A Liturgical Worship Service
In our part of the country liturgical worship service is fairly unfamiliar to evangelicals. The word liturgical should conjure up a service where the pastor and congregation recite, pray, sing, and read printed texts. But the word itself refers to anytime a congregation does the same thing at the same time. It may be memorized, announced as it goes along, or unpublished; if there’s a form that everyone is supposed to do unison, you have liturgy.
The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia, which means “work of the people.” Our worship together is cooperative participation; worship is not a spectator event. In contrast to our culture where we have constant opportunity to be entertained by performers, Protestant worship entails each member of the body worshipping the Triune God. The 16-17thcentury Reformers fought especially for this reform so that the people could worship and not simply stand by while someone worshipped vicariously for them. It’s a pity that so many Protestants have surrendered this communal aspect of worship in preference to sitting by while the “worship team” sings another song.
Objections to a Liturgical Service
Popular culture increasingly equates informality (“just being real”) with sincerity. Most evangelicals believe that formal settings tend to be insincere, and if you just show up in jeans, stutter through your prayers, and address God as your daddy, then you’re being sincere and that God honors that more than anything else. For this reason, some people see a church with a formal liturgy (robes, readings, and corporate hymns and prayers) as less authentic and call it “dead orthodoxy”. But what would make formal liturgy more prone to insincerity than informal liturgy? I would argue that while formal liturgy may yield insincere worship, informal worship is just as likely to yield insincere worship.
Many find a formal liturgy very helpful for this very reason: we know we are sinful and our hearts are prone to be thinking about the tennis championship happening on TV at home, scribbling out a week’s to do list, doodling a grocery list on the bulletin, or wondering why the transmission fluid is leaking. We recognize the sinfulness and weakness of man and understand the need we have to keep our hearts and minds directed to the work before us: worship. Liturgy directs us to actively participate in worship.
Some have objected to saying prescribed words. “But those aren’t my words!” Our culture places a premium on spontaneity and improv (or at least the appearance of it!) Take for example the fact that American presidents used to stand behind a podium with a paper and read speeches from a piece of paper. Now, however, we have teleprompters that give the appearance that he’s speaking to us “from the heart” or “off the cuff.” The same has occurred in the pulpit. For the majority of Christian history, pastors wrote their sermons and read them. Contrast that to the Palm Pilots and PowerPoint presentations. Despite this change in delivery, the truth remains that faithful sermons grow out of careful study, writing, and delivery, all led by the Spirit.
Life doesn’t give us the opportunity very often to read words aloud together anymore. And the fact that we are unfamiliar with the practice doesn’t necessarily make it less real or felt. Contrast this example of an informal, extemporaneous prayer with a formal prayer.
Dear Father of mercy, according to your promise of the power of the gospel and your Spirit, grant us love for our neighbors and even our enemies. For we know in Christ that you were reconciling the world to yourself, not counting our trespasses against us, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Lord, we just ask that you would just help us reach out and love the people around us. We just want you to know that we love you.
While you might be more used to hearing people talk in the informal register with lots of “just’s” and simple words, remember worship is not about how you feel or what you think sounds real, but the One who is being worshipped. Which words help you as a worshipper to focus on the nature of God, His holiness, His power, and His salvation? Often times when we’re called on to pray extemporaneously, the words fly out of our heads. How much more helpful is it to have written prayers to teach our hearts so that even when our minds race or we’re put into a dire situation, the words we’ve taught them return (like Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer).
Lastly, many object that worship is just a matter of style or personality preference. One of Evangelicalism’s favorite clichés has been that we need to “change the method without changing the message.” I don’t question the intention; I question the idea. Is it true? Can forms (or methods) be changed willy nilly with no net effect to the message? Of course not. There’s a big difference between the Goodyear blimp trailing a marriage proposal and a text message, “ U marry me?” Message affects method. Method affects message.
Scripture doesn’t contain a full worship service. We find parts, however, and at every point they are antiphonal (one person saying something and the congregation responding), corporate speaking preferred over monologues, group over individual, repetitious over inventive, doctrinally dense over charming, declarative over conversational, historical over “one time back in college…”, and God-centered over man-centered.
Another great benefit is that our focus can become more Trinitarian. Specifically, the Holy Spirit will not be ignored. This “quiet” person of the Trinity is essential for making the preached word understandable to us, the sacraments effectual to us, and testifying with us that we are indeed children of God. Yet, we typically worship addressing, praising, and acknowledging Father and Son. In addition, liturgy leads us to focus on Christ, and not on ourselves. If you have children, they will quickly learn (even if they don’t read!) to participate in the worship of God. We would do well to help them participate as soon as they are able. Also, without prior thought and planning, incorporating a lot of Scripture into worship is difficult. A liturgical service is well-suited for God’s word to reign supreme.
At the expense of not being the trendiest or most popular, we believe and practice these liturgical forms because we believe they are scriptural. Besides being an effective method for conveying the richness of God’s redemption of His people, creating greater opportunities for congregational involvement, and helping alleviate the burden of paying attention in our weakness, liturgical service ensures that we can be more biblical and Trinitarian in our worship than we might be ordinarily.
We recognize that a liturgical service can be a very new and unfamiliar experience for many people. Some have had bad experiences (or heard other people’s bad experiences) and have prejudged based on that. We invite you to participate in a corporate worship with us for a few weeks and see what you think. We’d be happy to answer any of your questions about it.
The next article in this series is Clothing in Worship (Why Does the Pastor Wear a Robe).