Research shows that the churches that are growing are those that engage with experience. Not just the reflection on experience, important as that is, but also, providing a more personal experience within the liturgy. That experience, shared with others, becomes a gateway to the spiritual experience that lies at the heart of healthy religion.
That experience can be the exuberance of shared singing, music making and movement or the still, wordless mystery of adoration. The spiritual dimension of our lives needs more than the rational statements of belief, creeds and prayers that only address the intellect. Good liturgy tells stories, evokes mystery and engages emotions. Only when these are engaged does the language of faith and dogma find its proper place in people’s lives. Only when story is engaged with its complex and intuitive patterns can we invoke the personal dimension of the Easter mystery at the heart of every Christian’s belief. Only when I bring my lived experience to the Gospel can it become good news.
All well and good. But what does it mean for the average parish liturgy? I would like to suggest, by way of example, five practical steps that liturgy groups and leaders might employ.
Personalising Church Space
First, it means creating a space that is different in its scope and intention from the rest of reality. It means evoking a sense of the sacred, of stepping into a different mode of experience, what liturgists term a liminal something different, unique should happen. In traditional patterns using holy water was that threshold sign that this was a sacred space. Making more of that could help. Perhaps, asking welcomers to sprinkle arrivals with holy water could make this a more engaging experience. Another option is to use incense at the door so that arrivals have to walk through a cloud into a different atmosphere. Both these symbols have a rich significance, a Christian back story, that is more accessible after they are physically experienced at the door.
The power of instrumental music
Secondly, research into religious experience identifies music as the most effective facilitator of an awareness of the numinous. Music, not singing. Music without words that allows the mind to escape from problem thinking into a wider awareness that leads to prayer. The music needs to be gentle, reflective and calming so that urgency can slip away. That leaves the individual in the present moment, the place where God is encountered.
Thirdly, silence should not be underestimated or feared. Most people hunger for silence but may need help to embrace it. In parishes the mass rolls on with only rare pauses, as if the people were hardly present to the action on the sanctuary. But silence is not just the absence of noise, it includes an inner and shared silence. Such a silence should be able to survive the cries of children once the congregation becomes more skilled in this area. For that reason, liturgy leaders need to 'frame' silence: introducing it, suggesting practices to help stillness and ways of raising awareness. That could be done at communion when the church recommends a period of silence. But it could also be used at the start of mass, at the penitential rite, after the Gospel or even during the homily to allow the awareness of God to arise within personal experience.
Fourthly, the use of story is vital. Our minds are hardwired for story they offer engagement with mystery and meaning. Stories were Jesus' preferred method of working with people. Story can slip into many parts of the liturgy. After the greeting the leader might ask how has the week been? What kind of story has it been? An adventure? A mystery? A roller coaster? Inviting people to see their experience as a story helps them to bring their life experience to the liturgy and place it alongside the Gospel story they will soon hear. Experience is the ground within which Gospel patterns take root in our awareness. Homilies that feature stories also seem to be more effective. In fact, a well told story, followed by a pause before a conclusion can be a fruitful pattern for integrating the Gospel into lived experience.
Stories shared by the congregation, testimonies of faith, are not used widely in the Catholic tradition. But they can have a profound impact on the parish community. A young helper, returning from Lourdes and sharing their experience can awaken earlier experiences of God in the congregation. An engaged couple, sharing their sacramental preparation experience, can awaken the desire for deeper relationship experiences in the congregation. The sharing of vocation stories in general can also unveil the deeper motives behind career choices, not only in the care services but also in the commercial world as well. Poe John Paul II asked us to build a broad sense of vocation in all Christian's and storytelling helps that process.
Fifthly, use movement to engage people in the words and thoughts that are being shared. Notice the change in energy when the congregation is invited to applaud a member of the church. Invite people to relax by tensing up their fists and slowly relaxing them. Pass the collection basket around at the penitential rite and ask the congregation to symbolically put their frailties and failings in there, bring the baskets to the altar and say the absolution over them before turning them upside down and moving on to praise God in the Gloria. At the offertory invite the people to extend their hand toward the altar as the prayers over the bread and wine are said. Small individual gestures that connect the congregation to the action of the mass on sanctuary reinforce the message that God does forgive, heal, welcome and feed us at mass.
Gimmicks some might say. I say they are ways to increase participation and ways to connect my day-to-day life and experience with the good news of God’s abiding presence in every human life. I say that unless our liturgies change in ways that build belonging and
feed spiritual hungers that we do not deserve a congregation. Many have walked away already because the experience of a Sunday liturgy leaves them empty, frustrated or depressed. “What Father among you would give a child a stone when he asked for bread?” said Jesus. (Matthew 7,9) How can we meet the hunger for meaning embedded in the experience of Catholic congregations across our country? Our liturgies need to awaken the presence of God in ordinary lives opening up an amazing grace of presence in every life and engaging the whole person in the process.