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Book Review: Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community by Simon Chan

Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community
Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community

Simon Chan. Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Downers Grove: IPV Academic, 2006. $25.00 paperback. 166 pages + endnotes. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2763-3

I will begin this review by going to the very end of Simon Chan’s book, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community, and begin with the same question he ends with. He posits, “How is the church to regain its position as a community whose way of life has a decisive bearing on individual Christians?” (pg. 166) This particular question assumes a number of things. First, it assumes that having to “regain” something one must first have “lost” it. Second, it assumes that the church, a community of individuals, have lost that “way of life”. Lastly, this question assumes hope; it assumes that not all is in fact lost --- that the “way of life” that the church needs to “regain” is possible.

It is with this that Chan lays out a superb analysis and argument of what the Church (universal) is, what this Church ought to be like, and how this Church ought to get there. Much ink has been spilled on what the Church ought to do about the situation in which it has found itself (that situation being either good or bad). But rarely, if at all, will the reader find any literature out there that begins a discussion about ecclesiology (theology of Church) that asks the question of what the Church actually is. This is where Chan begins in chapter one with a highly intellectual, engaging, and new (perhaps to some) idea on what the Church is. For Chan, it’s all about ontology (i.e. the philosophical study of “being”). Rightly so, one cannot critique a thing unless one knows what (read: to be) that thing is.

Chan argues that the ontology of the Church is found in its pre-existence. In other words, for Chan, the Church existed before even Creation itself. You may ask, what? “The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time. The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.” (pg. 23) For the astute observer of what’s going on here, Chan is writing against the whole “creation redeemed” narrative that many (most?) Biblical scholars espouse. This is certainly thought provoking and perhaps more could be said in dialogue of such an espousement given more space. Nonetheless, regardless of the starting point of Chan wanting to have the Church exist prior to Creation, or not; any reader can affirm what Chan is doing for the rest of the book.

In chapter two Chan talks about now that this Church is actualized by the leading of the Spirit (as opposed to just being “thought of” by God), he now argues that the purpose of the Church is to worship God. This is the beginning point of where Christians unfamiliar with the theology of worship and thinking of worship in mere “praise music” terms will get their world rocked. “What marks Christians as God’s people [i.e. the Church] is that they have become a community that worships God in spirit and in truth.” (pg. 45, brackets mine) As is quite common among those who study the theology of worship, worship is NOT merely “praise music” where we take cups of coffee into the elementary school gymnasium and clap along to some hip twenty-something’s rendition of a Mercy Me song. Worship is more than that. Worship is the Church making an “unblemished sacrifice, one that meets the demands of a holy God.” (pg. 45) Sadly, Chan notes that most worship in the Church today (particularly the hyper-individualized and culture accommodating American church) is more “anthropocentric” rather than “theocentric”. In other words, the emphasis is on “ME and MY relationship with MY God” as opposed to acknowledging and worshiping the holy God for who He is.

Okay Chan, so how do we offer that “unblemished sacrifice”? Easier said than done, no? Yes, very true. Fortunately, Chan in the remaining chapters of the book offers a “how to” installment of this otherwise impossible feat. Fortunately still, Chan is not just making something up as to what the Church ought to do (as most writers who write on these things do), but rather Chan looks to the previous two thousand years of Church history to get a glimpse at what has been done, and what continues to be done in unison all over the world still. What this is, which is perhaps a scary word to some, is: liturgy. Chan helps the reader to rest assured though, that liturgy is not scary. In fact, it is a beautiful installment by the beckoning of the Holy Spirit and participation (which is what the word liturgy means) bathed in Scripture that puts the focus of our worship back on God, instead of ourselves.

Chapter three has Chan piggy-backing off of John Calvin’s thoughts about liturgy, where everything is focused on “Word” and “Sacrament”. Admittedly for Chan, other thinkers have different focal points of liturgy throughout the centuries, but Chan is in agreement with Calvin that Word and Sacrament is what it all boils down to. Here says Calvin, and thus concurs Chan that, “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there a church of God exists.” (pg. 63) Chan is concerned that much of evangelicalism (which he seeks to rescue in this book, not dismiss!) does not live in to a full expression of Church and worship.

Chan is concerned about the docile (lazy?) attitude that much of evangelicalism has nowadays. Docile in that there is most certainly the Word preached, and quite well (!), but there is then an aura of lack-of-participation other than being a bystander. “Evangelicalism has created a largely hearing community rather than a Word-and-sacrament community. But the whole of worship must include hearing, singing and praying (Word) and seeing, touching, eating and drinking (sacrament).” (pg. 67) Rightly so, Chan is concerned that churchgoers today are not living into the fullness of their worship calling, substituting instead for mere docility and subjective “personal experiences” to encounter “ME and MY God”….hardly Biblical, hardly what God desires of his People of God, hardly….liturgical.

Chapter four takes a bit of a step back where Chan explores the individual within this liturgical, participatory service. Chan makes a distinction in prayer specifically between what is “cathedral” prayer (that is, corporate prayer) and “monastic” prayer (that is, individual prayer). “Cathedral prayer puts the individual into the corporate life of the church, while monastic prayer seeks to make the prayer of the church one’s own.” (pg. 91) This is a very important conversation to have here, as many readers might be wondering where they, the individual, fits into this grand scheme of things. It’s a valid concern, to be sure, and Chan is correct is pointing out instances within the liturgy itself, that allows for personal reflection, personal prayer, and other personal expressions within the broadness of the corporate worship experience.

It is important to note that the Christian faith, while personal, is never private. That is an important distinction to make because so many times Christians in non-liturgical settings (what Chan calls the “free church”) put such a large emphasis on one’s personal piety, where the critique of “high church” settings don’t allow for any of that, the pendulum actually swings to the other extreme and there is TOO MUCH emphasis on personal reflection. In this reviewer’s own thinking, if a person wants to only have subjective experiences with God, why even bother going to church at all? Sadly, the answer to that question, community (i.e. hanging out with other Christians), is again another pursuit of personal ambition void of TRUE community. One is cheapening God and Church by going to church for personal reflection and then engage in “community” minus the corporate emphasis on God. Put simply: one cannot have Christian community without true worship, and one cannot have true worship without community.

Nearing the end of the book, Chan in chapter five gives a practical example of a liturgical practice that for the most part has been lost in our “gotta have it now” culture in which we find ourselves: the catechumenate. Here, one can almost hear the ex-Catholic parishioner shudder at thoughts of drudging their way through the Catechesis on Wednesday nights growing up. But here is where Chan convincingly argues for the practice of the catechumenate and (interestingly, more on this later) to be practiced among evangelicalism. Chan looks at the historical progression of the catechumenate, what it is, why it is, and why we need to practice it more. And not as the modern day Roman Catholic Church practices it where a person goes in for a number of weeks to learn about the Church and why they do the things they do. Rather, Chan wants to take people back, ALL the way back, to the first couple centuries of Christian liturgy where a person spends roughly three years in learning about the Church and being a Christian before actually being “on the team”.

Despite some valid rebuttals that might take place in this chapter, Chan is correct in saying that, “In a world dominated by the market economy and driven by the media, the church is readily tempted to think of its role in terms of finding the right ‘market niche,’ instead of asking a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a Christian?” (pg. 103) With the schmorgasboard of options Christians have about which church to attend (usually thought of as: what’s best for ME?) it is important that the Church emphasize what it means to be a Christian in their version of the church orientation over “We have a preschool, we do mission trips to Mexico, and we have a ministry where we buy local coffee. You in?”

Chapters six and seven can be summed up that Chan looks at the practical application of all that was discussed, including walking the reader through a typical Sunday liturgical service (including why church should be on Sunday morning and not Tuesday night…amen!) “God should not be seen primarily in terms of the benefits I can get from him.” (pg. 131) Unfortunately and once again, too many “free church” situations are more me-focused rather than God-focused. Compare the first words uttered at a typical Sunday service between “Hey! Beautiful morning to YOU, how are YOU this morning?” instead of “Blessed be God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever.” Do we really need to debate which is more God-focused here to start the service out right???

The last chapter has Chan discussing “Christian living” in conjunction with liturgical practices. Again: it’s not an either/or where you do personal piety OR liturgy. It’s a both/and where the individual participates (i.e. liturgy) in the Sunday service, which then takes them into a mode of thought and pattern for the remainder of the week. A mode of thought, pattern and practice that is an “unblemished sacrifice”. “Theologically, we could say that the liturgy and Christian living are ontologically one. The liturgy itself is the primary expression of Christian living, and Christian living is actualized primarily in the liturgy.” (pg. 148) A critique of liturgy is that it can become monotonous and duty-filled (read: works). But cannot anything that is done enough times warrant monotonous repetition? And why wouldn’t one want to be repetitious to something that is honoring to God? If a person’s true heart is in the participation of the liturgy, and making it “their own” it is not a duty-filled requirement but an act of one’s will being formed into the will of God. Perhaps one can start each morning by saying to themselves: Blessed be God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever.

This reviewer’s biggest critique of Liturgical Theology is that one wonders why Chan himself does not “grasp on” to a liturgical tradition (he’s Pentecostal). Given such an outstanding installment such as this, there is still that “missing piece” where one wonders: okay, so liturgy is a good idea. WHICH liturgy do we do, and to which tradition do we do it at? A fair question, I think, and one that Chan really did not get to in this particular book. Is he saying that ANY liturgy is fine? It sounds like it.

But what about this: James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom argues persuasively that there are “liturgies” everywhere. Even the most rabid and anti-“high church” church has liturgies. Our broader popular culture even has liturgies! Smith argues that Christians are constantly influenced by liturgies at the mall, at a baseball game, even at work. Things are “done a certain way” at all these locations, and more. But are these liturgies necessarily holy, are they necessarily God-honoring and theocentric? Incredibly doubtful given the disarray of our terribly depraved culture in which we find ourselves. So Smith then argues, why oh why would Christians want to grasp on to a liturgical formation that is NOT HOLY and NOT pleasing to their Lord? Where is the idol you worship in your life that is neither God-centered liturgy nor at all healthy for one’s personal piety? A fair question and a superb assessment by Smith.

Getting back to Chan, this reviewer would have liked to see some thoughts by Chan on this notion of “cultural liturgies” or even liturgies in churches that THINK they don’t have liturgy (which of course, ALL do). What is the BEST expression of liturgy? Are some liturgies BETTER than others in churches? These are all important questions for Christians to ask, and one would have liked to see Chan’s thoughts on these matters. Regardless, this is a superb book that is “relevant” for today’s Christians. Relevant in the sense of not accommodating to a depraved culture, but relevant that what is needed is not to look to an ambiguous and subjective, me-centered Church; but instead look to the past and see what our brothers and sisters in Christ have been doing for CENTURIES and doing it well and pleasing to God: liturgy.



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