I remember once when I was a little girl going to visit my uncle and his family. My uncle was a pastor in a small town somewhere in Iowa -- not a Lutheran pastor, though. He was a pastor in the Evangelical Free church. I remember being very disoriented by the bulletin, which hardly had anything in it. Just a couple of songs, and a sermon (a long sermon, I remember). And there was no place in the book (except for the hymns) where I could follow along, as I was used to doing. No prayers to read together, no "Lord, Have Mercy/Christ, Have Mercy/Lord Have Mercy", no "Gloria Patri", no Apostle's Creed.
It was clear to me on that day that this worship service, anyway, was for adults.
I had no such ideas as a child. I grew up with the Red Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, Settings One and Two. As for me, I never felt bored by the liturgy, even though I didn't understand everything about it. Even without understanding, I could participate by singing along, by praying along, by chanting along. And as I grew, I began to understand some things. I remember that my dad used to sit by me and help me find my place in the hymnal. I loved hearing him sing the Bass part on the three-fold Amen. And when I discovered, in the back of the hymnal, the index of "First Lines and Common Titles", I thought that I had learned the secret handshake! Whenever the sermon got a little too long, I would look up my favorite hymns.
Maybe I was lucky because I was such a reader. I would read anything, even a hymnal; it fascinated me. I still have the 5th grader Sunday School book where we learned the meanings of all of the parts of the liturgy: Invocation and Confession, Introit and Gloria Patri, Kyrie and Gloria in Excelsis and Collect. And I remember my confirmation pastor talking about the liturgy as a great drama, where we remember the mighty acts of God and become a part of them.
Now, it seems, for many people, that the liturgy has become a part of the problem. Empty ritual, they call it. And it can be. Sometimes it does seem as if people are only going through the motions when they participate in the liturgy every week.
So people think that something "freer" is more genuine, more authentic. There is something better about a pentecostal praise service or about a less liturgical Baptist service. "They don't have liturgy," is the reason. But I'm not sure about that.
I remember being involved in a non-denominational Pentecostal church sometime during college. I would go to a Thursday night prayer meeting, and sing intently with all of the enthusiastic songs, and really feel as if my heart was in it. Somewhere along the line, perhaps after a month of two, I started to realize that the opening song selection always followed a similar pattern. They may not have had a printed liturgy, but they did have an order of worship, and it was designed to get a certain emotional effect. It became clear to me that there was a purpose to their "liturgy", even though it was not printed out.
Perhaps one of the things that is missing these days is the sense of the purpose of the liturgy. What is it for? Why do we do it? Why do we design our worship in a certain way (other than the historic integrity)? It is not simply to get an emotional effect, but there is, or should be, a sense of movement, a sense of purpose.
I have been taken recently with Dorothy Bass' series of books, Practicing our Faith. I believe that at least part of the purpose of worship is ritual practice for an authentic life of faith. So when we kneel, we a practicing humility and servanthood. When we sing, we are practicing praise. When we sit for the sermon, we are practicing for a life of sitting at Jesus' feet and learning from him. And when we receive communion, we are practicing putting out our hands and receiving from God.
In one sense, though, there are many different purposes for worship. But in another sense, worship is a gigantic waste of time. When you are in worship, you are not serving the homeless, earning a living, signing a petition, doing laundry. On one blog earlier this week, the insightful author critiqued the maintenance mode of most churches. She said, most people who want to save the world, don't say "I think I'll join a church." People who want to save the world have better ways to use their time. But on another blog recently, I saw a compelling image of a circle: "Save the World/Save the Liturgy", was printed around the circle.
That's the challenge I think. Our mission is to save the world -- but it's a funny way to save the world, isn't it? Somehow, worship is an integral part of this mission.