In a culture that prizes progress and innovation, it can be difficult to know why the “past” matters. Why should worship leaders be students of worship through the Church’s history? There are many reasons, not least of which is that everything we have believed, we have received.
But let’s explore one other reason that is often overlooked: we study the past so we can have a way to critique the present. C.S. Lewis wrote an essay on the necessity of studying and understanding the past:
We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
For Lewis, studying the past is the only way to escape the tyranny of the trend, the grip of the present moment.
Consider this: for decades, Church leaders in North America have told us that practices are just expressions—reflective of our faith—so we can adjust them freely to reach the people we want to reach. But for centuries, Church Fathers told us that practices are formative to our faith so choose wisely.
How do we know if “modern worship” is forming us in the right way? We must compare it to the rich, Christ-centered, Trinitarian, gospel-shaped, narrative-formed liturgies of the past.
Let me suggest a few exercises:
1. Familiarize yourself with ancient worship practices and services.
Go to an Eastern Orthodox Church and sing through the Divine Liturgy that Saint John Chrysostom wrote over 1,500 years ago. Go to a Catholic Mass or an Anglican service. Ask to meet with the priests from each of these churches and ask them to explain why they do what they do and where it all began.
2. Reflect on what we’ve changed and why.
Pay attention to the differences, from the visual layout to the words spoken and sung. As you ask what you’ve changed and why, be suspicious of the pragmatic reasons. Don’t be satisfied with answers such as “Because it works!” or “It’s reaching people!” Don’t sacrifice the theology, beauty, and story on the altar of pragmatism.
3. Think about your context.
Context matters. Who are your people? What “language” do they speak? How can you translate the rich, Christ-centered content and practices that the Church has said and sung and lived for centuries into their common, marketplace words? How can you retell the story of creation and fall and redemption and restoration in your context?
4. Invite the Spirit to lead you.
The Spirit who filled the disciples to carry out the mission of Jesus—the One who led the Church through the valley of death and persecution, through the dark forests of syncretism and superstition, through the wilderness of atheism and humanism—is the same Spirit who is with us. Invite him to help you shape a gathering that unmistakably reveals Jesus. After all, the liturgy is not the point; Jesus is the point. The practices are not the center; Jesus is the center. The question is, what practices—what “liturgy”—point to Jesus as the center?
(1) C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (multiple editions/publishers)