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.

Thinking Surgically When Leading Liturgically

Every church has its own liturgy.

Some forms of liturgy are obvious: a book of common prayer, a prescribed order of service, processionals, the creeds, collects (corporate prayers in unison), the church year (i.e. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary time), etc.

Some forms of liturgy are less obvious: the worship leader always starts the service by inviting people to stand, the sermon is at the end, the announcements are before the sermon, we sing upbeat songs then sing slower songs, etc.

So here’s fact number one: There is no such thing as a non-liturgical church. Some are more so than others, but every church has its own customs, its own traditions, and its own normal pattern for corporate worship.

But there is a big difference between what a non-denominational service looks like when compared to a Presbyterian service. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that some services are fairly loose and informal, while other services are more structured and formal.

And in those churches that employ a more liturgical form of corporate worship are worship leaders who are struggling with how to work within those constraints. It’s a struggle. There isn’t as much wiggle room and freedom in a highly liturgical church as there is in a “non-liturgical” church (although even those churches do have liturgy).

Here’s fact number two: it’s more difficult to lead worship in the context of a formal liturgy.

That’s a bold statement, I know. But I believe it’s true. Every church presents its own challenges, and every worship leader faces different circumstances. But speaking specifically to the exercise of leading people in corporate worship in song: it’s harder to do within the confines of formal liturgy.

I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. Every Sunday of my life, from birth through my sophomore year of college, the service format was a by-the-book (Book of Common Prayer, that is) Holy Communion service. I know the book. I know the liturgy. And I’ve learned to love the liturgy, and see its structure not as being a constraint on my worship leading, but as providing scaffolding on which I can stand.

These next several posts are geared entirely toward people who lead worship in a church that utilizes a more formal liturgy. If you’re in a more informal church, you might not find a lot that applies to you. But if you serve in a church where the pastors are called priests, the lobby is called a narthex, your board of elders is called a Vestry, your green room is called a sacristy, your stage is called the chancel, your opening song is called a processional, you have hard-covered books of common prayer/common worship in the pews (not seats), and you know what a Sanctus is, then I hope you find some of what I have to say helpful.

So while I do believe that it’s more difficult to lead worship in the context of a formal liturgy, I want to encourage those of you who do, and help you thrive within the confines (and know when they can be broken out of).

I’ve titled this series: “thinking surgically when leading liturgically”. It’s a clever name and it rhymes, but I hope it makes a point. And that’s fact number three: you can work with the liturgy to make a service come alive.

It takes careful and prayerful planning. It takes getting familiar with the liturgy. It takes some boldness. And it takes knowing when to tinker and when not to tinker. But it can work. Liturgy doesn’t have to be a force of lethargy and robotic deadness in your services.

Your congregation can experience vibrant, Christ-centered worship in a liturgical setting. It’s more difficult, but it’s possible. Trust me. Tomorrow we’ll start looking at how.

What To Do With The Sanctus

I can’t be absolutely certain, but I would say it’s a safe bet that there has never before been a blog post with this title in the history of the internet.

The “Sanctus” (rhymes with bonk-toos) is the song that appears in the communion liturgy after the opening call-and-response prayer that goes something like:

Celebrant: The Lord be with you
People: And also with you.
Celebrant: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them to the Lord.
Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Celebrant: It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Then we sing the Sanctus (“Sanctus” is Latin for “holy”). The text for this song is something along the lines of:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

If you lead worship in a church that is either nondenominational or fairly informal in its liturgy, you might not use this kind of liturgy for communion. But if you’re in a liturgical church, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

And whether you do communion every week or once a month, you might find yourself asking the question: “what do I do with the Sanctus?”

There are many different settings of the Sanctus in various hymnals, but if you’re like me, not many of them are all that appealing. Because of this, it can be tempting to stick with the one good setting of the Sanctus that you have and use it every single time. When this happens, the Sanctus can get to be predictable, rote, and boring.

Worship leaders who lead in the context of a liturgical church can work within the confines of that liturgy to help introduce and maintain a freshness and heartfelt engagement on the part of the congregation.

In this instance, with a song that can easily become robotic, we can use different settings and even different wording to help keep people engaged. The “Sanctus” is meant to be a song during which we join in with the song that all of heaven is singing around the throne. Whether or not we use the exact text as is in the Book of Common Prayer or use a beautiful melody shouldn’t be our primary concern. Rather, our concern should be stirring people to exalt and magnify God as we sing with all of heaven.

Here are the four songs I draw from to use as a Sanctus.

1. Holy, Holy, Holy Lord (Hosanna) by Peter Scholtes
This is an older one – but with some energy it still works well. Every recording I’ve heard of this song is pretty slow. I do it faster, around 100 bpm.

2. Salvation Belongs to Our God by Adrian Howard
Technically, this isn’t a “Sanctus” because it doesn’t have the traditional wording. But, when you use the first verse and chorus, it fits really well in the liturgy. Coming after the celebrant says “therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels… and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn…” it works well to sing straight from Revelation 7:10,12: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb!

3. We Fall Down by Chris Tomlin
Again, this isn’t the traditional Sanctus text, but it still fits well. “We fall down, we lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus… and we cry ‘holy, holy, holy’ is the Lamb”.

4. Be Unto Your Name (chorus only) by Lynn DeShazo and Gary Sadler
Holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Highest praises, honor and glory be unto Your name”.

Typically, the Sanctus isn’t a very long song. It lasts for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, and then the liturgy continues. So don’t repeat these very much, if at all, unless your pastor is OK with extending that portion of the liturgy.

It’s hard to find good settings of the Sanctus. Hopefully these suggestions help if you’re looking for some new ones, and please feel free to share any that I’ve missed!