As I am soon to be ordained in the Anglican Church, I want to reflect on the issue of liturgy.
For nearly four decades I have belonged to churches that have largely rejected traditional liturgical worship. Liturgy – the corporate recitation of set prayers, creeds, proclamations and responses – is regarded by many churches today as a form of worship that is out of step with society; a form whose formalism contradicts the modern preference for informality and spontaneity. Liturgy is often seen as dull and lifeless. Critics claim that it does not allow the Holy Spirit to ‘move’ and that it can all-too-easily degenerate into meaningless repetition.
After nearly forty years of liturgy-free worship, however, I have come to the conclusion that the modern church may have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’. In our rush to be contemporary, spontaneous, relaxed and Spirit-led, we have missed out on something, and our worship services are poorer for it.
Before I explain, I first need to correct a basic misunderstanding.
Every church has liturgy – even those that claim they don’t. Songs and hymns are liturgical. They have the same words every time we sing them. The words don’t change. You probably know the words of some of your favourite worship songs off by heart. Worship songs are simply liturgy set to music.
There are probably other examples of verbal liturgy in your church services as well. Finishing a prayer with “In Jesus’ name. Amen” is liturgy. Your minister may also conclude the service with the same blessing or doxology each week. Words commonly said around communion, either explaining its meaning or explaining the process can often be identical from week to week. This is all liturgy: words and phrases that are repeated from week to week, and from service to service.
As well as verbal liturgy, almost every church has structural liturgy. This refers to the regular pattern and form that the service takes. One church I was involved with for several years had a structural form that almost never varied: two up-tempo songs to begin with, then the welcome, opening prayer, announcements, mid-tempo song, slow song, Bible reading, pastoral prayer, sermon, final two songs, closing prayer, and, finally, a blessing. It was the same every week. This was their structural liturgy.
So, every church has liturgy – both verbal and structural. The only difference is, how much.
Having said this, I want to focus specifically on the kind of verbal liturgy that many churches have rejected – set prayers, creeds and responses. I am referring to such things as the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, the Apostle’s Creed and the many prayers and responses that are published in such liturgical guides such as the Book of Common Prayer. Many churches today exhibit an almost pathological avoidance of this kind of liturgy, but I want to mount an argument for their use. In fact, I want to suggest that this kind of verbal liturgy serves several key functions, the absence of which has impoverished the modern church.
THE PROTECTION OF ORTHODOXY
Over the years I have heard many unfortunate and misleading things verbalised from the front of non-liturgical churches: unbiblical prayers, theologically ignorant comments by worship leaders, irrelevant or unhelpful introductory comments by communion leaders and exegetically unsound preface remarks prior to the offertory. Sometimes what is said is trite and superficial. Sometimes it is theologically inaccurate and misleading. Worse still, at other times it is completely and dangerously wrong. And even on those occasions when something might not be theologically wrong, it may still be inappropriate. For example, I have heard many introductory communion talks which had NOTHING to do with Christ’s death and resurrection and were simply the person’s pet topic that they had been saving up to talk about all year, which they then limply and ineffectually attempted to tie back to communion. What they said may not have been wrong, but it was completely inappropriate at that point and it meant that the true meaning of communion was not expounded and celebrated.
Liturgy protects the church from that kind of unwise or misleading input. It protects and preserves orthodoxy. The prayers, creeds, proclamations and responsive readings in a typical liturgical prayer book have all been meticulously constructed over many years to ensure that everything that is said and done in a service is theologically sound and liturgically appropriate for that part of the service. You will not find mini-sermons about the ropes of the tabernacle or how many angels there are in heaven in the introduction to communion! What you will find are prayers, proclamations and responsive readings that are humble, God-glorifying, Christ-centred, mission-focused, kingdom-oriented and beautifully biblical. Liturgy, particularly liturgy that has been developed and tested over many years, ensures that false teaching, inaccurate theology and unhelpful comments are not promulgated from the front of the church.
TRANSFORMING OBSERVERS INTO PARTICIPANTS
If you take the time to analyse it, when you attend a non-liturgical service you spend a significant percentage of your time observing rather than participating. Apart from singing the songs, the rest of the service is spent watching and listening to what is happening at the front. You listen to the announcements. You listen to someone praying. You listen to the Bible reading. You listen to the sermon. Apart from the songs at the beginning and end of the service, for large portions you are a spectator, rather than a participant. You are passive, rather than active.
Liturgy transforms this particular dynamic. It draws us in and asks us for a response. It requires that we participate, instead of merely spectating. In liturgy, we pray aloud together. We proclaim the basic tenets of our faith as we join in the recitation of a creed. We join in confessing together our need for forgiveness and we rejoice together as we declare aloud the wonder of Christ’s forgiveness. We thank God aloud for his goodness and we proclaim together the central truths of the gospel. Even something as simple as the brief liturgical comments that are typically spoken after a Bible reading, invite us to participate in affirming our faith:
Minister: “This is the word of the Lord.”
People: “Thanks be to God!”
There is something incredibly faith-stirring in standing with a church full of people and passionately declaring together the Apostle’s Creed. Many liturgical creeds and prayers express deep and profound truths of the Christian faith, and I find that voicing them together with my brothers and sisters stirs my soul and moves my heart. I become an active worshipper, instead of a mere observer.
Obviously, it is possible to merely mumble your way dutifully through a liturgical service with both your mind and spirit completely disengaged. I don’t claim that liturgy will transform everyone into a heartfelt participant. But, for those whose hearts are properly engaged, a creatively-planned, well-led liturgical service provides greater opportunity for active participation in worship than non-liturgical services where people sit as passive spectators for large periods.
SPONTANEITY AND THE BEAUTY OF EXPRESSION
The high value placed on spontaneity and informality in non-liturgical services often has a downside. Comments that are made ‘off the cuff’ and prayers that are uttered extemporaneously often tend to be unwieldy, imprecise, repetitive and cumbersome, as those who are uttering them fumble around for the right words. There are times when, as I have listened to the fumbling attempts of a service leader to articulate his thoughts or formulate her prayer, I have felt uncomfortable and even awkward on behalf of that person. At other times I may have gleaned the basic gist of what the person was trying to say but felt that its articulation fell far short of the majesty or wonder or profundity that the expression of such a concept required.
By contrast, the prayers and proclamations found in most liturgical prayer books have been meticulously and thoughtfully crafted. Significant time and care have gone into the formulation of each sentence to not only ensure its theological accuracy, but also to create an expression of beauty that does justice to the concepts that are being expressed. In short, liturgy is often very beautiful. It is also very clear. There is no stumbling around in verbal fog, groping for the right words.
SPONTANEITY AND SPIRITUALITY
The extemporaneous nature of a non-liturgical service is held up by some as a sign of spirituality. Liturgy, it is said, is cold and pre-planned, whereas relying on spontaneous, extemporaneous comments and prayers allows the service to be led by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Underlying this is the false belief that it is more spiritual to be prompted by the Holy Spirit on the spur of the moment than to be guided and inspired by him as you prayerfully plan and prepare.
This, of course, is a ridiculous belief. If we followed this belief through to its logical conclusion, then no preacher would prepare a sermon. Instead, they would stand in the pulpit and open their mouths without having a clue what they were about to say. Similarly, worship leaders and musicians would stand with microphones and instruments in hand with no idea what they were about to sing and play. (A very small number of churches operate along these extreme lines, but their services inevitably end up being a shambolic, disjointed mess.)
Almost always, churches that claim to value spontaneity as the sign of being led by the Spirit will still have songs chosen and rehearsed well in advance, and sermons prepared and practiced long before the start of the service. In fact, having been on the worship team of a supposedly spirit-led church many years ago, I can tell you that many of the things that happened ‘spontaneously’ in the worship service were often finely planned and rehearsed.
It is a very shallow view of spirituality that proposes spontaneity as the chief or only means by which we can be led by the Spirit. In fact, the idea that the Holy Spirit cannot lead and inspire a person as they prepare something in advance is rather silly. If we devalue something as being less spiritual simply because it was written or prepared at an earlier time, then we would stop reading the Bible which was written millennia ago under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!
Liturgy is simply prayers and proclamations that have been carefully and prayerfully written by Spirit-filled people of faith. The idea that something needs to be fresh and unprepared in order to be spiritual, limits the Holy Spirit and devalues what he has done in the past.
Liturgical prayer books have been carefully formulated to ensure that they contain a balance of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, as well as a balanced iteration of the many key elements of the gospel. Each of these elements are an important ingredient of worship, and liturgical prayer books seek to give the same emphasis to each of these that the Bible does.
For example, most liturgical services include a time of confession, where the congregation admits their sins and asks for forgiveness through the mercies of Christ. This is a very healthy (and biblical!) thing to do as the body of Christ, yet I rarely see public confession in non-liturgical services. It is very easy for non-liturgical churches to slip into a narrow mode of worship which excludes less palatable aspects of Christian doctrine and practice. Liturgical worship offers a carefully constructed worship experience and ensures that we do not overlook any important elements.
LITURGY AND DEPTH
In a non-liturgical service, if you take away the singing and the sermon, there is often very little of substance left. You usually have announcements, a single prayer (offered by one person and listened to by everyone else) and a Bible reading. If it is a communion service (which happens monthly at our local Baptist church) there will be a brief invitation to share in the emblems with very little explanation or time for reflection, followed by the distribution and consumption of the emblems to the accompaniment of soft music. As I drive home after having attended a non-liturgical service, I often find myself reflecting on the fact that all we effectively did was sing a few songs and listen to a sermon. There was very little of substance in the remainder of the time when I sat watching and listening.
By comparison, a well-constructed liturgical service not only engages me as a participant, but its content is rich and substantive. The service is full of profound gospel truths. For example, in the “Service of Praise, Prayer and Proclamation” in the Anglican approved “A Prayer Book for Australia”, the service clearly proclaims the following concepts:
- The authority and inspiration of God’s Word,
- God as creator and sustainer
- God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent
- God’s holiness and perfection, justice and mercy
- Mankind’s sin and its eternal consequences
- Christ’s virgin birth, divinity and perfection
- Christ’s atoning sacrifice and resurrection
- The resurrected glory and ascension of Christ
- Christ’s reign in Heaven at God’s right hand
- The Trinity
- Salvation by grace through faith in Christ
- God’s mercy and forgiveness
- The coming judgment of all mankind
- The coming eternal Kingdom of God when Christ will reign eternally as King
- The indwelling empowering of the Holy Spirit for God’s people
- The glory of Heaven
- Our need for ongoing confession and repentance
- Our need to serve Christ as Lord and King
- Our access to God through Christ
You see, in a liturgical service, it is not just the sermon which teaches the truths of the Bible, it is the whole service. One of the great values of a liturgical service is that even if the sermon is ‘below par’ in some way, the whole gospel has still been proclaimed and the central tenets of the faith have still been reinforced. There is a depth and profundity to a liturgical service which is largely absent in more relaxed traditions.
LITURGY AND CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
In reinforcing the profound truths of the Christian faith, liturgy serves as an important adjunct in Christian education and discipleship. Read through the above list of topics once more. These concepts are proclaimed every week in a liturgical service, irrespective of the sermon content. This has a powerful incremental effect in discipling new Christians as well as reinforcing the faith of those who are ‘old hands.’ I learnt almost as much from liturgy as I did from sermons during my first months and years as a young Christian in the Anglican Church in the 1970s. The regular iteration of such things as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of Confession served to embed key truths and values deeply within me – truths and values that have remained with me all my life. Liturgy can have a significant impact in educating and discipling God’s people.
AWE AND REVERENCE
Good liturgy reinforces the greatness of God and puts us in our place. Read through any service in almost any prayer book and you will be left with a deep and abiding sense of the majesty of God, his fearsome power, the wonder of his grace, our unworthiness as fallen creatures and our utter dependence on Christ. Liturgy depicts God as awesome – in the true sense of the word. He is the One before whom the mountains tremble and the whole Earth shakes. Liturgy portrays Christ as he truly is – the Lord who is enthroned in glory, before whom all creation will bow and to whom we must submit, rather than the life coach who exists to help us achieve our selfish goals. Liturgy creates an atmosphere of awe and reverence toward God that, quite frankly, I have not seen replicated in non-liturgical services.
LITURGY AND CREATIVITY
One of the criticisms of liturgical worship is that there is no creativity or variation in the formulation of worship services, and that every service is identical. But this is another example of how liturgy is completely misunderstood. Liturgical services allow great opportunity for variation and creativity. Let me give you an example.
In the previously-mentioned “A Prayer Book for Australia”, one of several forms of service that can be used is “A Service of Praise, Prayer and Proclamation.” The first element of that service indicates that one or more of six scripture passages may be read as a call to worship. This means you could use a different introductory reading each week for six weeks.
The second element of this particular service is a prayer of thanksgiving, which is pre-empted by the instruction:
“The following or a similar thanksgiving may be said together.”
Notice the words “or a similar”. The leader doesn’t have to use that thanksgiving prayer at all. They could use a completely different thanksgiving prayer if they wanted – perhaps one they have written themselves, or one from the many books of prayer containing dozens of similar prayers. Notice also the phrase, “may be said”. In other words, the service leader doesn’t have to include a thanksgiving prayer at this point at all, if such a prayer doesn’t flow with how he or she wants the service to progress.
The third element in this particular service is a prayer asking for God to prepare our hearts to hear his Word, but it, too, is pre-empted with an instruction that leaves room for creativity and variation:
“This prayer or a suitable alternative is said …”
Once again, the service leader is able to substitute a prayer from any number of sources, including one he / she has prepared.
The rest of the service continues in this vain, with similar instructions such as, “the following prayer or something similar may be said …”. In fact, this “Service of Praise, Prayer and Proclamation” only has three elements that are non-negotiable in terms of their inclusion: the sermon, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, but even these can be moved around within the service regarding their placement.
You see, there is ample room for variation and creativity in a liturgical service! In fact, if the minister or service leader is doing his or her job properly and is shaping each service prayerfully and creatively, the congregation should almost never experience exactly the same service twice. If they do, it is because the service leader is lazy!
On the other hand I have often been in non-liturgical services (in Baptist churches and similar denominations) where the only thing that changes in their services from one week to the next is the songs and the sermon. The claim that liturgical services are monotonous and repetitive fails to appreciate that a lack of variation can be a problem in any denomination, irrespective of whether they use liturgy or not.
LITURGY AND EMOTION
Similar to the issue of creativity, I have often heard liturgical services criticised for their dry, monotonal, joyless nature. To be fair, I have occasionally been to liturgical services that warranted such a criticism. I remember attending a liturgical service in Canberra many years ago which was horribly dull and dreary. At the end of the service my wife and I felt as though we had been let out of jail, and I remember us literally running through the park across the road afterward, shouting “Let me out of here! Run away!” (we were very young!).
Dry, dull, emotionless recitation of a service is a reflection of the state of heart of those leading and participating in the service, rather than a reflection of the nature of liturgy itself. I have been in non-liturgical services which have projected a similar dullness. I have also been in liturgical services that were led with great enthusiasm and joy, and in which the congregation almost lifted the roof off in their worship of God and their affirmation of the gospel. When liturgy is led enthusiastically and engaged with whole-heartedly, it can be a deeply moving experience.
So, what am I saying? Am I urging Baptist churches and similar denominations to start holding full-blown liturgical services from the Anglican Prayer Book? Of course not. But in completely rejecting formalised liturgy, non-liturgical churches are missing out on many good things. The modern church’s rush to empty its services of formalism has left those services rather empty. When liturgical prayers, creeds and responsive readings are removed, nothing much fills the void. Without any liturgy at all, congregations spend more time as passive observers and less time as participants. The complete absence of liturgy also removes from our weekly services the regular proclamation of many of the profound central truths of the Christian faith. This, in turn, has a flow on effect in terms of Christian education and discipleship.
Significantly, some denominations are beginning to acknowledge the void that the complete rejection of liturgy has created and are starting to investigate the reintroduction of some liturgy into their modern services. For example, the Centre for Baptist Renewal is, according to its website, “a group of orthodox, evangelical Baptists committed to a retrieval of the Great Tradition of the historic church for the renewal of Baptist faith and practice.”
There are similar voices beginning to speak up in other denominations. Perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back toward a more balanced approach to worship, which will see churches acknowledge the importance of participatory liturgy as a means of engaging the congregation and reinforcing the central truths of our faith.
For me, as I approach my upcoming ordination as an Anglican minister (after 40 years in non-liturgical churches!) there is a sense in which I feel I am returning to a long-lost friend or, perhaps more appropriately, to my spiritual home. As I have read through various prayer book services over these last weeks, I have found my heart moved with the beauty and profundity of the prayers and proclamations. I will never be a super-traditionalist; those who know me well will attest to that! The trimmings and trappings of man-made pomp and ceremony hold little attraction for me. But I deeply value the liturgies that have been passed down through the ages; liturgies that proclaim our faith clearly and profoundly. Surely, there is room for the inclusion of these great statements of faith in the modern church, so that the very best elements of the new and the old can be blended together.
“Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” – Jesus (Matthew 13:52).
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 12 books, and his latest, “7 Reasons to Believe”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his website, SmartFaith.net.