This month marks the beginning of Lent, which brings up the subject of liturgy. “Liturgy” is a dirty word to some people. They equate it with dead religion, rank liberalism, dry-as-dust theology, and something to steer clear from. Among avowed evangelicals, “liturgy” is somehow inseparable from “Catholicism,” and “hoc est corpus,” which is to say, it’s just about anathema. Somewhere amidst the anachronisms of modern church history, we’ve lost liturgy.
Maybe it’s time to bring it back.
Liturgy – The Escape from Theatrical Worship
Though most Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics are aware of liturgy, there are vast swaths of American Christianity — largely evangelical — that are clueless about it. Ignorance of the liturgy has led to fear or rejection of the liturgy. Liturgy? That’s something that the “other” people do — the libruls! Not us. No. Liturgy — <snicker, harumph> — what’s that? Today’s modern churches are much more relevant, passionate, lively, with-it, and correct about faith and practice. No dead liturgy here! Right?
If we take the definition of “liturgy,” apart from its dirty-word connotations, we have this: “A form or formulary according to which public religious worship, is conducted.”
Many of our historical Christian heroes — the likes of Martin Lloyd-Jones, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards and others — were practitioners of the liturgy. Anglicanism, which in large part gave birth to American Christianity, followed the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical guidebook, as the formula for worship. Even the dissenting Baptists followed the pattern of the Book of Common Prayer. The “church calendar” wasn’t just for Catholics. Protestants, too, followed a slightly reinvented church calendar. Following the liturgy is what Christians have done for the majority of church history.
The liturgy is, quite simply, an agreed-upon way of Christian life and worship. It involves two main components — the public worship service (microcosm), and the liturgical year (macrocosm)
What happens when we reject liturgy?
When we reject liturgy outright, we neglect valuable components of church life and the practice of our faith.
• We neglect a rich history. As mentioned above, there are thousands of our Christian predecessors — pioneers, missionaries, evangelists, theologians, reformers, martyrs, and unnumbered faithful — who followed the liturgy. The liturgy is centuries old, and therefore has a pretty good track record of aiding Christians in their faith through memory, celebration, and understanding. Christianity isn’t about pursuing “relevance.” Christianity is a reality of eternity, rooted in millennia of God writing His story, guiding his people, and showing us the way ahead. A proper sense of the future is rooted in a proper perspective of history. This history includes the liturgy.
• We neglect anchor points in the year. The liturgical calendar provides a way to organize the year in a beautiful way — providing moments of reflection, rejoicing, and renewal. It’s organization provides specific times of year that help us to center ourselves upon Christ.
• We neglect reminders. Far from being a humdrum, here-we-go-again style of faith, the liturgy is actually a powerful form of reminding us of the importance of certain aspects of our faith and practice. Repetition aids learning and remembering. We could all afford to do more of that — remembering key aspects of our faith.
• We neglect the understanding of the life of Christ. The liturgical church calendar is organized around events in Christ’s ministry — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, and Pentecost. Even “ordinary time,” the period of the year which focuses on various aspects of faith and practice, helps us to remember and celebrate Christ’s commissioning.
There are, of course, dangers in following the liturgical formula. It’s not, after all, inspired. But, then again, there are dangers in not following the liturgy. It’s not absolutely necessary for us to follow the liturgy, but it may be helpful.
Today’s churches could use a little liturgy.
Though liturgy has fallen out of modern favor, there are some Christian leaders and influencers who are calling for a renewal of the ancient practice. Along with the rise of the emergent church, came a renewed interest in liturgy. Calling it “a deeper relevance,” Christianity Today writer Mark Galli explained that “many evangelicals are attracted to that strange thing called liturgy.”
Perhaps liturgy is so appealing precisely because we have swung so far in the opposite direction. The timeline of history looks like a sequence of wavelengths — swinging from one extreme to another. The corrective to the casual, come-as-you-are, relevant-as-can-be, anything-goes tenor of the contemporary evangelical church may be a dose of the formal, the ancient, the ritual, the tradition of the liturgy.
Today’s contemporary churches — to use broad brushstrokes — share some shortcomings that liturgy can help:
• Relevance is overrated. We’ve wanted so badly to be relevant, that we’ve given up important Christian distinctions and handed over our unique identity. What, really, has the craven clawing at relevance gained us? More world lookalikes? The liturgy provides a sharp distinction from the relevance-seeking posture of many Christians. Instead, it serves up a more meaningful style of ‘relevance.’ if you want to call it that.
• Sobriety is missing. Many churches are all hip and hype — louder, faster, bigger, busier, and bustling with back-slapping happiness, a bag of laughs, and the extroverted Type A facade that has masqueraded as the ideal of church life. We need a corrective: To sober down, quiet down, and settle into the beauty of a stabilizing tradition. The liturgy can provide such a corrective.
• Full-orbed faith is forgotten. An order of service can serve as guide rails to a service, avoiding the pitfalls of emotionalism or disorder. It can also add elements which may be missing — a reminder of our creed, a time of confession, etc. The liturgy and calendar with their festivals, feasts, and events help to ground our faith in points of importance and beautiful community interaction that build faith and strengthen our understanding of the gospel.
• Entertainment isn’t necessary. Liturgy isn’t exactly entertaining. But who says that we need to get a bigger kick out of church than we do from SNL or Breaking Bad? The church doesn’t exist to dish up hilarious one-liners, meet our sensitivity for exciting music, or craft an experience that beats Disney world. We don’t need to be entertained. We need to be edified. There’s a difference, and there are some aspects of the liturgy that intentionally dismiss entertainment in lieu of edification.
Maybe we don’t need to add stained glass windows and flying buttresses to our church buildings. Maybe we don’t need to don robes and Geneva bands. But maybe we can introduce a few of the salient elements of the liturgy — a recognition of the Christian calendar, a celebration of more than just Easter and Christmas, and a formula for our service that recognizes the orderly organization that has been practiced for centuries.
Liturgy doesn’t lead to dusty irrelevance. In fact, liturgy may be used of God to provide a renewal and deepening of our faith that we all so desperately need and want.