I’ve Noticed A Trend Over the Last Year: the Poetic future of liturgy

Can I share some thoughts I’ve been having recently? They concern the church, specifically how the church does things.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been noticing a common line running through various books & blogs I’ve been reading. It has also seemed to be running through multiple expressions of church, worship, & spirituality that I have been a part of or seen pop up and take root across the country.

It was probably more than 3-4 months ago (if not earlier) that I noticed there was a commonality, a trend, a center of energy in the midst of all of these things. At that time, however, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was intuitively picking up. It was as if God was slowly showing me something interesting, one small piece at a time.

It wasn’t until recently that I think many of these similarities started to coalesce into a more articulated idea. I’d like to share what I’ve been seeing.

What am I noticing?

I guess the best way to describe this is to do so somewhat chronologically. Stay with me here.

First, upon entering a 12-step recovery group for an addiction spanning almost two decades (a long and fascinating tale that wouldn’t even begin to fit into this post), I started reading a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. One of the central thesis’s of this book is that the ahead-of-their-time brilliance of 12-step communities is their emphasis on personal story-telling and story-listening. It is the communal sharing of stories of addiction and recovery that creates a space of grace and healing.

Next, I began to see a trend in the practice of ministry that seemed to be moving the field forward in more intentionally creative ways. Specifically, prominent youth ministry leaders Mark DeVries and Kenda Creasy Dean founded Ministry Incubators to facilitate change in ministry. Also, The Center for Youth Ministry Training is embarking on a 3-year long project funded by Lily to also explore innovation in youth ministry.

Then, I started reading a book by ministry scholar Andrew Root that says we are living in a Secular Age, in which the concept and possibility of transcendence (and anything metaphysical in general) is no longer viable.

Next, I started paying more attention to the artist Scott Erickson, who is attempting to create new liturgical experiences through the convergence of visual art, music, story, and theology.

Finally, I started reading the work of author and scholar David Russell Mosley. The primary thesis that Mosley is suggesting is that participation in the act of creation (specifically the creative works of poetry & fantasy/faerie literature) is a central component of deification (the process of God the Father forming humanity into the likeness of the Son through the work of the Spirit). The reading/hearing (consumption) and writing (creation) of Poetry and other “extreme language” (like fantasy literature) is a participation in the Creation of God, the Poetry of the Poet. So through this participation, we are becoming like God.

So…huh? How do all of these things relate?

Again, for some months, I’ve noticed that all of these things were somehow connected, but couldn’t quite identify how. It wasn’t until I started reading the work of Mosley that I think things clicked.

What I’ve noticed is that our unique cultural position (the secular age that Root describes) necessitates new and innovative ways of doing church, specifically creative ways of forming people’s faith. Folks like Ministry Incubators and the Youth Ministry Innovation Lab are meeting this need in official, academic ways. It’s also been intuitively addressed through the work of people like Scott Erickson and for some time in 12-step communities. Even my own church is making a move towards experimentation in our Sunday evening service, looking to bring new and different elements and expressions into the worship experience.

All of this interest in ministry innovation is an attempt to better facilitate and foster the work of God in forming us into people that resemble his Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, we are attempting to partner with God toward deification.

Mosley argues that if it’s deification we’re after, the way to do that is to participate in Poetry, and by that, I mean “big P” Poetry. A work of creativity, not just a few lines of verse. To Poetry he adds the participation in stories that carry the weight and structure of fantasy. Again, not fantasy as in fiction, per se; but fantasy as in telling the Truth in engaging and unexpected ways.

So, what I’ve noticed is that there is a felt need and a subsequent effort in our churches to engage in more creative, Poetic experiences to become more faithful disciples of Christ.

Ok, what’s going on? Why is all of this a thing?

I haven’t read much yet; I’m just now starting to recognize all of this myself. However, from what I have read of Root (and other scholars like John Milbank & Charles Taylor as referenced in the work of others), the culture we find ourselves in has tossed aside the metaphysical realm.

In a secular age, like the one in which our Western society has found itself, the religious sensibilities have been deemed untenable. The sentiment is all that religion once offered humanity no longer is considered a viable option for post-modern people with a brain. As a result, we’ve lost the feeling and experience of transcendence.

When transcendence is unavailable via religion, humans inevitably go looking for it elsewhere. To live without transcendence isn’t an option for a human striving for health and wholeness. Just like a human cannot live well without love, and therefore seeks to find it in ways that are helpful or not, humanity searches (in ways helpful or not) for transcendence. 

So, the secular attempts at transcendence in our society have been myriad, but none of them are genuinely deifying. None of them help foster our formation into a faithful disciple of Christ. As C.S. Lewis described in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, he spent much of his life attempting to attain Joy, only to realize that Joy was merely the signpost pointing him towards the Source of Joy. 

So transcendence is not the goal but merely is an effect of the deifying experience. So when we manufacture transcendence through various means, it cannot be sustainable. In fact, it becomes addictive. More of the same is needed to achieve the same result. Authentic transcendence, however, does not disappoint or result in a crash after the high but carries the person up to another step on the ladder of existence.

So what should be happening?

While ultimately our deification is contingent on the gracious action of God, we have a role to play. We must participate in the deifying work of God’s Spirit in our lives. The way we engage in this work of God is by participating in the communal experience and practices of others who are trying to do the same thing. Our life together as people of faith should be aiding in the formation of our faith (sounds rather obvious, I know…but it often isn’t). Our actions and practices should be facilitating our participation in God’s Creative work, and therefore should be promoting our deification.

So what are these actions and practices that are supposed to be fostering our deification? The central practice of our life together is our worship, our common liturgy. Many today might bristle at the word liturgy, thinking immediately of boring, stiff religion (the opposite of transcendence). Though the word liturgy means merely “the work of the people,” and as such should be our shared work of participating with God’s deifying work within us. Our time together (our liturgy) should be working to form us and conform us to the person of Jesus Christ.

As such, our liturgy must be reimagined in such a way as to make the participation in Poetry a primary component of this central practice of the Church.

The liturgy (the cooperative work) of creating, sharing, and hearing of the “extreme language” of poetry and story in and throughout the time of worship is the process through which we imitate and participate with the Poet God and are subsequently deified.

It is not the bread & wine itself that, upon consuming it, makes us like Christ. Instead, it is the creative process of grinding the grain and fermenting the fruit for worship that makes us like Christ.

Now What?

If you’ve made it this far, well done.

This mind dump of ideas has been far from organized. As I read and talk more with folks about all of these thoughts, I’m hoping to explore further precisely what some of this might look like in reality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this. What have you noticed? What might some of this look like going forward? What does it mean for you to start engaging in “big-P” Poetry for the sake of faith formation?

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