Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Liturgy & Evangelism

Today is the lesser feast of St Boniface. He was an eighth century Englishman who became a missionary to the Low Countries and to various Germanic tribes from Saxony to Bavaria. He ended up being made Bishop of Mainz. One gets the impression that Boniface would not be amused by the debate that goes on between Christians today about the proper way to understand the relationship between Christianity and other religions. In the most memorable act of his missionary career, he ceremoniously chopped down a tree that was sacred to the devotees of the Norse deity Thor. That would be good for a major wrist slap these days.

Whatever one makes of his methods, however, one cannot deny that Boniface was an effective evangelist. He could look Billy Graham in the eye and not have anything to apologize for. Unlike most of those with whom we would these days associate with the title "evangelist" (including Dr Graham), Boniface was a Catholic--that is, a liturgical, sacramental Christian. There wasn't any other kind then. He didn't have a Praise Band, his own drama troupe, or Power Point with a data projector. He had a powerful ministry of the word grounded in a disciplined sacramental life.

Several years ago, when I was serving in another diocese, one of my presbyteral colleagues asked me if I would be interested in putting together a seminar on liturgy as a tool for evangelism. He and I both had Anglo-Catholic proclivities, and he assumed I would be excited about presenting the idea that High Mass-with-an-attitude can effectively fill the pews of Episcopal churches.

To his surprise, I was, at best, lukewarm toward the idea. I've dabbled in enough history to know that, in the era of the greatest missionary expansion in the history of Christianity--that is, the time before the faith became legal in the early years of the fourth century--the celebration of the Eucharist was restricted to the initiated Faithful. Not only were casual inquirers and other wannabes kept away, even catechumens who seriously intended to be baptized were not allowed to even witness the full liturgy. Sunday worship was certainly not the streetfront display window of the Church. There were no marquee signs, no websites, no Yellow Pages ads informing the general public when the Mass times were. It might have gotten somebody arrested or killed!

It is not the function of the liturgy to serve as a tool for evangelism. In trying to make it so, I fear that many churches have succeeding is bastardizing the liturgy and accomplished very little by way of evangelism in return. The liturgy is for the initiated, not for the seeker. It should not be made to bear freight it was never designed to handle.

This morning I ran across this article on Christianity Today's website--an interview with one Simon Chan, an Assemblies of God scholar from Singapore who has written a book called Liturgical Theology--certainly an arresting title for a member of his distinctly non-liturgical denomination. Here's some of the meat:

I think that missional theology is a very positive development. But some missional theology has not gone far enough. It hasn't asked, What is the mission of the Trinity? And the answer to that question is communion. Ultimately, all things are to be brought back into communion with the triune God. Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.

If we see communion as central to the life of the church, we are going to have an important place for mission. And this is reflected in the ancient fourfold structure of worship: gathering, proclaiming the Word, celebrating the Eucharist, and going out into the world. The last, of course, is mission. But mission takes its place within a larger structure. It is this sense of communion that the evangelical world especially needs. Communion is not just introspection or fellowship among ourselves. It involves, ultimately, seeing God and seeing the heart of God as well, which is his love for the world.

In many services today, the dismissal into the world is quite perfunctory. But if you go to an Orthodox service, you'll be amazed at the elaborate way in which the end of the service is conducted. It's not just a word of dismissal—there are whole prayers and litanies that prepare us to go back out into the world.

OK. Color me impressed. This guy gets it. But here's where it really gets interesting:

In the modern age, the free churches are evangelistically successful, but in the broader history of mission that hasn't always been true. Europe was evangelized in the early centuries by missionaries who were certainly not free-church evangelicals. And think of the spread of the Orthodox Church from Russia to northern Africa.

In Singapore, we keep very close statistics about the growth of the Assemblies of God, which is currently the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country. We are good at evangelizing, bringing people in, but we have also noticed that many of those people that we have brought into our churches would over time go to more traditional churches and seeker-friendly megachurches. Our net growth isn't really that much, but in terms of bringing people in, yes, we have significant numbers of people being brought into the church for the first time. It may be that in God's providence he is using free churches, Pentecostals, and charismatics to reach out to the world, but I still believe that his aim is to embrace them all within the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

This corroborates a theory I have been nursing along in my own mind for some years now--that the "free churches" seem to have the determination and know-how to do front line evangelism, bringing people to Christ who have little or no prior exposure to Christian faith and practice, but they are not particularly gifted at spiritual formation beyond a certain rudimentary level. The historic liturgical churches, on the other hand--i.e. those with traditional church order and sacramental practice--have a dismal record doing first level evangelism, but manage to steadily skim Christians who have been evangelized and initially catechized by the "free churches," but who are looking for a deeper, richer, more compelling experience of worship and spiritual formation.

I am myself an exemplar of this phenomenon, having come to Christ in the free church evangelical tradition, then, in my early adulthood, been drawn into full Catholic faith and practice, feeling like I have only added a bunch of good stuff, and not lost anything of what I had before. I was an "evangelical on the Canterbury trail" long before Robert Webber made that expression popular. And in my pastoral experience, it still happens. Barely more than a month ago, I presented four adults for Confirmation, three of whom were "swimming the Thames" from the evangelical world. Another of my parishioners--may her tribe increase--walked this same path four years ago (in one of several such wavelets), and has offered this moving testimony to her experience, from which I will offer a snippet:

In an attempt to "sit on the fence" and experience the best of both worlds, I would often run downtown to our current parish and attend the 10:30 mass after the early service at the Baptist church was over. I would slip in and sit near the back. As the mass began I could feel myself being swept up into a larger drama that the church catholic has been reenacting since its inception. I knew I was both observing and participating in something that was so much larger than me and my existence at this particular point in time. I knew that for that moment, I was, quite literally, joining with "angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven." It was the first time I had truly experienced myself as part of the larger body of Christ.

During the mass I was repeatedly touched by the Holy Spirit in ways I can't even begin to describe. Every visit, as the procession of the mass started, the people bowed in reverence at the cross as it was being carried by the crucifer past their pew, and I shivered. These people, with bodies bent, were showing respect for, and giving deference to, the cross of Jesus Christ and all it represented -- not the gold, not the literal piece of metal on a pole, but the sign, the symbol of the very reason by which we are able to even approach the altar of God.

Involuntarily, the tears would well up in my eyes and start to trickle slowly down my face. And then, as it was time for communion, and I observed people from every walk of life line up to accept the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, offered for their sins and mine, the tears would come more freely. By the time I knelt at the altar and crossed my open palms to receive personally "the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven", I was weeping.

I experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist in ways I had never experienced Him before. I found Christ literally present, not merely symbolically recalled. I found myself, with the other members of the congregation, entering into and sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ. We, as a body, were joined with Him as the perfect sacrifice, made acceptable in the sight of the Father.

I already wanted to clone this family a few times. Now that I'm moving to a new parish, I wish I could take a couple of the cloned copies with me to Indiana!

In the best of all possible world, the Assemblies of God would learn how to bend their distinctive worship in the direction of the Catholic pattern that Dr Chan alludes to, plus find a way to plug in to the historic episcopate, and Episcopalians and other liturgical Christians would learn to talk about Jesus compellingly to someone who's never met him without making them come to terms with the fullness of the Church's liturgical and sacramental life before they're ready to do so. In the meantime, perhaps our opportunistic God is making lemonade out of the lemons we serve Him, and using each of these Christian communities in the area of their giftedness.

Holy Boniface, pray for us. And can we borrow your ax?


Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

Wow! This was a fascinating and insightful post. I could go on and on about different parts of it, but (speaking as an Assemblies of God minister) I totally agree with the last paragraaph. Why, oh why, can't this happen? You are right, IMO, that the free church seems to do a better job of evangelism but a very poor job thereafter. Blessings to you.

Anonymous said...

Amen, amen, amen. It gives me hope for Christ's church whenever one of its members can speak appreciatively about others in the family. I agree with Singing Owl that you are on target about the evangelism-formation divide between the free churches and the more sacramental/liturgical traditions. What I really wish is that we would all find the humility to actually learn from each other.

Diane M. Roth said...

Wow indeed. This is wonderful! I love the liturgy myself, and as a cradle Lutheran and former charismatic, I find the depths of spiritual experience there. But I think many people don't get it or find it boring simply because they haven't been evangelized or catechized to the depths of the tradition. So we develop other worship services as a short-cut, I think.

Also, in my (Lutheran) tradition there used to be room for the full liturgy and for the informal, faith-sharing experience (often on Sunday night). So some people dig contemporary worship simply because they are missing that aspect of faith.

There is so much to share... thanks for this post.

Mousie and Christy's Mommy said...

What a great post! I will never forget our looong conversation almost 10 years ago when I (in my Evangelistic innocence) asked you how you could "give up" being a Baptist. The time you took to explain to me about the "bunch of good stuff" you added while "losing nothing" is what cemented me in the church catholic and has over the past 10 years made me love the liturgy so very much. It will be on my "appreciation list" but your post was so moving that I had to tell you now too!

Anonymous said...

I think I understand what you are saying0 but I spent 16 years as a baptized, confimed Lutheran, and I had no idea whatever that I could have a personal connection to God. I kinda think this is not unusual. I prayed and I had sort of an idea that it all had something to do with Jesus on the cross, but that is as far as it went. It was not until I visited a friend's youth group that anyone ever told me that being a Christian was anything more than getting confirmed and going to church and going through the motions of the service. My life changed when I realized I needed to turn my whole life over the savior. I still have alot to learn but before I realized that I needed a savior, Jesus it was just words. My family went to the Lutherna church my whole life too till something happened and they got upset and they quit and didnt go back. They are now upset that I am going to a "weird" church but they do not know Jesus in my view and they make fun of me for caring about the things of God. Liturgy as evngelism, I'd say the exact opposite was true for me and my family.

Daniel Martins said...

Aaron, I appreciate your comments and you are certainly not alone in your experience. I know of countless Christians who were brought up in a liturgical-sacramental church, attending every Sunday, but only "found Christ" in another (non-liturgical) church. It makes me scratch my head because it's so ironic. Obviously, the raw information that one would need to understand the availability and necessity of a personal relationship with Christ is blatantly present in the very words of the liturgy! Those (such as myself) who have had the opposite experience to yours--i.e. already having the "personal relationship" but feel like they discover the fullness of faith and practice in the liturgical-sacramental stream--can testify to this. I don't know that I will ever understand why this is!