Monday, June 27, 2011

We Are Liturgical Beings

We are liturgical beings. We operate with ceremony. We are creatures of habit, so we tend to do the same things in the same order. We may say that we are non-liturgical, that we don’t have a set pattern or style of worship, but we are lying to ourselves. Freemasonry. Graduations (from elementary school? Who are we kidding here?). Presidential inaugurations. Christening of ships. Weddings. College football pre-game traditions. Yes, we are liturgical beings. We operate with ceremony.

Consider the average “non-liturgical” church. We arrive a few minutes before the service is scheduled to begin, and we make our way to our seats. Usually the same seats, surrounded by the same people we sat next to last week, and the week before. And the week before that.

The service begins with an instrumental or choral prelude, followed by a greeting. Usually there are some announcements, the point of which is to get us to attend some other church function or give our time, money, or talents to help some cause. Depending on the size of the church and the variety of ministries offered, this can take some time as each ministry tries to convince the others that theirs is Very Important.

Next is a prayer of some type, usually aimed at helping us to worship. Then the band begins to play. A loud, happy-clappy song to help break the ice, followed by a slower (but still peppy) song about how much we love Jesus, and then a slow one about how we worship Jesus or we want Jesus to hold us or something.

Then we have the pastor come on the stage. He is young and hip (or at least trying to be). He is dressed in skinny jeans and a tee shirt that may or may not be “Christian”. His hairdo is wild, and he may even have an odd hair color, like purple or fire truck red. He assures us that we are all welcome, and then prays a nice, long prayer full of “Father God...” and “We just wanna...”. After he finishes, he steps to the side as a movie clip is played on the screen, which has some significance to what he is going to talk about. As the lights come back up, he grabs his stool and sits at his tall, round table and starts to explain some passage of Scripture, making it relevant for today’s culture. He tells everyone what to write in the blanks of the provided helpful sermon notes. The three main points either rhyme or, more often, use alliteration.

After the talk (or sermon, if you want to call it that), the band comes back up and plays a slow song so that people can come down to the front and pray. The preacher may give an “altar call”. As the song comes to a close, the people return to their seats and the pastor talks for a moment about why we need to give to this ministry. He probably will say a prayer of some sort, asking God to bless the gifts and the givers. The ushers come and pass baskets down the rows of seats so people can put their donations in. As they are doing this, the band is playing an upbeat, happy song, and they’re encouraging people to stand up and get excited. Another song, louder and more exciting, is sung, and then the service is over. As people begin to leave, they talk about how meaningful and deep it was.

This happens week after week. The prayers may vary slightly, but remember that we are creatures of habit. We tend to say the same things, in the same way, in the same order, over and over again. We may pray something “off the cuff” once, but it quickly gets ingrained in our memories and we find ourselves in a rut. The problem with that is that we didn’t really stop to think about what we were saying in the beginning, so now whatever bad theology or poor wording we started with is now permanent.

We love to talk about how a “non-liturgical” type service is contemporary and hip and experiential, and best of all we can go where the Spirit leads! The problem is that we rarely do anything different, and when we do we get confused and want to go back to the way it was before. Because, again, we are creatures of habit.

Admittedly, I am exaggerating a bit. But not too much. The above is actually a description of a service I attended every week when I lived in Florence, Alabama.

Compare it to a classic Anglican worship service. The liturgy, taken from the Book of Common Prayer, has parts that are the same from week to week, parts that change from season to season, and parts that change weekly. There are many, many things going on in this type of service that we do not have room to discuss today. Things like colors, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch – it is filled with sensory elements. Which makes sense. We are sensory creatures, and it is natural that we would use all our senses in worship. It also has time and space for thought and contemplation. We live in a world in which we have grown afraid to listen to our own thoughts. We pump music into our ears with our mp3 players. We turn on the television and let it play in the background. We go from sensory stimulant to sensory stimulant, abhorring silence, abhorring deep, cohesive thought. We might feel guilty, or worse, realize we’re wrong about something.

The difference between the two extremes is that the prayers, the songs, the flow of the Anglican service is thought through. Each part of the service naturally fits into the whole. Which is not to say that contemporary styles are not thought through or that they don’t flow. It’s just that it is something that has been developed over centuries instead of a few days. Each part of the service has roots in the earliest Christian worship forms, which are directly related to Jewish worship forms. The idea that there is a lectionary, the way the church building is set up and furnished, and the way that there is a leader’s call and the peoples’ responses all find roots in the way Jesus worshiped at synagogue. Furthermore, there are many Christians using the same Scriptures and prayers on any given Sunday. We profess to believe in the Communion of Saints, that we believe that the Church is catholic (meaning universal, not necessarily Roman Catholic), and I believe it is important that we join Christians at all points in time in our common prayer and worship.

The Bible shows us a God that is an organized God. For instance, the creation accounts portray God as having a definite order and timeline for creating the earth and all that is on it. God had an order in the way he communicated his covenant with Abraham. God had an order in the way he wanted the tabernacle designed and furnished. Much later, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40). God is a God of order, not of chaos.

Contemporary styles of worship are not bad. God is not offended by contemporary worship. He wants our worship, and it is good that we have a diversity of styles, because we are a diverse people.

The problem comes in the depth, or lack thereof, in worship styles. See, God is a God of order, but God is also a God of growth. He loves us enough to meet us where we are, disregarding where we’ve been or what we’ve done. But he also loves us enough that he expects us to grow and change and put down deep roots. We’re like trees, really, just like the psalmist wrote in Psalm 1 about the righteous man: “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.” (v. 3). God wants us to grow deep roots in him, so that when the storms of life hit we will be well-grounded and will not be blown over and thrown. Liturgical worship helps us with this.

Liturgical worship does not stop at noon on Sunday. It is a way of life. It is fitting our lives to the pattern and rhythm of the liturgical calendar. It is allowing the symbols to work their way into our psyche. It is recognizing that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, that it is a means of grace, and because of that it is the greatest gift anyone can give to another person. It is using the daily, seasonal, and annual rhythms of prayer to help us draw closer to God. Living liturgically begins at home, and works its way into every fiber of our being.

My problem with contemporary styles is that it is so shallow. There is no real urge to change the way we live. There is no commitment beyond the weekly service time. Even the music we sing is shallow, having been written in such a way that you’re never quite sure if you’re singing about God or your boyfriend. There is no rhythm of time beyond what Hallmark tells us. There is no preparation for, and enjoyment of, times and seasons and festivals. Instead it is driven by popular society.

I prefer liturgy. I love the way it helps me to see God, to experience God using my five senses. I love how it becomes a lifestyle. I love how the symbols speak of God. I love how it is ordered and well thought-out. I love the way much prayer goes into writing prayers and other parts of the service.

Contemporary isn’t all bad. But worship needs to be so much more than happy-clappy feel good. Worship helps us remember that it’s not about you. It’s about what God can do in you and through you.


  1. Sorry to hear you've had a bad experience with evangelical-style services. Just because they call it "Spirit led" doesn't mean it is... there are other non-traditionally-liturgical service styles that exist that aren't as bad as that though.

  2. Found your blog through the Backpacking massageboard. I'm interested in your thoughts on liturgy, because I also transitioned out of the huge, contemporary evangelical churches I grew up in and am now preparing for ordination in a Reformed church with a more historic liturgy. We conscientiously embrace man's need of habit and stability, and feel there is great value in connecting with past expressions of worship. I love that we recite the Apostle's Creed weekly, have the traditional doxology and benedictions, and sings psalms and hymns dating to the third century. We also include more recent forms, so there is a sense of continuity in the march of the church through time. I wrote a short post on the subject, here:

    My pastor also wrote a book on the subject of Reformed liturgy, being biblical and catholic in nature, if you are interested:

    Thanks for sharing.

    — Michael Spotts:.