Church Liturgy

We will worship so we must worship wisely. Intentional liturgy is vital. As the gathered church we purport to worship the Lord, we must do so in an intentionally biblical and wise way.

By my calculations, most Christians probably spend around half a year of their life participating in the gathered worship of the church. It’s important that we make the best use of that time! Especially when it’s time that’s intentionally set aside to worship the LORD. Further, the Sunday gathering is one of the primary ways that the church gathered can be equipped to be the church scattered.

It is of utmost importance that the liturgy of the gathered church be very deliberate.[1] Even simple, seemingly insignificant, things in worship communicate doctrine and teach people. This is true of terminology (e.g. “priest” or “pastor”), architecture (simple or elaborate; God’s people are the temple or the building is the temple), positioning (where the person stands when doing the Lord’s Supper or the prominence of the pulpit), and furniture (altar or table). These are all important things to consider and have implications because they communicate certain things even if not explicitly.

The Meaning of Liturgy

Liturgies have been in use in Christian worship from the earliest of times[2] so it’s important that we consider what liturgy means and its place in the life of the church. Allen P. Ross says “liturgy is a perfectly good biblical word and need not be avoided as something foreign to historic Christianity. The noun is leitourgia, literally ‘the work of the people’; it means a service or a ministry.”[3] The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms says, “Liturgy came to designate the church’s official (or unofficial) public and corporate ritual of worship, including the Eucharist (or Communion), baptism and other sacred acts. Certain ecclesiastical traditions (such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican) follow a set pattern of worship (the liturgy), whereas many Protestant churches prefer a less structured style. This gives rise to the distinction sometimes made between ‘liturgical’ and ‘nonliturgical’ churches.”[4]

Spectrum of Liturgy

All churches have a liturgy but some churches seem to be less intentional about their liturgy. It seems some churches operate on a default liturgy. A pastor may inherit a liturgy from the previous pastor and it remains essentially unchanged for a few generations. That, however, is problematic for a few reasons. As Timothy C.J. Quill has said, “Worship practice reflects and communicates the beliefs of the church. Liturgy articulates doctrine.”[5]

So, let’s briefly look at the large spectrum of views on liturgy. When it comes to liturgy there is a wide range of approaches. For example[6]:

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Or, here is another way to lay out the spectrum[7]:

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Even more simplistically:

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 6.23.47 PM

There is no way for me to begin to cover the various views in this limited amount of space but it is helpful to see how broad the views of liturgy are.

Liturgy and the Bible

In the OT, God gave Israel a particular liturgical pattern. First, we see that Israel was to observe the Sabbath (e.g. Gen. 2:3; Ex. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15; Lev. 19:3). Second, there were various annual national feasts that Israel was to observe (e.g. Ex. 23:14-17; 34:23; Lev. 23:15-22; Num. 28:26-31; Deut. 16:16). Third, Israel was to observe the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Fourth, there was the regular sacrificial system where God’s people were called to offer sacrifices (e.g. Num. 28:1-15). Fifth, there were also rituals of personal purification (Lev. 12-15) and devotion (Ex. 13:1-16).[8]

The New Testament, however, has no such directory. So, Edmund P. Clowney says “The New Testament gives us principles, not an order of service or detailed directions for conducting worship.”[9] There is much that we learn from those principles though and we must use pastoral wisdom to intentionally apply them to the worship of the gathered church.

Though the Bible doesn’t say it in so many words, I believe the Bible teaches that worship is to be God-centered, Spirit-empowered, Christ-focused, and biblically grounded and shaped.[10] The first commandment (Ex. 20:3), for example, “teaches us to make worship theocentric rather than anthropocentric.”[11] So, although we have not been given an officially sanctioned liturgy from God that does not mean that God does not care how He is worshiped. God certainly has given us things to do and principals to abide by.

There is a lot that I, for instance, can learn from historical liturgies. I grew up in a Baptist church that had a “liturgy,” we had a way that we worshiped God in gathered worship, but it was often less biblically intentional; or at least, from my understanding. So, from here, I want to look at a few specific aspects of liturgy.

The Church Calendar and Other Aspects of Liturgy

Ross says that “By the fourth century a full church calendar had been developed to help in the worship of Jesus Christ by marking out the signification events in the faith.”[12] So, the church calendar has been a long-running practice of the church and it served a very biblical purpose, to teach the saints God’s truth. Sadly, eventually “The emphasis on the liturgical calendar did much to weaken the devotional significance of the Lord’s Day.”[13]

There is a big place for remembering in Scripture. And most churches remember by keeping at least some “special days—Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving (in North America), and others include Advent, Epiphany, and Pentecost.”[14] So I think it would be wise for churches to intentionally remember those special days, at least some years.[15]

I also believe, contrary to my experience growing up, that purposeful reading of Scripture in the gathered church is vital.[16] “Not reading the Scriptures is on the same order as not having a sermon or omitting congregational singing”[17] (1 Tim. 4:13 cf. First Apology of Justin, ch. 67).

“Down through the ages believers have felt it worthwhile to express their faith in easily remembered and shared expressions.”[18] Two NT examples are 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and Colossians 2:6-7. This is another example of something that was not my experience growing up but that I think is a good practice.

I believe intentional liturgy is important but I do not believe that churches must be held rigidly to a certain liturgy. I also believe that it is important to remember that “the priesthood of all believers reminds us that worship is never the province of preachers and musicians, with church members as spectators.”[19]

Contextualization

The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed” (1.6). Here we see there is a need for the exercise of prudential wisdom, and this is especially the case when we think about the need for contextualization. The worship of the gathered church must be God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and biblical but it must also be appropriately contextualized.

Conclusion

Eric L. Johnson has said, “Worship reorders our hearts by putting everything else in perspective.”[20] So, liturgies are formative.[21] The liturgy of the church whether “more liturgical” or “more nonliturgical” is vital to think about because the way one worships shapes the way one believes and lives.[22]

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[1] Hammett says, “By and large Baptist churches have been non-liturgical in the sense that there have been few written prayers, confession, or responses” (John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology, 275). That has certainly been my experience in most Baptist and nondenominational churches that I have been to. I would say they are also typically not as deliberate as I believe they should be.

[2] Give Praise to God, 383.

[3] Allen P. Ross, Recall the Hope of Glory, 462. Ross goes on to say, “The related verb means ‘to minister’ or ‘to serve.” In Acts 13:2 the verb form is used to describe the church’s worship: they were ‘ministering’ to the Lord and fasting. The New Testament uses these words for various aspects of Christian service: for giving money for the poor (Rom. 15:27; 2 Cor. 9:12), the ministry of the people (Phil. 2:17), and the service of carrying an apostolic message (Phil. 2:25). It is no surprise, then, that the early church used the liturgy for the worship and service of God by the people and in time developed prayers and blessing to guide that worship” (Ibid., 462).

[4] Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, & Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, 73.

[5] Timothy C.J. Quill, “Liturgical Worship,” 19 in Perspectives on Christian Worship.

[6] Perspectives on Christian Worship, 11.

[7] These are essentially the five views outlines in Perspectives on Christian Worship.

[8] See J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, 98-101. “If… worship [and I would say, “careful worship,”] was fitting in the Old Testament times, how much more it is fitting in New Testament times, when we have such a fuller revelation of the glory of God in Christ” (John Piper, Expository Exultation, 33).

[9] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology, 126. “We do some things in worship not so much because they are specifically taught in Scripture but because they are in accordance with Scripture” (Old, Worship, 171).

[10] See Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 240.

[11] Give Praise to God, 418.

[12] Allen P. Ross, Recall the Hope of Glory, 416 cf. Old, Worship, 27.

[13] Old, Worship, 31.

[14] Allen P. Ross, Recall the Hope of Glory, 417.

[15] “Celebrating different events in Christianity at regular times helps the worshipers retain the major events of the faith most vividly and develops a sense of continuity with worshippers of all times and places” (Ross, Recall the Hope of Glory, 417).

[16] “The lectionary is its own sort of epistemic discipline that confronts us with the whole counsel of God thus won’t let us ignore widows, orphans, and immigrants; and so on” (James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King, 148).

[17] Give Praise to God, 143.

[18] Allen P. Ross, Recall the Hope of Glory, 433.

[19] Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 46.

[20] Eric L. Johnson, God & Soul Care, 171. “Christian liturgical practices… reorient our hearts and our identity to our ultimate concern” (Johnson, God & Soul Care, 172).

[21] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 137.

[22] Timothy C.J. Quill, “Liturgical Worship,” 7522 in Perspectives on Christian Worship.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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