Mark Twain does a great job in Tom Sawyer describing the effects of church on children—the suffocating experience of being made to be quiet on hard benches while an adult's vocabulary is recited over your head followed by a sermon meant to either pacify or incite you.
My Catholic church tried to be more relevant in the 70s, with their contemporary song list, communion served at home services, interpretative dances and processionals on high holy days, and a kiss of peace that lasted about 20 minutes where congregation members and the priest walked through the church greeting each other and catching up for a moment or two before returning to the liturgy. And while I enjoyed these changes post Vatican 2, any time I bring them up my current Catholic friends shake their heads lamenting the sad state of affairs that the church devolved into in the 1960s. Never mind the fact that the Catholics from the 1950s and previous largely lobbied for these changes having grown sick to death of the dead orthodoxy they had inherited.
My own parents attended Catholic schools in the Midwest from Kindergarten to college in the 40s and 50s (Dad is a Notre Dame alum). You should hear what they have to say about "Catholic indoctrination" both in and out of the church before Vatican 2. Let's just say they are mystified that anyone would convert to Catholicism today...
At the same time in the early 1970s, I attended a youth group at Malibu Presbyterian, led by Jesus People college kids (remember the "I Found It" campaign?). I learned that being a Christian had to do with my daily life (how I lived, the ideals I aspired to, the way I cared for others). Reading the Bible and praying were in regular southern California English.
Once I got the gist of faith and practice, of the Bible and its message, liturgy in the Catholic church made more sense. I even enjoyed it (the symbolism, the beauty of the prayers, the Eucharist) and felt like I'd been given a key to faith through the Presbyterians that made my Catholicism meaningful.
Liturgy is most appreciated, I think, when the people following it have made Christianity a deliberate choice, joining doctrinal understanding to faithful recitation. How it is packaged, however, is a relic of another time and cosmology, and requires an act of translation for today's believers. This is what devotees to liturgy often forget or overlook. Their personal passion for being tied to the tradition of church services (the way these liturgical patterns have been handed down generation to generation) obscures their ability to see that they are, in fact, choosing to enter another world when they enter church. They willingly adopt religious practices developed for another time and place and then work to recapture the meaning in them (meanings that were more openly apparent to pre-printing press, non-scientific Europeans of the Middle Ages).
Today, you must be willing and able to do that translation work as you participate. (For some, this is the exhilaration - discovering the riches of symbol and Scripture embedded in the historical prayers and responses that unite them with Christians of all ages.)
But honestly, when I'm in that environment I feel like I've time traveled to medieval Europe. I can't help but ask myself what it has to do with me or the Jesus I find in the Bible. Culturally and cosmologically, I'm out of sync.
Originally, Christianity drew me not because I craved a spiritual dimension to life, but because I was looking for truth I could count on. I wanted meaning, purpose and a reliable moral compass. Jesus was proclaimed as the way, the truth and the life (not church, not a denomination, not a particular religious practice). I looked for a church whose teaching deepened my understanding of how Christianity explained life to me, not a space in which to transcend this world or to contemplate the divine. I put up with the forms of church because I knew I was required to, but I was just as happy to leave them behind when we moved to church-less Morocco. There, we worshiped in small groups and interacted much as Deb suggested in her comments. It was a group experience, created together newly each week.
As I've grown away from that original conception of absolute truth, church has lost any relevance to me. U2 concerts have taken me to that place of transcendence more powerfully than any service I've attended in 20 years. I connect to words and music that speak to me about my ambiguous place in the universe. I don't recite ancient beliefs as though they are factual to affirm a set of cognitive ideas or to plead with a personal God.
Chuck mentioned in his comment that the ancient/future idea put forth by the emergent movement promised some kind of blend between the old and new, but mostly he's just seen the old resurrected. Yes, that's it exactly. To quote Bono, the liturgical church seems "stuck in a moment" (a Medieval moment) it can't get out of and the emergent movement is enamored of it.
I do understand why. Tradition, history, pageantry and the beauty of scripted prayers relieve the participant of having to create shoddy facsimiles of rites that appear to have withstood the test of time. It's nice to rest in these. I get it. But it's equally true that they resemble religion more than Gospel... and I think that must be admitted. Rituals such as "First Communion" or "Confirmation" or even weekly meetings aren't requirements of faith. They are enhancements for those who find that their faith is deepened through them. I'm not one of them.
The attempts of the non-denoms and evangelical churches to be relevant through pop music, Power Point and cafe latte, however, fall equally short for many of us who want more than a sloganized Christianity devoid of a nuanced theology. It's no wonder that there's an attractiveness issuing from liturgical communities. Praying the offices, kneelers, confession, stained glass... these have an exotic appeal after warehouses, gymnasiums and listening to college-style lectures before filtering out to coffee and donuts.
Perhaps some of what it comes down to is how you understand your Christian faith. What is it? How is it nurtured and expressed? More about that in the next installment.