If you’ve spent any time around me over the last year or so you will very quickly hear about a couple of things. I talk about them incessantly. One is my family; my wife and daughters. The other is the worship of God’s people.
Specifically, the liturgical practice of Christian worship. Over the last year, I have immersed myself in the liturgical Christian practice. I didn’t do this in a haphazard manner or because I was bored. I did it for a couple of big reasons.
Number one, I was frankly bored with the worship of the mainline American Protestant church. I found it mostly entertainment and lacking in any real substance. Sure, the preaching wasn’t bad I suppose but that was pretty much it. Know what I mean?
It was like going to a concert then we sat down for like 45 minutes while some guy preached. Not that I’m against good music or good preaching. I love them both. We need good music in the Church and Lord knows we need faithful preachers. But I felt like there needed to be more. I felt like I wasn’t really participating, that somehow this was all designed to continue to feed into our narcissistic need to be entertained and “amused.” I just felt stuck.
So I went looking for something deeper.
And I found it.
Which leads me to reason two I’ve immersed myself in the liturgical Christian practice. I remember thinking, “I wonder what the early Church worship was like?” And so I began to read and study and research. I read a lot of the Church Fathers (and continue to) and people who wrote about the early Church and their worship. And you know what I found? I found that the early Church also was immersed in a liturgical Christian practice. A lot of the early Church practices emerged from Jewish worship, which was highly liturgical. Very early on, liturgical worship was pretty much set in the Church.
By the way, if you think that the liturgical church is too white or only for white educated people, I suggest you take another look. The source of the liturgy is the Bible, written by distinctly not white dudes and a lot of the liturgical structure and practice was based on Jewish tradition…also non white people. And the major hub of the Anglican Church in the world right now is on the continent of Africa, populated by mostly non-white folks. All I’m saying is, know your history and your facts before shooting your mouth off.
But before we go too far, let me define my terms here. I want to specifically define the term liturgy. There are far too many people who think they know what liturgy means but have no idea. Liturgy is, of course, a set form of worship; the words we speak aloud, the prayers we pray aloud, the Creeds we confess aloud, the gathering at the Lord’s Table. But the word liturgy, to me, brings depth and “real life” practice to the form of liturgy. Liturgy is a combination of two Greek words that mean “the work of the people.”
So liturgy isn’t just what we say in worship, although it is not less than that. It is also what we do with our lives as Christians, the Christian rhythms of our life; the work of God’s people in his Church and the world.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who said something along the lines of changing the culture of a church through liturgy. My friend made it sound like a negative thing. It was like this person was saying, “I feel like the culture of the church is changing to become liturgical.” My first thought was, “Man, I sure hope so!”
You dang right, liturgy changes things. I want to talk briefly about three specific things liturgy can and should change.
1. Liturgy changes how we walk in the world.
The rhythms of our life express what we give meaning to. I’ll explain a bit. What we do shows everyone around us what we value. Our culture values status, self fulfillment and self actualization, pride, achievement and so on.
So how we live our lives, as Christians, in the world shows those around us what we value. So when we come to worship (in Anglican liturgy), the first thing we do is immediately counter cultural. The first thing we do is say who God is and not who we are. Our worship begins with God. Our opening words are:
“Blessed be God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.”
The first words out of our mouths are about God and who he is.
Nothing about me or you or our selfie generation. And I love it.
If our first response when we rise in the morning and our last thought at night is one of praise to God for who he is (see the Daily Office), it changes how we walk in the world. Our priorities are shifted, our gaze is lifted and our hearts changed to look not at ourselves but at God.
2. Liturgy changes how we walk with one another.
We are so selfish. Can we just admit that, even in the Church? We want our thing and we want to be comfortable and we frankly don’t give two craps how you feel about it. We want what we want.
But if we will walk with one another in humility with each other, confessing our sins to one another and making this about God and not ourselves, we will see change. One of the beautiful things about liturgical worship is that it flattens the ground we stand on. Here’s what I mean.
We all stand equally condemned before God’s judgment. But Jesus has taken our penalty upon himself on the cross, buried and raised for our salvation and freedom from sin and death. There is no socio economic status at the foot of the cross. Our liturgy reminds us of this every week as we confess our sins together. In confession we say to each other that we are all equally sinners in need of grace and we say to God that only he can provide us what we need. We confess our common faith together. In fact our entire liturgy is what we do together; what we say to God and to each other together. And so we stand in solidarity and humility together.
Liturgy changes how we walk with each other.
3. Liturgy changes how we walk with God.
This is really the crux of it all. Prior to me walking this path I really felt like my practice of Christianity was very self- focused. Our liturgy obliterates selfishness. The entire Eucharistic liturgy isn’t about me or you at all. It’s entirely God focused as the people of God worship God as he has said in his Word together. That’s not to say that there is not at least some individual experience, for there surely is. But that individual worship experience is focused on the person of the triune God, the person and source of our faith since humans have been in relationship with God.
Not only does our worship turn our eyes and hearts to God, it also propels us on mission. For those who would say that the liturgical church is all about merely form and that it is cold and dead, I say you have not paid attention to what we are saying in the liturgy. The gospel is proclaimed throughout, God’s goodness and kingly rule lifted up and the gospel is fleshed out in the Eucharist. From his goodness we have received. Not only that, our final prayer propels us on mission when we pray, week after week,
“And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”
This is mission. This is the heart of the gospel. God, our Father, has given his Son Jesus Christ our Lord on our behalf. And now we go as faithful witnesses, gospel proclaimers into the world he has created and all for his glory.
Does liturgy change us?
By God’s grace, I pray it will!
Soli Deo Gloria!