In defense of the Liturgy

Having spent 30 years wandering among various evangelical camps (referring to the “new” evangelicals, not the more broad definition that would include Lutherans, the first group to call themselves “evangelical”), I know that most Western Christians today suffer from a historical myopia, and are largely ignorant about the rest of the Church. There are many Christians who think they know about the liturgical church, but what they know is not only very small, some of it is more myth than truth. The Western Evangelical church, speaking in general terms, is not only myopic, but often adds arrogance to their ignorance. This is not true of everyone, obviously, but I’ve witnessed it on many of the evangelical blogs I have visited, as have witnessed it first-hand, not only by common-class Christians, but also by Pastors, who of all people should know better.  One of the more common issues concerns the liturgy itself, which is often seen as dry, lifeless, and lacking in any kind of personal spirituality. There’s an old joke that liturgy is there in case the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up. However, nothing can be further from the truth.

One of the primary complaints about liturgy is that everything is scripted for you; there is no room for spontaneity. This is, of course, true for the most part, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Neither is it that different from the typical non-liturgical church.  Most evangelical churches that I have attended follow the same basic format each week, so after the first couple of visits you pretty much know what is happening from then on.  For the first section of the service, there is music, whether a half hour of choruses, or a combination of performance and congregational singing. None of the songs are written by you, or chosen by you; that’s up to whoever is in charge. The words to the songs are all written down for you, whether in a hymnal or displayed on the big screen; unless you’re the worship leader, you have no ability to alter them.  At some point, there are announcements, probably an offering, and a sermon.  There’s probably an ending song of some sort, then you go home.  It doesn’t sound that spontaneous, does it?  Not only that, you really didn’t get to do much. Church is performed by professionals, for you.

The major difference between liturgical and non-liturgical worship is not that things are written down for you; the difference is in the content. I got tired of singing 30-40 minutes of songs, most of which contained little or no truth about God. Many of the songs express the personal feelings and experiences of the songwriter, and can’t possibly represent either universal truth or the feelings of everyone in attendance.

In a liturgical church, you would sing songs, all of which contain serious theological truths. You would confess that you are a sinner, acknowledge your forgiveness, recite one of the creeds, and pray a few well-conceived prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer.  Everything in the liturgy applies to everyone, at every time. Some of the liturgy actually dates back to the 4th Century, and the same words and thoughts have been said thousands of times by millions of Christians down through the ages. Besides being universally true, the liturgy connects us to the historical church (another element that is completely missing in most non-liturgical churches).

Besides that, you would have heard the Bible read, not just proof-texts to support the pastor’s sermon, but read with the intent of letting the Word impact you. You’d hear from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospel. There would be a short sermon based on one of the Scripture texts, and then you’d celebrate the Eucharist (i.e. communion). The entire service – with the exception of the 10 minute sermon and perhaps some special music by the choir – is participatory.

The liturgy is, in effect, a play, in which the pastor has a role (celebrant), as does everyone else; it is a dramatic reenactment of the Gospel. When you attend a liturgical worship service, you do not go to sit, you go to participate.  And, because the liturgy is so intentional, scripted and theologically sound, there’s very little a pastor/priest can do to hijack the service. It doesn’t matter if he has an off day; the liturgy remains as always. In fact, in a liturgical church, the pastor is easily replaceable, with little effect. And, you never have to worry about whether the pastor will have anything meaningful to say. In liturgical churches, it’s not about the sermon. The content is in the liturgy itself. If you pay attention to the liturgy, the truth will amaze you, and there will be no doubt that the Holy Spirit is present.  Furthermore, how you feel isn’t important. It’s not about how well you worshiped, or whether you felt spiritual; in fact, the point of the liturgy is that it isn’t dependent upon you at all.

There are scores of evangelicals, including seminary professors, who are joining the liturgical churches as they, too, are drawn toward the truth and power of the liturgy.  For a little more on what liturgy is all about, here is a nice little article that sums it all up.

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