A friend of mine saw that I was reading a book called Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan, looked at me curiously and said, “Why in the world are you reading that?”
“You don’t approve?” I asked. “Don’t you use liturgy in your church?”
“So the basic elements of worship change radically from week to week? Like this Sunday you aren’t sure if there’ll be any singing, or if there will be a sermon, or an offering, or anything?”
“Well, we always sing, and we always have a sermon…”
“It sounds like you have a liturgy, then. The question is how well it functions. That’s why I’m reading this book.”
“I still don’t think I like liturgical worship.”
My friend’s reservations about liturgy are somewhat widespread among evangelicals, it seems, especially among Boomers and those who attend “free” or charismatic churches.
It’s a fair question, though: Is there enough room in liturgical worship for the spontaneous movements of the Spirit? If we’re going to think more deeply about our forms of worship and seek to mold them into more effective and biblical liturgies, are we going to sacrifice the ability to “flow with the Spirit?”
A couple points here: Like I pointed out above to my friend, even the most “unstructured” services have a basic form that rarely varies from week to week. To simply acknowledge this is to come a long way toward seeing the legitimacy of liturgical worship. The real issue is whether that form conforms to the biblical norm of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Chan says that “The church’s liturgy, far from being an attempt to domesticate the Spirit, is simply an attempt to be faithful to the christologically and pneumatically shaped revelation” and “a normative liturgy is large enough to incorporate the charismatic dimensions of worship.”
Practicing a normative liturgy can be a good way of assuring that worship doesn’t simply become swayed by the whims or “pet doctrines” of leaders, or worse, simply the most recent “fashions” in music and pop culture. A liturgy can ground us the full spectrum of biblical revelation so we aren’t unbalanced in our spiritual growth.
But leaders will have to be patient and resist the temptation to look for immediate results. The liturgy forms us deeply, but it takes consistent, regular practice over a long period of time to do its work. I’m reminded of a story my colleague Ron tells about getting impatient with some carrots he planted as a child. One by one, he’d pull them up to see if they were “done yet.” He didn’t end up with any carrots that summer. Leaders are in the same boat when it comes to implementing a normative liturgy in their services. You probably won’t see “results” for a few months or years. You’ll also need to give people an adequate understanding of what is going on so they can participate actively.
“If the normative liturgy is to have formative effect, it needs to be correctly understood, deeply appreciated and consistently practiced.”