Introduction to Christian Liturgy: a book review

Why do we Worship? What is Liturgy? What are the main periods  of liturgical history? What characterizes  liturgy in each of these periods?  What does it mean to sanctify time?  How is liturgical space arranged? How is the body used in worship? How are children formed in Christian worship?

Introduction to Christian Liturgy by Frank C. Senn

These are just some of the questions which Frank Senn answers in Introduction to Christian Liturgy. In this book he describes, catalogues and commends a thoughtful appropriation of liturgical practices in worship.  This is a solid introduction  to liturgy and covers topics like:  what liturgy is, history and culture (and how liturgy inculturates), the order of service, the liturgy of hours, the church calender and the history and meaning of various seasons,  life passages, liturgical arts, and how congregants participate in worship.  While Senn himself is a Lutheran pastor and liturgist, his approach is ecumenical. He is able to synthesize the insights of liturgists and scholars from various traditions (i.e. Schmemann, Wainwright, Lathrop, White, Bradshaw, etc.) and he surveys liturgical traditions from the Orthodox to the Vineyard movement.

This is a very good book for anyone interested in liturgy.  In each of  the chapters (which explore the topics listed above), Senn answers a series of  questions. This makes this book a quick reference for each of the various elements.  Senn calls his book a ‘pastoral liturgical handbook’ and envisions that this book will be most useful to pastoral leaders by making them knowledgeable of the liturgical tradition and enabling them to answer specific questions lay people may have (1-2). His contention is that pastors who are knowledgeable of the history and trends can help shape the liturgy for a particular context in a way that is congregationally  and culturally sensitive. He does not articulate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to Christian liturgy, but commends to you the rich resources of the Christian tradition.

Three groups will find this book helpful. As Senn envisions, this book will be helpful to pastoral leaders and other worship leaders as a resource on liturgy. It will help pastors answer questions about the liturgy and help them lead congregants into the significance of various rituals and ceremonies. Secondly, this book will be well used in an academic context. The  comprehensive way in which Senn addresses the various pieces of Christian liturgy makes it an ideal text for courses on liturgy and worship.  I would have loved a text like this in seminary which described the various elements of worship in various traditions.  Third, the educated lay person will also find this book helpful. The question-and-answer organization to this book, makes it a quick and accessible resource. This is the sort of reference book which is great addition to a personal or church library.

My own ecclesiastical tradition is not directly named in this text. The church I attend is not particularly ‘high church.’ We have a worship team and  don’t often follow the Lectionary but we do have some liturgical features we hold dear. We celebrate weekly communion, observe the Christian seasons and our pastor will ‘robe up’ to perform baptisms and dedications (significant life events).  This liturgical ‘hodge podge’ is due to the fact that my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church retains some of the traditional elements from their Swedish Lutheran roots, but their churches also bear the influence of revivalism.  Senn names and describes both of these influences and there is a lot here that would be applicable to my context. Likewise, Christians from a wide swath of Christian traditions will also find various entry points into this subject matter.

I am happy to recommend this book to students, pastors, worship leaders and any one interested in liturgical practice. This is an ‘introduction’ so does not say all that needs to be said about liturgy, but Senn points readers to other resources at the end of each chapter, so that they may deepen their liturgical understanding. Senn does what any good guide does and names the flora and fauna of the terrain he traverses and points the way for those who wish to explore further. I give this book five star: ★★★★★

Thank you to Fortress Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Leave it or Love it?: a book review

People are leaving the church. Those who leave may still believe in Jesus, practice spiritual disciplines, read Christian books and listen to sermons and podcasts, but many see no value in investing an hour and a half  at their local church.  Some leave for selfish reasons, others have bad experiences of church and were not ‘fed’ at the one they attended. Whatever the reason people are leaving and not coming back.

Loving the Church: God’s People Flourishing in God’s Family by John Cotts

In Loving the Church John Crotts addresses the problem by presenting a vision of what church should be. Heintroduces us to a cast of characters who struggle to discover the purpose of the church. In the opening chapter we meet:

  • Kevin, who with his wife and family recently left his church to ‘pastor his family.’ He meets with a few families every week and shares in the teaching duties.
  • John, Kevin’s friend who is disturbed by his lack of attendance.
  • Michelle and Mike, a couple who quit church to minister more effectively to their non-Christian friends.
  • Rachel a single mom who ended up leaving her church because of their judgmental attitude toward her when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
  • Rick a young professional who stopped going to John’s church to attend the mega-church down the road. Admittedly he finds the preaching shallower and misses the fellowship at his old church, but he sees it as a bigger pond to meet single women.

This cast of characters find themselves in conversation with one another at their local coffee shop and agree to meet together weekly to explore what the Bible has to say about church. Cotts weaves their conversation together with his own musings on the nature of church, its purpose,  and importance.  The format is engaging, making it a quick read.

Cotts and his fictional discussion group share a desire to present a Biblical picture of church. He surveys New Testament passages which delineate what the church is and describe its structure and purpose. Of course Cotts is not without his theological bias. His desire to be biblical in his presentation is filtered through a largely Baptist ecclesiology (The church Cotts pastors is an independent church). Church governance is described as consisting of two offices: elder and deacon and the sacraments are described as two ordinances. This bias does not detract from the book, but readers from a more, say Presbyterian bent, may have to make some adjustments for their context.

One area which I wish this book filled out more was some reflection on denominations. It seems to me many leave church frustrated with the lack of unity among Christians. Denominationalism is a real problem.  On the other hand, denominational structures serve the local church by bringing resources, oversight and accountability. Cotts seems to jump from discussion about the universal church directly to the local church context with little thought about how churches relate to one another.

But this is a smallish critique. I like how readable this book is and think it would be a great discussion starter for a church small group or between friends at a coffee shop. Of course the fictional elements are contrived in order to hang a concept on (didactic fiction) but largely works.  You need not agree with Cotts on every point to find this book challenging, especially if you lost sight of what the point of church is.  I give this 3.5 stars

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Shepherd Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Bringing God’s Kingdom Through Worship: a book review

Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou

If you have ever attended a worship service in an Orthodox church, you have been captured by the beauty. Candles, incense, ornate iconography, reverence for sacred symbol, poetic words and acts all draw you into a deep appreciation for the Triune God.  But those new to Orthodox worship may also come away feeling lost, unable to understand the liturgy and symbols.  I remember once early in my marriage, my wife and I attended an Orthodox service during Holy Week. My wife grew up Catholic and neither of us were strangers to liturgy; however we must of looked befuddled because one dear woman sitting behind us, took it upon herself to guide us through the liturgy and help us follow along and take part more fully in the experience.

In Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs, Father Vassilios Papavassiliou does what that Orthodox woman did for my wife and I (albeit in a more magisterial fashion) and unlocks for outsiders the significance of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  Papavassiliou speaks of the Divine Liturgy as a journey to the Kingdom. The liturgy begins, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.” This announces the destination of Orthodox worship. As Papavassiliou says:

It is true, our destination is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Trinity. But our journey really begins the moment we leave the house. Without the sacrificial act of leaving the comfort of our beds and homes and coming to church, there can be no liturgy, and whether we have to travel many miles or just walk a few yards down the street, a sacrificial act of worship has already begun. We come to church not simply to add a religious dimension to our secular lives, nor simply to meet fellow Christians and to socialize, but above all to become the Church, to become the Kingdom of God. (9-10)

And so the Orthodox liturgy leads congregants from the mundane into an encounter with the risen and ascended Christ. Papavassiliou walks us chronologically through the elements of the liturgy, from the Blessing and Litany of the Peace,  to the Great Thanksgiving and Dismissal, pausing to reflect on the various prayers, the veneration of the gospel, the Cherubic hymn, the presentation and litany of the Holy Gifts, the Creed and its meaning, The Holy oblation, the Our Father, Communion and Thanksgiving.  Little sidebars break up the chapters to explain Orthodox practices and theology.  One of the joys of this book is the way Papavassiliou is able to use the liturgy to explain the beliefs and distinctives of the Orthodox in ways which seek to assuage the objections of outsiders.  For example, he describes the Orthodox veneration of Mary (a doctirine which is often looked at critically from those outside the fold) as the outflow of the Orthodox affirmation of the incarnation of Christ (34). According to Papavassiliou, when we remember that the Word became flesh, it makes sense to honor the woman from whom he took flesh and honor her for it.  Likewise he gives brief explanations of the theology behind iconography. He also manages to present the Orthodox liturgy in a way which values it as the truest expression of the Kingdom on earth without being dismissive of other Ecclesial traditions.

My introduction to the Orthodox Liturgy first came from a similar book designed to explain the Orthodox liturgy to new converts  (Archbishop Paul of Finland, The Feast of Faith, trans. by Esther Williams, St. Vladymir’s Press, 1988).  What I really like about Papavassiliou’s volume is that he isn’t content to simply explain Orthodox practice. He also calls the Orthodox to inhabit their best theology.  He acknowledges the disconnect between the rich sacramental heritage of the Orthodox tradition and the fact that it has become common practice among many Orthodox to attend the liturgy without receiving communion (56). Papavassiliou invites his Orthodox readers to participate more fully in worship, being united with Christ in the Eucharist. He tries to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of their participation (79-85). Papavassiliou’s sacramental theology owe much to the work of Alaxender Schmemann and Vladymir Lossky and he delves into patristic sources when describing the doctrines of the faith from the Orthodox perspective

And so I recommend this book for two groups of people. Sympathetic outsiders like me who appreciate some of the beauty and poetry they find in Orthodox worship but want a deeper grasp of what is going on in the Liturgy. And insiders who  wish to grow in their own understanding and appreciation of what the liturgy offers and the theological reflection from which the liturgy springs. The journey to the Kingdom leads us to a fresh encounter with Christ, His Church as we await and enact the full coming of His Kingdom.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Its not the Size it is the Motion: a book review

Steeple Envy by Vic Cuccia

Vic Cuccia had a cushy ministry job at a popular mega-church but realized something was amiss. He had bought into the commodified, American-Dream-Infected vision of life in ministry which said BIGGER is better and MEGA is majorly better. He had bought into the idea that in order to minister to the people who were coming to his church, people in a certain tax bracket, than he needed to keep up a certain standard of living, have a nice home, drive a nice car, etc. And then he had an uh-huh moment and realized that somewhere along the way his Americanized/commodified vision of the gospel was compromised in several respects.

Now Cuccia is the leader of a small community (around 75 people) and has started 12X12 Love Project, a ministry which builds homes for the needy in Guatemala.  Steeple Envy is his story of learning to see and discovering that as he unplugged from the mega-church, he saw just how prosperity infected and off base it was. Far from building his own empire, Cuccia is now engaged in extending the mission of God to those in his community and abroad. They are moving out, trusting in God to provide and seeing that provision in miraculous ways.

But please note that this not a book that is bent of criticizing mega churches per say. Some of Cuccia’s heros are or were mega church pastors (i.e. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, etc.). He isn’t saying a big sized church is necessarily bad; what he is saying is that in his own experience on being on staff with a mega church, he got off track in his understanding of the gospel getting caught up in the cultural trappings in that setting. This is his story about re-discovering what it means to live faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel.

I liked this book. I really liked the first half of the book where he confronts the soul deadening elements of his ecclesial life.  The title chapter (chapter six) talks about ‘Steeple Envy’ and the whole temptation towards Christian empire building. Cuccia’s critique is profound if laden with double entendres The second half the book is good, and it is interesting to see how Cuccia’s  re-thinking of how to do church has led him to lead a community which gives sacrificially and is delightfully not polished.  Cuccia left a successful ministry job to work on the margins in ways that he felt were more faithful to the gospel. I am grateful that he saw fit to share some of the insights he’s gained on his journey.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

On Not Going to Church, part 3: Post Mega-Land Faith (and why singing the Lord’s Song in smaller venues isn’t always the answer)

So after about a month of not being able to go to church, I get to go to church tomorrow night. And I have the day off so I also get to go with the church in the morning to a Baptism at Lake Whatcom. I am very excited and I think I have managed to guarantee at least one more Sunday this month so my great joy doesn’t ride on how satisfying this one Sunday is (because it is all about me).

But I figured I have at least one more post about not going to church in me. In my earlier installments, I reflected on my own existential angst about my inability to attend church and the reality of how work often prevents those of us relegated to shift work from joining with the Body of Christ in weekly worship and fellowship. Today I wanted to reflect on those who used to go to church, but no longer go because they don’t see the need.

People leave church all the time, sometimes for some ugly reasons (i.e. unhealthy church systems which use and abuse people, burnout from a bazillion church activities, woundedness from church conflict, disillusionment stemming from clergy sexual misconduct, and the list goes on). As interesting (if heart-wrenching) as these reasons for not going to church, I am more interested in those who just stop going.

I have a friend like this. She came to faith as an adult while attending our local mega church (a place I affectionately refer to as ‘the show.’) She didn’t leave in a huff or because of a scandal. She has mostly positive things to say about her time there, claiming that it saved her marriage and she continues to rely on the faith she found their to sustain her through the challenges of life. But when I ask why she no longer goes to church, she just shrugs and says, “Pastor ____ only has about three years in him before the cycle repeats.”

I do not know if her criticism of Pastor ____’s preaching is legitimate. I suspect that it is not, because there are some gospel truths I need to hear much more than every three years. But I haven’t regularly attended that church, so maybe she’s right. Maybe every three years, Pastor _____ dusts off the same sermon, tells the same jokes, and delivers it all with the same cadence and inflection. Maybe they latch on to an idea for the worship service that ‘really works’ for the audience (I mean congregation) and they do it over and over again. Maybe the special effects become lackluster when you’ve seen them a dozen times. Maybe pyrotechnics can actually only take you so far. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, my friend feels that after a three year cycle that church has nothing more to give.

My purpose here is not just to criticize Mega-land churches. Often smaller churches are just as much ‘the show’ as the big ones. We just play small club settings instead of arenas and auditoriums. The question I have is this: In the way that we worship, are we preparing people for the long haul or offering short term encouragement for a part of life’s journey?

I ask this because my friend’s experience is hardly unique. I have another friend, full of church angst who for years attached himself to a mega-land youth group because of the ministry opportunity there. He would tell me that his advice to people was come to the mega church and find Jesus, go to the new believers classes and then start attending church somewhere else so that they could grow as a disciple of Christ. The only problem is, when people left mega-land to pursue God, they didn’t find the churches were appreciably different from where they left. If anything, the quality control was not quite as high.

I also have friends that leave their church every few years (without leaving the Church) to start attending a new church and shore up whatever was missing in their previous worship experience. I think different settings will illuminate the gospel differently and they might have more interesting and varied experience of worship than I do, but in the end they are relationally stunted when it comes to church. They have not connected with a fellowship for the long haul. They just shacked up with a congregation for a little while and when times got tough, they went out to buy cigarettes and never came back.

So here are two suggestions:

  • Churches: As important as liturgy is, worship services should never be form over function.* By all means speak in the idiom of the people, be interesting and engaging but make sure you are also saying something. Never sacrifice depth for delivery, because people will not put deep roots down where the ground is shallow. Give people something to latch on for the long haul or get ready to say so long after a little while.
  • People: In the long run, what will you sustain you is not a varied and satisfying worship experience, but a community of people who will gather around you and support you through the seasons of life. You need friends who will commit to you for the long term. And they need you, so stop messing around and find a church worth keeping.

In the end it is not as much about ‘going to church’ as it is about ‘being the church.’ That is a different experience and it is harder to turn your back on after a three year cycle.

*The Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for two things: (1)Designing buildings which are pretty to look at and (2) designing homes that no one wants to live in. This is the problem with form over function.

Um. . .Maybe You Should Crack A Window: a book review

Fresh Air: Trading Stale Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, Experience-It-Everyday Relationship With God By Chris Hodges

Have you every experienced seasons of your spiritual life that were . . .not so fresh? Where you are going through the motions of the Christian life but inside you is cesspool of destructive emotions: anxiety, self-doubt, anger, distrust.

Chris Hodges, the senior pastor of  Church of the Highlands in Birmingham Alabama has written a book to help bring a ‘breath of fresh air’ into your life. He aims to help us steer a course out of ‘the doldrums’– that lifeless and dull slump where there is no wind in our sails to propel us forward–so we catch the breeze and go to all the exiting places God has in store for us.

How do you beat the doldrums? [SPOILER ALERT: God is Involved]. Hodges wants you to cultivate a relationship with God, and his people, which will help you live an exciting, connected and not-at-all-dull life. He urges us to allow fresh air into all areas of  life but especially the following areas:

  • Live with Eternity in mind: focus on heaven and invest your life in what has lasting significance.
  • Adjust your attitude by focusing on ‘the positive’ and going to God with all your worries.
  • Read your Bible with an eye to  where it propels your life forward.
  • Have a prayer life which focuses on building a loving and trusting relationship with God.
  • Worship God expressively.
  • Become involved in a supportive community of faith (i.e. church).
  • Trust God in the areas of our finances.
  • And develop rhythms of rest (Sabbath) in the midst of your work and vocation.

But Hodges ultimately says making room for ‘fresh air’ is about making room for the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow in our lives. It is the Spirit of God who leads us into all truth, commissions us and empowers us for witness and the exciting life God wants for us.

Hodges says a lot which I think is helpful and I love that he uses relational language to talk  about God (and not formulaic techniques).  I also appreciate that in the end, his answer to what brings spiritual vitality  is not what we do, but the Spirit’s work. This is fundamentally correct and well worth noting.  Nevertheless while reading this book I had several problems which give me pause:

  1. Hodges tells people in the ‘doldrums’ to choose to have a better attitude. This is good advice for a lot of people, but not for people who suffer from clinical depression who despite not wanting to be as anxious, self-abasing and down-in-the-dumps as they are, cannot ‘choose’ to focus on the positive without some sort of medical intervention. If this is you, thank God for chemistry and good counseling and please avail yourself to it. There are certain parts of this book, which made me wonder if they would hurt people in a particular mental state.
  2. While Hodges ultimately sees Christian witness as the outflow of life in the Spirit, there is little emphasis through out this book on the mission of God. Honestly, my big advice to people who sit in a smelly room looking bored is find out what God is doing in your neighborhood and community and get involved. If true religion involves care for widows and orphans, find out who they are around you and find ways to love them in risky ways. This might not make you happy, but you won’t be bored. For Hodges, we get involved with God’s Mission when we spend time with him and are changed into the sort of witness who overflows with the love of God. I don’t disagree with him, but I would add that as we take risks to become part of God’s mission in the world,  God changes us as we step out. The way is made by walking and I wish this book took a more missional focus.
  3. Lastly I wonder a little bit about the ‘self-help’ tone of this book. No doubt I want a satisfying spiritual life myself, but the focus here seems highly individualistic. Even in his description of community, Hodges talks about how we need supportive people to experience fresh air in your life.  I agree, living in community makes me better and I love the wisdom, encouragement and challenge I have received from others. What I also love, but don’t often appreciate is how life and community means I have to die.   Other people in the church do not exist to aid my journey of self actualization. They are there for me to love, and sometimes love sacrificially.  

With these concerns, I am not so much disagreeing with anything Hodges has said, but wishing for fuller picture of the Fresh Air life he describes. He says  good stuff here, but some of it seems too safe for me. I would give this book a 3/5 and certainly believe that it can be read fruitfully and will likely encourage a lot of people. There is a discussion guide available online, making it an appropriate choice for a church small group.

Here is Chris Hodges talking about his book in his own words. Feel the excitement: 

Thank you to Tyndale House Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

On Not Going to Church, part 2: Who goes to Church vs. Who Can’t?

So last week I posted a blog entry on my angst of having to work every Sunday and being unable to attend my church. This coming Sunday I am working again and won’t be able to  attend a service anywhere in my community. This happens to lots of people, I know, but I have started to think about who.

I have friends who are medical professionals, nurses and doctors, who sometimes have to miss church to work a shift at the hospital. Police officers face a similar problem. There are also small business owners who cannot break away for a Sunday morning service. Certainly there are others who are regularly excluded from worship but I wonder if the people most unable to attend a Sunday service on a regular basis are the working poor.

I say because for the moment that’s me. I have a slightly better than minimum wage job. It is shift work at my local hardware store and I take what work I can get. And so I miss church because I have to work, and for the moment that is each and every Sunday.

This is a reality for a lot of people. Think of the crowd that shuffles off  after church to Sunday brunch and enjoy a time of fellowship. But someone has to

Guys in fancy hats working on Sunday so you don’t have to.

take their order, clear the table and cook their food. Church people couldn’t go out to eat on Sunday, if other people couldn’t go to church on Sunday. Or who doesn’t like the convenience of grocery (or shoe) shopping on a Sunday morning? We all like to shop, eat out with friends, and get done all the errands that we couldn’t get done during our work week, don’t we?  Or maybe our ‘Sabbath’ practice is to enjoy a tall extra hot non-fat latte at our local coffee shop, sit in an over-sized chair and surf the net on the free wifi. I am pretty sure that is what Jesus would do.  I know the baristas are pleased that you have brought the kingdom of God to their comfy cafe.

This is the culture we live in, and I won’t pretend there are easy answers. Once upon a time, communities shutdown on Sundays so that everyone could attend worship services. Now there is no sacred time when buying and selling cease and some people with low paying who are making your life convenient, will not be able to go to your church and worship with you. As one of their number, you are welcome.

So here is a little exercise, when you sit in your theater style chairs on Sunday morning, and you watch the white screen come down from the ceiling so that God can speak through the PowerPoint, ask yourself these questions: By doing church this way, who are we excluding? Who can’t make it and what are we doing as a church to reach out to them? How can we reach out and be the church for those who can’t be at church?

Often mega churches do a good job of including people because of the number of services they offer. Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic Parishes sometimes offer daily mass which allows those who cannot stand with the congregation on Sundays, kneel with them on Thursdays.  But maybe your church is small and doesn’t have the resources to offer multiple services. What can you do to be more hospitable to would-be-worshippers?  How should we change to include those we are excluding?

Now this is more than angst about ME not going to church. My inability to attend at the moment has forced me consider those who never could. May we find ways to bring God’s presence to those who cannot come into God’s house.