Many of us were raised in churches that fear liturgy. Well-meaning evangelical churches have often spurned the idea of liturgy along with anything remotely resembling Roman Catholicism in an attempt to protect us from ritualism, idolatry or a false reliance on tradition. The trouble is that every church has its liturgy, be it simple or ornate. It may be three songs, an offering and a three-point sermon or it may be the order for Holy Eucharist used at my Anglican church. The question to ponder is not whether liturgy is acceptable for Christians, but whether our liturgies are faithful to Scripture as the heritage of the people of God or only the products of the culture that surrounds us. Ultimately, liturgies are not ours to form, for liturgies were made to form us.
The English word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “the work of the people.” It harmonizes with the idea of civic duty, a deed that serves a greater good. For over two thousand years when the Christian community has gathered to worship, they have participated in something that is beyond themselves, that functions, as Christ put it, “for the life of the world.” In our recent flight from tradition, we have often allowed culture to form us in its image when the arrangement should work in reverse. The American values of consumerism and entertainment have so seeped into our understanding of worship that we approach Sundays as passive observers, “church shopping” until we find the particular service that “fills” us most. We show up expecting the people on stage to do the work while we just receive the benefits. The liturgy has been contorted into the work of an ecclesiastical elite. Liturgy is now a product designed by the people on stage and delivered to the audience, who act as consumers of that product. Faithful liturgy, however, has historically been about including the congregation in the service–the pastor, parishioner and worship leader all doing the work together.
The essence of the liturgy has nothing to do with preferring “high church” culture to “low church” forms. Indeed, the liturgy has always flourished in simplicity. Since the early church began gathering in catacombs, Christians have followed a simple liturgical structure modeled after Jewish temple services: readings from Scripture, an explication of the text, confirmation of faith through a creed, confession of sin, prayer and, at the command of Christ, communion. Within this structure, the Church receives from God through Word and Sacrament and gives back to him in worship, prayer, confession and confirmation. We come to the table each week not as consumers of a fabricated product, but as the consumed ones, who in the act of a corporate confession have our individual identities swallowed up into the body of Christ.
Beset by a culture of consumerism, the Church must get its liturgy right. We must challenge all members of our community to participate in the work of the people or risk having a church split between puffed-up stage-actors and passive consumers. This requires creating a culture of worship that invites people to abandon their consumer identities when they walk through our doors each Sunday, and instead to become builders in this greater work we’re doing together. Second, we must know our history. Under the headship of Christ, the Church has been faithfully ministering to the world for 2000 years; let us resist the temptation to continually re-invent her. Ritual and tradition, the faithful narration of those who have gone before us, may actually be some of the best teachers we have. May we dignify all members of the body of Christ by inviting them weekly into the work that builds and nourishes the Church.
An earlier version of this article was published in The Moody Standard on February 20, 2013.