Conference Reflections: Spirit and Sacrament with Andy Piercy

The conference crew
The conference crew

Conferences are great. At the beginning of June I travelled to Trinity School for Ministry to attend “Spirit and Sacrament: Integrating Modern Worship with Traditional Liturgy,” a 3 day worship conference designed to equip and encourage leaders from traditions across the liturgical spectrum. It was refreshing to hear worship leaders, filled with love and wisdom, speak about joys and struggles, successes and failures, and to speak candidly about the heavy weight placed on our shoulders Sunday after Sunday. By the end of the conference I looked up to these leaders, not because of the size of their churches, amazing bands, flashy albums, or any other external success, but because it was clear that they have huge pastoral hearts, want to see Jesus glorified, and want to build up the church for the sake of His name.

I was also encouraged by being reminded of my convictions. As I met with fellow worship geeks from across the country, I was reminded that I am not so weird after all…or at least, if I am weird, I’m not alone! We all desire theological accuracy and depth in lyrics; elegance and economy in melodic writing; ways to draw the congregation into deeper worship expression; worship forms and models that help people become more like Jesus every week.

Liturgy was, is, and ever shall be CONTEXT-DRIVEN

Since the conference was hosted by TSM, and organized by Andy Piercy [web | twitter], Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was at the center of our worship. Piercy reminded us that when Cranmer first complied these texts and wrote these prayers, they were to a specific people at a specific time. They were a direct reaction and indeed a correction to the theological mis-steps of the Catholic church in that day. When the religious climate of the post-medieval church was fear, guilt, and shame, Cranmer sought to reveal grace and gratitude. The liturgy was not an end in itself, but a means by which the nation would be converted; from guilt to grace, from fear to gratitude.

Glenn Packiam [web | twitter | blog] also pointed out archeological evidence of this paradigm shift. He showed us this chapel fresco from medieval England:

Then he showed a modern restoration of what the painting might have originally looked like:

We can see clearly an exalted and ascended Christ at the top of the picture. Great! But looking closer we see naked figures being tormented by demons, impaled on spears. Packiam pointed out, that at one point, this may have inspired worship in an authentic way, we are not medieval Christians, so we can’t assume they see it the same way we do. Indeed, we must fear God and love God. The reformers decision to whitewash these details was not out of hatred of art, or of the traditions of the past, but to better align the message preached by the walls of the church to the message preached by the sermons, prayers, and other ministries in that current context. When the post-medieval church was showing a powerful Christ standing above the chaos and torment of the world and hell, Cranmer was showing that Christ said “COME unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (St. Matt. xi. 28.).” Read more about that story over on his blog.

Of course we need both, but the lesson here is that if any one is too-emphasized, we need a correction. As liturgists, we ought to be seeking the right words for our context. Are we too comfortable in our sanitized Christianity that is all about love and not about personal transformation? Then we need the Holy Sprit to convict us of sin, and an encouragement to move from apathy to action. Are we burned out on empty religious gestures or tiresome church programs? Then we need the Holy Spirit to refresh our souls and lead us to truly rest. As a diverse church, we have people from all different perspectives who may be searching for different things. Some come to church to pray earnestly in a peaceful space, others come to worship through song, to be poured into through a convicting sermon. It’s our job as leaders to listen to the congregation, hear where they are coming from, and lead them to a greater love for Christ and the world.

A Modern Example

I was greatly encouraged by Aaron Niequest [web | twitter], who shared with us about a new liturgical service born out of the place you would least expect: Willow Creek Community Church. “The Practice” was created from the idea that worship is formative (thank you James K.A. Smith), and instead of thinking of a worship service like a classroom, maybe we should think of it like a gymnasium. By engaging in ancient devotional practices, we were encouraged to see worship not only as something we do to glorify God, but something God does to us. It is not only our expression of praise to God, but how God has chosen to communicate with us: through his word and the sacraments. This dialoguical perspective has a huge impact on how we plan and organize our worship services. At “The Practice”, instead of the worship service centered around a 45-minute sermon/teaching and relegating music to “warmup time,” the entire service is a smooth flow of spoken and sung prayers, gestures (physical participation is loosely encouraged with simple encouragements: “let the posture of your body reflect the posture of your heart”), and guided meditations. The congregation even takes 2-minute, 3-minute, and *gasp* 5-minute pauses in complete silence, listening to God and reflecting on scripture.

One step at a time

One thing that was made clear again and again throughout the three days was that all the discussions and examples are meant to be models; representations of a real thing, but not to be mistaken for the real thing itself. The lesson was not, “look at the awesome things we’re doing at our churches…here’s how you can make it happen at yours,” but real honest discussions about the struggles of ministry; with all the conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings you would expect.

One comment by Aaron stood out to me. He mentioned that early on in his “mission to liturgize” the culture at Willow Creek, and having recently “discovered” liturgical worship, he introduced a sung kyrie at the beginning of the worship service. This was met with a resounding NO from the congregation, as for too many people, it reminded them too much of “that Catholic thing I ran away from.” I couldn’t help but smile remembering that I did the exact same thing at TCC a few years ago myself. Sometimes you need to take a step back before taking the next step forward.

For those of us serving in Evangelical contexts, there is no one-size-fits-all liturgy. Every person has a unique faith journey and we all carry baggage and mis-conceptions about worship. As leaders we need to be wise in discerning the shape of worship each season. We need constant reflection and evaluation. We need to be sensitive and listen to the pastoral staff, the lay leaders, and the congregation. And of course to do all this, we need the Spirit’s guidance and power.

Redeeming Emotions

Speaking of baggage and mis-conceptions, if you are like me it is not a skepticism of liturgy that I need to fear, but exactly the opposite: a strong aversion to overly emotional worship. I remember many camps and conferences that used music, dim lights, and social pressure to manipulate awkward jr. highers into making commitments for Jesus. I have always looked on those experiences with a mixture skepticism and embarrassment. Today, with a decade (almost two!) distance from jr. high, I feel myself resisting any emotional response to music in worship, out of fear that it is not “real,” but put on or influenced by the music.

But here’s the thing: music is emotional. Cranmer’s prayers are emotional. They are evocative, stirring the heart and moving the emotions. When the church prays the prayer of humble access before communion: “we are not worthy even to come to this your table…but you are the same Lord who’s nature is always to have mercy,” I often get choked up. Relentless grace should create an emotional response!

The redemptive part for me was to hear several eloquent, thoughtful, and even well educated speakers share how they want to redeem emotions and help the church embrace worship not just in the mind but in the body and the heart, I was encouraged to give it a second look. We, perhaps rightly so for a time, emphasized intellect out of fear of a thought-less worship, but perhaps we need to reclaim the heart. I’ll admit, it doesn’t come easy for me!


Like I said, conferences are great! This one reminded me of that fact. With only 50 or so attendees, a simple schedule, and a very warm atmosphere of respect and love, the conversations were healthy, life giving, and energizing – which is a high bar to hit for worship discussions!

So if you’re interested in geeking out with fellow worship nerds, be sure to register next year for this conference! I’ll be there!