Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: Recognizing the Danger

Some people love liturgy. They can’t get enough of the stuff. The more prayers, creeds, incense, call-and-response stuff, vestments, and pageantry the better.

I am not one of those people. I like a lot of it, but I also don’t like a lot of it. I’ve lived with it all my life so it’s lost its novelty with me. I see a lot of the good, but I also see a lot of the bad. 

Some things I like (in no particular order of importance).

  • The church year. I love how it tells the story of Jesus.
  • The liturgy for the burial of the dead (i.e. a funeral). I love how it starts off with the proclamation from the back of the room: “I am the resurrection and I am Life says the Lord…”
  • The Maundy Thursday service ending with the reading in darkness of Jesus’ arrest and betrayal while all of the adornments in the church are stripped away.
  • The Easter Vigil service where the service begins in darkness with songs and readings and prayers telling the story of redemption all the way from Genesis, culminating in the great Easter acclamation and a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
  • The Easter acclamation: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to which we reply “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
  • The prayer for purity.
  • The prayer of humble access.
  • The Gospel truth that is soaked through so much of the liturgy and prayers, to help protect the church from doctrinal error.

Some things I don’t like.

  • The robotic, monotonous, heartless repetition that it can instill in so many congregations. Amazing truths can be spoken and sung with so much familiarity that they don’t affect the heart.
  • “We can’t do ____ because the prayer book says we have to do ____.”
  • The elevation of tradition to a place of inerrancy that only Scripture should hold.
  • The pomposity that can accompany it.
  • The impression it gives that prayers should always (a) be fancifully worded and (b) professionally offered.

But if I had a choice to lead worship either at a totally non-liturgical church or a liturgical church for the rest of my life, I have to say I’d pick the latter. In spite of all the things about the liturgy that frustrate me, I think I would find myself longing for its structure after a while.

I’m in a bit of a dilemma with liturgy. I like it when it works. I don’t like it all the time. But in my church, it’s used nearly all the time, whether I happen to think it works or not!

Maybe you’re like me and you’re a liturgy-lite person. Maybe you’re the person I described who can’t get enough or it. Or maybe you can’t stand liturgy at all and just have to tolerate it.

Whatever your personal feelings for liturgy, there is a temptation that lurks: it becomes empty words, empty acts, empty rituals, empty movements, and empty prayers.

You might love liturgy or you might hate it. Or, like me, you might be confused about what you think about it. Regardless, if you’re not careful, and if your church’s leadership isn’t careful, it loses its power.

Good drivers know the dangers of driving. Good doctors know the danger of bad medicine. Good builders know the danger of their tools. Same principle applies for worship leaders. Good worship leaders know the danger of familiarity, i.e. liturgy.

So the first step towards “thinking surgically when leading liturgically” is to recognize its danger. Only then can you see its potential.

It’s not all wonderful (for those of you can’t get enough) and it’s not all terrible (for those of you who can’t stand it).

Liturgy is like a box of chocolates. Some bits of it are filled with tasty filling. Some bits are terrible. Too much of it will leave you in a coma.

The danger is that it all becomes empty. And that’s where you come in. More later.

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