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Westminster Cathedral
London

Every church is a liturgical church. Let’s establish that from the get-go. No matter how “spirit-led” your particular church claims to be, there is a liturgy in place. I’ve been on staff at churches that were very contemporary, and prided themselves on being “led by the spirit” during worship. Fact was, though, we did church the same way, week in and week out. We started with two fast songs, prayed, two slow songs, prayed for the offering, took the offering, someone sang special music during the offering, we had a scripture reading, sermon, and finally, a closing song with an altar call. No matter how much someone said, “I just feel led by the Lord to (insert change in normal pattern here…)”, reality was, every Sunday worship service was very similar to the week before. In fact, in one church where I served, the same elder prayed for the offering almost every week, and quoted Malachi 3:10 (Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.) each time he prayed, without fail. At another church, an elder gave thanks for UGA Football every time he prayed for the offering. No lie. Bless his heart.

That being said, perhaps I should title this post “Top Ten Reasons that Historical Forms of Worship Work”. “Liturgical” seems to be the word our world uses to describe what “traditional” churches (Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) do on Sunday mornings, though, so we’ll stick with that.

So, let’s walk down the dirt road, and I’ll tell you my thoughts on why I think the ancient methods of worship have great value. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about style of music, but the discussion is about a pattern of worship.

Let’s start with reason 10, and count our way down…

10) Liturgical worship starts well…

Most churches have the middle part of their worship service figured out, but often struggle with how the polar ends of worship time…How to start the service, and how to end. It’s no problem selecting the meat for the sandwich, but there’s just too many possibilities for the bread.

Liturgical worship is very clear in how it begins. There’s an anthem, or call to worship, that is generally began by a choir/worship team/whatever you want to call it. There’s a procession, with candles entering the room, representing the light of the world, the presence of God here on earth. The cross follows, representing Christ’s sacrifice.The Word of God follows, in the form of an altar Bible, or Gospel Book. We’re reminded that the presence of God is tangibly among us (the light of the candles); Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, a loftier sacrifice than we could ever make in our own power, and that offering is to be revered (the cross); and God’s Word is holy, and should be honored in our worship, and in our lives (The Gospel Book).

In liturgical settings, there doesn’t have to be discussion about whether to begin with announcements, whether we should whistle or shout to get everyone’s attention, or what method would work to help us focus on why we’re here in the first place. It’s clear from the get-go what is happening. No one has to shout to get the attention of the crowd, or ask grown folks to be quiet. If you want to turn off first-time guests to your church, one sure way is to insist that their children have to go to the nursery. Another is to have someone shouting, “If everyone will be quiet, we’ll get started Quiet down, please!” When the procession enters, everyone knows that something special has begun. No explanation, familiar intro riff on the guitar, nor starter pistol is needed.

9) Liturgical worship has Biblical depth…

Here’s the meat in the middle of the sandwich. As an immature Evangelical attending my first worship service in an Episcopal church, I couldn’t understand why there was so much reading. I was so closed to the idea that this could be a legitimate form of worship, I barely noticed that the service was thick with the Word of God: An Old Testament reading, a responsive Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.

The entire service was saturated with scripture, much more than I ever heard during a worship service in the denomination I was a part of at the time. In fact, it was a common practice in that denomination for the pastor to read one verse of scripture, then preach on that particular verse for 45 minutes. Today, I look back and question the relationship between the content of many of those sermons, and the scripture that was read in the beginning. In retrospect, I realize that it was almost like I had gone to a football game, watched the kickoff (scripture reading), then sat back and watched that game strangely morph into soccer (the sermon)…and that was on a good day. At other times, what was delivered had nothing at all to do with the scripture that was read, in favor of political and cultural commentary, not to mention fear tactics used to pad altar call numbers.

Some pastors don’t like the idea of filling their one hour of service with a lot of busyness, because they think that they won’t have time to preach. I used to kid my Anglican spiritual father, Fr. George Ivey, that his fifteen minute homilies would be referred to as “devotions” or “sermonettes” in the Baptist churches where I started out in ministry. He responded once with a wink and a smile, saying, “Maybe so, but you didn’t have to listen to any corny jokes, bad poetry, or 3 points that may or may not be related to the text for the day, now, did you?”

8) Liturgical worship gives us spiritual identity…

I left the Anglican Church because the body we were a part of was just too far away for us to be fully involved in the life of the church. I left on good terms, but when I did go, Fr. George tried to convince me to stay. During one discussion, he said to me, “You must remember how we worship. The liturgy matters. Without the liturgy, we may as well just be Methodists.”

Funny, Methodist is what I became. Our particular church doesn’t use the prescribed liturgies from our hymnal, which are rooted in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but I wish they did. I’m not complaining about the worship we currently participate in, but there is a richness in those liturgies that I sorely miss. Using liturgical worship patterns sets your church apart as a unique body, with diverse parts. I’ve grown to appreciate and love the Book of Common Prayer, as well as the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The liturgies of Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic bodies function as tools an individual can use to identify oneself with a tribe, and blesses you with the knowledge that you aren’t alone in this world. I often say that in the age of social media, we are infinitely connected, but relationally starving to death. Liturgy binds us together as a part of a common group, even if you’ve never met the person sitting next to you. Even if you don’t know their names, the words you speak and hear in liturgical worship give you something in common, a point of connection, that transforms you from singular to collective. That being said…

7) Liturgical worship connects us to each other…

Revivalistic patterns of worship are typically “me” based, focusing on personal salvation, personal experience, and individual choices. Liturgical worship is not a “me” thing, but instead, a “we” thing.

Using a liturgy binds us together verbally. The liturgy is filled with collective pronouns…“we”, “our”, “ourselves”, “us”, “you all”, “all”, etc. Churches today struggle to establish points of connection amongst congregants, so visitors will experience a warm and inviting environment. We’ve tried all kinds of methods, from music to relaxed settings to coffee shops in the lobby. Here’s a connection point that has worked for 2000 years: Let the people hear that they are a part of a group

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Christ Church
New Haven, CT

from the first moments they enter into worship. Nearly every portion of the liturgy speaks to the idea that folks aren’t alone in this world, but instead, a part of something bigger than just “me”.

Worshiping according to a liturgy also binds us physically. Justin Martyr’s First Apology describes early Christian worship, and talks about how believers would take a few moments to give one another “a holy kiss”. Today, we might not kiss each other, but most churches generally have some type of meet and greet moment in the midst of worship. Historical churches use a method known as “passing of the peace”, where the person sitting next to you shakes your hand or hugs you, saying the words, “Peace be with you.” The patent response is, “And also with you.” It’s a prayer, and a beautiful one. As much as I would like for the person sitting next to me in church to pray for me to hit the Powerball this week, I would honestly much rather them pray that me and my house would experience peace. It’s wonderful to know that while you’re in church, people will touch you, and pray a short prayer that you would have peace in your life. We also kneel together, rise together, make the sign of the cross together, touch and taste the same bread and wine, together.   Add the smells from incense and candles, along with all of the other powerful visual aspects, and it’s clear that liturgical worship engages all of the senses!

Finally, liturgical worship binds us spiritually. The only place I can think of where there are “I” statements is in the recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, where the congregation makes several “I believe…” declarations; however, even though some might consider this a statement of individual faith, it is verbalized corporately, as a group. I consider our creeds to be our spiritual DNA, the thing that takes individuals with different life experiences, ethnicity, histories, political beliefs, struggles, and attitudes, and binds them all together into one body.

In addition, we bring all of our differences to the Communion table, where we partake of the body and blood of Christ as individuals, but leave the experience refreshed and united as believers. I Corinthians 10:17 is echoed in the liturgy of the Table:

“Because there is one loaf,

we, who are many, are one body,

for we all partake of the one loaf.”

6) Liturgical worship connects us with something ancient and holy…

In the Apostles Creed, we acknowledge belief in the “communion of saints”, the unified, complete, corporate body of all Christians who are, who have been, and who will be. In that belief, we become siblings of figures as famous as Martin Luther King, Jr. and St. Benedict, as well as little-known, anonymous saints that lived solitary lives in desert monasteries, or taught Sunday School in our home churches far before our time and memory.

But it goes even deeper, or perhaps I should say higher, than this. In the liturgy, we’re joined with all the hosts of heaven. In UMC Word and Table I, the statement goes like this…

“With your people on earth

and all the company of heaven

we praise your name and join in their unending hymn:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and earth are full of your glory.

Hosanna in the highest.”

The 1928 Book of Common Prayer puts this portion of the Communion liturgy in even more beautiful language, stating…

“Therefore, with angels and archangels,

and with all the company of heaven

we laud and magnify Your glorious name,

evermore praising Thee, and saying,

Holy, Holy, Holy,

Lord God of hosts,

Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory:

Glory be to Thee, O Lord most high…”

In singing or chanting The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy…”) we are joined with the communion of saints, as well as all of the indescribable creatures from Revelation, angels, and every Apostle who ever was. We’re not just talking about a connection to Martin Luther, Pope Francis, John Wesley, or Julian of Norwich here. We’re talking a unified song with every created thing the Lord has made that is capable of producing song. It’s a forever song, from the beginning of time to infinity and beyond.

I know, I used a Buzz Lightyear phrase to describe something really sacred. Sorry.

Join me later for the continued countdown!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Amen.

To read an account of early worship patterns, check out chapters 65-67 of The First Apology of Justin Martyr here…

For more information on early Christian worship, check out chapters 9-10 and 14 from The Didache here…

Click here for a printable version of “A Service of Word and Table I” from the UMC Hymnal…

And finally, visit  here to explore the 1928 Book of Common Prayer…

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