of American youth culture, many wonder why. The worship leaders wear medieval robes and guide the congregation through a ritual that is anything but spontaneous; they lead music that is hundreds of years old; they say prayers that are scripted and formal; the homily is based on a 2,000-year-old book; and the high point of the service is taken up with eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a Rabbi executed in Israel when it was under Roman occupation. It doesn't sound relevant.
Yet many evangelicals are attracted to liturgical worship, and as one of those evangelicals, I'd like to explain what the attraction is for me, and perhaps for many others. A closer look suggests that something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. "The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world," writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to "make Christianity understandable to this mythical 'modern' man on the street," we have forgotten this necessary separation.
It is precisely the point of the liturgy to take people out of their worlds and usher them into a strange, new world—to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they've come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day.
Relevant for Whom?
By "the liturgy," I mean the prayers, responses, and shape of worship one finds in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox services, and to a lesser degree, in Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and other mainline churches. If you examine the full service of each of these traditions, you'll find a surprisingly common worship order, and prayers and responses that are identical in many places. The shape of this liturgy has its origin in the early church, and has been molded by the history of the church up to the present.
Worshiping in the liturgical tradition is no panacea. When not approached wisely, it can be misused and abused; it can tempt participants to substitute mere religious ritual for a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this tradition does have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism. Take our fascination with relevance: the first thing this liturgy asks us to rethink is what we mean by "relevant" worship.