Life and Liturgy

I am picking up where I left off a couple of weeks ago, talking about liturgical worship.   If you recall, I’ve gone through the entire Lutheran liturgy from the old “Red” 1958 Service Book and Hymnal, interspersed with a few other posts dealing with aspects of liturgical worship.  For those who may stumble across this post who haven’t read the whole thread, I was raised Lutheran, but have spent the last 30+ years in various non-liturgical churches, mainly in Vineyard churches, which are about as loose as you can get.  I began visiting Lutheran and Episcopalian churches over a year ago, and since last December I have regularly attended a large Episcopal Church.

I like it.  After years of “grab bag” worship, coming back to liturgy has been a Godsend, literally.  It has probably saved my spiritual life from near death – or at least a starved, tortured existence.  It’s not the mood, or the great music (St. Paul’s excels musically, which certainly doesn’t hurt).  Here are a few reasons why liturgical worship means so much to me:

Truth:  I’ve written on this before, but I realized some time ago that I was starving for truth; in most evangelical churches (using the term in its popular, narrow sense), truth is pretty much up for grabs.  You can object, but it’s true.  Week after week goes by singing worship songs that are often vague, existential and which focus on personal experience rather than on truth.  The Bible is read only as part of the pastor’s sermon, and it’s often doled out in fragments, often taken out of context, and often misused.  The Pastor’s point of view takes precedent over the plain truth of Scripture. No creeds are read; often, I wouldn’t know what a church believes just be attending on a Sunday morning.

With liturgical churches, all these issues are resolved.  You can’t possibly walk out of church not knowing who Jesus is. You may have other questions (which is good), but you’ll have the basics.

Intentionality: Nothing in a liturgical church is haphazard.  In fact, you’ve got nearly 2000 years of thought and intentionality behind what you’re doing, and it’s doctrinally rooted in history.  And, you’re not alone; you know that you are agreeing – in recitation of creeds, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper – with Christians throughout space and time.  Liturgy has a very solid feel to it, as it should.

Interactive Theater: The liturgy is participatory, interactive theater.  The priest, pastor or rector are not anyone but people filling a certain role.  The pastors are for the most part interchangeable; they may change, but the liturgy remains the same.  The people as well participate, reenacting the Gospel story every Sunday.

I liken it to the old “Rocky Horror” events where people would come in costume and say the lines along with the movie.  You can go sit and watch the professionals do church for you, or you can choose to join in.  That’s really what the liturgy is – it’s a chance to join in, in acting out the Gospel.

Incarnational Theology: The liturgy – especially the Lord’s Supper (aka communion, or Eucharist) – is empty without an incarnational theology. Perhaps that’s why so many evangelicals (again, using the term narrowly) think of it as ritualistic or the recitation of empty words.  Incarnational theology is essentially non-dualistic; that is, God is really present. As NT Wright has written, the worship service is a place where heaven intersects earth in a very real way. The valley of dry bones becomes the body when church gathers, and communion is more than just a memorial.  We don’t wait “for God to show up,” we just know that we experience the Real Presence.

Another aspect of liturgy is that the church’s theology, too, is rooted in history and anchored in the liturgy. The church is not blown too and fro from Sunday to Sunday as the pastor gets a new revelation.  This certainly won’t keep the pastor from throwing in random stuff in his sermons, but at least in liturgical settings, the sermon is positionally subservient to the Scriptures.

Humility: Humility is built in the liturgy, especially in Lutheran versions.  Church is first and foremost the gathering of saved sinners.  We celebrate the Eucharist because we need it.   The liturgy reduces everyone to their status as sinners, and then raises them up.

Today’s sermon was particularly interesting, using the text from Acts 10 where God tells Peter that nothing is unclean if God has declared it clean.  The Jewish Christians had forgotten that they were not the host of the banquet, but were merely guests as well, and God has every right to invite whoever he wants. The reminder to us was that we, too, are guests. This sums up the liturgical attitude well, I think.

Corporate: The liturgy acknowledges the existence of the Church Universal, and the corporate nature of the local body.  The fact that people stand, sit and kneel together and recite prayers together acknowledges in practice what we believe theologically.  The “do your own thing” worship totally contradicts the concept of corporate worship.

It’s Out of This World: High-church worship has an obvious other-worldliness to it, with the vestments, music, and ritual.  I personally am tired of going to churches where people don’t even bother to comb their hair.  I expect Heaven to look different than the mall… why shouldn’t church look different, too?

The Eye of the Storm: Lately I’ve come to think of Sunday as the true eye of the storm; it is not retreating from the storm, but taking refuge in the one and only safe place to be renewed and refreshed, to be sent back out.

In the evangelical world, it is common to ask things like, “how was church today,” and in the typical evangelical church context, the question makes sense. However, when I’m asked that now, it strikes me as quite odd, for “church” is no longer about anything that changes from week to week.  Church is always good, because the liturgy is good; that doesn’t change.  The sermon or music could be “off,” but that doesn’t impact “church.”  It’s always good.  (I will make an exception, as I’ve visited churches who play around with the liturgy to try to make it more contemporary or “relevant.”)

I am not saying that liturgical worship is the only way to worship God; that would be ridiculous. However, if I were to correct the defects and gaps that I see in many chuches, I would add in many of the elements which have been a part of Christian worship for hundreds and hundreds of years.  I suspect the inclusion of a few of these elments could revitalize the evangelical church.

5 thoughts on “Life and Liturgy”

  1. It’s an old, 2009 posting, I know, but I’m just discovering it (through some Googling on the old, red Service Book and Hymnal, on which I also grew-up); and so here’s my comment…

    Amen.

    I could not more agree.

    Thank you.

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

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