Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically: Owning It

My wife makes the most delicious chocolate chip cookies.

But she hasn’t always.

At one point in her life, I’m sure when she was first starting out (before I ever met her), she made some mistakes. She put too much flour in. Not enough sugar. She didn’t bake them long enough. They came out too hard. They came out too soft.

But now, they’re always perfect. Really. I wish you could taste them.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that she no longer looks at the recipe. She’s made them for me enough times that she knows the recipe by heart. In other words, she “owns” the recipe. It’s hers. It not just written down somewhere, but she knows it well and has made her own adjustments to it to make the cookies taste just right.

No one likes eating a bad cookie. When you look at it and pick it up it has such promise. Your mouth begins watering. Then you bite into it and are filled with disappointment.

It’s not the cookie’s fault that it tastes bad. It could be the person who wrote the recipe, or the person who didn’t read the recipe correctly, or the person who left them in the oven too long. But you can’t blame the cookie itself.

A good cookie is a work of art. It’s a thing of beauty. It’s something that satisfies whoever eats it. It’s the fruit of a good baker who knows his or her way around a kitchen and who owned the recipe to the point of deliciousness.

The same principle applies to liturgy.

You’ve got to own it for it to be really good.

You’ve got to get enough experience and familiarity with the different recipes and ingredients that you can put it all together and make it delicious. A worship leader is like a baker: you want to feed people something good, something Gospel-filled, something long-lasting, and you have different ingredients to work with.

Depending on your denomination/culinary style, you’ll have some ingredients that are required and some that are optional.

In my setting, in a communion service, we must follow a certain order, have a certain number of readings (one of which is the gospel reading), a sermon, prayers, offering, communion liturgy (four prayers to choose from), and closing prayer (two prayers to choose from). Our prayer book makes clear what isn’t negotiable. If we are to tinker with any of those things, it’s our pastor’s call. He’s the head chef.

But there are other things that are optional. We can sing one opening song or four. We can have songs in between the readings or no songs at all. We can have the Nicene creed directly after the sermon, or go directly into a time of prayer. The offertory song can be congregational or an anthem. We can sing many different songs as a Doxology. I can have us say or sing a Psalm or other portion of scripture during the songs. We can sing special music during communion or hymns or newer songs.

Whatever kind of church you’re serving, you’ll be more effective the more comfortable you are with the recipes. Until you are, odds are that your liturgy isn’t going to be as satisfying as it could be. There is some bad liturgy and bad theology in every prayer book, but the more comfortable you are with it, the more you’ll be able to throw in other ingredients to offset the bad and make the final product more edifying.

Become well versed in whatever liturgy source from which your church draws. Look at the different types of services (i.e. morning prayer, evening prayer, Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, etc.) and look through old church bulletins to see what adaptions to the recipe have crept in. Maybe the adaptations are good. Maybe they’re not so good and you should revert back to the original!

You’ll usually find that the older versions of prayer books are more doctrinally sound than the newer. The newer the prayer book, the more watered-down and politically correct its theology, the less hard-hitting view of our sinful nature, the less central role Jesus holds, and the more wimpy its prayers. Look for versions of your church’s prayer books from 30, 50, 100 years ago, and in most cases you’ll find better ingredients and more trustworthy contributing chefs.

Last tip: pay special attention to the “mays”. As in, “a song may be sung” or “the Nicene creed may be omitted” or “the officiant may say”. It’s in these “mays” where you’ll find some wiggle room for “owning” the liturgy, making some adjustments, and keeping things from getting bland. No one likes eating a bad cookie. They deserve better.

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