Anyone who has grown up in a church that is structured anti-liturgically is familiar with this exhortation issued frequently from the pulpit to the congregation: do not be simply passive receivers, but active participants. Don’t just show up on Sundays, the preacher says. Be involved. Be part of the community. Don’t just smile and shake hands with people during the greeting time. Join a small group. Be the Church.
This exhortation is needed because, regardless of the good intentions of the congregation, the shape of such anti-liturgical liturgy conduces passivity and teaches congregants to be unmoving recipients rather than active participants in the service. The order of service, architecture and spatial layout of the church are often designed like a theatre or rock concert. The majority of the congregation sits facing the players: the rock band (which delivers ‘worship’) and the pastor (who delivers instruction to a passive audience). Though the congregation may be told verbally that they come to church to worship God, the shape of the service tells them they have come to church to be entertained.
One of the primary values of a pro-liturgical tradition is that it demands participation. Everyone who enters the house of God is a player in this divine-human drama: the officiant, the parishioners, God himself. Each person must participate intentionally in the litugry or else be a hypocrite who refuses to let these motions shape the inner self – there is no middle ground. If one does not participate, it is clear that (s)he is an outsider.
The pastoral exhortation to be the Church by participating in community life outside the Sunday service reveals another, related issue faced by anti-liturgical churches. The pastor and congregation appear to view the Sunday gathering not as the main event, but as an event anterior to the “real” work of God in the community, the work evidenced in smaller, more intimate gatherings through the week – “real church.” The Sunday service is a kind of preface to the real reality of community life. Put differently: the “real world” is the world which the congregants encounter outside of and after Sunday worship. The Sunday gathering becomes nothing more than a kind of rejuvenating respite from the real world of daily living.
In liturgical traditions, however, the real world is the Sunday liturgy, for it is here that the church enters into heaven itself. All earthly life, all other trysts, flow from this heavenly meeting and are enlivened – made real – by participation in the celebration of communion. Sunday is not a supplementary communion which simply enriches the “real” church experience during the week – it is the reality that makes other activities real. All existence stems from this union.
This is not to imply that anti-liturgical churches cannot thrive or worship God or be a place of real, genuine community and growth. (Indeed, for some Christians, it may be just what they need, particularly if they have grown up in a liturgical church that demonstrated all the outward signs of piety without a genuine faith.) Rather, the shape of such liturgies often makes the journey an upward climb, a battle, when church should be a place of rest and relief from our toil. If church is a struggle, it should not be because of the structure, but because of our own unwillingness to devote our hearts to God. The structure of church should support us on our journey towards God – we should not be constantly fighting a structure that supports the entertainment values of American culture.
Of course, God can and does meet people in different places and in many different ways. Yet this is in spite of – not because of – an anti-liturgical structure. Often God meets us by breaking through a barrier of noise, puncturing the din with a sudden moment of silence. God will speak to us in the busyness and tumult of life – but it is easier to hear him in the quiet place.