On Reformation Day and the Contemporary Church: Bringing It Back to the People

Happy All-Saints/Reformation Day!

On this day the Western Christian celebrates those who have died and gone to be with Christ, and wait with us for His second coming (see Hebrews chapter 11). This day also commemorates Reformation Day within the churches that I am most familiar as an actual parishioner. Lutheran and Reformed communities use this day to call to mind the best impulses of the Protestant Reformations of the 16th century. A time when folks like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Menno Simons spoke out against church corruption, spiritual abuse, and those who would complicate the good news that Jesus saves all who simply respond to His grace. In a world where the 1% dominated the worship economy, the 99% decided that God had called them to participate more fully in worship and the daily graces offered to all of Christ’s saints. A clarion call that, all cynicism aside, came at the the height of a rich church empire.

During the time before the Protestant Reformation stunning Gothic cathedrals began to pop up all over Europe. Huge buildings were being built and dedicated to God. Enthusiasm for the faith was high as new religious orders where formed and saught to meet the everyday needs of the poor and marginalized. A new awareness of the faith of those who had gone before was practically bleeding from committed Christians. But inside the walls of worship it was a different story. Both Catholic and Protestant historians agree that the actual worship of God through the liturgy was starting to suffer. Active participation of the laity in the service was beginning to wane.

As scholastic theologians got more “serious” about the faith the Eucharistic liturgy was put on an even higher pedestal, to the point (in some cases) that the laity were actually removed from participation in the Eucharist. The proper performance of the Eucharistic liturgy in the medieval church became as important as music is in the mega-churches of today. This was dramatized by screens of stone or iron that hid the altar and choir from view. Monks and priests celebrated the Eucharistic liturgy away from the people; the “professionals” mysteriously hid behind a curtain and away from the view of the people. These “professionals” had all sorts of sensible reasons for presenting the culminating experience of weekly Christian worship in this way. After all, something as “set-apart” as worship directed to the holy God calls for such a professional and polished approach. And I must admit, I think they had a point. Unfortunately, this resulted in distant and passive worship from the laity. Because many ceased to receive communion the church had to mandate going to church at least once a year at Easter.

But, the word liturgy literally means “the work of the people,” and the people became restless at the increasing amount of “mediums” the professionals placed between them and the Great Thanksgiving. This frustration was one of the main spiritual impulses (there were plenty of other political ones) to drive the Reformation.

The opposite was true as well. Some may have been enamoured by the magic on display or, better yet, soothed by the passivity this provided. All that was required was to experience the sights and smells without the threat of actual participation.

Things have changed in the Roman tradition from which this historical episode arose. I can attest to the communal and lay-driven worship currently being revived in many contemporary Catholic parishes. But it is interesting to note that I have “sat through” quite a few Protestant “Free Church” and “Reformed” worship services over the last few years in which I have felt the way that I imagine those Gothic Christians felt as they sat in the pews. Unable to engage outside of their minds, or the emotions conjured through the scent of the incense rising behind the veil. It is no secret that many congregations (not all) within the American evangelical tradition have become very large, very professional, and very loud. There are more than a few historical ironies in our current context. An increasing passivity and detachment pervades many of the services I have attended within this evangelical Protestant tradition.

Has the balance of historical worship been replaced by the magic and over-professionalism of the mega-church stage? Have we removed the laity from “the work of the people” and ended up committing the same kind of abuses as the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation? I am speaking primarily to the Protestant churches I know of that do not spring directly from Charismatic or Pentecostal traditions. Bodily engagement and participation in worship is a different issue in congregations used to fully participating through strong emotions and body.

Christians have always used sound, space, and a script to facilitate participation in worship. But these very things can also work against their intended purposes. Within worship they may have the same effect as veils, priests on raised platforms, and Scriptures spoken in foreign languages. This was certainly the case in some churches before the Reformation. And it may be the case in our own time within some Protestant churches. For instance, what are the long term effects of regularly (every week) using very loud music in the context of worship? Can it act as a kind of veil that puts space between the worshipper and others? What long-term effect does it have on a congregant who spends the majority of her time singing without being able to hear the person next to her but only the “professionals” on the “stage”? How does this shape a person over time? How does it shape the way the person in the pews understands the relationship between the worship leader and laity? Does it inadvertently create a new kind of hierarchy? Does the “stage” set-up of many of these churches do the same kind of thing over time? How do even small things, like in-ear monitors for musicians, and the ability to amplify the sound of the those “up-front” shape worshippers?

Or consider this…would the laity of your church be able to hold a service, and know what do and say if no clergy or worship leader showed up? Would there be a script to follow that all would be able to participate in and understand? Would they have been schooled in this script? Would it be able to serve those coming to the service from a wide variety of emotional states and personalities?

So much more could be said. So many more questions to explore. But let’s start our celebration of All-Saints/Reformation Day by simply asking the questions. We live in a world where it is simply not an option to believe that the mediums (and even “styles”) we use to communicate are neutral. The mediums we use, how we position worship, are not neutral. They speak louder than words and create and add barriers that aid or distract from participation and (more importantly) whether average Christians can connect their experience on Sunday with the mundane of weekday life. Christians believe that God communicates through human mediums. The fact is, humans need mediators of which Jesus Christ is the ultimate. But how effective are ours? When do they work against the larger body and healthy spiritual formation?

I am say this as a person who loves loud music and champions contemporary art forms. But when it comes to church worship, we would do well to dwell on Reformation impulses and ask if our congregations are being led to participation in the eternal Word that champions the Sabbath rest found in Jesus.

If you are a typical person in the pews, take back the simplicity of worship. It is not something to “do”, but rather something that comes as an invitation to participate in the true story of God that happens in and outside of church walls.

If you are a “professional” worshipper, beware of over-complicating the kind of worship God requires and the indiscriminate use of mediums.

This was a chief concern of the Reformers in the 16th century and it continues to bear weight.

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