Does Liturgy Work with the Poor, Illiterate, or Uneducated?

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought9 Comments

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.  

9 Comments on “Does Liturgy Work with the Poor, Illiterate, or Uneducated?”

  1. I think it's important to note as well that the liturgy grew out of a context where most of the hearers would have been illiterate "blue-collar" folks.

  2. You beat me to it, Dwight! I was just going to add what James K. A. Smith pointed out in a tweet about this post just a few moments ago: "Liturgy was a historical practice of the poor." That's right. Long before the majority of the population was literate, and even in contexts devastated by poverty, worship was very "liturgical." Earlier Christians, ironically, probably had no paradigm for what this post wrestles with.

  3. Zac, I love this post! The perspective of your friend is insanely helpful; I especially love his comment about how people with no church background find that to not have liturgy is weird.

    This reminds me of p. 251 of Marva Dawn's Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, on which she quotes Patrick Keifert, saying,

    "…most people feel very self-conscious when they are asked to expose themselves to strangers. In response, they effectively remove themselves from active participation in worship and instead passively observe the few "personalities" in the congregation, or those who have a public role to play. These public personalities on whom most of the attention is centered really function as the executives of the worship service. Although they may attempt to cover their status by using humble-sounding words, they remain the privileged few, centers of the show.

    The silent observers are less likely to participate in a communal expression of deel emotion in these wide open worship services than they would be to risk contributing in a more traditional ritual setting. Ritual builds the social barriers necessary for effective interaction. It provides the sense of cover that allows most people to feel safe enough to participate in expressions of religious value. Despite how things may seem when a visitor comes to church for the first time, ritual can in fact be most hospitable to the congregational stranger."

    When I read this several years ago it profoundly challenged the assumptions I had from growing up in a decidedly low-church background, that pre-written liturgical prayers were both less spiritual and unwelcoming to outsiders. I began to realize that liturgy provides rails for people to run on, so that everyone can participate, rather than only the gifted few (in what ironically ends up being much more of a "priestly" role than they would like to admit).

  4. Zac, as you may guess, this post got my attention! Being in a context where the majority of our congregation is working poor with quite a few homeless people this is right up our alley. You named some of the issues I have struggled with, though admittedly my struggle has been more about the "height" of the content than whether or not it is liturgical.

    I come from a non-liturgical background, so I know that I have biases about liturgy that are based purely on my own experience, not what really is helpful for the congregation. We have a number of liturgical elements in our service right now–communion, Lord's prayer, responsive reading. This post made me think I need to engage in some intentional conversations to see how these elements are forming people.

    As we look to start a new service next year this is a good challenge about what will best form people too.

  5. Zac, you might comment on how churches have their own "liturgy" whether intentional or not – for some it's 3 choruses and a prayer, for some it's the Common Book of Prayer. Sometimes we are not aware of our own "liturgy" as a form or typical practice of conducting public worship – but it exists in all churches, even the "non-liturgical" ones.

  6. zac, the whole collection of texts behind Cardiphonia's "Hymns of Faith" was written by Samuel Stone for the poor in his congregation. (Newton and many others took this approach to discipling their flocks) This is totally shocking when you consider how difficult most of the texts are. But he assumed that since they all had the creed memorized from an early age that working through more difficult song texts would be possible. Thanks for this really thoughtful and challenging post.

  7. Some of the most passionate and full worship I have ever experienced was among refugees and in the bush in Sudan – Dinka worshippers in the Episcopal Church of Sudan. They are cattle-herders and mostly not literate, but they know and proclaim the full gospel under trees and in mud huts via powerful liturgy that is in continuity with historical Christianity and infused with their own experience and culture.

    Thanks for this post and interview.

  8. Coming from a Catholic perspective, I find the poor here in Honduras very moved by liturgy – especially the Mass. Partly this is due to their experience with liturgy, especially after the Second Vatican Council. But part is also due to the faith formation they have received.
    Of course, this is also very mixed in with popular piety and, probably to the dismay of liturgists, includes elements of that piety in the liturgy. (For example, in some parishes there are sung responses during the elevation of the Body and Blood of Christ which are non-liturgical.)
    But, perhaps because of a deep devotion to the Eucharist, I find many moved by liturgies and the liturgical prayers.

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