Is Your Worship Service Liturgical?

The answer is “yes,” but first, let me sweep up a bunch of thoughts from reading Evangelical Is Not Enough and collect them in a pile. We’ll come back and pick out the diamonds from among the dust bunnies later.

Howard has correctly concluded that our worship is loaded with symbolism whether that’s our intent, or not. So, we might as well be intentional about the symbolism that we use. To this I have shouted “amen!” but added, “be careful, because our Pharisaical hearts are very quick to turn intentional symbolism into an end in and of itself.” The minute we start to say (suppose), “let’s paint our cross red to symbolize Jesus’ blood” or “let’s find a cross that’s the closest possible replica to an ancient Roman one to symbolize the historical reality of Jesus’ passion” or “let’s not have a cross at all to emphasize the fact that Jesus body didn’t stay in the grave,” we produce something over which to pat ourselves on the back. “The cross over at First Baptist is just a clip art cross! Obviously they don’t love the Lord!”

So, the two truths Christians ought to grasp are first, since symbolism is inescapable, we might as well use it intentionally rather than leaving it to chance, and second, since our hearts are quick to use symbols (or a studied snubbing of them) as a way of feeling smug, we must be disciplined in our use of them by humility and grace.

Shining the spotlight on unasked questions leads us to see symbolism everywhere. The same spotlight also leads us to see liturgy everywhere.

When someone says “I grew up in a liturgical church,” we understand what they mean. They mean something like: “our worship service followed the same formula every week and everything was dead ritual.”

Liturgy, Howard notes, means “the work of the people.” In other words, like symbolism, liturgy is inescapable. The distinction is not between liturgical churches and non-liturgical churches. The distinction is between churches who order their service around some intent and those whose church service order is less intentional. Given the two examples below, which liturgy would provide a better framework for embedding the gospel in the hearts and minds of the worshipers?

Adore God the Father
Confess Sins
Receive Pardon
Thank Christ
Hear the Word
Be Commissioned to Share Christ

Scripture Reading

Churches who use the latter, less intentional structure, do so for an understandable reason. (The first structure is a loose rendering of the Presbyterian Church in America structure I enjoyed in past acts of worship.) Many sheep have starved week by week in churches whose liturgy was a lifeless routine. No wonder it’s refreshing for these sheep to be fed by the apparent spontaneity of the latter format. But, the key is for the sheep to be fed, and liturgies in and of themselves have no power to feed or not feed. Because churches will have a liturgy whether they want to or not, it makes sense to do what churches since ancient times have done — feed the sheep within an order that walks the flock through the beautiful pastures of the gospel and Christ’s great commission.

“At the end of the day,” someone might say, “does it matter?” Truly, all that ultimately matters is the heart. It’s far better to worship in a church filled with the Holy Spirit which ignores these matters, than to have all the structure and gospel-centered order in the world to pad dead hearts. Nevertheless, the person saying “does it matter?” has a liturgy just as much as the person who says “it does matter.”


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