What is Liturgy?
Evangelicals and Liturgical Worship
Since the mid 1970s there has been a growing restlessness in many evangelical circles with the patterns of worship that had grown out of 19th century revivalism and camp meetings. That style of worship with heavy emphasis on evangelistic preaching, testimonies, extemporaneous prayer, emotionalism, and altar calls may have served the needs of the 19th century church well. But by the last quarter of the 20th century many evangelicals were looking for a deeper and richer worship experience and began leaving evangelical churches for the liturgical services in Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Catholic, or even Eastern Orthodox traditions.
In 1985 Robert Webber of Wheaton College published the book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (Word Books, now published by Morehouse) in which he brought this phenomenon to the forefront. He told the story of his and others’ journey into liturgical worship. He and the others identified six areas in which more liturgical worship ministered to them in ways that traditional evangelical worship did not: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecclesiastical home, and holistic spirituality (pp. 15-16).
This trend of which Webber made us aware in the mid 1980s has continued to increase today. Even with the advent and popularity of "seeker sensitive," contemporary, and "emerging church" approaches to worship, there remains a growing trend among evangelicals to seek a form of worship that is not only more meaningful and spiritually fulfilling than traditional evangelical services, but also that is connected to the ancient traditions of the Church. Many have found this in some form of liturgical worship.
For many evangelicals there remains a visceral aversion to even the mention of the word "liturgy." Many evangelicals, especially those who have grown up in more conservative or fundamentalist traditions, immediately associate "liturgy" with Roman Catholic, which evokes the religious prejudice that opposes "Catholic" to "Christian." For many in those traditions, to do anything "Catholic," which becomes a prejudicial label for anything different then how we do things, is the equivalent of abandoning Christianity.
And yet, as many of those same evangelicals mature in their Faith they are attracted to the aspects of worship that are lacking in their own traditional worship experiences. These include the elements of mystery in liturgical worship, the sacraments, the communal dimension of worship, the longing to move out of sectarianism and be part of the larger Church, the focus on Scripture and prayer, even things like incense and making the sign of the cross as a testimony to their own Faith.
As a result, many evangelical churches, even from very low-church traditions, are increasingly seeking to incorporate aspects of liturgical worship into their own worship. But this in itself has created somewhat of a dilemma, since many pastors and church leaders are not familiar with liturgical worship. There is some sense, beyond the bigotry, that they really do not want to become Catholic or Anglican. Yet, there are aspects of those traditions that are increasingly seen to have value in ministering to people in a contemporary culture and to fulfill the longing of many in evangelical churches for deeper worship.
Some harbor the misperception that liturgical worship is about chanting arcane music or mindless repetition of rituals. The reality is much different. Perhaps we need to identify the key features of liturgical worship as a start in examining what elements might be appropriated by evangelicals. To do that, we need to understand exactly what we are talking about in liturgical worship. What are the key elements of liturgical worship and how can they be adapted or blended with more traditional worship that derives from 19th century forms of worship?
A fully liturgical service has very recognizable elements, just like the various aspects of a service of worship in a mega-church, or a charismatic church, or an old-fashioned evangelical church. They may vary widely in application in different church traditions, but the basic elements remain the same. Short of writing a book, the most important liturgical elements are:
1. Communal prayer – This kind of prayer is one of the many interactive elements of the service and provides a place for the congregation to voice personally and corporately the life and needs of the Body in a service of worship. This kind of prayer is used throughout the service: to open the service and reflect on the lectionary for the day, in the pastoral prayer as the congregation shares their praises and prayers, and culminates in the communal prayers of the Eucharist and the closing prayer of the service. (See The Prayers of the People)
2. Reading/Hearing the Word – This is a spiritual discipline that takes the word of God in Scripture and allows it to stand on its own as a testimony to the Word of God in Christ. Depending on the type of service, there may not even be a sermon. But Scripture is always read out loud so that it can speak to the heart of God’s people. Most pastors and preachers, if they will admit it, understand that God doesn't really need any help from them to open the Scripture to His people, and so have no problem with the occasional services that don’t have any preaching. (See A Theology of Word and Table)
In the liturgical service the Lectionary scriptures are read. These usually consist of an Old Testament reading; a reading from the Psalms, often as a call to worship; an Epistle reading; and a Gospel reading. The three-year lectionary cycles focus around the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, with John used throughout all three years, expounding again and again on the message of the prophets, the life of Christ, and the gospel message. (See The Church Year)
3. A Response of Confession – This is the heart-response of the believer to the Holy Spirit working through the Word that is read in Scripture or proclaimed in preaching. It is also a spiritual discipline that encourages a humble heart before God and others as both corporately and individually the gathered people of God confess their shortcomings and sin before God.
4. Passing the Peace of Christ – The passing of the peace has come to be a greeting time in most churches, but really it has a much more profound and spiritual meaning. In the time of the passing of the peace we pause to bless the other person with a beautiful blessing: "The peace of Christ be with you." With this blessing we enact our priesthood of believers as we each bless each other, passing from person to person, speaking a true blessing on each one. The response is usually "And also with you," a reflexive blessing back to the person who has blessed you. Next to the Eucharist, there is no more beautiful expression in the worship service of the unity, forgiveness, and strength available in the midst of God’s Body.
5. Eucharist – The word Eucharist contains the meaning of gratefulness, thanksgiving, grace. It is a very accurate word naming this part of the worship celebration which depicts the very heart of the gospel. Around the table all can gather, all can come to Christ, all can enter into the glorious and mysterious presence of the Christ, right there at the table. When the table is opened to all, salvation can even take place as a result of God working through this great moment of table grace. Laying aside the arguments for or against a particular formulation of what the Eucharistic elements are or are not, The Kingdom of God can be seen at the Eucharistic table as no one is turned away from the table; there is "neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave or free", young or old, all are welcome at this celebration table of Christ.
6. Music - God gloriously created us to sing – and I have never been in a liturgical service where there wasn’t beautiful music of some form. Even in those services where the only instruments were the voice lifted in song, the beauty of hymnic and liturgical singing is unmatched by anything except classical music. In a full singing liturgy, the service itself would come to a standstill without the music. The lyrical and soul-stirring modern liturgy of Marty Haugen, the haunting chanting of Benedictine monks, the peaceful "Lord hear our prayer" sung in response to our spoken prayer requests, the transmission of deep theology through powerful hymns, all of the music in a liturgical service points towards one Person, using the one theme presented in the lectionary readings for that day.
7. The Church Year - The Church Year is a series of Holy Days and Seasons that mark the passage of time throughout a year-long cycle. The Christian calendar is organized around two major centers of Sacred Time: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; and Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word "ordinal," which simply means counted time (First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.). Ordinary Time is used to focus on various aspects of the Faith, especially the mission of the church in the world.
This sequence of seasons is more than just marking time; it is a structure within which the story of Jesus and the Gospel message is recounted throughout the year and people are reminded about the significant aspects of the Christian Faith. While not directly a part of most services of worship beyond Holy Days, the Christian Calendar provides the framework in which all worship is done.
These seven elements are each essential to a full liturgical service. Does that mean that in order to reap the benefits of "liturgical" worship one has to have every one of these elements in the weekly worship? No! As a matter of fact, if an evangelical pastor wanted to bring into their service some of these elements it would be quite easy to use just one or two to expand the depth of their service.
However, most of what people are talking about these days when they speak of "bringing the liturgical" into their church is not about changing over to a full liturgical service. Rather, it is about creating a deeper service that enables worshippers to experience the deep mystery of God in the service and also enable Christians throughout the week to recognize the rhythms and presence of God in all elements of their life.
This liturgical movement is also about returning to embracing the mystery of this great "I Am" in our spiritual lives and disciplines. For instance, many churches are using the season of Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) to remember the true meaning of Christmas and to counteract the commercialism and secularism that is bold in our society, and almost as bold in our churches. This would be a small start to bring in the benefits of liturgical worship into a service without going completely into a full liturgical service. (See A Service for The Hanging of the Christmas Green and A Service of the Nativity).
There are other smaller ways in which to introduce some aspects of liturgical worship. For example, the use of Colors of the Church Year in the sanctuary reminds people of the seasons of the Church Year. Banners in the sanctuary can also be geared to the seasons of the Church Year, and provide a visual lesson in the Gospel. Even something as simple as beginning to help people view the place of worship as sacred space and worship itself as sacred time will begin to introduce a different approach to how worship is conceptualized and thought about in the minds of worshippers, as well as worship leaders.
As the TV commercial says "Try it! You’ll like it!" – and I suspect most in the congregation will too.
The peace of Christ be with you . . .