Bypassing the Catholic world completely was a controversy in the Protestant world in the 1990’s about “Worship as Evangelisation”.
There were all kinds of issues raised in this debate, including fundamental questions of what worship and liturgy were actually “for”. There were some who wanted all the major services on a weekend to be “seeker services”, ie. services designed for the “unchurched”. In some extremes, this resulted in the eucharist (or communion service) being relegated to weeknights and all services on Sunday were evangelistic services of praise and worship with no sacramental element. On the other hand, you got the people saying that, as in the Early Church when the doors were closed to any who were not fully initiated, the Sunday liturgy was “for” baptised and catechised Christians.
Of course, in all this there was the constant reminder that the liturgy was not “for” us human beings at all, but “for” God.
This debate fizzled more or less in the first decade of the 21st Century, as the issues became a little more nuanced.
First they recognised that, unlike the Early Church, the Church in Christendom and “post-Christendom” has always engaged in “public worship”. We don’t close the doors any more, even in those churches where the cry “the doors, the doors” is still maintained.
Second they realised that focusing on God, offering worship and praise to God, was actually “good for the soul”. In other words, one of the most effective forms of evangelisation was actually a congregation worshipping and praising and focusing on God with all their heart.
Third, they recognised that there are levels of evangelisation. The initiated and the uninitiated alike all need to be evangelised and to grow closer in their relationship to God through Jesus Christ. It was recognised that the sacrament was an important part of this, even in those churches that practiced “close” communion.
Finally, they realised that whatever you do on Sunday should be done well, as it is a witness to the seriousness with which the people there take this business of doing liturgy.
Perhaps it would be beneficial if, mutatis mutandis, some of these insights filtered into the way we do the liturgy in our Catholic parishes.
We do get “seekers” in Catholic parishes, but more regularly what we get is semi-catechised, semi-formed, baptised and confirmed Catholics. Both these Catholics and the well-catechised, well-formed Catholics form a single worshipping assembly. Both are meant to be where they are and have a right to be there. They also have a right to the liturgy done according to the directions of the Church as laid out in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.
When we do the liturgy well, it becomes a powerful witness to the Catholic faith. The preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the open opportunity to enter into real communal prayer all draw the worshipper – however well prepared they are for what they are engaged in – deeper into their relationship with God and the Church. The public liturgy of the Church is thus a major and regular event of evangelisation in every parish (and also in schools and other places where the liturgy is celebrated).
One protestant writer on the liturgy for whom I have always had a major regard is Marva Dawn. Her classic was the book “A Royal Waste of Time: the splendor of worshiping God and being Church for the World”. An earlier book was called “Reaching out without dumbing down: a theology of worship for this urgent time”. I remember once listening to Marva speak, and she quoted a passage from Annie Dillard’s book “Teaching a Stone to Talk”:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
If that applies to Protestant worship services, how much more should it apply to the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which – if what we believe is really true – the Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the Judge and Saviour of the World, is Really Present, should we not be wearing metaphorical crash helmets and life preservers?
When we celebrate liturgies that forget about Who is Really Present, and his power to change the lives of those present in dramatic and real ways, are we not being a little like the kids playing with TNT? Will those present have any warning that they are entering into seriously “dangerous territory”? Moses understood this when he stood on “holy ground” before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the burning bush. But when we “play at liturgy”, “dumbing it down” and seeking to defuse the spiritual TNT that the liturgy conveys, we weaken the power of the most effective means of evangelisation that the Holy Spirit has given to the Church. But in the Liturgy, the Holy Spirit is a Bird of Prey rather than a dove, and he won’t let us clip his wings.