I was recently in a friendly yet passionate dialogue with a pastor-friend of mine, for whom I have a lot of respect. We were wrestling through whether a more overt liturgy (one with readings, congregational responses and prayers, etc.) worked with more “simple” folk–people who think simply, need things simplified, and aren’t attracted to high-level theological abstraction. My friend contended that his context was one where high liturgy would not thrive because people weren’t interested in heavy theology, antiquated language, and dense readings. These “blue collar Christians” needed something simple, simple, simple. I began asking myself the following questions: Is a more robust liturgy only appropriate for the white-collar intelligentsia? Is liturgy unable to connect with uneducated or lower-income folks, or more simple-minded, non-doctrinaire Christians?
All this got me thinking, in particular, about a fellow pastor and missionary to Denver, Billy Waters, and the community that he serves, Wellspring Church, an Anglican parish situated in Englewood, one of the inner-ring suburbs of the Denver Metro region. These older suburban communities are experiencing huge demographic shifts because of the gentrification occuring in central Denver. The poor are being displaced to the first suburban layer of the city, and Wellspring is one of the churches that finds itself in the middle of this shift. Billy and the other leaders have been faithfully following Christ and making disciples in their neighborhood for many years, now, and I shot him three questions about the above dialogue because I thought he might be able to provide a unique perspective to illumine the subject at hand.
ZH: Tell us about yourself, the church that you serve, and its worship context, including the worship service style/feel and the demographics of folks who come.
BW: The Church was planted 12 years ago. We started with about 15 people in my back yard. Our vision was/is to see fervent followers of Jesus in Englewood. From here, we desire to see a movement of new churches spring up around the Denver Metro area. Our church and community demographics:
*Age spread at Wellspring: young families, students, singles, and a few people in their 50’s-70’s
*Socio-economics at Wellspring: diverse, though primarly blue collar
*Ethnic spread in Englewood (not yet realized at Wellspring): 75% Caucasian, 20% Hispanic, and 5% African-American
ZH: Some have said that a robustly liturgical worship service only works with intellectuals and “white-collar Christians.” How does your worship context challenge that assumption?
BW: The liturgy has been, at least initially, a barrier to our illiterate population. After one or two months, however, they have it memorized. The liturgy has been tremendously formative for our homeless population and children. Many of our congregants utilize the forms in the prayers of the people as a template for their personal prayers. If you ask some of our kids what is the gospel, they will respond, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Recently, a homeless woman came back from another church to give her testimony and she said that it didn’t feel like church because they didn’t have communion. There are countless examples of how liturgy has generated and formed kingdom desires.
When someone says, “the liturgy is a hindrance or weird,” it is usually coming from people who grew up in another expression of church. We have found that those who have NO church experience think what we do is normal and that to not have liturgy is weird. These are the people we are going after.
ZH: In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that liturgy has a shaping power on people, even if at times everything isn’t completely understood. How have you seen the liturgy shape people in your context?
BW: The passing of the peace challenges people to reconcile relationships. We have seen many times relationships restored at the peace and before communion. The holding of the hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer at the Table, reminds people that we are unified body. The confession screams that we are a confessing people. We have had people proclaim publically their struggle with pornography, approval, work-aholism, addiction to alcohol, prescription drugs, etc… The commissioning says we are a sent people. Any time we send someone out we do it at the commission. It is a powerful expression of mission and sentness.
All this seems to me to be a pretty powerful testimony about the power of the Church’s historic worship modus operandi, regardless of someone’s age or cultural or socio-economic background. It corroborates what Smith has to say about how liturgy shapes people, sometimes without even knowing it. Smith talks several times about liturgy’s shaping effect on children and the mentally handicapped–folks who are supposedly “unable” to understand many aspects of the liturgy. It just goes to show that repeated liturgy seeps into our soul, like water in cracks, waiting for the Holy Spirit to break us open in a Divine freeze. The beauty of repetition is that foreign words and concepts become part of our soul’s vocabulary. Faithful, thoughtful worship “becomes” us over time. Our soul (whether blue or white collar…whatever that means, anyway) grows to the liturgy rather than the liturgy shrinking to us.