In today’s “On Faith…” February 28 column in the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette, I report on a very interesting meeting attended in mid-February. What do you think?
“Young pastors drawn back to the liturgies of the church”
For the last year, I have been following an experimental Sunday evening service at the famous Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago that follows a high church, liturgical model. Called “The Practice,” this evening service includes responsive readings, reciting creeds, saying the Lord’s Prayer, corporate confession, silence and communion.
Interestingly, the 30,000-member church was built on high-energy weekend praise services and excellent preaching. But on Sunday evening Feb. 14, I joined 400 people in the Willow Creek Chapel as well sat in chairs encircling the communion table. Along with me were 75 additional guests – pastors, priests and worship leaders (men and women) from across the country. We all gathered at the service to kick off a 2-day retreat to discuss what this interest in High-Church liturgy might mean.
But a little context first. The Willow Creek church, now 40 years old, is one of the largest churches in America. The church was begun by Pastor Bill Hybels. Now 63, he still leads the church. An incredible leader, Hybels is one of the most respected church leaders in America.
One of the worship leaders at Willow Creek is Aaron Niequist, Bill Hybels’ son-in-law. In recent years, the nearly 40-year-old Niequist has been exploring liturgical forms of worship. Niequist is asking “How do we bring about the depth and wisdom of the liturgical tradition into the questions and struggles of today? How can our past shape and launch us into the future? Since the word liturgy means ‘the work of the people,’ how do we best invite our spiritual communities into this work?”
Questions like these helped Niequist launch “The Practice.” This was no small feat, as each Sunday thousands attending Willow Creek were raised Catholic. Moreover, many describe the high-energy Sunday morning services at Willow Creek as life-giving and transforming.
We church leaders gathered to hear Niequist and his team share what they are learning, and what they now believe God is calling them to do. So following the Sunday evening service we headed to The Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington where, for the next 2 days we were hosted by Niequest’s good friend, and mentor, Father Michael Sparough. When I registered, I met a worship leader from a nondenominational church of 5,000, several 30-something church planters from Anglican churches, a 35-year-old pastor from a nearby suburb who is trying to “resurrect a struggling congregation,” a woman pastor from a Chicago Lutheran church drawing 1,000 people to Sunday services and two Catholic priests.
On Monday morning, Father Michael Sparough was our teacher. He spent 2 hours explaining the symbols inside the Bellarmine chapel and sharing his own deep heart for the liturgy of the Church. At one point he had us kneel on the prayer benches he explained why Catholics make the sign of the cross. Fears were dispelled as we all made the sign of the cross and prayed. Many were weeping.
Looking across the chapel at those gathered, I counted at least 20 men sporting the popular undercut hair style with shaved sides but long on top. More than 20 had various Bible verses and Christian themes tattooed on their arms. During the two days, I listened as these mostly 30-to-45-year-old pastors and worship leaders tried to find words to explain why now they are being drawn to the liturgies of the church, to the creeds of the faith, to corporate confession, to making the sign of cross and to putting the Lord’s Supper central in the worship service.
One woman, an executive pastor in a California church with 6,000 people, told me she is finding spiritual nourishment from meeting weekly with a small group of friends. They share in corporate confession. They recite the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds, and they share the Eucharist.
“What does your church think about that?” I asked.
“Well, most don’t know about it,” she said. “I’m just starting to introduce some of these practices to our staff.”
Two 35-year-old pastors starting a new church in Pennsylvania told me how they are incorporating liturgies in their services. “In a church I attended 10 years ago, I stood with my hands raised, sometimes jumping up and down,” one of the pastors said. “I really connected with God – quite powerfully actually. But we’re finding that’s not where many millennials are, at least not the ones we are attracting. And, well, my heart is changing, too.”
In fact, he sees people in their late 20s and early 30s gradually more drawn to formal liturgies. “And 50-somethings love it, too. They want their faith community help them align the rhythms of life with God’s eternal rhythms,” he said. “That’s what I want, too.”
Then he smiled and added, “But as we plan and practice these different kinds of liturgies, we pray like crazy that the Spirit of God will show up powerfully. Because if he doesn’t, nothing really matters.”
His sincerity struck me, and I only said, “May it be so, my friend.”