Liturgy and depression. . .

The statistics on depression are, well. . . . depressing. Depression has been called the common cold of emotional problems. The American Psychiatric Association reports that depression affects nearly one in 10 adults every year. One study of students in grades six, eight, and 10 (average ages 11, 13, and 15) found that 18 percent of students reported symptoms of depression. Other research says that at any given time, one in eight adolescents may be suffering from depression. Sadly, many go off to college and find it hard to bear up under the stress. One recent survey found that one in five college students say they have felt too stressed to do schoolwork or be with friends. One in six say they have friends who in the past year have talked about committing suicide. One in ten say they have considered it themselves. Depression has reached epidemic proportions in our culture.

I’m not a psychologist or a counselor. I have, however, had almost fifty-two years of experience with myself and the stuff that goes on inside my head, along with lots of discussions with people young and old who have struggled with something much deeper than a case of the blues. The greatest weapon I know of in the battle against the stormy seas of feelings of hopelessness and despair is an anchor. Specifically, the anchor of truth that can be known and held on to, even when one’s feelings are all over the place. I oftentimes start and end my days by reminding myself of the things I know. It’s a helpful little exercise that allows me to sleep much better than I would otherwise.

This morning I was reminded of how the anchor becomes a part of our lives through liturgy. First, some background – I grew up in a liturgical tradition and I’m still there. I know that all churches have a liturgy whether they’re willing to admit it or not. Ours was always printed out in a “Church Bulletin” and followed religiously. I also grew up in a day and age and evangelical culture where that liturgical discipline was often questioned or viewed as methodical, predictable, constraining, and insincere. The insincere part was often stated by critics who talked about praying their own prayers rather than the written prayers of someone else, because, after all, that was only ritual. This movement swept through churches, draining them of the weekly “rituals” that served to strengthen our faith and remind us of who God is and who we are in Him.

Back to this morning. . . . I’m continuing to read through Ed Welch’s wonderful book, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light For The Path. Welch begins Chapter 6 with these words: “Have you ever been to a church service in which the order and content of the service were prescribed from start to finish? These are called liturgical services. They consist of prayers and reading that have been prepared in advance. If you are depressed, you are going to have to learn to be a liturgical worshiper. If you wait until you feel motivated to worship, you might be waiting a long time. If you are remotely inclined to communicate with God, you might find that words fail and you have nothing to say. When you drag yourself to worship, the service had better be mapped out ahead of time.” Welch goes on to challenge us to look into the Scriptures (starting with the Psalms) and to mine church history for prayers, creeds, and catechsims that put into words what we need to say. Yes, God has actually given us words that “somehow give voice to the silences in our hearts. If we had the skill and the words, we would write many of those same words.”

I know this to be true. The Psalms not only teach me, but express the deep groanings of my heart that I rarely can find words to express. My oft-mentioned Puritan prayer book – The Valley of Vision – is a morning and evening tool that has helped my prayer life and theology move to a deeper and deeper level.

This got me thinking. I wonder if we hurt ourselves and our children deeply when we remove the more formal liturgy and replace it with nothing but spontaneity? When the storms of life come, will our kids be able to weather those storms by reciting and reminding themselves of the “this I know,” if they’ve never had the opportunity to regularly repeat the “this I know” with a regularity that cements those truths and makes them so much a part of themselves that they can’t help but be recalled?

This is one of those places where the emergent church’s critique of shallow market-driven evangelicalism is dead-on right. Their hunger and thirst for transcendence that is driving so many younger Christians to practices, prayers, and liturgy that has stood the test of time is a good thing.

Could it be that the way we “do” church has actually created a culture more prone to depression? Could it be that it’s actually hurting, rather than helping, the now and future emotional/spiritual health of our kids?

5 thoughts on “Liturgy and depression. . .

  1. Walt, I agree that we need to appreciate the place that a more formal liturgy brings to our lives. I have often been reminded of those simple prayers doing times of struggle. I would say, however, that if our kids don’t ‘understand’ the theology, passion and meaning behind these prayers that they will never find true hope and encouragement. So many of our kids ‘know’ these prayers, but don’t understand the depth within them. I guess thats where people who are well trained and have a heart for youth will make a difference 1 kid at a time.

  2. Words/liturgy can be repetitive and meaningless if not accompanied by EXPERIENCE and RELATIONSHIP.
    Finding a balance between the two seems important!

    I think more than anything teens need to experience God with “skin on,” as I’ve so often heard our children’s pastor share. Finding support and strength not only through inspirational worship but especially – words of a friend, unconditional love of a parent, or shared experiences within the church which speak of unwavering accpetance. Those messages speak volumes to searching teens and adults alike!

    Thank you for your thought provoking passage!
    With Appreciation,
    Robin E (former teacher)

  3. Couldn’t agree more with this blog.

    I’m a an from a non-liturgical, evangelical and reformed background. While firmly holding onto my evangelical
    roots, as a youth pastor I have long yearned for reformed liturgy as it provide the following items:

    1) instruction to the ignorant believers and seekers

    2) focus to spiritually A.D.D. hearts (including my own)

    3) reverence to worship

    4) as Walt said, words to express a believer’s longings and depression in a Biblical way

    While I am no expert in liturgy (we had our first liturgical youth service last week) it seems that liturgy is only a tool, which can be used in good and bad ways. Meditating on how to use it properly I have come to think it must be undergirded with good Biblical theology, real faith and prayer, occasional modifications (so as not to lose meaning to worshippers), instruction about the “why’s” of each element (to create desire to participate in the worshipper), and a small dose of extemporaneous prayers and comments to keep the service intimate to the specific context of the congregation.

  4. Dear Walt…
    Thanks for this blog. There is so much at work in what you have said. Liturgy basically says that we are a part of something that was not of our own making. Like the Bible, we didn’t think it. It is God’s revelation of Self and not our own production. The non-liturgical is so often our own production rather than one handed on through the ages by the faithful who have gone before us. Rather than always focusing on “new” and “improved”, perhaps we can think and worship in terms of “tried” and “tested”.
    > Rev. W. P. Fillebrown

  5. I’m wondering about the statement in the article regarding the emergent church. It is my understanding that it is the emergent church that wants to do away with tradition, the Bible, etc. It is my understanding that some in the emergent church movement want to change not only the method of how we do church, but the message as well. It is those in the emergent church who want to change the message that I feel are the purveyors of shallow, market-driven evangelicalsim.
    I agree that any creeds or confessions stated in church must be understood, or they become rote platitudes.
    R.C. Sproul, in the latest issue of his Tabletalk magazine, has an excellent series of articles on the importance of the creeds and confessions. His Ligonier Ministries website is an excellent apologetics resource.
    Thanks for the blog!

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