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.
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.