Is it possible to plant a liturgical church? This is a question I had to ask myself just over a year ago as we began our effort to plant an Anglican church in Asheville, North Carolina. I had to evaluate whether I was forcing what I valued onto a culture that had no interest—that it would it not resonate with, or be formational in the life of our neighbors. What I’ve come to believe is that it is not just possible to plant a liturgical church, but it is beneficial. In fact, what makes us ‘attractive’ is that we are different. Let me explain.
I minister in an environment that would not exactly be labeled as receptive to the gospel. However, many in their varied ways are looking for answers; for something. Perhaps this explains the therapeutic massage, health stores, and yoga studios that line our streets. On many of the porches of the old, recently rehabbed houses hang Tibetan prayer flags, and statues of Buddha are proudly displayed. It’s true, they are grasping for something, and it seems to be happiness. Their bank accounts emptied in the pursuit of peace, reaching to accomplish for themselves a sort of justification, to atone for that which is keeping them from rest.
At first glance this can be discouraging for those of us hoping to draw our neighbors to our churches, and often leaves the faint of heart hopeless. However, this isn’t all bad news for us bearers of the gospel. Culturally, our neighbors are ritualistic, perhaps much like those Paul encountered at the Areopagus in Athens, and this can work to our advantage. They have rhythms incorporated into their lives—meditation, chant, certain food customs, etc. What if we sought to redeem these already established rhythms? While the structure of our worship—rote prayers, postures, and the like, may be off-putting to some, they actually resonate well with our neighbors.
Many missiological diagnoses of our culture have suggested we employ a strategy that casts ourselves in as ‘un-churchy’ a fashion as possible—to portray ourselves as ‘just like them’ and then drop the bomb after they assimilate comfortably into our community. Those who make up our demographic quickly see through our shallow attempts to emulate their world in our worship; a shameless attempt to coax them in our doors.
When I moved to Asheville I asked several in the community for advice, they all gave similar answers, “Ashevillians will not be fooled by theatrics!” I agree, though what I have just described may be attractive to the backslider, our unchurched neighbors will not take the bait.
We are working from the premise that there are very few in our neighborhood that wake up on Sunday and suddenly decide they need to go to church. Mailers don’t jog their memory, and unfortunately, we have no one wander in off the sidewalk. No, if they come through the doors of our church, it is because they have made a conscious decision that they need what is offered inside. They don’t want a version of what they already have, they want church. And the distinctive differences between the church and the world from which they come is actually refreshing.
Distinctly Christian/Distinctly Asheville
Worship should first be for worship. Our plan for mission is embodied in our people, not our worship style. Therefore, the way we worship is not dictated by culture, but should first serve to form a particular kind of Christian—one that is an evangelist in nature. This is our strategy.
Many churches start backward, they use worship as the primary means of attraction, never fully forming the participants in the image of Christ, because we’ve formulated worship according to the image of the world. Our expression of worship is enculturated, not in the sense that it is remade to reflect our people, but that it effectively remakes us into the image of the church and the Christ we love and serve. However, as seen particularly in the reformation, the way we worship can and should serve to convert worshipers. This necessitates that we worship in a way that is distinctly Christian, while also being distinctly Asheville—worship in the vernacular.
Making a visitor a bit uncomfortable is not always bad. A little confusion, as you will see, can actually be a good thing.
Newcomers see that those gathered for worship actually care enough to learn the things they are participating in, and onlookers feel compelled to belong to such a group—where people pray together, and observe certain practices that distinguish them as a ‘people’. That we are distinctly Christian in our worship expression is not a bad thing. Blurring the lines between our world and theirs can be confusing, seen as a ploy, and is often considered disingenuous.
However, while newcomers may feel slightly unfamiliar with the Christian ‘thing’, there should be elements that make them feel at home as well. Our processional cross and torches have been made from recycled materials, and our altar is live edged wood. This is sacramental in that we have employed the natural materials given to us to communicate the timeless truth of the gospel, in the language of our worshipers. Music may be the easiest way to span the distance between an otherworldly liturgy and the culture represented in the lives of those attending our worship time. Our music is rich, old and sacred, but purposely echoes Appalachian mountain harmonies and rhythms.
It doesn’t take long to realize our neighbors are protesters! What we do in our worship time appeals to the counter-cultural nature of our community. We have not shaped our worship to do so, using it as a marketing technique, but it has been shaped through the generations to function in such a way. This is the heart of what God does in the Sabbath, to slow us, and refuse to let a persons worth be dictated by what they produce. Our worship confronts a way of life that has been culture driven, often leaving us longing for rest. I often say to those who worship at Redeemer, “You being here is saying to the world:”
- You don’t dictate my schedule.
- You don’t determine the pace by which I live my life.
- I am not defined by what I produce.
Defining space is important to our worship on many levels. It certainly sparks our imagination and creates an environment that points us heavenward. For our demographic it is important that space communicates leaving something behind, and stepping into something new. It’s apparent that for the last couple of decades we have made coming into the church easier and easier, but as we have accomplished this, we have also made leaving the church just as easy. Sure, we want to eliminate barriers to entering into the life of the church, but in doing so, we must evaluate if we’ve eliminated all rites of passage, thus making the door to the church a slippery place where people easily slide in and out of the church.
Our rich Anglican aesthetic helps us to use metaphorical imagery to simulate the stepping into something new. We use incense as one such marker. Someone walked in to the church the other day and said, “smells like church in here!” It is refreshing for them to step off of the busy street in front of the church and find themselves in a sanctuary.
Appealing to the senses is a serious matter for us, from the colors of the season, to the smell of incense and the flicker of candles, to the sweet taste of wine. These aspects of our worship do not serve as gimmicks, but we truly believe them to be both appealing and formational in the life of our community. While many might think the ritual of Anglicanism to be strange, or even empty, it’s not such a stretch for our unchurched, artistic neighbors to appreciate it—in fact, I think they appreciate more so than many curious Christians who walk into Redeemer. The appeal to senses has a lot to do with it.
It is clear that our culture is longing for identity, and we are uniquely situated as a church to give them just that. I find that the distinctive way of Anglicanism is especially effective in the way it shapes identity. Our congregants, and even our unchurched neighbors, are surprisingly open to adopting our practices. It is our common, rhythmic way of life they find enticing. To meet this need for identity and belonging we give each of our members a Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book serves as one more element of shared identity among those in our church. This is just one way we are tapping into our tradition, using the instruments we’ve been given to shape worshipers, and draw people into the life of the church.
A few final thoughts:
- Explain. What we do each Sunday is packed with meaning, but our congregants have to know why and what we are doing! From reading the Gospel in the center of the church, to dipping our fingers into the waters of our baptismal fonts, each week our faith should be enlivened. We are heirs to beautiful object lessons, let’s use them.
- Be Genuine. This is the most common complement we receive. In a worship style that often gets criticized for being stiff and empty, we should always seek to remain genuine. The liturgy is there to serve the church, not the other way around. Never sacrifice authenticity in an effort to stay on track with the order of service.
- Don’t Apologize. I’m often preoccupied with what visitors are thinking. It is always the thing I am most concerned about that they end up saying was the most meaningful part of the service! We cannot control what God will use or how He will minister to the hearts of those who visit. We are always surprised how much our visitors appreciate the way we worship.
- Give them a Prayer Book. Every young person that walks through the doors of our church wants a Prayer Book, and we give them one. It gives an added sense of belonging, something they learn how to use together, and hold in common.
- Formational. Don’t do anything that is not formational in the life of the worshiper. If it is empty, toss it. If it is a gimmick, it’s got to go. I have to admit, there are elements of worship that I wish we would do more…but it’s mostly because I think it’s cool, not that it is truly formational or God-honoring. Developing a filter to determine whether we are doing things for the right reasons is extremely important.
Photo: Mural in Asheville, NC by David Wilson via Flickr
Gary Ball is church planter and rector of Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville, NC. Gary graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University, in Nashville, TN. In addition to church planting, he is in the D.Min program at Nashotah House Seminary exploring the relationship of art and theology. Gary is married to Susannah, and they have three children.