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Are millennials longing for liturgy?

Photo by Sterling Z. Rubottom

In this postmodern age, I think many young Christians are searching for a connection to something greater than themselves within their faith. At least, I know I am. According to an article in the American Conservative called “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy,” Grace Olmstead explains the sad fact that, in their search, many young people are leaving the church.

Still, she said, “amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox branches of the faith.”

I am one of those young people. Growing up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, I didn’t hear much about the traditions of the ancient church. As a result, I formed some very wrong ideas about tradition and liturgy. It takes conscious effort for me not to associate the word “ritual” with something dark and futile.

James K. A. Smith describes this phenomenon in his article “Redeeming Ritual,” saying, “We associate ritual with dead orthodoxy, ‘vain repetition,’ the denial of grace, trying to earn salvation, scoring points with God, ‘going through the motions’ and various other forms of spiritual insecurity.” Though I cannot completely fault my home church for my own ignorance of church history, I think there is a misplaced fear of tradition in many non-traditional churches.

I often hear people claim that tradition restricts the Holy Spirit, inhibits a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, prevents people to think for themselves. And a small glance at Christian history can explain why—to an extent. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant Christians broke from the rigidity and control of the Catholic Church.

However, I think many of our churches have strayed too far from traditions in their search for spiritual freedom. I think that in the important and necessary reform crept an arrogance that the Church had gotten it completely wrong until Luther hammered his Ninety-five Theses to the heavy church doors.

I won’t pretend liturgy, ritual, tradition aren’t restricting. But I think that’s the point. They are just often misinterpreted and can be misused, as evidenced throughout Christian history. However, these aspects of the Christian life don’t restrict the Holy Spirit; they restrict us. In the liturgical services I’ve participated in, I’ve noticed how attentive and focused I am on God, his Word and his Church throughout the service. I’ve noticed how healing and holistic the entire participation is to the aching in my heart for some sort of ancient and holy structure in my spiritual life.

The standing while we read the Bible alerts my body to listen, to wake up, to understand that something important is being read. The communal confession of sin reminds me that I am not alone in my sin, I am not alone in my confession and I am definitely not alone in my being unworthy of God’s pardon. When the minister publicly proclaims God’s forgiveness and grace over my sins, the verbal affirmation washes over me in a way stronger and deeper than when I pray and remind myself silently of his mercy.

Each aspect of the liturgy is purposeful, communal and meaningful. Not one moment or action in the service is practiced in vain.

This external process of sitting, standing, kneeling and communal participation becomes a comprehensive spiritual practice for me. It’s like I’m practicing being a Christian, practicing becoming more like Christ with other believers, practicing my own spirituality. The ritual is not something monotonous (though I won’t pretend it cannot become monotonous, but so can spontaneous worship; the posture of your heart is most important). But rather it is something I’m training my body, mind and heart to be consistent in. I’m teaching my heart its correct posture, much like practicing good bodily posture—like practicing the piano or shooting free-throws, like any other “ritualistic” behavior.

You can’t get good at something unless you practice and it’s no different with your spiritual life.

Smith puts it this way: “Spirit-charged rituals are tangible ways that God gets hold of us, reorients us and empowers us to be his image-bearers. They are ways for the Spirit to meet us where we are—as embodied creatures.”

I understand these aspects of Christianity aren’t for everyone, but I would encourage all believers to at least try them. Do not shy away from them for the sake of remaining “independent” or for fear of ruining your “personal” relationship with Christ. Assuming these holy actions “restrict” the Holy Spirit is a gross oversimplification of their purpose.

Church traditions are rich with history, understanding and connection; they point our bodies and hearts to the cross, literally, and provide a mode of worship that includes the church throughout time and space. And they’ve been tried and practiced by Christians who were just as connected to God in their day as we are now with our fog machines and colorful lights.

Because when I sing the doxology or receive a benediction, my heart is postured toward Christ and my mind imagines singing and receiving with Christians from the first century and Christians across the globe today simultaneously.

Olmstead ends her article by discussing the yearning for sacramentality, explaining that this generation is searching for true meaning in a world that screams “make your own meaning!” I’ve felt that ache and God answers with his Word, his Spirit, his Son and his Church.

Smith asserts, “We need not be afraid of ritual. If we appreciate that God created us as incarnate, embodied creatures, then we will recognize his grace lovingly extended to us in ways that meet us where we are: in the tangible, embodied practice of Spirit-charged rituals. Reframed in this way, we might be able to redeem rituals as gifts of God for the people of God.”

Click here for The Basement liturgy podcast via Spotify.