From Sacred Ground Music:
Liturgy is gaining popularity again. It has wide appeal to emergent communities because it seems to make the sacred accessable, and hearkens back to a time where the church seemed to be more…pure…authentic. Whether this is a passing trend remains to be seen. I hope it isn’t! Liturgy has much to offer, and I continue to grow in my appreciation of it.
First, liturgy helps us to keep the facts of faith from becoming muddled. The Apostles and Nicene creeds and hymns like the Nunc Dimmitis and Magnificat witness to a message that doesn’t change with history and trends. Whereas the speed of life seems to narrow our focus to the tyranny of the so-called urgent, what liturgy points to remains unchanged and becomes a vital source for touching the eyes of our hearts and restoring our sight.
Second, liturgy is pedagogy: a repeated reenactment of the redemption story. In this reenactment we are doing more than going through the motions of some kind of divine skit. Redemption happens. Through confession and absolution, scripture readings, the preaching of God’s word, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper God meets us with his gifts of forgiveness and strength to live our faith. Spiritual amnesia comes easily. The repeated reminder of our need for grace and forgiveness is vital for us to remain what Luther called “pure receivers”. Without this, we so easily drift out of the arena of God’s favor. In a word, liturgy keeps me humble. It doesn’t leave room for the cancer of self-effort.
h/t to Paul T. McCain
In an effort for full disclosure here: I have in the past been involved in Christian communities who had intentions of replicating the 1st century church experience.
Though it seems probable that the early Jewish Christians incorporated ritual into their worship (and Alden, you’re probably able to shed some light on this since you’ve been focused on Galations lately), there does seem to have been some “tension” between Jewish and Gentile Christians regarding the latter’s freer style of worship. Would a Gentile have cared whether Jesus was the Jewish Messiah? How readily would they have incorporated Jewish ritual into their worship, and how agreeable would the Apostle Paul have been to this (assuming he was their church planter)?
I agree that there are ritualized elements in the earliest practice of Christian worship. I do question liturgy as the centerpiece of that church’s spiritual experience.
Again, it would have been very odd for a group of 1st Century Jews not to have formalized some form of worship; considering the culture, I think a Jewish-inspired form of worship would be presumed. I don’t even know that this is questioned by historians. I just can’t imagine them thinking that holding hands and singing “Pass it On” was really worship. In fact, the “Word” portion of the liturgies in use today are still patterned after ancient Jewish worship practices.
While the Bible doesn’t really discuss any form or worship at all, there are other early writings which refer to liturgical practices. And, of course, there is oral tradition, which is where we get a lot of other information about early church history.
Though I’m no historian of the early church, I would question placing a liturgical template over the earliest church practices. I cannot find meaningful references to the kind of liturgy you’re referring to (beyond possible hymn singing) in the New Testament record. This doesn’t mean there weren’t ritual elements, but to infer formalized, liturgical worship from the accounts in Acts or in Paul’s descriptions and admonitions seems a bit of a stretch to me. The Holy Spirit hadn’t learned to mind his manners yet.
Actually, liturgical worship is believed to have started with the Apostles themselves. As they were used to the 1st Century Jewish synagogue service (known in Greek as the Liturgy), they borrowed from that, adding in early credal statements and the recitation of the words of Jesus during the Eucharist celebration. It seems worship was mainly in 2 parts, one focused on the Word, the other on the Lord’s Supper.
Considering the form of worship the Apostles were used to, it would be odd indeed for them to have worshiped in any informal way (which makes the many modern attempts to recreate the 1st Century church seem rather foolish).
Besides that, worship always had a teaching element, as mentioned above, and protected against heresy (which we’ve both seen in recent years). It would have been a good church planting tool.
I wonder, however, if historically liturgy gained prominence as invasive encounters with the Spirit waned in the increasingly institutionalized church. This is not to say that God isn’t present in liturgical practice, but I wonder if the liturgy became (can become) a kind of surrogate encounter. Yes, one can have a regular, genuine experience through liturgy. However, I do wonder (not argue, mind you, but wonder) if liturgy also functions as a humanly constructed “boundary” within which God is permitted to act. In such a case, it is the liturgy, even though a statement of truth, that dictates to God how he is permitted to engage the congregation.
I realize that these claims might be made for Evangelical and other “liturgies” too, but that would only underscore my point. It may be that we cannot “escape” liturgy at all. Then it’s not a question of whether or not liturgy, but what kind. The answer to that may rest more on the desires of the congregation than on the nature of the liturgy itself.