Monday, March 29, 2010

Liturgy Literally Enlivens

Day 41 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Passion Week - Holy Monday

Mention the term “liturgy” in most evangelical churches today and people respond with a visible shudder. Admit it – you probably slumped a bit when you saw the word in the title of today's essay.

Liturgy, liturgy, liturgy!

There – that has probably scared off a bunch of people now, don’t you think? Some scoff at liturgy as stuffy, smells-and-bells, Catholic-y stuff. Not just the creeds and confessions that liturgical churches use in their worship services - but all of the accouterments that traditionally accompany them.

Who needs formality and rigidity that nobody understands and contrasts so starkly against the world around us modern North Americans? It’s too easy to get swallowed up in liturgy and make it the focus of worship. Besides, it's not prescribed in the Bible, which makes it extra-Biblical, which makes it wrong.

Oh, Really?

Hmmm… Well, electricity isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but we all use it in our church buildings today. Come to think of it, church buildings aren’t mentioned in the Bible, either, but almost every church today has one, or is saving money to buy one. Let’s face it – being extra-Biblical doesn’t automatically disqualify something from being used in corporate worship.

For many evangelicals, the liturgy with which we’ve become most familiar takes place in traditional Catholic and Episcopal churches, where people genuflect towards a central crucifix and worship leaders wail Latin chants nobody understands. Wordy rites are recited out of standardized books, people automatically stand and sit and kneel according to a private code, and everything seems so… needlessly complex.

At the opposite extreme, some emergent churches have reawakened interest in liturgical practices to make the corporate worship of our Almighty Savior unnecessarily mysterious and unbiblically pagan. They are adopting methodologies of intrigue from the ancient church to intentionally craft a Harry Potter-esque cloak to shroud the mundane aspects of corporate worship. They want to extrapolate some sort of mystical experience out of what should be honest and overt.

Let’s face it – most evangelicals today don’t associate liturgy with biblical worship, which is a real shame. Many churchgoers have become so comfortable in their casual lifestyles and contemporary everything that liturgy has become counter-cultural. But isn't that part of its attraction? Just because our culture has gotten so casual, should we defer to it when it comes to our worship of God?

Granted, when we don’t know why we do something, it becomes meaningless, and therefore irrelevant. When we objectify rituals and subordinate the Gospel to them, we blaspheme the very Savior we claim to be worshipping. But can’t there be a happy medium? Can’t we find something more meaningful and significant than the freeze-dried corporate worship that many churches shrink-wrap and pass off as “relevant” every weekend?

Indeed, some experts point to the emergent church as a response to the bland manufacture of corporate worship in many congregations today. They point to the massive seeker and contemporary church movement from the past twenty years and an increasing disaffection among churchgoers to what was supposed to be a livelier, more spontaneous, modern-culture-oriented breakthrough in doing church. After the dust had settled, many congregations found their new stuff quickly becoming as mediocre as the old stuff – just louder, with jeans, and in buildings looking like warehouses.

Not that evangelicals should rush to embrace liturgy simply as a response to the lackluster contemporary experiment. Bouncing from one fad to another won’t solve much of anything. Instead, can’t evangelicals evaluate the benefits of liturgical worship on face value? After all, they’ve served Bible-confessing churches long before we came along.

Form Following Function

Without a clear understanding of the purpose for corporate worship, no church will have authentic corporate worship, so whether it’s also liturgical doesn’t really even matter. In the same way, having a liturgical service without a focus on the triune God is a waste of time.

Which points to what I consider to be one of the greatest fallacies in corporate worship today: the misplaced priority of the focus for corporate worship. Evangelical liturgicalism will make little sense if the audience of your church’s corporate worship is anyone other than God. Many churchgoers continue to labor under the false assumption that corporate worship is for unchurched, unsaved people. But unsaved people can’t worship, can they? Why take what could be a meaningful worship time for believers and chop away at the very things necessary for the adoration of our Creator to make it user-friendly for unsaved people? Is Sunday morning the only time during the week your church has to evangelize? Are your pastors and paid staff the only people who are allowed to evangelize? What do you think the rest of your week is for?

Christ wants to see us worshipping Him in spirit and truth. He is our reason for being alive and saved. Welcome the unsaved to our communities of faith, but understand they are not our reason for worshipping. We are to show them Who is.

Have you ever heard the phrase “form follows function?” It means that purpose dictates how something gets done. In the case of corporate worship, the purpose is the exaltation of our holy God, so logic (and the Bible) dictate that we seek those things that will glorify Him. Remember Psalm 29:2 and Psalm 96:9? We’re talking about glorifying God by being set apart (holiness). I didn’t make that up – read the scriptures if you don’t believe me.

This is where liturgy can play a valuable role. Rather than being an unnecessary adornment, liturgy can assist in focusing the congregation’s attentions, efforts, and desires away from worldly things and common distractions. Rather than being distractions in and of themselves, liturgical elements can symbolize Biblical concepts (ex., the crucifer), reinforce Christian best-practices (ex., confessions), and communicate Biblical truth (ex., creeds). They can also reposition the congregation from being merely an audience to becoming active participants within the components of the service.

User-Friendly Liturgy

Are you still struggling with the whole liturgy idea? Perhaps instead of thinking liturgy is either old-fashioned or stilted, maybe you just don’t understand it? Hey - that's nothing to be ashamed of these days; hardly any evangelical really knows much about liturgy anymore, since none of us have seen it practiced well in an evangelical setting. I don’t even claim to be an expert about it, but I know enough to say that its general relevance maintains all of the vigor and application it ever had.

Some people break down liturgy between high-church and low-church practices, but such stratification can easily make the eyes of many evangelicals simply glaze over. So I’m not going to deal with the heavy, elaborate side of liturgy that is considered “high.”

Instead, let’s consider some mild forms of liturgy and how effective they can be:

Creeds: Throughout the history of the evangelical church, groups of leaders have gathered and crafted documents professing statements of faith and explanations of doctrine. Over time, the best of these have risen to the top like cream, and today serve as significant illustrations of the work of the Holy Spirit among His people, oftentimes during periods of considerable duress. These doctrinal statements are called "creeds," and while they possess no divine revelation, they help explain why we believe what we believe. They also testify to the generational integrity of Christ's redemptive power from the New Testament Church to today.

Confession of Sin: What’s wrong with confessing the sins of omission and commission of the church body together?

Affirmation of Faith: By the same token, what’s wrong with affirming what we believe as a congregation?

Greeting of Peace: Usually, the greeting of peace consists of a recitation from the day’s preaching pastor of a scripture related to peaceful relationships. The congregation responds with “and also with you." What’s the point? If for some reason, you cannot “greet” your pastor in peace, you should meet with the pastor beforehand to clear up the matter. If you just mumble “and also with you” while harboring bitterness, you further compound the sin that is separating you. This is meant to serve as a weekly reminder to be in harmony with the leaders of your church.

Of course, the incorporation of liturgical elements in a corporate worship service can become quite elaborate, particularly if a church follows the Christian calendar, which covers all major New Testament Church observances.

Do you need liturgy to worship well? Of course not. But maybe if you’re looking for something to make corporate worship more relevant, significant, and purposeful, liturgy has the answers you thought it couldn’t provide.

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