Embracing Liturgy in a Digital Age

Tradition and Innovation

We’re starting to see more liturgy in evangelicalism, as well as a wave of millennials leaving evangelical churches for high-church settings. Though some surely jump on the liturgy bandwagon for wrong reasons, this movement should be cause for excitement. The work of writers like James K. A. Smith and Mike Cosper are challenging us to reconsider the wise practices of the historic church, particularly as they relate to discipleship and formation.

In spite of such excitement, however, I’m concerned about what may be a common blind spot of liturgy. As we embrace the liturgical practices of centuries past, I fear we’ll forget we live in the 21st century. When used discerningly, today’s technological innovations can both bolster our discipleship efforts and provide new platforms from which we can proclaim and embody the gospel.        

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Same Practices, New Contexts

We’re blessed to live in a world with amazing tools and technology that should be redeemed for the purpose of spiritual formation. But how can we express these historic and faithful practices in new ways? One way to answer would be to argue for the normative principle over the regulative principle, which would require new practices and elements that don’t find their basis in Scripture. But I don’t want to do that.

Instead, I’m advocating for faithful participation in the Scripture-commanded aspects of the gathering in a way that resonates with our modern imaginations and sensibilities. Hasn’t this always been the case? After all, the church has often expressed biblical practices in and through contemporary methods—from the architecture of cathedrals, to books for hymns and prayers, to even the plates and tablecloths used for the Lord’s Supper.

Communicating through Stories

We’re attempting to do this in the church I serve, The Village Church, by including creative endeavors like graphic design, video, and the written word. More specifically, we’re using principles and practices of strategic communication and advertising to our men and women, in an effort to further ground them in the message of the gospel. The people we disciple and shepherd are worshipers, not merely thinkers. So we must consider how we’re forming them from the bottom up. This is not altogether different from the way advertisers think, though they’re obviously hoping to instill a different message, an alternate vision for the good life and human flourishing.

One way we’re thinking liturgically about creative communication is through stories that derive from the biblical precedent of “bearing witness” and “giving testimony.” As many know, stories of life transformation have a unique way of hitting us on a level that a sermon does not. This is true when someone shares a testimony in person, as well as through videos that employ music, b-roll, editing techniques, and other pathos-evoking elements. These stories—as they cover everything from sharing how someone came to know Christ to proclaiming God’s faithfulness amid seasons of pain—stir our affections for the Lord time and time again.

For example, in a recent gathering we shared the story of the Barrs (watch below), a couple in our church whose first child, Thomas, was diagnosed with trisomy early in the pregnancy and passed away before birth. As a celebration of life and a testimony to God’s faithfulness amid tragedy, this story gave us a chance to bear the Barrs’ burdens and pray for them. It gave flesh to God’s promises and reminded us he is near to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18) and his grace is sufficient in all things (2 Cor. 12:9–10). It drove us, through prayer and song, to lament and cry out to him that we are broken, our world is broken, and we all desperately need Jesus.

Danger of Reinforcing Secular Liturgies

Of course, there are reasons to be wary. Both the medium and the message matter. For example, it can be problematic for churches to broadcast lyrics about Jesus via music and methods that don’t line up with the content. Indeed, one problem with much contemporary worship music is the way secular principles have been integrated into not only the sound, but also the production (for example, the use of a stage and lights, volume levels that drown out the voice of the congregation, close-ups of the musicians, and so on). These choices undermine the very things they are trying to accomplish.

In considering how to incorporate liturgical practices through creative means, we must make sure we’re not inadvertently reinforcing secular liturgies. We don’t want to perpetuate our idols. Instead, we should exercise our imaginations and skillsets to ponder how we can best instill in our people the story of who God is and what he has achieved in Jesus Christ.

Innovating to Obey

While we recognize cultural artifacts are loaded with their own visions of human flourishing and can potentially use us more than we use them, it is right to consider how we may or may not steward particular tools to disciple, especially when it comes to the weekly gathering.

The church throughout history hasn’t shied away from implementing lights, instruments, microphones, speakers, the printing press, and a range of other good and helpful technologies insofar as they help us obey what’s outlined in God’s Word. Indeed, he has chosen such things as a part of making disciples and carrying out his story of redemption. 

The Barrs from The Village Church on Vimeo.

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