My household and I are members of a liturgical church in the CREC. Being liturgical, we follow a biblical and historical pattern of worship that changes very little week-by-week. Liturgical worship is the Church’s way of worshiping in spirit and in truth, decently and in good order, that both glorifies God as well as disciples the Church.
The pattern of worship used by our church has been described as “Covenant Renewal” worship. It follows the layout of offerings and covenant renewals in the Old Covenant (see Leviticus 9), and is the basic liturgical structure that the Church catholic has followed and built upon for centuries. In Covenant Renewal worship, God calls His people into His heavenly presence; we confess our sins and receive assurance of pardon through Christ; God reorders and consecrates us through preaching and reading of Sacred Scripture; we commune with Him at the Lord’s Table; and He commissions us to make disciples of all peoples.
Historic biblical liturgy functions as a guide for the Church as we enter the throne room of God. To come before the Almighty, we have to come on His terms; we can’t worship Him however we want. God has outlined for us in His Word the acceptable way to come before Him, and the tradition of the Church guides us in how God’s people have appropriated that biblical pattern throughout history and gives us direction for the future. However, in modern evangelical Christianity, liturgy is often seen as being lifeless, rigid, and restricting. Real worship, many might think, happens when the worshipper is ‘free’ to express themselves to God their own way. Besides, it’s hard to learn how to follow the liturgy.
I want to show that, rather than being lifeless and restricting, robust liturgy gives life and freedom to the worship and the Church; and, though learning the liturgy is not very difficult, it does take time. But then, anything that is worth doing well takes time, like dancing.
Biblical liturgy is one of God’s means of discipling His Church. Through the liturgy, we are shone the proper way to come before God, being cleansed from sin and called up into the heavenlies to worship God “with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, and all the Church on earth.” More than that, the worshippers are taught who they are and what our purpose is. We are children of God by grace, cleansed of our sin through Jesus’ blood; we are ordered by His Word through Scripture read and expounded in the Consecration and fed at His table in Eucharist; we are blessed and sent by Him on mission to bring to rights the fallen world through the gospel in the benediction and commissioning. The Church’s liturgy communicates the answers to the ultimate question of life, and in fact sets the worshipper in their proper place within God’s story.
One of the ways God’s people are discipled through the liturgy is the shaping effect it has on our character affections. Not only does the liturgy tell us what to say and do in worship, but also how to think and feel towards God worshipfully and reverently. Liturgy creates holy people.
The liturgy gives form to the worship and affection of God’s people, and in fact gives direction for obedient worship when those affections may not be there. In our ritualized lives, we know better than to only show love to our family and neighbors when we feel like it; we demonstrate love through actions whether or not we feel the right emotions because we know it is right. In the same way, in the Lord’s Service, we might come in not feeling worshipful, but we step into the liturgy nonetheless, praying that God will grant proper affections of worship; we sing the psalms, we confess our sin, we give our thanks to God, we sing the Sanctus, and our hearts are directed toward proper God-pleasing feeling. And, in fact, God is pleased when we come to Him in this kind of faith that His Spirit will fill up what is lacking in our hearts.
In liturgical worship, we are discipled to reflect the God in whose image we were made. God is a god of ritual and liturgy. Look at the creation week; look at how He interacts with His people and with the nations; look at how He has arranged the universe, the stars, the seasons, even day and night. He is a God who does not tire of repetition but delights in it. When we worship Him liturgically, we do so not only because He has laid the pattern out for us, but because we are learning to reflect Him.
Learning to Dance
C.S. Lewis once compared worship to dancing: with both worship and dancing, learning the steps takes time and effort, but once the proper motions are learned, the dance becomes second nature. If you are trying to learn a dance, only to find that the steps change every time you come to practice, you will likely never become an apt dancer. Similarly, in worship that is characterized by “spontaneity” or elements that change every week, worshippers will always be awkwardly trying to figure out what’s next. These churches may boast of worship that is “free,” but there is little freedom to truly worship when one is constantly worried about the changing steps. When we are a part of a set form of worship that changes little week-by-week, though, we don’t have to be distracted by what is coming next and instead we may freely focus on the content and Object of our worship.
In liturgical worship, when someone comes in from a non-liturgical background (really, every church has a liturgy of some kind), the liturgical “steps” may seem foreign or awkward, but following and learning the liturgy is rather simple. In fact, the common liturgy of the Church is one of the most accessible “worship-forms” there is. For centuries, all classes of people have been able to follow the liturgy, chant the psalms, memorize calls and responses as well as canticles, and find their place in worship. Whether literate or illiterate, rich or poor, young or old, the liturgy of the Church can be learned and followed.
Ideally, however, learning the liturgy is done as a child. Christian children learn and become accustomed to the rituals of worship from their earliest days. A child who has not yet learned to read or write can yet learn the Nunc Dimittis and Gloria Patri, or know to kneel to confess their sins and declare “Thanks be to God!” after the reading of His Word.
Ritualized, liturgical worship is worship that is accessible to the common man (and child!) The steps of the liturgy can easily be learned and memorized. And at that point, God’s people are able to engage with Him in the beautiful dance of worship.
So, in conclusion, we worship liturgically because God’s Word has laid out for us the Covenant Renewal pattern. We worship liturgically because through the liturgy we are shaped and discipled. We worship liturgically because we worship a liturgical God. The liturgy of the Church creates Christian culture. It shapes us into a people ready to obey Jesus’ commission. It anchors us in God’s Word and gives us our battle songs as we spread the Kingdom around the globe.