Every church is “liturgical.” The question is what our current liturgy is actually DOING, and if that is aligned with God’s vision for his church.
I first began dreaming about planting a church back in 2005, partly because I was beginning to see some weaknesses in the stuff we did on Sundays every week.
We were a Vineyard-esque evangelical church, so we’d sing worship songs for 30 minutes or so, take an offering, hear some announcements, hear a sermon, and have a time of ministry (with more singing). Pretty much every week, that was the pattern.
Which was fine, but what I started noticing was that some of the people who seemed most actively engaged in the elements of our church service were also the least spiritually formed in the image of Christ.
Learning how to worship from dead people
Why the disconnect? I wondered. So I began to explore worship from a theological and historical perspective. (One of the most helpful books for me was Liturgical Theology, by Simon Chan, a Singaporean Pentecostal pastor and theologian.)
I was floored by the fact that Christian worship has had a certain “shape” for most of its existence. I had always viewed these traditions with suspicion, but now I was starting to recognize that there might be some ancient wisdom to them!
As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
People who knew me freaked out a little when I started voicing these thoughts. 😉
Liturgy? Like smells and bells, right?
I remember one conversation with a Christian friend who was the head roaster at a local coffee shop I frequented. He and I liked to talk theology and church quite a bit, because I broke his paradigm of what “charismatic” Christians were like.
He noticed the book I was reading, and exclaimed, “Liturgical theology?! Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
I was feeling a little cheeky, so I answered him with a question of my own, “What, is your church not liturgical?”
“No, we don’t believe in all that hocus pocus!” he said.
“So you guys do something completely different every single Sunday? You just make it up as you go?” I asked.
“And people never know when you’re going to meet? Sometimes it’s a Thursday night, other times a Sunday morning? And sometimes you preach sermons but other times to read Tom Clancy novels?”
“No, we meet on Sunday mornings, and I guess we do pretty much the same kinds of things week to week, songs, prayers, Scripture, sermons.”
“Then your church is liturgical,” I told him.
“Well, we don’t do those rote prayers where everyone says the same thing together…” he said.
“But when you sing, aren’t you singing the same lyrics together at the same time? Don’t you sometimes repeat a chorus? Or do people spontaneously do whatever pops into their minds at any given time?” I asked.
“Well, no. We all sing when it’s time to sing. And we all listen when the sermon happens. I see what you’re saying,” he smiled, “but I still don’t like liturgy!“
That conversation highlights the frustration I had been experiencing when I tried to talk about what I was learning and envisioning for a church.
I was trying to talk about the shape of our worship, and how it forms our character over time. But everyone else heard me talking about a personal preference.
“Some people like smells and bells,” the thinking goes, “Other people like happy-clappy choruses. Let’s have all different kinds of worship services for all the different preferences people have!”
Liturgy isn’t about preference
But as long as we keep looking at worship services through the lens of individual preference, we remain blind to the consumeristic ideology at work behind that assumption!
Liturgy is NOT about preference – it’s part of a series of much larger questions that rarely get asked.
The conversation has to be elevated from quibbling about personal taste to recognizing what the church IS, and what worship is FOR.
[tweet “The ‘liturgy’ conversation has to be elevated to talking about what the church IS, and what worship is FOR.”]
Since every church has a pattern to their worship, every church is liturgical. Liturgy isn’t about preference, it’s just inevitable.
The choice isn’t liturgical vs. non-liturgical. The choice is good liturgy vs. bad liturgy. And there’s no way to evaluate that unless we know what the church is, and what worship is for.
Bigger questions need to be answered
Most evangelical churches can’t really answer this question. This is what I mean when I say that most evangelical churches have no ecclesiology. Their Sunday morning services are purely functional, designed mainly to attract people so they can hear a message about how to be saved, so the church can “grow.”
Unto what? That’s the question these churches can’t answer. The organization exists to sign people up for heaven and get bigger. We just assume that’s good.
There’s no real telos to any of it… the “church” ends up merely being the team that keeps the “salvation machine” running. We churn out decisions and recruit people to the team so we can churn our more decisions and make the team bigger.
Again, UNTO WHAT? That’s the question an ecclesiology would be able to answer.
Every church is a liturgical church. The question isn’t whether or not we should “go liturgical” but rather what does our current liturgy actually do? What assumptions lie at the heart of it? How is it forming our theology and character over time?
Simon Chan says, “Bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church.”
[tweet “Bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church.”]
We can’t determine what liturgy is good what is bad unless we know what the church IS. Once we know what the church IS, then we can know what worship is FOR, so we can craft liturgy that forms us in that direction.
Those are the topics of the next couple posts.
- What IS the church? (the ecclesiology question)
- What is worship FOR? (the liturgical question)
Until then, I’d love to hear what your responses! Do you think of liturgy as a preference or style? Do you feel like you can answer the ecclesiological question? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!
Well I guess I feel a little more secure now in singing whatever words I want during worship. U0001f601
Ryan Flanigan says
Great post, Ben! I think of liturgy as story, structure, and style (in that order). Contextualizing style is important, but liturgy has much less to do with individual preference than most Western Christians think. And yes, I do believe my tradition has a 500-year-old answer to the ecclesiological question. 😉 I very much look forward to the next two posts.
Steve Earnshaw says
Some time ago when visiting several churches other than my own I noticed that I don’t feel very worshipful if I don’t know the words to the songs or where to find the right prayer in the prayer book. I actually felt some anxiety. For this reason I question the wisdom of making the worship service the main entry point into the church. It works if the people are somewhat familiar with church, but if not, I can only imagine what they are thinking. No matter what style of worship they are visiting for the first time probably seems pretty odd.
I’m interested to read what you have to say about the purpose of worship because even though I spend most of my energy on the worship service, as a pastor I’m not sure its the best use of my time and energy. It really is what people who attend the church expect though.
Steve Earnshaw Lots to talk about there, Steve! I’ll talk more about it, but I think that because we don’t really know what the church is, we have turned Sunday morning into an “attractional” event whose only purpose is to get people to “like” the church and stick around and maybe get baptized (but because we don’t have an ecclesiology, we don’t really know what being baptized means, besides “committing” to come to Sunday services and tithe!).
Ely Cartwright says
Thanks for this post. It articulates well the tension I’ve felt in evangelical/charismatic circles over my time in the church. As much as I love and appreciate what I’ve learned there, there is often a big disconnect from our Christian heritage and tradition. Words like theology and liturgy are received with eye rolls, sighs, and those of us using the words become the church egg-heads. Really, we all just need to think about what it is we’re actually doing.
Much of what you’ve said here (and will probably expand on in your follow-up posts) reminds me of James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom”. It’s worth checking out for anybody who’s found this post stirring, as I have.
@Ely Cartwright thanks Ely! (Sorry about the late response – realizing my comment plugin never notifies me when someone comments. Gotta change it I think!).
I have read ‘Desiring the Kingdom,’ and I agree it is a really helpful way of framing the WHY of liturgical practice – thinking through how our desires are being shaped and formed over time toward the kingdom… rather than worship practices capitalizing on our current desires in order to instill loyalty or “convince” people or some such thing.
@Ryan Flanigan Thanks for commenting, Ryan! Sorry for the late reply – realizing my commenting plugin completely fails to notify me when someone comments… we’ll see how I do on the eccesiology post! Still navigating my way through what it means to be an Anglican, so I’ll try to mostly avoid heresy 😉
@Ryan Flanigan AND by they way, I love the “story/structure/style” framework. Are we faithfully enacting the gospel story? Are we structuring it in a gospel-ly way? Are we contextualizing style so as to communicate most effectively?