Monday, April 2, 2012

Thinking through Liturgy

It's Holy Week. A good time to talk liturgy.

lit·ur·gy   [lit-er-jee]  
1. a form of public worship; ritual.
2. a collection of formularies [namely, the Book of Common Prayer] for public worship.
3. a particular arrangement of services.
4. a particular form or type of the Eucharistic [Communion] service.

Whenever I say (to fellow Christians) “I go to an Anglican church,” I usually get one of three responses: a blank stare, a look of worry, and/or a look of pity. As I go on to explain why the liturgical services are so meaningful to me, I often get some variation of the following statement: “Well, at least someone isn’t just going through the motions.”

And that seems to pretty much sum up what most non-liturgical church-going folk (except for a handful of intellectuals, artists, and Millennials) believe about liturgy and the people who attend liturgical churches. The sentiment essentially implies that people in liturgical churches are spiritual automatons who have never opened their Bible and whose faith is dead or non-existent. This is simply not true of the people I know, and it seems to derive in part from a romanticized view of reality––it has to be spontaneous to be genuine.

Of course there are people in liturgical churches of whom such a description would be accurate. But is that really different from those who sit in non-liturgical churches every Sunday who have never opened their Bibles? Who tune out the sermon with hard hearts? Who don’t know Jesus? They too are merely going through the motions. The motions are just different.

Let’s pause to look again at the definition of liturgy.

1. a form of public worship; ritual.
2. a collection of formularies [namely, the BCP] for public worship.
3. a particular arrangement of services.
4. a particular form or type of the Eucharistic [Communion] service.

Consider how all four definitions, especially one and three, are broad enough to denote, or refer to, all churches. All churches have a largely regular order of service and a particular way of practicing the rite (or ritual) of Communion. In a typical Southern Baptist church, for example, congregants participate in Communion once a quarter, and the order of service, or liturgy, might look something like this:
  • Introductory Song
  • Call to Worship
  • 3 additional Worship Songs (2 contemporary, 1 hymn)
  • Prayer
  • Sermon 
  • Offertory
  • Alter Call
  • Announcements
  • Dismissal Song
The church calendar might revolve around Fall Festivals, Christmas choir practices, VBS, and monthly potluck dinners rather than Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost. The difference, then, seems to be between an informal liturgy---where church members are generally less intentional about, or even aware of, the patterns of their public worship---and a formal one, where such patterns are highlighted.

I come from a non-liturgical background, so I understand where the fear of words like ritual and liturgy comes from. Most folks who express such fears either grew up in Catholic experiences with an orthopraxis (theological understanding and everyday practice) that tied certain rites to salvation (which is not to say all Catholic experiences are thus), or they grew up in Protestant heritages with little to no exposure to any formal liturgy. The latter fear liturgy because they have heard one narrative of the dangers of liturgy and have no other context for thinking about it.

We all have liturgical rhythms and patterns and habits that form the function of our spiritual lives. And we need them! The world has patterns, or liturgies, that direct our hearts toward worship too, but not worship of the One True God. If we do not actively participate in patterns (liturgies) counter to those of this world, we will fall into worldly patterns. This is partly why being intentional about liturgical forms of the church is helpful to me.

Here’s why I like a formal liturgy.

  1. I need institutions that “make me” do stuff that’s good for me that I’d rather be lazy about and not do.

    There are some people who are super disciplined and self-motivated. That’s not me. I come across that way because I am highly motivated by achievement, but the truth is I’ve always been a part of programs or groups that provide structure, encouragement, and exhortation.

    What sports teams and writing groups and academic coursework do for my exercising, writing, and reading, liturgy does for my spirit and my relationship with God.

    The church helps me be more intentional about preparing myself to meet with Jesus. Often on a Sunday morning several people can be found kneeling in prayer before the service as a way of preparing the heart and focusing the mind. I've started doing this, and I've noticed a difference.
  1. Liturgy is holistic: heart, mind, body.

    The position of our bodies often shapes the condition of our minds and hearts. Each Sunday my knees bend to bear the weight of my body upon the worn, padded kneeler. Kneeling in the pew week to week, my heart is readier to kneel, to submit, and the dull ache in my knees is a gentle reminder that the Christian life is to be a sacrificial life. 

    “High” churches also typically have an appreciation for “high” art; which is essential to Christianity and the Gospel. Art speaks not only to the “public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it,” as one of my favorite writers puts it; but to “the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us” (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth).

    Christ Church Plano
    Christmas Candlelight Service
    Where I worship Sunday mornings (pictured above), the architecture is designed to point us to the cross. The sanctuary is built in the shape of the cross, at the center of which is a beautiful cross with different colored stained glass in its circular center (different colors for different seasons of the Church calendar). I cannot tell you how many times I am compelled to physically look to the cross during the service, to dwell on the cross, to take comfort there. I cannot tell you how many times my eyes blur with tears of joyous relief and gratitude.

    The choir is remarkably talented and their voices come, literally, behind ours, lifting and supporting the heart song of the congregation throughout the beautiful sanctuary built with acoustics in mind. On the anniversary of 9.11, the choir sang a requiem in Latin that spoke to my soul about that tragedy more than anything else that day (even though I don't know any Latin).

    These are just a few examples of how my whole self is ministered to during a service. Another is...
  2. Communion every week.

    The Eucharist is a physical reminder of who I am. I belong to Christ. I am a member of his Church (I am not alone) and his hands and feet to the world (I am not without purpose). The more I can be reminded of these truths the better.

    The weekly recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer serve as similar reminders of who I am (via what I say I believe) and to Whom I belong. My weeks are often more focused when they begin with "Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done."

There’s more that I find spiritually enriching about liturgy, but that’s my top three. I’m not an expert on liturgy. This is just my story. But I hope it’s a story that can add to what I see as the limited conversation and misconceptions among many about formal liturgy.


Rick Wade said...

I highly recommend Marva Dawn's "Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down." She's a Lutheran theologian who, while not trumpeting her own tradition, puts liturgy in worship in a bigger context.

Adam D Jones said...

I didn't understand it until I experienced a liturgical service. Then, I felt like a real jerk for looking down on it.

Anonymous said...

wha-bam. Wonderfully said, my frien! -Val

Christine Hand Jones said...

Great post. I really appreciate how you pointed out that all church services are, to some extent, liturgy. The reasons you mentioned for gravitating toward liturgy really resonate with me.

Thomas Ladd said...


You're 150% correct that every church has its own liturgy. "High" or "formal" liturgy often gets accused of empty ritualism (certainly not fair as a blanket statement!), but this is a danger faced just as much by "low" churches. Because "low" churches don't often think of what they do in terms of liturgy, they are in constant danger of not imbuing their services with meaning and not consciously passing on that meaning to future generations. Then their services become full of meaningless traditions ... which is just as bad as empty ritualism! :-)

In the end, a church adopts liturgy (or should!) as a means of best enabling its people to encounter and worship God. Thank you for the great conversation starter about how "high" churches do this ... and I hope, the challenge to worship leaders at "low" churches to ask themselves if they are consciously doing the same, or merely going through the empty motions, like they sometimes accuse "high" churches of doing.

J. Crow said...

goooooooood post.

reneamac said...

Good recommendation, Rick. Thanks! I also like James KA Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.

Adam, you make a really good point. The same thing is true for me about reading The Message for myself (and reading about the hermeneutic process behind the translation). What a snob I was before!

Anonymous said...

Good article. I think too often people miss the point of attending church entirely. I've often heard people say, "I don't go to church because I don't get anything out of it." The purpose of going to church isn't to get, but to give. It's not about taking or getting something for me, but rather giving worship to God, and God alone.

As an Orthodox Christian we celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Sunday mornings. The word liturgy means "common work" or "common action" of the people. The Divine Liturgy is the common work of Orthodox Christians, the action of the Church assembled by God in order to be together in one community to worship, to pray, to sing, to hear God’s Word, to be instructed in God’s commandments, to offer itself with thanksgiving in Christ to God the Father, and to have the living experience of God’s eternal kingdom through communion with the same Christ Who is present in his people by the Holy Spirit.

The focus of the Divine Liturgy is never about me or getting something from it for me. It's about worshipping and knowing God, but not cognitively with the mind and through reason, but rather experientially in the heart and soul. I have no way to describe this other than to say it transcends any other earthly experience you might possibly have. You walk away having experienced the "otherness" of meeting God personally with perhaps a better understanding of “the Kingdom of God is within you.”

I apologize for my lengthy response, but it took the first 20 years of my 32 year spiritual pilgrimage to come to this understanding. For those from a non-liturgical background, I would invite you to attend a Divine Liturgy sometime in the future. Don’t worry about what you don’t know or understand. Simply stand (yes, we stand during the service, after all, it is the “work” of the people), smell the incense, take in the icons with your eyes, listen to the singing/chanting of the Psalms, other Scripture and prayers. Then close your eyes, stop thinking about anything else, still your heart, and experience the “be still and know that I am God.” To God be the glory for all things. Greg in Tulsa

Anonymous said...

I believe there is a place for both liturgical and non-liturgical churches. I realize that we are to be ONE church, but we have a long way to go to get back to that. So, in the mean time, I believe that people should attend a church that meets their own personal needs. If a liturgical church seems dry and makes you sleepy, you can find a place where you feel God's presence in a less structured environment. If you feel that a non-liturgical service is too loosey-goosey, with less meaning, you can find comfort in a more ordered service.
Just as we find ourselves enjoying different music, different art, different foods, different vocations, we, surely, find ourselves enjoying different churches. As a teacher, I am very aware that different brains learn and enjoy things differently from one another. Some students need structure to feel comfortable and thrive. Others need to have a bit of space from the rigid. To me, there is no one, best Christian denomination, just one, best religion: Christianity.

reneamac said...

Well said, Anon.

What I appreciate about your comment is its "try it on to see if it fits" orientation. Having open-minded experiences and conversations will not only help us understand one another better (and be one Church better, which I don't think will necessitate a uniform style, even in the New Earth because unity is found in transformed diversity (transformed by one common denominator: the Holy One), not conformity); they will help us understand ourselves and our denominational preferences/traditions better.