Periodically as I’m preparing the service for Sunday I recall a conversation with one of my professors back at seminary regarding the liturgy. He was addressing some concerns about the complexity of the liturgy. Those of us who have grown up in the church lose sight of just how complicated the liturgy can be. Even just the basic rubrics can be a lot to handle. Knowing when to stand up or sit down (or kneel), knowing when the pastor is supposed to talk and when I’m supposed to talk, knowing the musical settings for the various sung portions, potentially knowing how chanting works, and all of the other miscellaneous rubrics is a lot to manage and all of that says nothing about understanding why you do any of it.
As pastors and congregations start to seriously examine the complexity of the liturgy, the question that often comes up is “How do we bring the church and the liturgy together?” Sadly, all too often the answer to this question is to jettison much of what makes the liturgy more complicated. If the liturgy isn’t complicated, then people will be able to follow it much more easily, at least that’s how the reasoning goes. Music with easy melodies, services with a minimum of movement, a streamlining of the liturgy to remove parts that might need explanation, all of this and more takes place in order to give the congregation something it can easily grab hold of.
This perspective comes from the idea that the liturgy is something we do and gives little thought to what the liturgy is doing to us. As Lutherans, we acknowledge that service that is given within the liturgy is first and foremost God’s. He is not the primary recipient. He is the primary actor. He is where all of the activity begins. Our place is to receive and respond.
Of course, everything that we apply to adults we apply even more to children. If adults have a hard time following what’s going on, children must be entirely lost. Our desire to have children in church can usually be translated as a desire to have children grow up in church and has little to do with their participation in worship at their young age. Children don’t understand, they can’t understand. Children are busy and active and aren’t able to sit still. Children are noisy and disruptive. All of these arguments allow us to simply throw up our hands and abdicate any responsibility to integrate our children in the service. Obviously, Jesus wants the little children to come to Him and to not let anything hinder them. However, He never said He wanted them to actually do anything.
As time goes on and children grow up, we then scratch our heads and wonder why we never see those kids again after they’re confirmed. It shouldn’t surprise us at all that children leave the church. We never treated them as members to begin with. We acknowledge that we should baptize all people, regardless of age. All require the grace God gives through the sacrament and all fall under the command of Christ to baptize “all nations.” Jesus doesn’t differentiate and so neither do we. But baptism goes hand in hand with teaching, for both are necessary components of discipleship.
This leads us back around to the beginning and that conversation with my professor. His argument was not that we should “dumb down” the liturgy to make it more accessible. Rather, that we should lift up the people to the level of the liturgy. God is active in the service. God speaks and His word makes alive. His Word teaches and transforms. That means the liturgy teaches and the liturgy is the most essential place where God is making us into the people He intends us to be. This is where teaching and baptism come together.
Discipleship is never something one completes. Your identity and vocation as disciple has a beginning but it has no end. You will always be following where your Teacher and Lord leads you. This status also is not based on age. Whether you are baptized at a month old or when you come to faith at 85, you are a disciple and you are learning. In either case, you are learning what God has done for you and how to put that faith into practice. Digging into the liturgy, the hows and whys of how it works and what it does, can only help you better put your faith into practice. Don’t be satisfied with just knowing the basic rubrics.
And again, what is true for adults is even more true for children. Children are not second-class citizens of the church. They are not something to be tolerated or ignored. They are disciples of Christ. They may not understand what the liturgy is all about, but no one does when they are first exposed to it. Parents have an amazing opportunity to bring their children deeper into the faith by teaching them what the liturgy is about. When we treat children as full participants, they see the value in what they do. Their prayers are just as significant as everyone else’s. Their confession of the Creeds is just as valid and true. Their voices raised in song are just as cherished. But they, like all of us, must be taught. The liturgy is there for them too.