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A Message to Millennials: Don’t Miss the Point of Liturgy
On June 21, 2014
(cross-posted from 1024project.com)
by Arnfield P. Cudal
Recent religious trends among Millennials — today’s youth who have come of age at the turn of the century — highlight yet another self-perpetuating cycle in the quest for spirituality. A Pew Research Center survey reports that only 18% of Millennials attend church weekly compared to 26% of Baby Boomers when they were their age. The number of young Americans attending church today is much less than any previous groups, and those who haven’t stopped going to church are switching denominations.
Recent articles, such as, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church,” “Young Evangelicals are Getting High,” and “Change Wisely, Dude,” chronicle why many are leaving mainline Protestant and evangelical churches for liturgical, high worship services in Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. Consider what some are saying:
1) A student from a Methodist Church: “(I) was taught a “Precious Moments” version of Christianity: watered down, polite, and unreal.”
2) A reporter and former evangelical church member: “Church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.”
3) A teacher from a non-denominational church: “Mega churches lack the ‘organic, every day substance’ of reality.”
4) A blogger from a Protestant church: “I felt homeless in heart. I missed intergenerational community. I missed hymns and historicity, sacraments and old aesthetics.
5) A former Presbyterian: “When I look at a Protestant service, it lacks the mystery and power of the body of Christ.”
In response to the American Conservative article, a person writes in the comments section:
“I myself recently switched to a church with a more high liturgy, intentional design of the worship space, and a more holistic balance between the spoken word, pre-written prayers and confessions, singing, and aesthetics as a way to connect with the Divine.”
“I think that eventually, in many lives, there comes a point where the transcendent and the sacred shout out for a place in our hearts and commitment. Call it longing for purpose and/or for a connection with the Divine. These cannot be found in the culture; they are radically counter-cultural.”
Millennials and those looking for meaningful ways to connect with the Divine are seeking them through liturgical forms, sacraments, historicity, and sacerdotalism. The article on The American Conservative remarks,
The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity. Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this “sacramental yearning” will not go away.
Rachel Held Evans, author and blogger for CNN writes,
“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.”
The Christian Pundit observes,
The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Savior who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.
The last three decades, as a “Generation Xer,” having observed the tide of Baby Boomers vacating high-churches for low-brow congregations, I find this trend neither surprising nor anomalous but somewhat prescient. As predicted, Millennials have come full circle to where their forebears once stood. Indeed, the Boomers who once loathed the very symbols and forms of high church liturgy: the rote, the repetitive, the pointless processes and processions, or the irrelevant ancient forms along with its “long-songs,” are the very components now being sought after by their offspring. Is this just a matter of perception and preference, or a reaction to their parent’s tastes? Yes, and yes. But the real crux of the matter here goes beyond what is embedded in style, forms, or liturgy. In both cases — both Millennials and their parents (the Baby Boomers) — are missing the point. What exactly is the point they’re not getting?
As the articles show, what is conspicuously absent is mention of God: the subject of what these very liturgies, rites, forms, and sacraments purport to address. Undeniably, a pitfall of liturgy or symbolic sacerdotalism is that the very tools designed to bring God into focus is the very thing focused upon. As a result, as more importance is placed on the execution of such rites, the object of veneration (God) fades into the background. Flow and execution becomes more important in establishing an ethereal and sublime atmosphere of worship.
Millennials are indeed noticing the benefits of form and structure (liturgy). After all, the intention of liturgy is to draw corporate focus to God. Creeds, rites, and pre-formed prayers were incepted by church fathers seeking a unified and close-knit community where feastings and fasting, observances, and the seasons and cycles of life were shared and synchronized by everyone, together, and on an everyday basis.
While negative connotations of liturgy persist in evangelical denominations, overarching advantages prevail. Consider, for example, a Sunday morning service in the Anglican and Catholic Church: The service (rite) begins with penance or confession of sins, followed by a plea for God’s mercy (Kyrie), and followed by paeans of praise, thanksgiving, and adoration (Gloria). Each service involves a reading and singing of a Psalm, an Epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. After the preaching (homily), prayers, communal concerns, and gifts are offered. The Eucharist is always observed and is preceded by a rite acknowledging God’s Holiness (Sanctus), the mystery of Godliness (death, resurrection, and return of Christ), and call for repentance (Angus Dei). In the Anglican Church, the Book of Common Prayer, which contains a collection of readings and passages from the Bible, guide the service. In the Catholic Church, this liturgy is dictated in the Missal.
Because of liturgy, the following may be said: 1) the Bible is read more often and more comprehensively than in non-liturgical churches. 2) All processes, such as confession, thanksgiving, praise, proclamation, communion, then application, are addressed and included. 3) Rites, creeds, and forms designed to keep the church from deviating from doctrine, kept heresies and transitory winds of change at bay. Theological considerations aside, it is no wonder traditional Anglican and Catholic churches have changed little over millennia, bolstered in no small part by its adherence to liturgical tradition. Undeniably, such attributes are what attract Millennials, and for the moment, reminiscences of immutability, steadfastness, historicity, and longevity, prevail….until the next generation considers such attributes unimportant or irrelevant to them.
Music is also a sacramental consideration. High church music draws from a compendium of music antiquity: a trove of music compiled over a millennia apurposed to emulate enduring theological truths, convey the simplicity of Gospel truths, and coronate the loftiest of praise. Such musical offerings are accompanied by those schooled in liturgy and music, and commanded by the grandest instrument available, such as the pipe organ. Such strivings and pursuits for the superlative and the nonpareil are why these churches are referred to as “high church.” Hence, high liturgical churches not by mere coincidence have become the choice of nobility and royalty.
Indeed great admiration and appreciation for such ceremonial excellence may be afforded those who recognize and know how to appreciate them. While the service may be gallantly executed, the symbols rich in meaning, the music regal and cognitively satisfying, there is one thing to remember: without knowledge of the One to whom these components were designed to exalt, the service devolves into just another form of transcendentalism and experientialism. Transcendentalism, or community without God, is a form of “club-ism,” of which many churches today typify. Experientialism, or sensory knowledge without God, is empty and transitory, never satisfactory, and causes the soul only to “yearn for more.”
Based on what we find written in these articles, and based on the anecdotal wishes expressed, the true answer to Millennial’s spiritual quests can be found in Christ. Notice how Christ fulfills all:
1) Wish: A holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth
Answer: “I am the truth.” (John 14:6)
2) Wish: A greater openness toward the treasures of the past
Answer: “I am the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 1:8)
3) Wish: A way to satisfy this “sacramental yearning”
Answer: “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.” (John 4:14)
4) Wish: Ancient forms of liturgy (which are) unpretentious, unconcerned with being “cool,”
Answer: “Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever. (Psalm 104:5)
5) Wish: Something authentic
Answer: “I am the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
6) Wish: Theology
Answer: “For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those that believe. (I Timothy 4:10)
7) Wish: A historic rootedness
Answer: “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:58)
8) Wish: Something greater than themselves
Answer: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.” (John 13:16)
9) Wish: Spiritual leader
Answer: “He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mathew 11:11)
10) Wish: A true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality
Answer: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house…to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)
Andrea Palpant Dilley in her blog, Change Wisely, Dude, in offering advice to church leaders, hints at the answer.
“Take the long view…consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.
Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.”
Indeed, mainline protestant denominations have begun to take notice and started adapting more liturgical elements in their worship. This is not a bad idea considering that the extra-biblical trappings that have caused much consternation and schisms within their own denominations, and which have detracted from the true focus and understanding of the Word, may be done away with. Those vain things which were practical and pragmatic to Baby Boomers are turning out to be quite unpragmatic and impractical to Millennials. Ultimately, however, this is not where the answer lies: not in the sacraments, forms, liturgies, symbols, music, etc; the answer is in the Word, and mainline protestant denominations, including liturgical churches, would be remiss not to focus on the Word.
One sensible response to the articles above reiterates the Biblical solution:
“Many young people find that their churches are not adequately guiding them into a greater understanding of God and preparing them for Christian service. Sometimes, these young people will seek a greater connection with God through experience, by switching from low to high church styles. They become Anglicans rather than Baptists. However, the ways to become more Christ-like and identified with God are to study His word, read books written by great Christians of the past, and consciously seek to glorify God by imitating Christ in daily life. Worship styles and the practices surrounding communion and prayer do nothing to bring someone closer to God. A relationship with God can give meaning to them, but by themselves, they are merely empty forms. If churches truly want to shepherd the people of God better, they should not transform their services to high style, but teach the depths of God’s Word with the same rigor and intensity that the Puritans did when the Anglican Church failed Christians in the 1600s. Today we have milquetoast Christians going to milksop services, and both Christians and services want substance; the solution is not to put more cream in the service, but feed the Christian meat.”
Whereas knowing God is possible without rites, forms, and liturgies, it is impossible to know God without the Word. The Apostle John, reiterated by the Apostle Paul, said that the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn 1:1) — who was manifested in the flesh, seen by angels, preached unto the Gentiles (1 Ti 3:16) — is the key to connecting us to the one true Divine: God the Heavenly Father (Jn 14:6).
 Olmstead, Gracy. “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy.” Theamericanconservative.com. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-millennials-long-for-liturgy/ (accessed 1/23/14)
 Evans, Rachel Held. “Why Millennials are leaving the Church.” CNN.com. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/ (accessed 1/23/14)
 VanDoodewaard, Rebecca, (RVD). Thechristianpundit.org. http://thechristianpundit.org/2013/07/17/young-evangelicals-are-getting-high/ (accessed 1/23/14)
 Johan. January 14, 2014. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-millennials-long-for-liturgy/comment-page-1/#comments (accessed 1/27/2014)
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Richfield A. Cudal, ThM, DD, ThD
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