Abu Daoud on exporting the American model of church and liturgy

An e-mail I just wrote to a friend, I thought it was interesting enough to share with you all. Happy New Year to everyone! --AD

Hi Brother,

You raise a great question: in many ways the American church is not replicable outside the States, no? I would agree with you in several aspects. American culture is very much focused around entertainment, and that really comes across at church. I mean, how many people have you met who do or don't go to a certain church bc of the music or the preaching? It is a difficult balance, I mean, you should be edified by the sermons, but there is such a thing as substituting an entertaining sermon for a boring one that is edifying. The same can be said for the way our churches handle their physical assets. I am, however, not one of these guys who says that we need to go back to home churches (though here that is needed sometimes, but more as a security matter than some ideological debate, like it is in the US).

All of this is related to my conviction that liturgy, in some sense of the word, is an important part of Christian worship. It serves to focus attention away from the entertainment factor (ie, the preacher or worship leader) and towards the work of the people--which is what the actual Greek word liturgy means, the work of the people, or a public work. So yes, the standing and sitting and kneeling can certainly become meaningless ritual, but I have found that is not the case nearly as often as non-liturgical Christians allege. I have ample experience with both forms of Christianity (liturgical and non-liturgical) in a number of different cultural settings and languages.

Also, it is entirely possible to combine the best aspects of evangelical ethos and liturgical worship, I have seen this at some Anglican and Lutheran churches, for example. The desire to shed every last bit of structure (liturgy) is very American, isn't it? I think that's another aspect of how American Christianity does not work so well in other cultures. The non-structured every-guy-doing-his-own-thing kind of worship we sometimes see in the US is more or less incomprehensible to many folks here in the Arab world, both Christian and Muslim.

Anyway, that is much more than you expected, I'm sure! Peace be with you during these twelve days of Christmas, and happy new year!


Steve Scott said…
Happy New Year, Abu!

Liturgy means work of the people? Hmmm. From my American point of view, you'd never know it. It seems that contrary to the American notion of the people doing things, that the traditional American form of worship is that we sit on our hands while the paid professionals do it, all to the detrement of community. I can't think of the last time I attended church where my work (when there is any) actually edified anybody else. 1 Corinthians 12-14 shows the people interacting with each other, and St. Paul places it in the context of "when the whole church gathers together."

Maybe I can exercise my being a good evangelical by doing a "word study" on "liturgy" and apply it to our 3000 mile wide, one inch deep religion.

I'm so glad you shared!

Peace in 2009, the year of our Lord.
John Stringer said…
Hello Abu, happy New Year to you as well.
I do agree 100% with what you say here. What I find incredibly interesting, is that many 'mission thinkers' in the USA, continue to bombard us with the concept that we have to present the Gospel in the Arab World in a format that sooooo closely resembles North American Church culture. Their thinking begins basically with the idea that the FORM of church can be changed randomly, at will, based on our own preferences, while CONTENT of the faith what it's all about.

Many missionaries come with these ideas that the liturgical churches in the Arab world are bad and dead - a typical evangelical presupposition.

What we need in the Arab world (and elsewhere) is BETTER liturgy.

Liturgy should not resemble our culture and environment. I go to church to be lifted up to the realms of the divine, and great liturgy does just that.

What I find most amazing, is that in our liturgy in Church, the whole church participates. Not just in the offering and in laughing, clapping or saying amen at the prompting of the preacher, but by communal Bible readings, prayers, Holy Communion etc.

In the evangelical church I have been part of for 30+ years, we read less bible and we prayed much less.
Samuel said…
Don't know how relevant what I am about to say is ... but throttle up! I have a somewhat different take on this since perhaps I come from a different background.

I'm a strong believer that you can have both a very edifying message or sermon with a 'entertainment factor' that brings it to life. Entertainment is merely the lifeness of the spirit talking. I don't see the two as being mutually exclusive. (You could be referring to some churches that put some emphasis on appearances, but I find that most do not---from what I have seen.) On the other hand, having boring sermons and liturgies day in and day out, for years on end, could reach less and less people and could make the Christian message less and less effective. Maybe an energetic and encouraging sermon or liturgy is what would reach people. (With music, singing, and prayer.) I like the Protestant tradition of inviting a success story to share how the Lord blessed and worked in their life.

Perhaps the reason for the appearance of the 'entertainment' aspect of American church culture is the fact that Americans are a very energetic people, a people full of vitality, enthusiasm, and dynamism. They love life. They love every aspect of life, and their faith is an even more integral part of that life since their faith is what energizes and fuels their life with meaning and purpose (thanks to the Lord behind it)---so hardly one inch deep. (I am mainly addressing Christian Americans, though that could also translate to non-Christian Americans---perhaps those who caught the American bug or the Christian bug!) That's why you see that 'entertainment' aspect in other things that Americans do (not just Hollywood). Even American English is entertaining, rich with humorous phrases and idioms. The results of their hard work is what leads them to celebrate the fruits of their labor with cheers and energy.

There are differences between Protestant and Catholic liturgical practices, which may account for their different effects; and as I'm more familiar with the former perhaps what I say may not reflect Catholic perception (which I leave to those who know more than I). When a minister (say a Presbyterian) preaches a sermon, with energy and enthusiasm, my focus is squarely on what he is saying, on the value and meaning of what he is conveying, the Biblical verses that he is quoting and explaining, the relevance they have for our life in the way we conduct ourselves and treat others, and what the Lord expects us to do in our daily life. Christian faith is constant renewal, constant revision of the soul, constantly positive and hopeful, unable to throw in the towel (it's always clean!). That's the Christianity I know. Jesus said He is with us always, and He certainly is (if we don't lose sight of His message and what He stands for in our lives).

The Apostles in the book of Acts too spoke and preached with energy and vitality (and even with entertainment!), and that comes across thru Paul's Epistles. That American energy has its source in its Christian heritage, which is the very same type of energy and vitality. Just as our early Christian Apostles, disciples, and fathers were full of the Holy Spirit, so too Americans have inherited that same dynamic Spirit from Christian teachings (even including those who do not believe in the same way). (Not only Americans, but also other cultures influenced by that same Christian spirit and exemplify the same output.)

You reach more people more effectively when you are not 'boring' and edifying. Because being filled with the spirit of Christ is anything but boring, being full of energy, enthusiasm, and love for life. Jesus is full of life and was very positive (certainly comes thru in the Gospels), and was certainly very entertaining! (Americans got that from Him!) :) Where did Americans get that spirit of giving, save from Spirit if Jesus that enshrines them? Americans are among the most generous people on earth, with billions of dollars in charity and relief and missions to other nations in need. We do it with enthusiasm, with love, and for the Lord. I call this prayer in action, and may be what Abu Daoud partly meant by "work of the people" (and perhaps "work for the people"). Practical Christianity in the works (both in binding the Christian community in holy union and in proving its beliefs thru its work for others). Evangelical Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) are a strong component of that charity and giving, as well as non-evangelical Christians. I can think of no bigger 'liturgy' when you do something for others in need ("to the least you have done it to others, you have done it unto Me"). (And sometimes we don't realize how we may be affecting others in positive ways, but that does not mean we had no effect---as Paul said we are all component parts of the same body and no part is 'useless.' So long as Christ lives in our hearts and in our actions we are utterly useful and relevant.)

There! That's my liturgy for you! (Useless, I know, but I hope it got you moving.) Amen? :)

Two recent books that I found to be both full of spirit (entertaining) and full of practical Christian edifying virtues are:

(1) Rick Warren, The purpose-driven live, Zondervan 2002.

(2) Joel Osteen, Become a better you, Free Press 2007.

I highly recommend them.

God bless, your brother in Christ, Sam.
Rich said…

I, too, am proud to be an American. But I don't believe that Americans love life more, or have more energy than other nationalities. It seems that the American preference for entertaining "worship" stems more from TV-centered culture of the last 50 years. I'll have to think about what I think the effect of the internet will be on American Evangelicalism.

Furthermore, if you read the original post more carefully, you'll see that you've missed the point about edifying versus entertaining. What the author seems to have been describing was people who would leave a church with edifying sermons for one with sermons that were merely entertaining. I have personally seen this happen many times.

Have you ever visited a liturgical church (with an open and questioning spirit)? Have you visited a synagogue? It may do you some good to step out of your anti-liturgical comfort zone. It certainly did me more than a world of good.
Samuel said…
But I don't believe that Americans love life more, or have more energy than other nationalities.

You may believe differently, but I see it in nearly all facets of American life. From hard work, to GDP, to astounding developments in science and technology, to winning Nobel Prizes, going to space, to myriad innovative solutions to industrial problems, ad infinitum. They're very hard working (maybe even workaholics) and that's another measure for how a people love life.

It seems that the American preference for entertaining "worship" stems more from TV-centered culture of the last 50 years.

Here we're starting to make unhelpful assumptions about 'entertainment' as if it is, by definition, a bad thing, and we're becoming loose with its use by injecting into it negative connotations (just as you, unfortunately, sound negative). Anything you don't like can be condescendingly labeled as 'entertainment,' including the things that are dearest to you. But that's naive. One can do anything in a way to make it interesting, hence entertaining. You can teach a course with an 'entertaining' style to make it interesting, lively to your students, to keep their attention focused, while at the same time teaching the material effectively. So let's not get confused in the language. Further, I can hardly believe that going to church before the advent of television (in the US at least) was not 'entertaining' to its participants just because there is no TV. Radio and television, and other modes of mass communication, merely extended the range of what could always be seen as an interesting, and hence entertaining, phenomenon (whatever it may be).

Furthermore, if you read the original post more carefully, you'll see that you've missed the point about edifying versus entertaining.

You misunderstood. I didn't miss it, I took note of it.

What the author seems to have been describing was people who would leave a church with edifying sermons for one with sermons that were merely entertaining. I have personally seen this happen many times.

I can't judge why people leave a church and go for another one. I'm sure there is a whole mix of reasons why. Perhaps some for superficial reasons, perhaps for other people it's because the 'edifying' church had other qualities, unknown to you, that they didn't agree with. Perhaps the church they're moving to was not merely for its entertaining quality, as one may assume, but rather there was more to it that brought them together there. Some people change churches on account of other attendees.

Have you ever visited a liturgical church (with an open and questioning spirit)? Have you visited a synagogue? It may do you some good to step out of your anti-liturgical comfort zone.

What made you think I didn't? Is it smart to make assumptions about someone you don't even know? I have indeed gone to both Catholic liturgies and Jewish ones in synagogues, and even went with a Hindu friend to a Hindu one. I'm not 'anti-liturgical' but rather recognize that you can have good and not-so-good liturgies, effective and ineffective liturgies.
Abu Daoud said…
I think it is good to clear up that yes, imho a sermon can be both entertaining and edifying (so yes, in that sense Samuel is correct). My concern is indeed what Rich mentioned, and I too have seen it.

The thing is that some churches have little more than sermons and music. And people tend to gravitate towards entertaining sermons and music. And yes I do think it is related to TV and perhaps even more to cinema.

Liturgy is not usually glorious, but it refocuses attention away from the preacher or worship leader back to the work of the people--how they worship and pray.
Samuel said…
Of course, Abu Daoud, even if we are to consider those people who are mainly motivated by mere entertainment (whose number is unclear), one can find a positive way to construe the situation. Namely, that if there was no entertainment to attract them then they would not be in church in the first place. So perhaps the social attraction provided by 'entertainment' is a good incentive to have them exposed and listen to the Christian message and be a part of it---and that can hardly be a bad thing. Christianity does have a social side to it, after all. Have not Christian missionaries used various methods to attract converts to the faith? Why can't entertainment be one of them? (Perhaps 'entertainment' is the wrong word because of the connotations it carries, but perhaps 'social atmosphere' may be a more apt description since people can be picky about the type of social groups they want to associate with.)
Mission Glory said…
Abu Daoud,

Rather than e-mail, I'll post my response. I would have posted it sooner but the family and I had a date at Legoland today for some good old American entertainment lol... Anyway, this was a convenient time for some reflection.

Wow, so many avenues to take with this exchange. The comment concerning the difficulty of replicating the way America does church came when considering the issue of materialistic gluttony among many American Churches. Maybe it could also be describes as a lacking sense of stewardship (not only concerning worldly possessions but even spiritual giftedness etc.). Why would it be important that our church be replicated in the first place? To provide the context - our church was being challenged by a gifted teacher, who has overseen the mobilization of thousands of college students for short term missionary work and who co-founded the Passion movement. This was part of his efforts to wake us up to see “God’s global purpose: his desire and activity of redeeming mankind, the nations, to himself.” He argued that our traditions (and I could probably throw in liturgy in some sense) were creating a barrier for outsiders to see Christ. The specifics don’t matter in this case; his goal was to help us honestly assess our relevance to the culture Christ has placed us and to warn against viewing God’s blessing apart from his purposes. What happens when blessings are disconnected from His purpose? A departure from obedience among other things and it’s what we witness all throughout the OT and even in our own individual relationships with Christ. We’re blessed so that God’s purpose may be accomplished – Psalms 67 - of which the church plays a most important role. Therefore, if we place a higher priority on our comfort and traditions we are bound to turn inward, while making church nothing more than a social club, ill-equipped to be the salt and light we’re called to be.

Liturgical / non-liturgical…do you think this is the same as the “relevance” issue? God’s plan for people coming to know him hasn’t changed (Romans 10:17) but the world we live in is very different, depending upon which way the whirlpool spins when you’re draining the bathtub. Many of the mega-churches in Southern CA, in their quest to remain relevant and gain an audience with non-believers, use entertainment for all it’s worth but I am very familiar with several of them and when someone makes a decision, they are intentionally discipled (either through a small group, one on one etc.). In these instances – I’m all for whatever it takes to break down barriers for people to hear the word of God. Recently our church shut its doors for one Sunday and instead of meeting for church, we became the church and served a school, senior center, and several other local organizations around our church – the impact was overwhelming. One of the highlights was the school (and we’re talking a public southern ca school here) allowed us to promote our Halloween function to all of the public schools in our district. Needless to say, this got everyone excited and we’ll be participating again soon (thought I would include this story for Steve)

Just as we’ll know true believers by their fruit, I think we’ll also know the true “body” by her fruit. I think the bottom line is that whenever anything takes the focus off of Christ – that’s when we need to be reminded of our former position (2 Peter 1:3-11) vs.9

Thanks again
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Mission Glory,

I think we have a common concern in terms of the question of gluttony. I am also glad to hear that there are churches in your area where they can embrace the best of entertainment and discipleship. But I wonder if the topics of entertainment-based Christianity and gluttony are not related to each other.

I do believe you can have real discipleship go along with entertainment-centered worship, but that works in the US (sometimes). The original question we had been discussing was about exporting that to other parts of the world, and that's where my comments (and John Stringer's as well) about liturgy in the Arab context came in.

To address the topic your guest speaker mentioned, I have no doubt that our traditions can get in the way of our obedience, I see it all the time. Similarly, our dislike of tradition (again, very American) is perhaps even more harmful in terms of world mission; that is certainly the case imho in the Arab context.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting!
Mission Glory said…
Abu Daoud,

I think the late night post may have muddied the waters a bit. Yes, we had originally been discussing the difficulty in exporting this outside the U.S. - I think what this might have turned into would fall under contextualizing the gospel. As Samuel has noted, in American's pop culture, entertainment is a language commonly understood so it's an effective medium in sharing the gospel and I think it's for this reason it's hard to export as the cultures are quite different. My experience with the Arab culture is, as you know, not as extensive as yours but from the little I do know I can see how Liturgical services would be much more accepted. Thanks Again and look forward to talking again soon.
Brother Abu Daoud,

Just yesterday I spoke to a good friend from a protestant, evangelical background who has spent the last few years in a very conservative Islamic culture. While she enjoys "freedom in worship," she really enjoyed going to a Roman Catholic Mass after being back in the States for a few months. She said that she could relate much better to it after having lived among Muslims... interesting!

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

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