‘Life and Liturgy’ by Alden Swan

I am picking up where I left off  a couple of weeks ago, talking about liturgical worship.   If you recall, I’ve gone through the entire Luthera n liturgy from the old “Red” 1958 Service Book and Hymnal, interspersed with a few other posts dealing with aspects of liturgical worship.  For those who may stumble across this post who haven’t read the whole thread, I was raised Lutheran, but have spent the last 30+ years in various non-liturgical churches, mainly in Vineyard churches, which are about as loose as you can get.  I began visiting Lutheran and Episcopalian churches over a year ago, and since last December I have regularly attended a large Episcopal Church.

I like it.  After years of “grab bag” worship, coming back to liturgy has been a Godsend, literally.  It has probably saved my spiritual life from near death – or at least a starved, tortured existence.  It’s not the mood, or the great music (St. Paul’s excels musically, which certainly doesn’t hurt).  Here are a few reasons why liturgical worship means so much to me:

Truth:  I’ve written on this before, but I realized some time ago that I was starving for truth; in most evangelical churches (using the term in its popular, narrow sense), truth is pretty much up for grabs.  You can object, but it’s true.  Week after week goes by singing worship songs that are often vague, existential and which focus on personal experience rather than on truth.  The Bible is read only as part of the pastor’s sermon, and it’s often doled out in fragments, often taken out of context, and often misused.  The Pastor’s point of view takes precedent over the plain truth of Scripture. No creeds are read; often, I wouldn’t know what a church believes just be attending on a Sunday morning.

With liturgical churches, all these issues are resolved.  You can’t possibly walk out of church not knowing who Jesus is. You may have other questions (which is good), but you’ll have the basics.

Intentionality: Nothing in a liturgical church is haphazard.  In fact, you’ve got nearly 2000 years of thought and intentionality behind what you’re doing, and it’s doctrinally rooted in history.  And, you’re not alone; you know that you are agreeing – in recitation of creeds, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper – with Christians throughout space and time.  Liturgy has a very solid feel to it, as it should.

Interactive Theater: The liturgy is participatory, interactive theater.  The priest, pastor or rector are not anyone but people filling a certain role.  The pastors are for the most part interchangeable; they may change, but the liturgy remains the same.  The people as well participate, reenacting the Gospel story every Sunday.

I liken it to the old “Rocky Horror” events where people would come in costume and say the lines along with the movie.  You can go sit and watch the professionals do church for you, or you can choose to join in.  That’s really what the liturgy is – it’s a chance to join in, in acting out the Gospel.

Incarnational Theology: The liturgy – especially the Lord’s Supper (aka communion, or Eucharist) – is empty without an incarnational theology. Perhaps that’s why so many evangelicals (again, using the term narrowly) think of it as ritualistic or the recitation of empty words.  Incarnational theology is essentially non-dualistic; that is, God is really present. As NT Wright has written, the worship service is a place where heaven intersects earth in a very real way. The valley of dry bones becomes the body when church gathers, and communion is more than just a memorial.  We don’t wait “for God to show up,” we just know that we experience the Real Presence.

Another aspect of liturgy is that the church’s theology, too, is rooted in history and anchored in the liturgy. The church is not blown too and fro from Sunday to Sunday as the pastor gets a new revelation.  This certainly won’t keep the pastor from throwing in random stuff in his sermons, but at least in liturgical settings, the sermon is positionally subservient to the Scriptures.

Humility: Humility is built in the liturgy, especially in Lutheran versions.  Church is first and foremost the gathering of saved sinners.  We celebrate the Eucharist because we need it.   The liturgy reduces everyone to their status as sinners, and then raises them up.

Today’s sermon was particularly interesting, using the text from Acts 10 where God tells Peter that nothing is unclean if God has declared it clean.  The Jewish Christians had forgotten that they were not the host of the banquet, but were merely guests as well, and God has every right to invite whoever he wants. The reminder to us was that we, too, are guests. This sums up the liturgical attitude well, I think.

Corporate: The liturgy acknowledges the existence of the Church Universal, and the corporate nature of the local body.  The fact that people stand, sit and kneel together and recite prayers together acknowledges in practice what we believe theologically.  The “do your own thing” worship totally contradicts the concept of corporate worship.

It’s Out of This World: High-church worship has an obvious other-worldliness to it, with the vestments, music, and ritual.  I personally am tired of going to churches where people don’t even bother to comb their hair.  I expect Heaven to look different than the mall… why shouldn’t church look different, too?

The Eye of the Storm: Lately I’ve come to think of Sunday as the true eye of the storm; it is not retreating from the storm, but taking refuge in the one and only safe place to be renewed and refreshed, to be sent back out.

In the evangelical world, it is common to ask things like, “how was church today,” and in the typical evangelical church context, the question makes sense. However, when I’m asked that now, it strikes me as quite odd, for “church” is no longer about anything that changes from week to week.  Church is always good, because the liturgy is good; that doesn’t change.  The sermon or music could be “off,” but that doesn’t impact “church.”  It’s always good.  (I will make an exception, as I’ve visited churches who play around with the liturgy to try to make it more contemporary or “relevant.”)

I am not saying that liturgical worship is the only way to worship God; that would be ridiculous. However, if I were to correct the defects and gaps that I see in many chuches, I would add in many of the elements which have been a part of Christian worship for hundreds and hundreds of years.  I suspect the inclusion of a few of these elments could revitalize the evangelical church.

                                                                                      – Alden Swan

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How do you feel about the use of liturgy in a worship service?

Check out Alden’s blog at  http://aldenswan.com/

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10 Responses

  1. Alden,

    Nice job! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on liturgical worship with us.

    I too, like the liturgical form of worship for many of the reasons you stated.

    ” I expect Heaven to look different than the mall… why shouldn’t church look different, too?”

    Yes! I think church ought to reflect “other worldliness”.

    But that might take us out of our comfort zone.

    Well…duh…EXACTLY!

    – Steve

  2. Very interesting piece, Alden – lots to consider and digest.
    Sadly, I’m away for the next few days without internet, so I’ll have to do so next week.

    Many thanks for sharing.

  3. “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
    Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Jn 4:19-24

    Liturgical vs. Non-Liturgical is sort of like the ‘this mountain’ vs. ‘Jerusalem’ debate.

    I grew up in a liturgical Lutheran church…Blue-Red-Green books… I love the liturgy. I happen now to be the pastor in a Lutheran church with a non-liturgical tradition. I’m okay here too. Love for truth, intentional, interactive, incarnational-real presence, humble, corporate, out-of-this-world, eye of the storm … all exist here too along with some environmental and cultural sensitivities that appeal to or at least don’t repel our population.

    I am glad for diversity of forms with singularity of purpose… “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1Cor 9:22

    Your reminder of the richness of the liturgy is a good one for all of us provided an air of superiority doesn’t accompany it… speaking of humility. 😉

    • I agree Patric, where true believers are gathered together to worship…the format is really not the point… It’s the giving of worship in spirit and truth. If we let spirit and truth rule, we will always be able to join in the worship with a singularity of purpose…no matter what the format…no matter where the gathering.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. During the year we lived in Lebanon I was able to attend a mass in French just a few steps from my home. It was nice and familiar. But when we came to Kuwait and found the Anglican church here I felt like I was home. I’d been worshipping in a liturgical church, I knew what was going on, but to hear the familiar words in my own language was heavenly.

    While I could worship, and have worshipped, in non-liturgical churches, they just don’t quite measure up, IMO.

  5. One of the main things, if not the main thing, that Lutherans proclaim is the freedom of the Christian.

    While some Christian denominations have to do things a certain way, worship in prescribed ways, we (Lutherans) do not.

    We are to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments in accordance with that Word, but are free to do it as we see fit.

    We do not have to do a liturgy, or we can do as much or as little as we want to do.

    I like the liturgy because it puts words in our mouths. Good words, from Holy Scripture, designed to keep us in faith and tested over the centuries by the faithful that have gone before us.

    These words keep us tied to our family in Christ, and to Christ Himself, that we might not float about hither and yon with new words that might reflect a different focus.

    There is always the danger that the liturgy might become staid and rote for some folks.

    Given our nature, I think that is normal.

    It’s probably a good idea to change it up (the liturgy) now and then to help keep that from happening.

  6. I think this discussion begs the question, “what is worship?” For Lutherans – I think it’s in the Augsburg Confession? – worship is “receiving good things from God” or something to that effect. (I’d appreciate the actual quote, if someone has it.)

    Another relevant question is “what is the Gospel?” I suspect that divergent views on this also impact what folks “expect” out of worship. This also ties in to the hypothesis that “the medium is the message,” which I believe has some merit with regard to worship styles.

    Thanks, all, for your thoughts. My philosophy of worship is still in development (and no doubt will always be).

    • “Thus the service and worship of the Gospel is to receive good things from God, while the worship of the law is to offer and present our goods to God. We cannot offer anything to God unless we have first been reconciled and reborn. The greatest possible comfort comes from this doctrine that the highest worship in the Gospel is the desire to receive forgiveness of sins, grace and righteousness.” Tappert, AP,IV,155, 310

  7. I liken it to the old “Rocky Horror” events where people would come in costume and say the lines along with the movie. You can go sit and watch the professionals do church for you, or you can choose to join in.

    I really wish I did not understand the reference. I do, unfortunately.
    We are to worship in spirit and in truth, if the words of the liturgy are the words of your heart, that is great! It just doesn’t work for me all the time. At times participation in liturgy makes me feel like an automaton, throws me into rebellion and ruins the worship experience. There are times however it warms my soul. +

  8. Patrick, thanks for the quote!

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