The church is rarely accused of being ahead of the times. But every year around the end of November, with a little celebration, the church marks Christ the King Sunday and the end of the liturgical year. And so even ahead of the rest of the world, the church is still out of step.
Still, I cannot help but ponder beginnings and endings around Christ the King. I look forward to this Sunday mostly because of what comes after, my favourite season Advent.
But Christ the King requires the conclusion of all the stuff that came before it. To finish the story-telling arc of the previous year, to end with the Christ taking his place on the throne. Of course, on Sunday we will hear a very different understanding of where that throne is.
Stepping back to take stock of where we have been is an important process for us as people of faith and just as human beings. We can get so focused on where we are headed to next, that we get tunnel vision for the present and immediate future. It is difficult to take the long view, to step back and account for all the places we have been before now and how that has affected us.
Christ the King reminds us that endings are not usually what they seem with God. Rather than a vision of the final dwelling place of God, we go to the cross, to the moment when death had seemingly won… and we discover that this was the moment of God’s new beginning.
And so it is with the end of one church year and the beginning of another. On Christ the King we go back to the cross, and to begin Advent we talk about the end. God has a way of turning endings into beginnings, into new and second chances.
As we see the myriad of seeming endings about us, the struggles of our world to maintain itself, our ending on the horizon as a church, we might wonder, what God has in store for us. We might wonder what new beginnings are around the corner this day, and how we might be changed forever by the new thing that God is about to do.
I haven’t confessed this to you in a while, but I am still a High Church Millennial. Just because I often wear jeans on office days, have tattoos and an apple music subscription on my iPhone… doesn’t mean I don’t love old things. And not looms, vinyl played by a gramophone and artisanal vegetables as the caricature of a millennial hipster goes. I love ancients things like ritual, liturgy and the traditions of Christianity.
So recently, as I went about my normal perusal of social media, I came across the post of a pastor friend. The Rev. Steven Sabin serves in San Francisco, and he thoughtfully wrote the post pictured below:
I love the way Pastor Sabin describes his experience of a high church faith. I can see my own experience in his post. And as many churches search for ways to get “the young people back” with the newest and flashiest toys, gadgets, fads and entertainment…. let me tell the story of why this millennial would rather have the old things and the deeper meaning.
*Note: I skipped a few of Pastor Sabin’s points.
1 Tradition was taught to me as a loving mentor, not as a censorious schoolmarm.
I grew up in a world where tradition was shunned and Lutheran liturgy was like eating vegetables… you did it but no one liked it. Our worship was often treated as if it was a list chores to do every Sunday morning. And then our church hired some musicians to help plan our liturgy and music. And for the most part, the congregation continued to feel the same way about liturgy. But as a teenager, I noticed that suddenly worship became a more cohesive experience. The list of chores transformed into the script and stage directions of a beautiful play. There was movement, there was purpose to our worship, the music connected to the prayers, the prayers connected to scripture, the biblical texts connected to the eucharist and so on and so on.
When I went to seminary, I was finally taught the finer and detailed points of the ritual I had been enraptured by. Liturgy for me now is not a burdensome set of rules to follow and chores to do, but a ground to stand on in worship, guiding the assembly into deeper meaning and a deeper experience of the divine… proclaiming the gospel and inviting us into the body of Christ in a way that no other worship form can do.
2 Hallmark makes a fortune because we don’t always know how to say it.
One of the things I cling to as a preacher and presider is that when the words of my sermon fail, then the words of the liturgy say what needs to be said. And knowing that Christians around the world and through the centuries have used these same words gives them a sense holiness and authority that spontaneous and unprepared words lack.
3 I’m usually more moved by a poem than by a tweet.
There are such things as twitter poets, yet even they recognize the limitations of the medium.
A tweet is an ephemeral abstract thing. Most tweets rarely have a long life, they come at us quickly and in high volume. Great for breaking news, but lacking the deliberately slow and considered words of a good poem. Poetry is intentional and reflective. Poetry is an economy of words not because there are only 140 (or 280) characters, but because every word matters. The same goes for the liturgy.
4 It’s easier to learn a new dance step when I already know how to dance.
I recently moved from leading worship in 1 congregation to 5. While each congregation has its own particularities, it is the commonality of the liturgy that makes it possible smoothly step in to preach and preside each week. The order, the movement, the rhythm is all familiar, even if a few steps are different.
6 Technology changes rapidly; people, not so much.
There are a lot of things that are rapidly changing in my millennial world. Social media flies by rapidly each day. The way people communicate with me has changed dramatically over the years. 65 year olds used to phone my landline but now text me when planning a funeral for the parents, 30 something colleagues let me know about job opportunities in facebook groups, even my 96 year old grandmother talks to my kids on FaceTime now and then.
But worship, the familiar words, patterns, seasons, texts and emphasis is one of the grounding forces of my life. I more easily associate significant memories with the liturgical season they occurred in rather than with date and month. Each week, I find my grounding and footing again in the familiar and stabilizing experience of the liturgy in the assembly.
7 I probably didn’t get the Faith right last week, so there’s no harm (or shame) in giving it another go this week.
I am coming on 9 years of ordained ministry. I probably surpassed 500 times presiding in worship recently, and I still feel like I am just starting to scratch the surface or the depth of the faith. Maybe 40 more years and I will feel like I got it right… but I doubt it.
10 Boring liturgy is like boring Shakespeare, the adjective is probably misplaced.
Being bored is usually a sign of not understanding what is going on. I grant that the church and pastors have not always been very good a teaching the liturgy and tradition of the church. But the best way to learn is to experience. We live in a world that says we are all experts before we begin… or should be. The liturgy is rich and deep and complex and beautiful. And it can be confusing if it is unfamiliar. But what form of unfamiliar worship wouldn’t be confusing? The best way to learn is through repetition. Try worshipping in a liturgical church every week for a year, and then how liturgy feels. If you find yourself bored, perhaps it is because there is learning that needs to happen. Talk to your pastor, they might be able to help.
Now, make no mistake Liturgy, ritual and tradition are not the newest (or oldest) gimmicks to get millennials back to church. Rather they are just servants of the gospel, the vehicles through which we regularly encounter God as people of faith. And it is meeting and following Jesus that is the most important thing – the most important thing that we do, and that worship helps us to do, as people of faith.
So as I said, I am still a High Church millennial. And it is these ancient things of liturgy, ritual and tradition – and how they so clearly proclaim Christ crucified and risen – that are the reasons I am still in the church.
*Thanks again to The Rev. Steven Sabin for allowing me to annotate his great post.
Christian millennials seem to live in this multi-layered world of reading the bible on their iPhone and tweeting in church, while singing ancient plainsong and praying prayers spoken by saints of centuries past.
And maybe this makes sense in the context of the hipster trends that have even infected my millennial hair and eyewear. My generation is instagraming photos of our knitting projects and writing our first draft blog posts on typewriters (see blog tagline above).
Yet all of this makes we wonder. Is Liturgy just another version of a millennial hipster fad? Are looms, vinyl record players and vespers things we are going to commit to for a lifetime?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if Liturgy is going to be the Christian fad of the late 2010s like Power Point was the fad of the early 2000s.
At the same time, I think there is something deeper going on when it comes to millennials and liturgy. Particularly, when it comes to evangelical millennials finding liturgy and jumping in with two feet.
Now as a High Churchly Millennial myself, I should confess that I have not actually been a pastor to more than a handful of folks my age. The vast majority of my parishioners have been boomers or older. In fact, one of the concerns of Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans is how to retain our own “young” people.
So for evangelical millennials to begin wandering into our spaces is surprising, but I have a few theories about this trend. Evangelical churches are doing something with their people that many mainliners have mostly given up on decades ago – evangelicals are creating biblically literate Christians.
I have been teaching confirmation (two years of Lutheran indoctrination for 12 and 13-year-olds) classes for a decade in some form or another. And while I love reading the bible with students and talking about issues of faith, it is clear that we are not introducing our children to the bible beyond once a week classes with the pastor. When I ask kids if they know the basic details of many of biblical stories, including the life and ministry of Jesus they rarely come up with any.
What’s worse is that this biblical illiteracy is not limited to teenagers… it is rampant among mainliners. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have much more established cultures of bible reading. Evangelicals are encouraged to read the bible daily and to engage in group bible study more rigorously than many mainliners.
And this is where the experience of Liturgy comes in.
Liturgy is scripturally rich. The prayers and music texts are full of biblical images… images that come and go fast. A Eucharistic prayer might reference creation, Abraham and Sarah, Eljiah being fed at the river, David and Goliath, Ezekiel and the dry bones and then Jesus all in a few lines. If you can’t move quickly between stories and images, it can begin to sound like jargon and non-sense. I suspect a lot of mainline folks, especially bored teenagers, feel completely lost during a lot of liturgy.
As our need to be connected to and to understand what is happening around us increases through teenage years and into adulthood, biblically rich liturgy can become an experience of alienation. People don’t know what is going on or why the presider is yammering on about all these people with old sounding names. This is when the old trope that “Liturgy is boring” starts to get thrown around. Yet, most teachers know (and pastors should too) that kids who claim school is boring, often do so because they are not comprehending basic concepts and are struggling to keep up with what is going on. Many mainliners are in this boat.
Now imagine instead, you are a biblically literate teenager or young adult. You know your bible. You have done sword drills, and trivia. You have memorized verses and verses of the bible. And yet the worship you attend is 15 praises songs, which may or may not have a few psalm verses as lyrics, 3 extemporaneous prayers, and is concluded by some dude in a graphic t-shirt lecturing for 45 minutes on the ten principles of prayer found in Malachi chapter three.
I can see why, when biblically literate evangelicals end up in a Lutheran or Anglican worship service, they find a whole new playground of biblical worship. All of a sudden the richness of the biblical narratives come alive. Biblical images are used abundantly. Bible stories are quoted frequently. Scripture is read aloud regularly. The biblical knowledge of personal devotion and youth group becomes the new language of prayer and song, of ritual and community. You are thrown into the divine drama and you are with a community who is practicing and acting it out together.
“By things we have done, and things we have failed to do” weighs heavy on our hearts as we confess these words in community, and then receive the gift of absolution and forgiveness.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” takes on new meaning when the acolyte processes the big bible down into the midst of the people in order to hear the gospel read.
“Peace be with you” is embodied when we say it as we embrace fellow Christians around us.
“This is my body, given for you” is felt when a hunk of bread is torn from a loaf and placed in our open hands and we feel flesh the of the one giving us this bread meeting our flesh, somehow bringing together earthly bread and divine body.
Liturgy has the ability to awaken the richness of the core narratives of faith in ways I have never experienced elsewhere. I can’t imagine another means of embodying the bible – embodying the Word of God – so deeply as we do in the liturgy.
Now, I am not saying that mainline millennials are not able to appreciate liturgy. Nor am I saying that evangelical millennials are about to become liturgy loving Catholics, Anglicans or Lutherans.
But rather I am trying to make some connections that point to bigger issues among Christians in North America and the West in general. The fact is many evangelicals seem to be good at keeping early church’s serious commitment to catechesis, yet have dropped many of liturgical commitments. While many mainliners have maintained the liturgical commitment of our forbearers, we have dropped much of the catechetical commitment to introduce our young and our new members to the bible and to the richness of the biblical narrative. The two dynamics play into each other in ways that none of us anticipated.
So back to my first question: Is liturgy just the latest hipster fad among millennial christians? I cannot really say. I wish and hope it isn’t. But I also know that vestments and their fabrics (all the funny robes that priests and pastors wear) excite me in the same way others of my generational cohort might be excited by bee-keeping or printing presses or growing organic gardens or listening to vinyl.
Yet, I would posit that there is something deep and more profound in liturgy, even with all its ancient adornments and traditions. Liturgy is rooted in the rich and beautiful biblical narratives that help us to make sense of the world – or perhaps show us how God is making sense of us.
Even if liturgy and vestments and ancient ritual appeals to my millennial and hipster sensibilities, I know it is a life long interest, a life long calling if you will, to continually encounter God in ways that Christians have been encountering God for centuries.
I have a confession to make. It will probably be surprising for many to hear from a millennial:
I am a high-church liturgy nerd.
For many of my 31 years in the church, I have been told that my generation is a group of moths attracted to the glitz and glamour of projections screens showing videos in church, electric guitars and drum kits playing the music we can hear on Christian radio and cool, hip preachers who speak “authentically.” And sure, I have been to my fair share of churches, campfires, and youth services that cater to the “youth.” I have even enjoyed them greatly!
Somewhere along the way, this has led to the assumption by everyone (and no one) that my generation’s desire is only for the new. And this desire is often held up along side our narcissistic tendencies to take selfies, post our dinner plans on twitter, and live in our parent’s basements.
It just so happens that these same lazy narcissistic millennials are currently the concern of so many church members. Churches spend a lot of energy worrying about what interests us and wondering why we don’t come to church (anymore).
I know millennials are not the first generation to be the object of the church’s and society’s attention. When I was a little, churches were trying to be contemporary then too… trying to attract boomers and their young families with 70s folk music. As a child of the 80s, my church had more than a few 30-40 something guys standing behind lecterns with guitars, singing special music that sounded like an Eagle’s song with Christian lyrics.
And then Generation X got its 15 minutes of attention…During my tween and teen years, the Gen-Xers were doing Friday night youth services once a month with songs from artists like Brian Doerksen, Petra, Amy Grant, and Third Day. The Gen-Xers, we were told, would come for this. As a teen watching this unfold, I hadn’t quite processed what it meant for the church to be so concerned with making sure 20 somethings stayed in church. I didn’t understand why Friday night youth services, token 20 somethings on church council and money for expensive sound systems and projectors was going to keep the young adults, just a little older than me, in church.
Yet, despite all the catering to what the young people supposedly want, what I do remember from church of my childhood is liturgy.
When we were all together as a community, when we gave up as much as we could trying to cater to what will attract the youth, or appease the seniors, or keep the young families interested, or make the boomers happy, we did simple Lutheran liturgy.
Now don’t get me wrong, it was low-churchly Lutheran liturgy. Which is to say our worship felt a bit like eating vegetables; it was good for us, but no one really liked it. Or at least we acted like we didn’t like it.
Our worship was billed as being everything from “Bach to Rock,” but the liturgy was more of a timeless aspect of our worship. As a kid and then teen, I could feel the prayers, the liturgical songs, the actions of standing, sitting, praying, responding, receiving were starting to ingrain themselves in my very body. I remember myself starting to set the hymnbook down more and more. I would simply pray or sing or respond. The phrases like “And also with you” or “Thanks be to God” or “Amen” started to come naturally and unbidden.
Interestingly, our low church Lutheran liturgy, that felt like eating vegetables, connected our whole congregation much more deeply than any of the things that we did to attract different generations. Weirdly, we all liked it. We all shared in it. In fact, we came to the same worship service because of it. Liturgy doesn’t distinguish between generations. It’s kind of like how I don’t play Xbox with my grandma, and she doesn’t knit with me. But we both know how to sit down and share a family meal.
Liturgy ties us together, rather than emphasizing our personal or generational experiences. Liturgy is timeless and when we can get past whether we like the tunes or instruments playing them or not, we can realize that these things we do, and repeat together, are biblical, rooted in the ancient Church and are about God. In fact, liturgy at its best makes us forget it is liturgy and instead helps us see God in out midst.
I am folding laundry, its starched, orderly scent a sort of incense, as the hymn rises to my lips.
“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…”
I can’t remember the rest of the words exactly, and the tune meanders a bit, so I improvise, prompting Dan to shout from the other room, “Hon? You okay? You crying about something?” which happens just about every time I burst into spontaneous song because, apparently, my version of a joyful noise remains indistinguishable from a sob.
Still, I sing on.
“….For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are da da da da la la la la.”
Like me, she is a millennial and a Christian (if you haven’t discovered her blog, you are probably living under a rock). If the two of us were to sit down for coffee, I would tell her that this will only get worse (or better). Way worse.
When you become a liturgy person, all those familiar texts like the Gloria (which is what Rachel was singing) start to come to your mind like the baseball stats that so many dads seem to know – they come automatically. Worship starts to take on a rhythm and pattern that you can’t escape. You will eventually find that worship is something where you always know what is going to happen next, or that your body knows what to do next. The things that change start to rise to the surface and catch your attention. After the familiar Kyrie and Gloria, which are the same week after week, the collect and scripture readings, which change each week, stand out. Liturgy helps you to identify the new and changing things of worship, by keeping you grounded with the constants.
And still, it gets worse. When you are a liturgy person, you can show up for Anglican, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic or Lutheran worship and generally know what is going on. You might even find yourself singing songs you have never sung before because you already know the words.
In my development as a liturgy person, my low-church, eating-our-vegetables, experience of liturgy as a child and teen morphed and grew into something more as I went to university and then to seminary. As I learned more and more about the meaning and history of the symbols, I fell in love with the richness of it all. I became high-church. I became a liturgy nerd.
And I am going to make a bold claim because of this.
Liturgy can engage the young people.
I am not saying that non-liturgical worship is wrong, or won’t “attract” millennials. In fact, I know many of my generational cohort who have abandoned liturgy for praise bands. But like Rachel Held Evans shows, some are coming the other way. Contemporary worship is not something I am looking to critique, but rather I am suggesting that all those criticisms of liturgical worship is simply unfounded.
I am a millennial and I am drawn to tradition, to wrote prayers, to words passed on to me from generations before. The symbols and ritual actions point to God in ways that nothing else has in my experience, not sunsets or Christian radio, not preachers with graphic T-shirts and 45 minute sermons. I don’t think I am alone. I am not saying that every millennial wants what I want. Liturgy is what it is, it doesn’t really sell itself. And I think many of my generation are not interested in being sold faith.
So to my liturgically minded brothers and sisters in faith: Let’s stop worrying about being something we are not. Let’s not try to be contemporary like the Baptists down the street while still somehow still being us. And for heaven’s sake, lets not do liturgy like it is eating vegetables. Let’s see liturgy as the beautiful meal of diversity and rich flavours that it can be.
We will never be the mega-church contemporary worship that we think all the millennials have left for. And the narrative that we need to be that to “attract” the young people only shows them that we have an identity crisis, and that what we are, is not worthy of our youth. I am sure many millennials find that off-putting… I do, and I am a pastor in a denomination with an identity crisis.
Instead, let’s be what we are. Let’s use the tools that we know how to use. Let’s preach the Gospel and point to God at work in our world with the liturgy we have been given.
And remember, as surprising as it may be to hear that one millennial is a high church liturgy nerd… it might be even more surprising that there are a lot more out there.
As a digital native Millennial serving in the church, social media has come to me as a relatively obvious tool to use for communication and developing networks and relationships beyond the traditional church and personal spheres.
But I understand that for some, social media can be a confusing medium to engage with.
It has been pointed out on Twitter (I think by Rev David Hansen) that being online today is like being the phonebook in past decades. The first place that people go to find churches today is online, and if churches aren’t online people won’t find them. Yet where to start for most churches is difficult and it is hard to empirically measure the fruit social media produces.
Using social media can be a daunting undertaking.
However, the seemingly surface level interaction of social media, represents a deeper shift in the way people interact with each other in all relationships. Millennials are a collaborative, content creating generation. And this is changing politics (see the election of Barack Obama), business, the economy, workplace and of course the church.
This collaborative community driven new social ethos is nothing new to the church. We have been practicing community building social media for 2000 years: Liturgy. We have been using a medium to shape and form us into community and ties together through a common faith.
Below I am making the info-graphics that I used in the workshop available to you. There are JPEG versions (click on the pictures) or PDF versions (click on the links below the pictures).
You can check out the twitter hashtag #SMLiturgy (SM is for Social Media).
Also, you can check out the hashtag for the conference at #NWC2014