Progressive Christianity Doesn’t Need Ancient Liturgy

worshipper-cartoon-2Cartoon blatantly ripped off of Tony Jones’s blog here

Last week Tony Jones wrote a blog post entitled “Frank Schaeffer is Wrong about Progressive Christianity.” I was trying to think of a response to both of the posts, and a way that I could title this post “Frank Scheffer AND Tony Jones are Wrong about Progressive Christianity” but I don’t think Tony is wrong. Frank wrote a post entitled “Progressive Christianity Is As Broken As Evangelicalism: Here’s How to Fix It” and then went on to say that what was needed to fix Progressive Christianity was a return to ancient liturgy. He writes:

“The great weakness of Protestant American Christianity across the board is that by and large it dispensed with liturgy. Having dispensed with liturgy it dispensed with the signposts that point people toward an identity that binds communities together.

In other words we need to rediscover and return to what never was broken but was stupidly abandoned by “freethinking” evangelical denominations, the Puritans rebelling against kings and bishops, and reclaim the forms of worship where the rough edges have been worn smooth by millennia of usage. We need to use them again not because they will save us or are the “only” way (they aren’t) but because they work!”

Tony Jones wrote one parenthetical statement in his post that made everything about Frank’s post make sense: “(Frank is a member of the Orthodox Church).”

Alright…I get that. When I was in Idaho, I was good friends with an Antiochian Orthodox Priest, Fr. Patrick O’Grady, and also worshipped with his church occasionally (here and here). So I get the Orthodox perspective to some degree. And I get that if you had been burned by the Evangelical church and turned to the Orthodox Church, you might have been heavily drawn and seduced (in a good way) by the liturgy that they practice. Totally get that.

But to assert that we simply need to reclaim ancient liturgy in our progressive Protestant faith communities in order to become more relevant or to begin to provide a faith that truly connects with people today, makes no sense to me.

Frank Schaeffer begins his post with this line: “I don’t think there will be some new age of religion dawning in America anytime soon unless a lot of people change their minds about worship.”

Amen. I will say amen to that. But my reason for agreeing with that statement is completely the opposite of Frank’s, and that’s where Tony was going with his response as well.

We do need to change our minds about worship. We do need to let go of the nostalgia that so many people hold on to, thinking back to the glory days of the Presbyterian Church (…insert your own denomination here…), and allow ourselves the freedom to change. To try new things. To unbolt the pews for God’s sake. To loosen up. To realize that for many people, old school/traditional language and liturgy doesn’t connect and doesn’t help draw them into a sacred space to encounter the Divine.

Now – before you all mention this in the comments – yes, I know there are young people today who are drawn to liturgy, to the incense (the smells and bells that Episcopals do so well), to something that does seem to have a connection with the ancient…and I say that’s fine. There are plenty of churches that won’t change their liturgy or how they worship, and those people will have churches to attend.

But for all those who are yearning for something new, something different, some other ways of connecting with the Spirit…why don’t we begin to allow for the Spirit to move in our worship and give up some of our control and insistence on always doing things a certain way.

I loved how Tony ended his response to Frank: “The fact is, going backwards is never a solution to what ails an institution (like the church). The future comes in moving forward.”

Let’s do that. Let’s not just go back and use the old and ancient liturgies because they’ve “stood the test of time” but let’s write some new stuff that actually speaks to our world today, that speaks to our experiences of God, and speaks to people in a contemporary dialect and language that makes sense. Let’s embrace the gift of creativity from God, and start getting creative with our worship, and not just doing what we’ve always done.

Let’s be the church that is always being reformed and do some worship reformation.


  1. says

    Adam, we know that we see this sort of topic differently from one another; you and I worship according to different patterns, with different expectations, and it’s a very good thing that neither of us has to be frustrated by being forced to worship in the way that best suits the other.

    Now let’s look again at what you just wrote.

    Let’s do that. Let’s not just go back and use the old and ancient liturgies because they’ve “stood the test of time” but let’s write some new stuff that actually speaks to our world today, that speaks to our experiences of God, and speaks to people in a contemporary dialect and language that makes sense. Let’s embrace the gift of creativity from God, and start getting creative with our worship, and not just doing what we’ve always done.

    Do you see why it might sound as though you’re not simply saying ‘Frank should worship as an Orthodox person, but my allies and I have a different approach’, but more like ‘Frank is just using old language that doesn’t actually speak to our world today, in uncreative language that doesn’t make sense, just because it’s been done that way for ages’?

    If we want to submit that variety in worship modes is a blessing, a manifestation of God’s gift of diversity, fitting to the diverse kinds of people and sensibilities that God calls into one holy catholic and apostolic church — it may strengthen our affirmation if we don’t run down other people’s alternatives.

  2. Kally Elliott says

    Yes. Amen. Thank you. Let’s live in to our identity as Reformed and always being reformed! Especially here in the south, but I’m sure it’s true all over the US and the world, we say we are always being reformed, and in many ways we are i.e. some of our confessions/theology/who’s in and who’s out in the church/etc, but in worship we just can’t seem to let the Holy Spirit do her job! Sometimes it’s because we’re control freaks. We want to dictate how worship goes. Heaven forbid there be any amount of emotion displayed while in worship! Or (gasp) something unplanned take place! Decently and in order dammit! And sometimes it’s because we’re tired, lazy, over worked, too much to do to come up with something creative. I admit to using this excuse quite often. Sometimes (okay, often) it’s because we’re afraid of rocking the boat, ticking people off, making people actually think outside the worship box. Sometimes it’s because our big money people just don’t want creativity. They want to do what has always worked for them and because we can’t bear the thought of losing their funding, well, we bow to the mighty dollar. Again, I’ve been guilty of this. Sometimes, we just don’t know what it is that will speak to the congregation. We don’t know how to be creative and we’re fearful that what we create won’t work (again, I am speaking from experience in my own ministry).

    I’m tired of it all though. Sure, sometimes the liturgy speaks to me. Sometimes those prewritten prayers are exactly what I didn’t know I needed to pray. Sometimes the act of calling and responding really does feel like the work of the people. But most Sundays this is not so. Most Sundays it’s boring. Flat out boring and rote. My husband was raised in a non-denominational Evangelical church. While he would never go back there because of the theology, he connected with the emotion of the services. He misses that. He loves the theology of the Presbyterian church but he is so sick and tired of the boring worship. He wants to connect with God and with people during worship and for him, it’s just not happening. Frankly I totally understand. I also long for an emotional connection in the worship service, to the people, to the music, to the words I am saying and the words I am hearing.

    I understand worship is not about me. The church isn’t there to serve me and my likes/dislike. However, if I consistently feel unconnected during worship, then what they say about the liturgy being a sign post that points people toward an identity that binds communities together is just not true. I am not being bound! Instead I am wanting out!

    Can’t we somehow heed the call of the Holy Spirit? Maybe the H.S. isn’t calling everyone to reform, but dang it, I know she’s calling me. I just hope I have the courage to heed the call.

  3. says

    sometimes i think the best thing for progressive christianity would be ancient liturgy. somehow it seems like it crushes arrogance, which too often gets in the way of creativity and “new thoughts.”

    (i am an Unitarian Universalist now, so i don’t follow either)

  4. says

    Enjoyed this blog. I think too often, we keep things in the Church because it is just easier that way. No one can get offended by change; so we keep things the same. I find we often bend to the big givers too because they are the ones who help most with footing the bills. Creativity is huge because it shows that we believe God is creative too.

  5. Jo Ann Staebler says

    Given that Schaeffer is Orthodox, and that makes a difference in the reference, I would ask just exactly what we (the rest of us) mean by “ancient” liturgies. If we mean “use the same words,” then I’m all in agreement with Adam. But there’s proven value and wisdom in the pattern and flow of ancient liturgy. I would want to provide learning opportunities to explore why we do what we do, and hang new, meaningful, but still beautiful and mysterious words on the ancient patterns.

  6. says

    everyone has liturgy, even the most charismatic of worship services. i am a young, progressive evangelical who is borderline desperate for what Robert Webber called “ancient-future” worship expressions. in my opinion, many of our attempts to be “relevant” and move forward are often directed and/or influenced by the need to pacify, please, and cater to our “audience.” in this respect, we’re just another marketing agency trying to identify a target market in order to increase our bottom line.

    i’m not arguing for a return to Acts 2 models, as if that were possible, or 14th century Catholicism, but for reverence and awe that seems to be missing or contrived in most of what we would call contemporary evangelical worship services today. will ancient liturgy save us? heck no, but the answer can’t be pressing further into the music CCM sells us or sermons that border on self-help seminars. i have this feeling we’re just chasing after the wind, and i hear it’s hard to catch.

    love your blog. great food for thought here!

  7. James says

    I find that the biggest problem is this idea that when it comes to Christianity in America (regardless of denomination or Tradition), is the mentality that if we do x (whereas x is a singular action, decree, motion, decision, adoption etc.) all our problems will be solved. The answer to that is no, doing just x will no solve all the problems. There are a number of complex sociological issues that are occurring within American Christianity that are affecting Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, mainline Protestantism, and evangelicalism in similar but different ways. When it comes to ethos and praxis of worship, there is no easy answer. Yes, young adults are drawn to traditional forms of liturgy, but that does not mean every single parish and church needs to bust out thuribles and gregorian chant, especially if that runs counter to the ethos of the parish and region. Should new ideas and concepts be considered, yes. But, the essential core of Christian worship, despite the efforts of many, retains its ties to traditional liturgy. Even the most free-form of evangelical worship is still in essence related to in someways the office of Lauds from Roman Catholicism or Morning Prayer from Anglicanism, which are both grounded within ancient monastic traditions. And though there is a rising interested and fascination with Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and for those who are spiritually fulfilled by the nature and fulness of that tradition should continue to explore and learn more about it, I find the appropriation of icons, hymns, prayers, and practices of Orthodoxy by western churches in America to be rather problematic as there is a removal of these things from the context from which they arise.

    With that said, one of the reasons why I continue to identify as an Episcopalian and as a member of the Anglican Communion is because I can appreciate the work and theology of Richard Hooker, who I think is just as relevant today as ever, and ought to be read not only by other Episcopalians and Anglicans, but by Roman Catholics, and mainline and evangelical Protestants. The thrust of Hooker’s work is not only an articulation of the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism of Anglicanism, and a defense of the practices of the Church of England from Puritan attack, it is also an articulation of the core of Anglican theology in relationship to the world: as Christ was incarnate in a particular context, so too does the church exist within a particular context. The expression of Christian identity needs to be grounded within its local and regional context. The Church of England was just that, the church in England; and the Roman Catholic Church was the church in the Papal States; and the Dutch Reformed Church was the church in the Netherlands, etc. Though in the US we do not have an established church and instead a fragmenting of countless denominations, what Hooker said remains true today. We need to recognize and be cognizant of our local needs and contexts, and be able to respond to them actively. This is also being cognizant of our particular denominations and Traditions, and being in relationship with them. This means that there is a core to our identity that is adapted in different forms and ways, it is through this model that we become faithful to ourselves, to one another, to the past, and to Jesus Christ.

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