Part One: It’s a Mystery!

This is first in a series of essays that explores how classic liturgy and real evangelical outreach may actually work together to bring non-believers to Christ. How does the journey challenge everything we thought we knew not only about evangelism, but about the role of liturgy as a tool for evangelism? Is such a thing possible? Really?

How is it that the liturgical form of worship is so intriguing? And daunting? If it breaks many of the evangelical rules for seeker sensitivity – and it does, it certainly does – then why hasn’t it gone away after thousands years? What did the old guys know?

What can the evangelical commitment to bring the Gospel of Jesus to a new generation, an unchurched generation, bring to ancient liturgical worship? What happens when rooms full of seekers walk into a liturgical worship service? What do the people do? What do we do? What questions are raised not only with how we use liturgy for worship, but why? Are we ready to respond? Are we prepared? Do we know why it works?

Stepping through the Door

When I was an eighteen year old free-flowing evangelical, I walked into a liturgical Episcopal Church and wondered, now what in the world is going on here? How am I ever going to engage in this? Did I even want to?

Everything about me was strange, the prayers were formed, apparently out of a book, the clergy were dressed like Roman Catholics, the people kept jumping up, sitting down, and – heaven’s to betsy – kneeling. A cross was processed in and then processed out. The choir was robed not once, but twice – with one solid red robe down past their knees and another white robe over that – as though at any minute they might just take flight.

There was a myriad of things going on – first the attention was at the front, somewhere near the bottom of the pulpit it seemed, than it moved over to a podium – a lectern – on the other side of the room, then the choir stood up and the choir sat down, then the preacher went into the pulpit up high, then another voice came from back over near the lectern, then everyone stood up and shook hands, and then finally the attention turned to the center with a lot of pronouncements and waving of hands.

Meanwhile, out in the congregation, the people stood up, they sat down, they stood up again, they sat down again, they knelt, they stood, they swapped howdies, they sat down, they knelt yet again – and then they left their pews and went forward.

There was no sawdust in the aisle. They just knew to do it, they knew when to do it, and they went, with ushers standing by, everyone, but for a stray here and there, went forward. A voice from somewhere up front said, if you’ve been baptized, then come. Well, okay.

Then more kneeling, and the bread went by, and the Common Cup (with real wine), and everyone knew what to do (and how to do it) and then the reverse, filing back orderly, nodding at friends, and then more kneeling and more sitting and standing and more hand waving, only this time from the congregation. Than the dismissal, and bowing, and hand waving, and a great recession out, with the robed ones, the ones in white, the clergy, the ones in red, the choir, and then the people, their voices filling the air in song.

And you could feel something, as though you’d just been to the best play of your life. And you got to be in it, too.

But you weren’t the star. None of us were.

And then it was done.

I remember I had no idea what was going on. I thought the head pastor wrote the whole thing in his study, not just his sermon, mind you, but all those prayers, all those directions – week by week – and I imagined the rehearsals they must have all gone through, not just the clergy and the choir, obviously, but rehearsing all those people. When did they do it? How did they get everyone to come, to learn their parts, to know their cues, to follow-through as though it was written in their hearts? It was like a gigantic theatrical drama and everyone knew their parts – and played those parts as though their lives depended on it.

Which of course, in many ways, it did.

That was it. I was hooked.

Part Two of It’s a Mystery! is entitled, Cue William Shakespeare. Stay tuned.