Liturgy: A formula for worship.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 December

Some Christians do better in a church with more structure.

LITURGY /'lɪd.ər.dʒi/ n. Detailed order of service for (Christian) worship.
2. [capitalized] The eucharistic service in an Orthodox church.
[Liturgical /lə'tər.dʒə.kəl/ adj., liturgist /'lɪd.ər.dʒəst/ n.]

Some churches—namely the older ones—are liturgical: They have a very particular order of service, and all the churches do it the same way. Go to nearly any Catholic church anywhere on the planet, and you’ll instantly find it familiar, because all of them use the very same prayer book, the Roman Missal. True, it’s been translated into all the local languages, but whether the service is in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, or Italian, it’ll be the very same order. Same bible readings. Same prayers. Same songs. Same everything. Everywhere.

Some Christians are bothered by this level of conformity. They don’t get it: The point isn’t conformity, but unity. All these Christians are worshiping God together, as one massive body of Christ, and that’s why they’re all saying the same things and praying the same prayers. When you’re off by yourself, having left the worship service, you’re entirely free to worship God as an individual: Sing what you like, pray what you pray, on your own. But once you’re together, you really are together. You, and every other Catholic on the planet. (Or every other Orthodox, or every other Anglican, or every other Lutheran.) It’s a powerful idea.

And it’s a comforting idea. For some Christians, churches which don’t do this are way too undisciplined.

Sure, the nonliturgical churches have a bit of a liturgy: Nearly every church follows an order of service of some kind, whether they print it in their bulletins or not. At my church, it’s three songs, announcements, offering, greeting one another, sermon, altar call, dismissal. But y’know, another church in my denomination might follow a whole other order. And sing different songs. Certainly pray different prayers. One congregation worships together, but not together on the level of a church where every congregation syncs up like Catholics.

But liturgical Christians feel there’s a little too much freedom in such churches. The music may not be theological enough for them. The extemporaneous prayers don’t do as good a job as rote prayers in teaching Christians how to pray. The preacher’s freedom to discuss any bible passage, means there’s a whole lot of bible which is never touched. (Fr’instance, when’s the last time you heard a message about one of the minor prophets?—and quoting one of their Messanic prophecies doesn’t count.)

Hence liturgical Christians prefer liturgical churches. There, they feel they’re particularly worshiping God together—with other Christians round the world, with other Christians throughout history, and growing with them rather than growing on our own.

The non-liturgical (or anti-liturgical) Christian.

The trend among Protestants for the past several centuries has been to ditch liturgy. Not because liturgy is bad… although okay, some Protestants are pretty sure it is bad.

See, there’s a downside to liturgy, and it’s kind of a doozy: Because the worship in liturgical churches is so structured, it makes it way too easy to simply go through the liturgy, go through the motions… and have no relationship with Jesus at all. The structure makes it super easy to practice a dead religion. And hide from God inside it.

Yeah, I’ve seen this close up. I have family members who go to church on a regular basis. Sing all the songs. Read all the bible passages. Pray all the prayers. Listen to the messages. Every Sunday, rain or shine. But they’re fruitless, and are the same awful human beings the rest of the week as they’ve always been. They think they have a relationship with Jesus ’cause they’re churchgoers. Their bad attitudes and lousy lifestyles prove otherwise.

Oh, they’re not liturgical Christians. They’re Fundamentalists. But like I told you, just about every church has an order of service, and they follow the usual order, same as the liturgists. It doesn’t need to be an old and formal church for you to hide your cold and dead religion in it. Any church will do.

And yeah, if you’re only interested in a church with an order of service because your focus is on ritual instead of relationship; if you insist your practices are “what real Christians do,” but practice nothing outside your church services; if you do anything for any other reason than to grow closer to Jesus, it’s dead religion. Doesn’t matter what kind of church it is. Doesn’t matter what kind of people go to it—and there are lots of devout Christians in liturgical and non-liturgical churches alike. If you’re only going through the motions, no matter which motions, it’s like decorating the shell of a rotten egg. Or, as Jesus put it, whitewashing a tomb.

Because I’m Protestant, I’ve known lots of folks who grew up in liturgical churches, and left ’em as soon as they became adults. Seems they simply didn’t experience Jesus in them. Don’t get the wrong idea though: I know a few Orthodox Christians who’d say exactly the same thing about the Protestant churches they grew up in. It’s not the churches’ fault so much as bad parenting: If you do a poor job of sharing Jesus with your kids, of course the kids won’t recognize Jesus in the churches where they grew up. They’ll think it has something to do with the liturgy, or the lack of liturgy. It really doesn’t.

But naturally, people assume their experience is everyone’s experience. Which is why you’ve got anti-liturgists who warn everybody away from liturgical churches, claiming Jesus simply isn’t in there. And vice versa.

The post-Evangelical movement.

I mentioned Orthodox Christians who didn’t properly encounter Jesus in the Evangelical churches where they grew up. It’s thanks to them I was introduced to the “post-Evangelical movement”: Protestants who are rediscovering the liturgy, and loving it.

They come in a few varieties:

  • Christians who grew up in liturgical churches, left, tried Evangelical churches for a bit, found them lacking, and went back to the liturgical churches.
  • Christians who grew up in nonliturgical churches, discovered they enjoy liturgical ones more, and switched to those churches.
  • Christians who’ve been gradually (or subtly) introducing liturgical worship to their churches: They look like any other Evangelical church, but you’ll notice the prayers are pretty regular, the responses and songs are pretty regular, and the preachers are working their way through the bible.

Liturgical churches don’t have to look like the Catholics and Orthodox. After all it’s not about the look. It’s about the order.

Properly, they’re just Christians who’ve rediscovered liturgy. But a number of ’em call themselves “post-Evangelical” because they figure it was the Evangelical movement which largely did away with the liturgy.

The only downside to this movement: Like most converts to a new idea, lots of post-Evangelicals are convinced everybody else is wrong. That any church without a liturgy is doing it out of sloppiness, selfishness, ignorance, a lack of education, a lack of appreciation for history and tradition, an irrational fear of dead religion….

Pick your insidious evil reason, and you’ll find a post-Evangelical who believes that’s what’s really going on among nonliturgical Christians. And would rather stereotype and bash nonliturgical Christians, rather than fellowship with them.

But let’s be fair: Those stereotypes didn’t come out of thin air. There are Evangelicals who reject any order of service because they wanna do things their own way. With no respect for tradition or order. Who do suffer from anti-Catholic prejudices, and that extends to their attitudes about liturgy.

Liturgical or not, which one’s for you?

As I said, you can find Jesus in a liturgical church. And you can also find him in a nonliturgical church. If it’s his church, filled with his followers who still seek him, he can be found there.

I myself go to a nonliturgical church. Nothing against liturgical churches, obviously. But in my experience, sometimes the Holy Spirit decides it’s time to shake up our services and do something different. And if we’re too wedded to our order of service, we won’t give him any room to interrupt the pattern. God forbid we ever get in the Spirit’s way.

To be fair, I’ve known pastors of liturgical churches who did recognize the Spirit was up to something, did get out of his way, did let him disrupt things as needed. I’ve also known pastors of nonliturgical churches who fought the Spirit tooth and nail. It always depends on whether the leadership listens to the Spirit. Pride, not order, gets in his way most.

In any event, every Christian is different. Some of us need really structured worship; some don’t. Some of us would fit in perfectly with an organized religion, and others of us prefer it barely organized at all. Which one helps you follow Jesus best?

’Cause yes, you can hide from the Spirit in a dead liturgical church… or a dead disorganized church. Neither structure nor freedom automatically makes it a better church. The only important thing, whether tight or loose, is that Jesus shows up, and people follow him.

So if you think you need more structure, go try out a liturgical church. If you’re already in one, and wonder whether you need less structure, try a nonliturgical church. Some liturgical churches have charismatic prayer meetings, or evening worship that’s deliberately nonliturgical, so you can experience both types within the same church. Plenty of nonliturgical churches hold a “traditional service,” with hymns and prayer books and the sort of old-timey structure that old folks (and a surprising number of young folks) enjoy. That might be the best of both worlds… if you want both worlds. Again, up to you.

But as always: If it doesn’t help you get closer to Jesus, no matter what sort of church you go to, don’t go there. Find a better church.