In a chapel of the parish Church where I often attend Mass is a plain brass altar cross. It is not a crucifix, it is a plain cross. The pastor explained to me that it is from the altar of the local Lutheran Church which closed two years ago as membership had declined to the point where the church could no longer operate. “We bought it when the Church closed. It’s sort of like ‘capture the flag’,” Father said. “And we won.”
On a larger scale, the magnificent Crystal Cathedral built by Reverend Robert Schuller in 1981 and formally affiliated with the Reformed Church in America was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange (CA) in 2012 after Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy. It is being refurbished for Roman Catholic “altar centered worship” and will be reopened and dedicated as a Catholic Church next year. Dr. Schuller died this past Holy Thursday and his funeral will take place in his former Crystal Cathedral on April 20th. His life-work, Crystal Cathedral Ministries, imploded after his retirement, allegedly due to rivalries among his children for control.
It may seem that we Catholics “are winning” in the battle for souls but don’t take these isolated triumphs as signs of something bigger. Some years back I was travelling in Greece and ran into Reverend Lon Solomon, pastor of McLean Bible Church in McLean Virginia. McLean Bible has six campuses in the Washington DC Metropolitan area and probably counts about 25,000 members. “Half my congregants are former Catholics” Reverend Solomon told me. “And they bring a lot to us—certainly a deep appreciation of Holy Communion.” That is not a phenomenon unique to McLean Bible. Pastors of “Evangelical” megachurches across the country testify to how many of their worshippers were born and raised in the Catholic Church. While many Catholics today have simply stopped going to Church altogether, not a few have switched to churches where they feel they are getting more spiritual nourishment.
Now, many devout Catholics would argue “how could you possibly get more nourishment from worship than from the Mass and Holy Communion?” And, as a Catholic with a strong Eucharistic spirituality, I know what they mean, but we need to listen to what a not inconsiderable number of people are telling us. You can’t argue with people’s experience, especially when it comes to how grace operates in their lives. Catholics finding a spiritual home in the megachurches is not an isolated phenomenon, though the style of worship is only one factor to be considered.
Worship services in most megachurchs cannot be described under the traditional category of “liturgy,” but rather they usually follow a format known as “praise” or “praise worship.” One person described his encounter with this format of worship saying: “The worship service was like attending a concert, it was loud and fun and anointed.... The praises of the people created such an amazing atmosphere. The worship leader, a true psalmist took us into heartfelt worship and a powerful anointing. People were weeping and falling on their faces. God filled that place like I had not felt in a very long time.
And I believe it was because the people were hungry, they cried out to him, they just loved on Him with no regard to time. It brought tears to my eyes thinking about how this act of intimate worship must have brought great joy to God.
I believe that is what most of us are missing in our personal lives and our church’s. True Worship. The kind that says, “nothing else matters.” The kind that says, “I’m not leaving here until I get what I came for, prayer, healing etc.”
I was particularly struck by the phrase “the kind (of worship) that says “nothing else matters.” How many of us can truly say that our Sunday Worship put us in that space—where nothing but God and his Will truly matters to us? How many of us find our attendance at Mass to be the sort of re-conversion where we give our hearts totally to God?
This form of worship is very foreign to most of us Catholics though those among us who have had experience with the Catholic Charismatic movement would know what the above quoted gentleman is speaking of. It also would not be the taste of many regular Mass-going Catholics. But the operative word there is “regular Mass-going Catholics.” It obviously has drawn many Catholics who find that it speaks to them in some way that our traditional rites do not.
This may provide the challenge for us to develop a new rite that is more effective in meeting the spiritual needs of those for whom the current rites—Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form—do not. Just as the Churches of Africa and Asia have found spiritual vitality in their respective inculturations of the Liturgy, there is no reason that the Catholic Church in our North American culture might not benefit as well from forms of worship that better fit the spiritual expression of our culture. I am not suggesting that we replace the current liturgy but some parishes might want to try Eucharistic celebrations in this sort of format. At the very least, there certainly would be no problem in offering non-Eucharistic worship services in the context of praise-worship.
Such worship would most usually be somewhat more free in structure and with greater shared leadership inclusive of lay worship leaders. Only an ordained priest could, of course, offer the Eucharistic Prayer or perform other sacramental roles that require Sacred Orders but the “presidency” of the service could otherwise be share out among a number of properly prepared worship leaders. And for non-sacramental worship there would be no problem whatsoever in having lay leaders. In fact, including a non-sacramental worship service in the weekend line-up might provide a welcome spiritual harbor for those who may not, for one reason or another, be receiving the Eucharist. We Roman Catholics are used to having only the Mass for weekend worship, but the Eastern Rites of the Church have long had non-Eucharistic worship with Saturday Evening Vespers and Sunday Morning Orthros as Weekend Services along with the Divine Liturgy.
Praise Worship is heavy on music. It may be traditional hymnody led by choir and organ as was usual at the Crystal Cathedral in the days of Robert Schuller’s pastorate or it may be the more contemporary praise music used in churches that draw a somewhat younger audience. Hillsong United (band), Sanctus Real, and Mercy Me are three of well known church bands doing Praise Music. Praise worship also includes people giving testimony to the power of God’s grace in their lives. This is different from the preaching which is usually a more structured exposition of a scriptural text and is delivered by one of the congregation’s recognized and qualified ministers. Praise worship also generally permits more extensive intercessory prayer than traditional Catholic worship.
Overall, praise-style worship tends to lead the participant to a more transcendent awareness of the Presence of God. Even as the Traditional Latin Mass emphasized the Majesty and Power of God through a profound inner experience reached by the formality of stately music and royal court ceremonial, so praise-style worship also leads the worshipper to an awareness of the Majesty and Power of God but takes the route of a profound inner experience generated by emotional music and a more spontaneous style of worship.
I must admit that personally I shy away from either path, and indeed from a highly transcendent encounter with God. My own longtime preference for a Spartan understated monastic style of worship permits me to enjoy the current Roman Rite when it is done with measured pace and great simplicity. But it is obvious that just as the Traditional Latin Mass draws a certain crowd, another crowd is being drawn away from the Church by the praise format of worship. I think we need to look into that and creatively respond.