A Helpful Primer for a Daunting but Important Book on Liturgy

These days, I meet more and more worship leaders interested in exploring the history and thought of Christian liturgy, and it's hard to recommend works that both do justice to the forms and evolutions of Christian worship across time and remain brief. One landmark work, Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, is a daunting and massive tome (which I haven't read in whole) that I wish, for the sake of unschooled inquisitors like me, were more brief. Well, I've at least found a helpful primer for Dix's work that I wanted to share with you all.

While searching for other things, I stumbled upon this wonderful article by William Tighe summarizing the history, impact, and major arguments of Dix's 700+ page groundbreaking volume. Originally published in 1945, Dix's work has never gone out of print and has successfully influenced liturgical studies all the way down through the present. I have only jumped in and out of Dix's work myself, but I found Tighe's article supremely helpful in getting at what appears to be the big picture of The Shape of the Liturgy. Go read the article, but here are a few excerpts that help summarize things.

On the major themes/arguments of the book:

If The Shape of the Liturgy has one dominant argument, it is that the Eucharist is not primarily a ritual by or through which individual communicants come to have an individual experience of “communion with the Lord.” It is the corporate “coming” of Christ to the faithful, through the Eucharist of the Church, his Body. It is a deepening of the union of the faithful with him in his Body, his Body being both the Church and the Eucharist.

On one of the book's more interesting and remarkable insights (we need to read Dix and judge whether we believe it's accurate):

An important theme concerns the “four-action shape” of the classical Christian Eucharist. The argument runs as follows. At the Last Supper, before the supper Christ took bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it.Afterthe supper he took a cup of wine, blessed it, and distributed it. Subsequently, the apostles and their immediate successors combined the “bread ritual” at the beginning of the meal (“This is my body, which is for you; do this for the remembrance of me”) with the “cup ritual” at the end of the meal (“This is my blood of the New Covenant . . . do this for the remembrance of me”) and separated them from the meal itself, which continued for several centuries as the “church supper” or “agape meal.” Thus, the Eucharist assumed the form that it subsequently followed in all primitive Christian traditions: the celebrant (1) takes bread and wine, (2) blesses them, (3) breaks the bread, and (4) distributes the blessed or consecrated elements to the communicants.

This way of looking at the Eucharistic action was one of Dix’s more remarkable insights, and if correct, it would have major implications for those Christian traditions which believed that following the practice of the (very) early Church, so far as this could be known from the Bible or the earliest Christian writings, was a good thing.

On the impact of the book:

It also gave rise in some circles to an ongoing “quest for the perfect liturgy” that resulted in incessant liturgical experimentation. It also gave rise to the view (which was not the author’s) that the worship life of the Church had gone astray at a very early date and needed radical overhauling at the behest of liturgical “experts.”

On what Tighe discerns as one of Dix's most concrete hopes for the book for the Anglican tradition:

Dix would have preferred an ongoing, long-term period of controlled liturgical experimentation within the Church of England, under the loose supervision of its bishops (but without according them any real authority to regulate it), in the hope that by doing so, not only would it have a liturgical expression more faithful to the Christian Tradition, but also it would come to a clearer sense of its own identity.

Tighe goes on to talk about the controversies it stirred in the Anglican tradition because of Dix's assertion that Thomas Cranmer's eucharistic theology was closer to Zwingli than either Luther or Calvin (which we might be able to understand, given Dix's vantage point as an Anglican with major sympathies for Rome). Having studied Cranmer heavily over the last few months, I concur with many Anglicans' criticism of Dix for this association. But while those Anglicans (of the more Anglo-Catholic persuasion) probably would want to see Cranmer as more Roman Catholic, the most recent observations (which will hopefully be published in the next few years by Cranmer scholar Ashley Null) point to Cranmer's eucharistic views as closest to Calvin. (This is a bit anachronistic, though, because Calvin would have had less influence on Cranmer than Calvin's influencers, like Martin Bucer.) What is obvious, though, is that Cranmer didn't have a Zwinglian, "symbolic," view of the eucharist--he believed in a real, spiritual (though not physical) presence of Christ at the Lord's Table.

Tighe discerns that The Shape of the Liturgy wasn't written as a "manifesto for liturgical reform," but as a contribution to a new and exciting discipline of study which had emerged in the 1940s--comparitive religion. Hence, Dix is keenly interested in the Jewish/Semitic origins of the Christian eucharistic rite.

One of Dix's more regularly quoted observations about the Book of Common Prayer as originally constructed by Thomas Cranmer was that it was "the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone" (p. 672). The fact that Dix was not fond of this doctrine (according to Tighe) makes his observation that much more striking, and liturgy-investigators like me and others would do well to carry this observation into our mining of those original Prayer Books of 1549 and (especially) 1552.

Tighe then ends the article with a three-paragraph summary outline of the book. Very helpful. I, for one, plan on printing this article and tucking it into my copy of The Shape of the Liturgy as a reference.


An Unintended Consequence of the Missional Movement on Worship

God as Mission, Worship as Expendable

“God is missional in essence.” “God is a missionary God by nature.” “The Church doesn’t do mission; it is on mission.” All true. And I’m so grateful for the recovery of “sentness” as a part our essence as image-bearers of God. Mission isn’t optional. Thank you, missional movement. 

At the same time, with some of the missional movement, some unhealthy ideas have leaked in. In my opinion, they can be exposed with this question: Is it possible for the Church to be so sent that it is never gathered?

Some in the missional movement have championed a church-on-the-move philosophy—to be the church is to be serving, “building the kingdom” in the community. So they’ve replaced some (or sometimes all) weekly worship gatherings (prayer, singing, preaching, sacraments) for “worshiping through service” out in the community.

The problem with this approach is that you’re chopping your legs out from under you. Worship fuels mission. The circulatory system that pumps lifeblood to the world (mission) is missing its heart (worship). This issue was again brought up by a great article my friend, David Taylor (check out his site, Diary of an Arts Pastor), pointed me to. In “Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship,” Kazimierz Bem put it starkly:

The refrain I constantly hear is: “The Church of the future is the Church of service.” It takes all shapes and forms, but it always boils down to the same thing: Don’t focus on worship—“do stuff” instead! So, a denominational leader blogs that the vocation of churches is to be local community centers, food banks, day cares, or places for diaper drives…I cannot help but think to myself that we should stop ordaining people to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament and instead create an office of “Community Organizer" (with Brief Prayers).

Whew. It is probably not surprising that the missional movement of this brand/variety has taken greatest root in traditions of Christianity with lower view of ordained clergy and a more memorialist view of the sacraments. Because worship and its leaders don’t do anything particular and special, they're replaceable or expendable. Bem’s article is important; I encourage you to read it.

For the record, I try to say that the downplaying of worship in some missional thinking is unintended. However, sometimes I frankly feel like some of the folks (who have probably had bad, maybe even abusive, experiences in worship) have an axe to grind. Perhaps it is their zeal for mission that has them down on things that can get churches "staying put" in their ruts. I share that angst. Complacency has always been deadly. But that's not the fault of worship in essence but of worship poorly practiced, led, and conceived of. 

How Worship & Mission Work Together

I broke this all down in a post a while ago: "How a High View of Worship Challenges and Affirms Missional Thinking." One of the best metaphoric insights about this comes from one of my favorite worship theologians, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a forgotten continental liturgical scholar who wrote an important but buried book back in the 1960s, Worship: Its Theology and Practice. (I really hope some publisher eventually reprints this work.) Von Allmen used the circulatory system metaphor above in a slightly different (and probably more helpful) way.* He likens worship and mission to systolic and diastolic blood pressure—one central core, the heart of God, pumps life into the system, and that life perpetually and cyclically gathers the Church in for worship and pushes the church out for mission.** Why do they work hand-in-hand?  Because worship is the goal of mission.  We are on God’s mission precisely because the world has been side-tracked off its central call—the worship and glory of God.  The world should be singularly and harmoniously gathered for the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but when human beings were manufactured and hit the market, we broke down pretty fast.  Mission is God’s “factory recall” of the world’s worship. 

If this really is the case, then those who are most intense about mission will be most intense about worship.  They will revel in the presence of God among the people of God.  They will “get” just how sweet and fulfilling it is to be in union and communion with the Trinity, and because they have so basked in that love, they are overflowing with desire to see others taste what they have tasted.  Apprehending, beholding, and encountering God’s glory in worship is one of God’s most effective inoculations against missional apathy.  In encountering the fullness of God, we experience the fullness of our humanity.  Worship shakes up our amnesia: we “remember,” as it were, who we were in Adam before and after Adam fell, and we experience who we are in our union and communion with the Second, Greater Adam—Jesus Christ.  In this remembrance, we taste for a moment our full humanity—the fullness of who we were designed to be and what we were made to do.  We experience wholeness, peace…shalom.  And then the inevitable “aha” occurs.  “This is what the world has been groaning for!”, we realize.  And at the Benediction, we are shot out into the world with all the centrifugal force that an encounter with God can muster, until we are sucked back in by God’s next summons in seven days, then re-energized and shot out. 

There's a new book out there that looks to be on target with what we're talking about here. I haven't read it, only thumbed and perused. It's in my queue. It's Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission, by Ruth Meyers. People I trust give it a major thumbs up.

Doing and Receiving

A Church that is always "doing stuff" is in a perilous position in an even more fundamental way, though. The Church is always, first and foremost, a group of receivers, not doers. In all our emphasis on being Christ's hands and feet in the world, we may forget Christ's hands and feet on the cross. Not in our minds/hearts, but in our practice (which shapes our minds and hearts), we can functionally forget the gospel...that faith is God's action, a Divine gift...that Christianity preaches Someone to receive, not something to do. In short, we can fall into the age-old confusion of fruit for root, when we begin to think of ourselves as doers, not receivers, by essence. 

Ironically, worship is good medicine here. Perhaps part of the reason it itches some missional thinkers is that in worship, we're all very passive. We're all receiving God's Word to us, God's grace for us. Even our singing, according to Scripture, isn't so much our action, but Christ's action through us (Heb 2:12), and not in our own power, but in the power of the Spirit. Before we become missional gift-bearers to the world, we must first, and perpetually, receive Christ as gift to us. This is why some Christian traditions call weekly worship "The Divine Service." 

Worship teaches us that "Christian service" begins with God's service to us by providing all the resources for His forgiveness of sins and justification of the ungodly. And then, as He fills us (perpetually and ongoingly), we go out, enabled to offer ourselves in service as living sacrifices.

*What follows is taken from that original post.
**Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 55.

Why I Will No Longer Be Updating the Hymns Movement Page

When Strivings Cease

It is with great pleasure that I announce that I must cease my striving. When this blog began almost six years ago, one of its primary objectives was to herald, champion, promote, persuade, propagandize, coerce, ramrod the burgeoning retuned hymns movement. In addition to retuning hymns myself, especially on my first (The Glad Sound [2009]) and second (Without Our Aid [2011]) albums with Cherry Creek Worship, I wanted to highlight all the church musicians and independent artists who were taking seriously the movement to re-gift old hymns to new believers.

Along with others, I wanted to help turn the tide of contemporary/modern worship by undertaking the massive project of backfilling its gaping holes with the songs of the past. I consulted and networked with inspirational forerunners like Indelible Grace and Red Mountain Music, and I discovered some new partners in the vision, who would over time become great friends--Cardiphonia, Sojourn, and others. 

So I launched a page that would chronicle the movement by cataloguing the artists and pointing to their work. As I heard about more projects, and as they found my home base, the list increased, and I watched before my very eyes the spread of this movement to more and more places in the United States.

The Propaganda Campaign

At the same time, I began a concerted propaganda campaign to highlight these churches and artists and observe the "infiltration" of the vision in the contemporary/modern worship mainstream.  The following highlights track some of that campaign throughout the years (notice I hit the gas hard in 2010-2011). Just glance through the titles to get a glimpse of what we were thinking and doing:

The Effect

Somewhere along the way, as the conversation widened and the rehymning multiplied, I think we can say that this became a bona fide movement. The artists and churches became more aware of each other, and as networking possibilities increased through the saturation of Facebook and Twitter, conversations led to collaborations, and influence multiplied. With this spread came a diversification of styles, too. Retuned hymns went beyond the Southern, country, bluegrass, folk, and Americana roots of Indelible Grace and Red Mountain into the new waters of funk, blues, indie rock, pop, gospel, EDM, and experimental. In other words, the hymns began to take on more indigenous clothing as they were retuned in the accompaniment of their local contexts and influences.

Why I'm Shutting It Down, and a Vision Forward

As you can see, the retuned hymns movement is at the point where I simply can't keep up. If it is to be chronicled and catalogued, it's going to take efforts (and probably algorithms) that I don't have the bandwidth to generate. Thankfully, though I can't share much now, I know some people who are in the middle of a kind of cataloguing project and I'd ask you all to pray for its success. 

I'll no longer be updating the hymns movement page, but I will leave it there in the meantime as a kind of mile-marker and time capsule. 

The retuned hymns movement was never a be all and end all. There are deficits to the church's worship if all we do is recover a previous generation's hymns to the exclusion of the "new song" of other generations/cultures and our own. (I point out one of those deficits in a post about traditional worship here.) I gave heavy influence early on because I felt that a thick injection of hymnody would serve as a kind of "gateway drug" to other important worship reforms and correctives: historical connectivity, theological depth, gospel-centeredness, thoughtful cultural engagement--things that this blog is deeply committed to. I still believe that this strategy is an effective one at the local level, so if you're a worship leader whose church doesn't sing many songs except those of the present, I'd encourage you to slowly incorporate some historic hymns (retuned or restyled to suit your context) to begin broadening the doxological appetites and sensibilities of your flock.

I'm grateful that the retuned movement is at this point, and I cheer on its continued growth. Recovery and retrieval of this sort can only be a good thing. In fact, throughout history, recovery and retrieval were at the heart of every reform-movement of God's people, from Bible times down to the present. So, let's keep digging up these old gems, polishing them off, and casting them in new settings and display cases for the sake of Christ and His Bride!


Retuning a Fabulous Forgotten Hymn

Over at LIBERATE, I talk about the 19th century hymn, "His Be the Victor's Name," and the process that led to its retuning. Go check it out! I hope it inspires others to join in this movement of now countless musicians re-gifting old hymns to new generations. Go read the post!


Rewriting Worship Songs Like the Reformers

I've been on a Thomas Cranmer kick as of late, not because I have a secret love affair with the Anglican tradition or because I think liturgy is the be all and end all. In truth, I'm coming to discover that among the Reformers (like Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Bucer), Cranmer probably thought longer and harder than any about the reform of worship. In other words, Cranmer was a Reformation-era worship leader who was stubbornly committed to the idea that the gospel was the key to unlocking worship's power.

More than a theologian, though, Cranmer was also what we might call today a "missional" and "incarnational" thinker. He was a big proponent of enculturating the words and forms of worship so that they were understandable and apprehendable to the average person. Many of us don't realize it, but this contextualizing thinking is why his liturgy is called "The Book of Common Prayer." "Common" meant, "for the average person."

One of the things Cranmer did was to take the Church's inherited worship practices and, in a sense, "hijack" them. I talk more about that in this post. He took people's beloved traditional prayers, for instance, and "edited" them to emphasize God's work and de-emphasize our work. He was intending to overhaul the worship of the church by filtering all its words, prayers, and practices through the gospel of justification by faith alone (sola fide).

Seeing Cranmer in action as a "solifidian" (i.e. sola fide-style) editor got me thinking about why some worship songs feel funny to me and why, over the years, I've been inclined to tweak a word here or there. I think this impulse of Cranmer's is a similar impulse to why I'm always harping on what is called triumphalism in modern worship songs ("Jesus, I'm living for you," "Jesus, I'm giving it all for you," "I surrender," etc.).

To get more to the point, I've written a post over at LIBERATE on why I think Cranmer and the other reformers would have really dug our retooling of the evangelical hymn, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus." I would encourage you to jump over there and read it, because there's something here for worship leaders who care about gospel-centered worship to begin to consider--namely, the infiltration of performance-based thought into our worship songs and practices. Conjuring one of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, it's time to take the power back. For those of you that haven't heard the song, here it is.

Now go read the post!


Why We Worship Leaders Fear Getting Old (Repost)

I first posted this back in 2011. It sparked a LOT of heavy conversation, from the philosophical-cultural, to the personal. I can't tell you the sad testimonies I've heard from former worship leaders and pastors who were kicked to the curb, largely because of the issues raised below. I want to continue raising this issue, because it has the power to affect one's sense of calling to ministry within the local church. So here it is, slightly modified and updated.

Many informed commentators have noted the dramatic shifts in cultural thinking which took place in the 1960s. Of the countless changes, one of the more dramatic shifts was our culture's general perception of aging. Young people were beginning to be identified as a group and class unto themselves, and with this classification has come a strong leaning in culture to glamorize youthfulness and abhor the aging process. The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but today it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.


Bettering Our Worship Without Battering Our Sheep

Sometimes, thinking long and hard about worship can get the better of us. It's the typical case of the "young theologian" who discovers the truth for the first time only to wield its weight with such "intentionality" that she bludgeons everyone around her. We bit into the apple of "true, biblical worship" (whatever we mean by that), and it must be tasted, no swallowed immediately, by everyone around us. Maybe it was a conversation with an inspiring mentor. Maybe it was a book or favorite worship blogger. Maybe it was an inspiring, fiery, prophetic preacher that opened your droopy eyes to your doxological ills.

When we start getting serious about worship, engaging and applying the Bible, honoring its application by Christians throughout history, that moment can often be accompanied by a grave and deadly temptation--deadly for us and deadly for our churches. It's one thing to apprehend the truth. It's an entirely other thing to perceive when and how to apply it. Those who have done the hard work involved in apprehension often can fail to realize that they need to work equally hard at application. It is this latter idea that gets at the heart of what it means to be a pastor in your worship leading role. A prophet knows how to tell forth the truth. But a pastor knows how to lead people in it. Lord, have mercy. We need more worship pastors.

I was reminded of all this as I've been studying two lesser-known sixteenth century reformers, Martin Bucer and Thomas Cranmer. Both seemed to be wise in the skill of reform and change through patient, steady pastoring. Bucer and Cranmer were by no means softies. They were intense thinkers, often dogmatic and rigid in their personal convictions (Cranmer probably more so than most give him credit for). But they both seemed to have an extreme sensitivity to how those convictions got applied on the ground. In a moment in 1549, a watershed year for major worship reform in England, Bucer wrote back to people in his hometown of Strassburg about what he was witnessing there. Reformers like him could have been tempted to see what Cranmer was rolling out as compromised half-measures. "He's a sell-out." "Partial reform is no reform at all." But both Bucer and Cranmer were better pastors than that. After outlining some of the old, bad practices that were preserved in Cranmer's first wave of major worship reform, Bucer noted the pastoral impulse, saying,

They [the less-than-ideal worship practices] are only to be retained for a time, lest the people, not yet thoroughly instructed in Christ, should by too extensive innovations be frightened away from Christ's religion, and that rather they may be won over.*

Bucer understood that sometimes half-measures are less a sign of limp-wristed compromise and more a sign of calculated yet tender pastoral care. A good pastor will be adept at both diagnosing their congregation's malady and determining the receivable dosage toward the cure. Oh, how many times have I missed this in my ministry, shoving way-too-large pills down the throats of desperate sheep!

Let's change the metaphor. Pastorally-motivated worship change is like a good detox program. Cold turkey isn't survivable. Progression of the good and regression of the bad must be incrementally staged. Every last one of us, as worshipers, is an idolatrous addict in need of salvation through gospel borne soul rehab.

Folks like Bucer and Cranmer give us some much needed wisdom. Whatever your "thing" is about worship that you feel like your church really needs to get, be very wary of a spirit of frustrated urgency, for that spirit is the antithesis of the patient, non-anxious pastor. So let's all be for the bettering of our worship, but in doing so may we not be battering our sheep.

*Martin Bucer, 1549, qtd. in Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 411.

Infiltrating Bad Worship Practices by Hijacking Forms

Sounds sinister, doesn't it? Sounds like something that Christians...especially worship leaders...shouldn't be a part of. Sounds like the work of terrorists, not pastors. I would tell you, though, that the practice of hijacking and retooling old worship forms has been a part of Christianity for quite some time.

Semper Reformanda

Every era of Christian worship is always in need of reform. Every era has its highs and lows, its blessings and blind spots. Almost five hundred years ago, Christians like Martin Luther and Martin Bucer were assessing those blind spots for Christians in their day, and their influence began to infiltrate the worship practices of England through the thinker and worship architect Thomas Cranmer. I've come to discover that Cranmer was a master at hijacking bad forms and putting them to good use. In fact, one could argue that the entire Book of Common Prayer is nothing short of a distillation of the entire medieval Roman liturgy through the fine-meshed filter of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He kept the shell of worship's practices so that the changes could be manageable and swallowable, but he transplanted its heart. I'd like to give you one specific (and nearly sneaky) example that had me giggling when I read it.

Cranmer Hijacks the Liturgy

Premier Oxford historian and expert on Cranmer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, recounts how Cranmer was "cautiously nibbling away at the edges of the [Roman Catholic] liturgy before a main thrust against the Latin mass." One of the worship practices that irked Cranmer was the superstition-loaded veneration of saints. My good Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters may want to pause here for some qualification, but the best will freely admit that there is a right and wrong way to go about incorporation of saints' days and calendars...and that the medieval Church, on the ground where the people were, had lost their way and gone too far. In any regard, Cranmer knew that the practices associated with the saints' calendar needed a major overhaul, but he recognized that a full-blown elimination of it just wouldn't fly. So he hijacked it.

Cranmer took the saints' calendar and replaced "the staggering array of obscure saints of the early Church [alongside] a more predictable patriotic line-up of English saints" with a roster of Old Testament characters. "This is an example of Cranmer's characteristic strategy of using traditional forms to new and subversive ends; he has tried to provide an unusual scriptural dilution [to the saints' calendar]."* In an effort to conform the worship practices of his day to the Scriptures, Cranmer overhauled a practice to encourage people to engage their Bibles just a bit more. Very, very clever.

Though what Cranmer accomplished ultimately did not have staying power in the future of his tradition, the thought is a brilliant one worth emulating for creative, thoughtful, pastorally-intentioned worship leaders who are serious about the shaping power of worship practices. I'd like to give you one example of what our own application of this might look like.

Hijacking the Song-Set (How this Might Look Today)

If you're a thoughtful, sober-minded evangelical worship leader, you probably itch at some of the things that characterize our Church's "liturgy"--the block of songs, followed by the sermon. The presupposition about that block of songs is that they journey believers from the "outer courts" to the "inner courts," from "praise" to "worship," from "celebration" to "intimacy." This trajectory--the movement from high energy pomp to humble passion--is the general framework that many of us are working in today. 

Let us now ask the same question that Cranmer asked (though maybe not precisely in these words): How does the gospel speak into this worship form? Something immediately becomes apparent. Where is the place in this scheme for the critical moment that prepares the people of God to hear the earth-shattering, soul-igniting news of God's grace? Where is our confession of sin? Where do we, like Isaiah after encountering the presence of God in raw praise, stop and say, "Woe is me! I'm undone! I'm a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips!"

What if we sacrificed NOTHING of the beloved form of the block-of-songs-set but began to always make room for confession by infusing moments, prayers, or songs of confession, woven seamlessly into the neverending tapestry of musical flow? Perhaps, as in many of those "worship leader talks" we're known for, instead of figuring out what inspiring extemporaneous words we're supposed to use in that moment, we lead our people in praying something like this:

We're standing in your presence, God, and we've become painfully aware that we don't deserve to be here. We think back on this week, and we know that we haven't lived up to Your expectations. We're rebellious, stubborn sinners. And it gets worse, Father. Not only have we sinned in the things we've thought, said, and done. We've actually broken Your heart over the things we've left undone. What can we say? We're broken before You.

Or we can choose a song of confession. A few more popular ones that get there are Matt Maher's "Lord, I Need You" or Audrey Assad's "I Shall Not Want." Though they're not full-blown confessions, they get congregations used to the idea of saying, "God, I'm messed up," or "God, I'm in need." This is the confessional posture.

Any way we go about confession, we can then lead out of that by singing and praying about God's grace in Christ through his atoning death and meritorious life. Think of all those great, cathartic anthems we sing that glory in the cross and Jesus' finished work. 

And, notice that we've left the form intact but hijacked it with an impulse to be more faithful to the gospel we profess. This is a beautifully subversive way to move your song sets toward biblical faithfulness and to bless your people with life-giving, Spirit-filled worship (read more about what I mean by "Spirit-filled worship" here).

Emulate the Bearded Bishop & Proto-Hipster

And if all this weren't good enough, if you're a hipster-wannabe like me, as we sit at the end of the "Decem-beard" that no-shave-November produced, you can revel in Cranmer's lengthy lower locks and let your explorations toward emulation start there. Happy New Year, everyone.

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 332-333.

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