My very earliest memories of corporate worship are from the small Episcopal church my dad pastored in Clewiston, Florida, from the time I was born until I was three years old. I have fuzzy memories of the smells, the baptismal font, the rows of wooden pews, and everyone standing up and holding books in their hands. I mostly drew in coloring books and/or ate Cheerios.
When I was a teenager, God’s call on me to serve the Church as a worship leader became increasingly clear. Since that time, I’ve only ever served in liturgical Anglican churches, with the same kinds of smells, baptismal fonts, wooden pews, and books in people’s hands. And while a lot has changed in the way corporate worship looks and sounds, the liturgy has mostly remained the same. There have been revisions here and there, different rites, liturgies from other parts of the world, and certainly many controversies, but by and large, the liturgy that guides the weekly worship of my particular branch of the protestant Church looks remarkably similar to how it did decades ago.
Liturgy has become more popular in recent years, so much so that now even many of my Baptist and non-denominational friends openly embrace the word, want to employ various liturgical elements in their services, and see its value. I think we all recognize that every church has a liturgy, after all. From the highest of high churches to the lowest of low churches, we have patterns, routines, traditions, and ways of doing things that end up becoming our liturgy. With that recognition comes a right and good (I just threw in a liturgical phrase for my Anglican nerd friends) desire to make sure our liturgy is intentional, rooted, pastoral, biblical, and effective in shaping people week after week with the good news of the Gospel through its pattern, structure, and substance.
For those of us who employ elements of a more traditional liturgy in our services, it’s worth asking the question from time to time, what should our liturgy aim to do? And on the flip side, what should our liturgy NOT aim to do?
On the positive side, a more traditional liturgy should aim to do a number of things:
Keep us rooted. Psalm 145:4 says “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” By sharing a liturgy that stretches back hundreds of years, we allow generations that have gone before us to commend God’s work and mighty acts to us now.
Keep us telling a story. It’s tempting for pastors and/or worship leaders to get stuck on their own hobby horses, their own favorite topics, and their own musical styles. A more traditional liturgy can keep us in the habit of telling a story when we gather, with a robust diet of Scripture, creeds, and prayers.
Keep us responding. We hear who God is, and we respond in confession. We hear that we are forgiven in Christ, and we respond with praise. We hear God’s his Word, and we respond in proclaiming what we believe. We hear the story of our redemption, and we respond with thanksgiving. The whole service is a dance of revelation and response, and revelation and response again.
Keep us focused on Jesus. The best thing liturgy can do is point us away from ourselves and to the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. For example, the Church Year itself, from Advent to Pentecost, annually walks us through the story of God’s redemptive plan through Jesus’ coming, living, dying, rising, ascending, and sending of His Spirit. For a forgetful people who are prone to wander, the insistence of liturgy to point us to Jesus is a great gift.
But on the flip side, there are a number of things liturgies of any kind shouldn’t aim to do.
Impress God. This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways: our liturgy does not impress God. The beauty of our worship, excellence of our music, smells of our incense, or modernity of our technology does not impress God. We do not employ liturgy to impress God, we employ liturgy because it’s a gift from God to help us worship God. We worship God, not liturgy. God accepts our praise through Christ, not through a formulation of beautiful words.
Impress people. Liturgy is the plate, but God is the feast. It would be ridiculous for me to ask guests at my home to eat the plate on which I serve them their food. It’s similarly ridiculous for us to ask worshippers to be impressed with our liturgy. When our liturgy becomes the feast, we’ve got it all wrong. God is the feast, and we feast upon him in his Word. Liturgy is just another tool to help people “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s living and active Scripture.
Impart faith. Saying the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed will not impart faith upon those who recite it. Saying ancient prayers will not cause a person to mean them. Listening to the words explaining the meaning behind communion will not bring a person to put their trust in Jesus. Over time, these liturgical elements may certainly help a person make sense of their faith, learn some helpful patterns of prayer, and understand what communion is all about. But liturgy should never be expected to impart faith upon people simply by being included in a service for years in a row.
Enliven stale services. The old saying goes “the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart”. That goes for worship services too. Simply tinkering with different factors – like musical styles, service times, set design, and liturgy – will not enliven stale services. Those factors are all very much secondary. The factor of first importance is the heart. The human heart is only ever truly satisfied by the One for whom it was created to glorify and enjoy. We start with the heart: helping people see, savor, sing, and celebrate the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to us even more clearly.
Then our liturgy will be seen in its proper place: as a tool that we can use as much or as lightly as needed, keeping the main thing the main thing, serving those people in our pews every Sunday, even the little kids with their coloring books and Cheerios.