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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…

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Continuing my thoughts and opinions on what I believe the evolution of the church is going to look like over the next twenty years, I’ve compared it to hash, the kind of stew my grandfather used to make in a big black pot over a hot fire in the backyard when the mornings got cold enough for hog-killin’ in the fall.  I’ve identified a couple of spices that I believe are going to define the distinct flavor of the church over the aforementioned time span, starting with Ministry as a ‘Career’ vs. ‘Calling’, a look at the idea that because of difficult economic times, we’re going to see more home-grown, bi-vocational pastors in the future.  There’s a less-than-subtle suggestion in there that pastors who are planting churches might do well to stop looking at target audiences, and attempting to style a worship experience to suit them, and instead look at the primary occupation of their target audience, and work in that type of field, in addition to being a pastor.  This would give a pastor more insight into the daily joys and struggles their community faces.

I’ve also considered The Evangelical Response to Growth in Orthodox Denominations, stating my belief that as orthodox movements become more visible and popular, we’re going to see some of our churches be against the movement, living in the same paranoid suspicion that many evangelicals have had for Catholics and other traditionally orthodox groups for generationsSome evangelical churches will adhere to some aspects of orthodox worship,  taking on liturgical practices in their worship services because they see it as the “hot” thing to do during worship, a tool for reaching those who are hipsters, or whatever they will be calling twenty-somethings in ten to twenty years.  Others will adopt orthodox tradition, fully becoming a part of denominational groups like the Anglican Church of North America, or the Orthodox Church in America.

Today, I’ll explore the current revival in liturgical practices, and attempt to answer the key question, “Are liturgical practices here to stay?” 

My illustrious grandfather, Boscoe Fouche (so nick-named because the doctor that delivered him suggested it, as he had just been to the carnival in Athens and witnessed the wonder of “Boscoe the Amazing Snake-Eatin’ Man”), would make a fresh pot of stew every year when the weather got cool enough.  As a young boy anxious to assist my Papa in any way, I had two jobs when it was time to make hash.  One was to stay out of the fire.  I believe that task was actually assigned by my mother, with several threats attached, some involving disfigurement and bruising.

My other job, and the one I loved the most, was to stir the pot.  If my memory serves me proper, and my older siblings will surely correct me if it doesn’t, he had a stick that somewhat resembled a small version of a boat oar, made of hickory, that was used for stirring the pot.  Shoot, I must have really loved the job, because I’ve been stirring the pot ever since.

The word “liturgy” is Greek in origin, and means “work of the people”.  Liturgy is composed of those things we do on Sunday morning, offered up as a cumulative expression of thanksgiving to God.  I, for one, believe that liturgy, or the work we do as an expression of thanksgiving to God, extends beyond the church doors, but this is a subject for another day.  Every church has a liturgy, even the most contemporary ones.  Liturgy is simply the order in which things are done.  The liturgical revival that is happening today, the one I’m such a fan of, is a return to an ancient, “traditional” way of doing Sunday morning worship.  As I’ve said in previous posts, for me, it has nothing to do with music style or genre, but everything to do with having a pattern of worship with depth and substance.

That being said, if the other ideas I’m considering in this series are the spices in this pot of hash we’re watching being made, I would suppose that liturgy is the stirring of the pot…It’s how we actually, actively, “do church”.  And in many circles, the way church is done is looking a lot less like the seeker-friendly movement we evangelicals have embraced for the past couple of decades, and more like it did in the earliest days of Christianity as an institution.

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