COVID-19 disrupts liturgy and shakes up belief

Disruptive innovation is not a common term in theological and liturgical discussions. The term comes from Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Christensen explains that successful companies are those that can meet not only their customers’ current needs but anticipate their future ones too.

Disruptive innovators – disruptors – are more likely to displace established companies, even when they are small and have relatively fewer resources.

According to Christensen, a disruptor often begins by either attracting the dominant businesses’ less-demanding customers or by creating an entirely new market.

Disruption creates both a new market and a new “value network”.

“Innovation” describes the ways companies find to enhance their customer’s experience, so the customer knows they are valued and cared for.

The customer experiences the value of belonging to the “family” of the company and the experiential value of belonging to the “community of customers” keeps them faithful and attracts others.

The business world speaks well of leaders who are “movers and shakers”, disruptors because they achieve what others cannot – change.

In church circles, change leaders are often vilified because they challenge the established, sacred cows.

The application of disruptive-innovation to our current experience of liturgical practice helps us see why the fundamental presumption of liturgy as a communitarian event, where the ritual elements of a priest, people, Sunday, church, music, eucharistic prayer and communion that once made sense, no longer do.

The disruption to the concept of community has created innovative forms of worship; forms that no longer presume the use of all or most of the ritual elements of catholic worship.

Liturgical disruption: What it looks like

Let’s consider what liturgical disruption is by looking at the world around us.

In the world of taxis, Uber is described as a disruptor, but this might not be entirely accurate. While Uber has challenged the taxi business it hasn’t moved the concept of personal transport in a radically new direction.

When we look at the movie industry and Netflix, we see a different effect.

I first discovered Netflix while living in the United States when DVDs were delivered to our homes. I remember thinking why would I do this when I can walk to the local video shop?

Now, I watch streamed movies and news programmes in a variety of languages from across the world.

Initially, Netflix didn’t disrupt the supply of movies – video shops continued to exist.

However, Netflix capitalised on the advent of the internet and disrupted the fundamental behaviours of movie watching people around the world.

The disruption of customer behaviours matched with innovations in customer services has seen the growth of the Netflix community (customer base) and the death of the local video shop’s customer base.

The death of video shops and the morphing of cinema’s into bars and cafes with movies attached, to survive, is indicative of the disruption-innovation needed to survive significant behavioural change.

Applying these considerations, I suggest that the proliferation of online masses is not the key disruptor – it is more Uber than Netflix.

Online masses predate COVID and the sheer volume of them now should not distract us. The volume is not the key disruptor because it has not brought a change in foundational behaviours.

The transference of the mass’ performance-based ritual from the sanctuary to the screen did not disrupt already existing liturgical behaviours; priests did what they normally do – perform the rituals – and believers did what they normally do – watch the rituals being performed.

Thus, the ritual behaviours didn’t change because the already dominant operative, behaviours were not disrupted.

The behavioural disruption came with the inability to recreate the physical presence of the community and physical participation in the shared eucharistic meal – even to the point where concelebrating presbyters uses separate chalices and individually consecrated host rather than sharing these elements.

If anything, the online mass has unwittingly contributed to the liturgical disruption of the physical liturgical community by taking the viewer from the pew to the couch.

The disruption-innovation of the liturgical community

Liturgical life during COVID offers three considerations of disruption-innovation:

First, habitual worshipping practices have been disrupted and behaviours that have been central to liturgical and parish life have radically changed.

With safety defining liturgical behaviours believers are more prepared to stay away from church gatherings, to pray at home, or even celebrate a “lay Eucharist” with family instead of going to Mass.

Second, online masses and worship groups have innovated choice; as a colleague suggested online ‘worship has become promiscuous.’

The dynamic of choice is not new – for example, in my experience people move between parish masses based on a variety of reasons such as a convenience, the liturgical style of the mass, or the music.

Now the choice includes legitimately worshipping at home.

While the church (corner video shop) is the place to find “spiritual communion” our attention is now turning to the innovation of the “domestic church” and home worship as the new locus of authentic liturgical prayer.

Third, and most importantly, the behaviours of the physical liturgical community have been radically disrupted and innovated.  Community is a threat (disruption) as well as something we want (innovation).

While believers can search the web for a community, they can feel safe in, this is not always the case for physical community.

Profound disruption to liturgical behaviour has come through social and physical distancing, wearing masks, communion from behind a screen, prohibitions on singing, restricted numbers, and closed churches.

These have altered our behaviours and changed the way we experience the liturgical community; they have changed our shared understandings of the community itself.

When we stand in the car park, chatting after mass, we realise implicitly that our physical behaviours inside the church say; “worship and church community are dangerous and it’s safer not to participate”.

The foundational disruption to the physical community has changed our liturgical behaviours, and, therefore, our experience of prayer itself, which the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi summaries: we pray (orandi) what we believe (credendi).

Because we are a community who pray what we believe and who bring our belief to prayer, the disruption of prayer will have an impact on the belief.

When we pray online and reduce Mass to spiritual communion for the viewer the potential danger is to extenuate the clerical aspect of Mass and formalise visual participation as “sufficient” for belief.

When a family prays a “lay eucharist” at home they exclude the presbyterial ministry. In both instances, the disruption to the community has changed our behaviours and along with it our presumptions of authentic liturgical prayer and ministry.

The foundational disruption to the communitarian aspect of lex orandi/lex credendi will show itself in accommodations to “liturgical masks” and “liturgical distancing”.

Such accommodations have the potential to move the physical celebration of liturgy from “we” to “I”, thereby returning worship to a privatised, or self-isolated ritual action.

Thus, the most significant disruption to liturgy is the disruption of the physical community and the most important innovation to the liturgy are the new ways of being a liturgical community.

I suggest, the disruption-innovation to communal prayer (lex orandi), will likely impact not only the church’s communitarian framework but also its presumptions of authentic ministry.

Liturgical innovation – future changes

The disruption-innovation of the COVID-liturgical period can only be sketched.

Liturgical history shows that naming disruptors is not easy because liturgy evolves over a longer timeframe and generally does not anticipate social and cultural shifts, it reflects them.

However, liturgy’s formal struggles with adaptation and innovation are always related to changes in behaviours and theological contexts.

If we are to benefit from the disruption-innovation to the community we are creating, I suggest understanding this current change will require a more sophisticated concept of the church as people in God and worship as people in God at prayer.

It will require a higher level of ecclesial leadership and a much higher calibre of liturgical leadership and insight than we have seen recently from Vatican departments.

The disruption to the physical community is greater than online, virtual worship and the effects on who we worship with, who we are as Christian people and, ultimately where we belong, remain to be considered.

Additional reading

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