Over the past three years or so, our community-- first at NewLifeSundayNight, now at new life DOWNTOWN-- have said the Nicene Creed, participated weekly in both silent confession and corporate confession (using Psalm 51 and the Book of Common Prayer), taken communion, and listened to Old Testament and New Testament readings. I have had a few people ask why we integrated liturgy in our "non-denominational" church. Many have appreciated it as a welcome change to what they describe as "rootless Evangelicalism"...and a few have wondered if we're "going Catholic!"
But the truth is, every gathering of the people of God involves a liturgy of sorts. The question is, is it a good one! But that, of course, begs a broader question: What makes a liturgy good?
1. A Good Liturgy Invites People to Participate.
The word "liturgy" literally means, "the work of the people." It is often used in "secular" Greek to describe a civic project, like a bridge or a community square. It's what a community builds for a community's good. A liturgy is simply a corporate expression of worship. It allows the whole community to join in. Israel's liturgy involved Psalm-singing and praying and a sacrificial system. The early church, shaped by Jewish worship, also used Psalm-singing and praying along with hymns to Christ as they gathered to celebrate "the Lord's Supper."
Our weekly liturgy, then, is meant to invite others in. This is why, though people complain about musically simple, "vanilla" worship songs, congregational songs must be simple enough for the masses to join in. There is a place for art and artists to push the envelope and be amibiguous in their lyrics and interpretation of themes. But I believe that if corporate worship is to be corporate-- to truly be a liturgy-- then the people have to be able to participate not watch. Wagner, the famous composer, once said that all compositions are eventually reduced to the human voice. In short: if they can't sing it, they can't participate.
2. A Good Liturgy Reinforces the Right Desires.
Having a regular rhythm to our worship expression is quite helpful. A rhythm is how we reinforce a desire. For example, because we have a desire to have healthy teeth and gums, we have developed a rhythm of brushing our teeth daily. Or because a husband and wife have a desire to keep their relationship strong they might develop a rhythm of “date nights”. So, in a similar way, because we have a desire to grow up in our faith, we develop rhythms in our worship that helps us pay attention to God and His work in us.
We don't like the word "ritual", but a community forms its identity around its rituals. A Broncos fan has a gameday ritual, often with fellow fans, that involves sights (team colors), sounds (from "pump you up" songs to the theme for Monday Night Football), smells (the grill!), and even tastes (the aforementioned grill!). Much has been written about community identiy and its legends and rituals. The Christian community is no exception: we gather to rehearse the Great Story of our Salvation and to worship our Savior. And this forms us as the people of God, reinforcing our desire to live in a particular Christ-centered way.
3. A Good Liturgy Challenges Our Desire for Novelty.
Not everything new is better than the old; conversely, not everything old is richer than the new. It seems that the prevailing belief in our culture of consumerism, however, is that the latest, newest thing is the best thing. In our fervor for “modern worship”, we have left many of the practices and expressions that have grounded the Church for centuries. While God desires to renew our hearts and our love for Him each day, the journey of being in relationship with God is not new. It is as old as time. From the beginning God called men and women into relationship with Him. By using historic expressions of worship, we remember that we are not the first to experience hardship or doubt or fear or joy or thanksgiving in our walk with God. Nor are we the first people attempting to worship Him in the midst of it. We learn that every experience, every emotion, every circumstance can be an occasion to worship God. These ancient words and practices and expressions can form a path for us, a path that keeps us from pride and spiritual narcissism, and leads us to humility, surrender, and worship.
4. A Good Liturgy Confronts Our Obsession with Originality.
Deep down, we tend to think that if we didn’t come up with a prayer on our own, it’s not as authentic. But we have forgotten that the first people of God, Old Testament Israel, learned to pray by praying words that were written for them. The Psalms are the ancient prayer book that taught God’s people how to respond to Him. Not only did all the prophets and kings and priests and farmers and women and children in Old Testament times learn to pray by praying the Psalms, Jesus, Paul, and many of the disciples did as well. Praying the Psalms was the way every Jew learned how to pray. In the same way, praying words that are centuries old, borrowed from the Psalms and written by others who have gone before us, is how our language of prayer can be shaped. Left to our own devices our prayers often devolve into selfishness and anxiety-ridden requests. Shaped by the Psalms and by liturgical prayers, we can learn how to “answer” the God who has spoken to us.
5. A Good Liturgy Breaks Our Addiction to Activity.
Quite simply, the liturgy makes us slow down. It is not like the voices we hear from commercials and online news sites, pleading with us in urgent language. The liturgy is quiet, gentle, full of room for the Holy Spirit. But it requires that we stop, that we focus our mind and heart on Christ. It refuses to pep us up or hype us into action. It is not a program or a plan for more activity or busyness “for God”. It is not a campaign or a cause. It is a way of slowing down. It teaches us to rest in God’s presence; it trains us to fix our eyes on the living Christ.