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What is Liturgy?
Since the mid 1970s there has been a growing restlessness in many
evangelical circles with the patterns of worship that had grown out of
nineteenth 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
century church well. But by the last quarter of the twentieth 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
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
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
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 nineteenthh 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 the gathered people of God
both corporately and individually 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
corporate worship 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, and grace. It is a very appropriate word naming
this part of the worship celebration that 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. It is true that different traditions approach this moment with
different ideas and theological explanations. Yet, 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. In most church
traditions, no one is turned away
from the table. In a real sense, there is "neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave
or free", young or old; all are welcome at this celebration table of
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 the spoken prayer requests, the transmission of deep
theology through powerful hymns, all of the music in a liturgical
service points towards one Person, usually 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
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 profound 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.
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 . . .
Issues in Church and Ministry
Index of Bible Texts
The Church Year
Bible in the Church
The Revised Common Lectionary
Teach Us to Pray: Public Prayers for
Services of Worship
Word and Table: Reflections on a
Theology of Worship
Year B Index
Year C Index
The Church Year