Thinking Through the Benefits and Necessity of Liturgy

“Liturgy is boring.”

“Liturgy is repetitive.”

“Liturgy stifles the Holy Spirit.”

“Yuck, illness liturgy.”

These are some of the reactions I’ve had when people hear that I’m currently attending an Anglican church. And yet, advice even before I began attending an Anglican church I knew that liturgy was an important and necessary part of my Christian faith. Even in more low-church, sovaldi non-liturgical settings, the routine and familiarity of the order of service, of the rhythm of taking communion once a month, the routine of 3 praise songs, the offering, the sermon, the altar call and time of prayer, and the dismissal shaped and discipled my Christian walk.

Today, I want to just explore some reasons why liturgy, especially formal liturgy, can be beneficial:

It creates space to hear the Holy Spirit. There is something about saying the same words over and over again, where they seep into your very core, and you reach the place where you no longer have to follow along with the bulletin or the liturgical text. You’re no longer thinking, “okay, what comes next? What do I have to do?” In that comfortable space, the words that are so familiar become new as you can focus on hearing the meaning behind the words instead of trying to play catch up and follow along. The comfortable words (to use a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) become enhanced with new meaning as the Holy Spirit draws your attention to some new detail that you hadn’t previously considered, or as the Holy Spirit uses the words to heal your soul and give you rest.

It guards against accidental heresy.
We’ve all seen it happen. An elder, or a worship leader gets up and prays. And in the “moment” of spontaneous prayer ends up saying something Arian, or something Docetic, or something gnostic. Words matter, and the fact that the authors of liturgical texts have prayed and thought through the precise use of each word and what they are conveying, demonstrates that the words we say as a Church are deep, rich, meaningful and purposeful.

It connects us with 2,000 years of Christian worship. As I read the Patristic Fathers, in particular, I am struck by those aspects of early Christian worship that are still affirmed today. Take an early worship manual like Hippolytus’: Here is a liturgy that was written in the 3rd century that continues to be used even if just in snippets nearly 2,000 years later. Through liturgy, be it word or practice, we enter into something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our generation. Sure we may find ways to make it contemporary or “relevant”, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel each and every time we do church.

Liturgy happens even when it’s not explicitly called liturgy.
Let’s face it, even the most charismatic, free-flowing churches have some kind of liturgy. It may not be written down, but it’s done pretty much the same way every week. Heck, even “extemporaneous” prayers are often repetitive and follow a liturgical pattern each time: You pray for the needs of those who are sick; you pray for the missions fields; you pray for outreach; you pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the church board as they make decisions regarding the church; you pray for the Holy Spirit to bless the congregation and to make his presence known. Rinse and repeat every week, even if the details are a little bit different each time.

Liturgy is not just a religious thing.
Liturgy happens all around us. How we orient our lives, our years, our weeks, happens in a fairly standard pattern. Since it is now September, take the academic school year. September is the “start of the year”. There is anticipation in August for it as school supplies and new clothes are bought. And then, the day after Labour Day, the parents walk the kids to their first day of school. It’s a rite of passage. And each year for the next 13 (or more) yearsthe students participate in the liturgy of the first day of school. They meet their teachers. They find their desks. They make new friends. They reconnect with old friends. Their days become structured around the school schedule 9-3. Fridays become an important day that anticipates the weekend. We don’t say that this liturgy is boring because we’ve done it every year. Instead, each new year it is approached with both the comfort of the structure, and the newness that the student is another year older and the liturgy of the school year will not so much be the same old, same old, as it will be a deeper experience of a ritual that takes on new meaning and new life each time it happens. And even if there are those of us who dislike school and shed the liturgy of the school year as soon as we can, we still come back to it and put our children in it, so that it can shape and mold them as it shaped and molded us.

Liturgy, be it Christian or secular, profoundly shapes us. It demonstrates a telos or goal of the good life that we aim to achieve. Because we are embodied creatures, what we do affects what we believe. It shapes how we think, how we feel, how we look at the world. James Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that liturgy is important because humans are primarily desiring creatures, over against thinking creatures (Rene Descartes “I think therefore I am”) or believing creatures (the Reformed worldview emphasis). Liturgies, he writes, “are ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire.” (87). Liturgy, and particularly liturgy as found in the practice of Christian worship, is “embodied and material.” (152)

And so, even those who chafe at the thought of liturgy in Church, who balk at the use of liturgical texts on a weekly basis, are being profoundly shaped by the liturgy of being anti-liturgy. Smith asks a brilliant question that every Christian congregation, liturgical or not, should ask itself: What does worship say about Christian faith? (134) If you were to sit in on a service at another Christian denomination what would their service say about what they believe? If a stranger were to come into your church and sit in on a worship service, what would he take away from the service about what your church believes and what it means to be Christian?

(While I am deeply indebted to James Smith’s book, stay tuned for an upcoming post where I strongly disagree with some of the assertions he makes).

  • One of the best examples of a secular liturgy is the evening news. Almost all channels follow the same pattern we come to expect: top headlines, politics, money, weather, human interest piece. As you say, we need the patterns.

  • LLM

    Good point that all churches have rituals whether they admit it or not! I wish more evangelical churches would incorporate a little formal liturgy into their services. I mean, would it be that big of a deal to incorporate one of the creeds into the service each week? Years ago in another state I was attending a typical Assembly of God, and a new Pastor took over. Under the direction of this new pastor, the service began each week with the Nicene Creed and singing a traditional hymn from the hymn book…before launching into the more charismatic service style. It was great! : )

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  • My new church (evangelical covenant) has aspects of liturgy to it, and I’m finding it keeps me on my toes; though I have yet to catch the appropriate “thanks be to God” places in the service! Always a beat behind…dangit…