Why we need liturgical worship

Each Sunday, the basic pattern of worship in the United Methodist Churches I serve is the same: We Gather; We Listen to the Word; We Respond in Thanksgiving; We are Sent out to Serve.  Each Sunday many of the "fixed" elements - the Opening Prayer (Collect), the Creed, the Gloria Patri, the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology, the Benediction are generally exactly the same.  On the Sundays that we celebrate the Eucharist or The Lord's Supper, we use the same series of prayers to prepare ourselves and to prepare the bread and wine of the Table.  Each Sunday I dress in a particular (and peculiar) way - clerical collar, preaching robe (the Geneva gown is a modern combination of the black cassock and the medieval academic garb) and liturgical stole that changes color according to the season of the Christian year.

The reason for this 'regularity' is that we follow the "Liturgy" of The United Methodist Church, as it is found in our official books of worship (the UM Hymnal and the UM Book of Worship) and as it has been handed down to us by tradition.  Liturgy simply means "the work of the people" or "the public service" - it is not simply the words on the page of the worship book, but the congregational act that is shaped by those words.  Our United Methodist liturgy is itself an adaptation and an updating of the classic Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican tradition, which was deeply treasured by John Wesley, an Anglican priest and the primary leader of early Methodism.

In recent years there seem to be three trends in The United Methodist Church's worship that I can see: 1) some want to maintain the pseudo-liturgy of the early 20th Century (an order of: 3 old-time gospel hymns, an offering, a sermon, and 2 more hymns with an altar call); 2) some want to follow many Evangelical churches and convert our worship services into a concert of "Christian praise rock music" with a sermon in the middle of it, and 3) some want to recover the classical liturgy of the church (perhaps with Gospel hymns, rocking Christian praise music, classical choral music, or a bit of all that).  I am in the third camp that believes that, whatever blend or variety of music we use, we need to fully recover the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church, as that celebration is ordered in our offical worship books. 

Why?  The reason we need liturgy is because Christian worship is a sacrificial act and a spiritual discipline by which we ascribe glory and worth to the Holy Trinity and offer ourselves to God in ritual ways that will shape who we become.  Yet we are always tempted to distort worship into something else: instead of "ministering unto the Lord" (as the priests in the Old Testament were said to do) we instead make it all about us.  The liturgy helps us to declare God's worthiness without distorting worship into something it is not: a spiritual commodity. 

I recently was talking with a man who is considering coming to our church because "he is no longer getting what he needs" at the Baptist church he attends.  This expression is ubiquitous in American churches and usually when people say this they have in mind a particular emotional connection with what is happening or an experience of learning new things.  That is what they are "getting out of it."  Those are not at all bad things to have, in fact they can be wonderful blessings, but they are not actually the goal of our worship service.  As I have reflected upon that conversation it occurs to me that his (and my and your) deepest need is to offer himself in worship to the Triune God.

Here is a video from an Anglican/Episcopal priest and pastor: the first 15 minutes or so lay out theologically and spiritually why liturgy is important for us (the last few minutes are about his hope for theological renewal in The Episcopal Church).  Though he may be overly critical of exciting music, I believe his analysis is basically correct and is extremely important for the church's future in a consumerist culture; so I hope you will consider well what he says, especially if you are (as I am) responsible for guiding the weekly worship of Christian congregations.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant post -- just excellent, really. Thank you for it! And thank you for the video as well! You are a blessing.

God bless.

10:21 AM, July 24, 2012  

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