Wednesday, July 13, 2022

On liturgy, for the non-liturgical

It seems to me that the renewal of our corporate worship ought to be a priority for evangelical churches in the UK.  I think so many of our problems can be traced back to weakness here - whether it's a lack of joy in the gospel (and therefore a lack of joyful witness), a leadership that doesn't stand in awe of the Lord (and therefore abuses authority in the church), or a weak discipleship (and therefore ethical compromise with the world).  We need liturgical renewal (amongst other things) because worship stands at the very centre of our church life, of the outworking of God's redemption in the community life of God's people.

But I know that whenever you start talking about liturgy, there is a group of Christians immediately turned off.  If you think that liturgy means ritualism, dressing up, reciting everything from a script, and inaccessible choir performances in place of congregational singing - well, in that case I can see why you might not be thrilled at the thought.  For many who grew up in traditions which had, perhaps, beautiful liturgy and shiny vestments and ancient sanctuaries, but little to nothing in the way of living faith, I completely understand the negative associations.

Suffice to say that when I'm agitating for liturgical renewal, I'm not aiming for any of those things (although some of them might do more good than harm, if done well).  What I'm talking about is simply making our Sunday gatherings appropriate, or fitting, to the immensity of what is happening in the gathering of God's people - in tone, structure and content.

Tone is perhaps the most difficult thing to pin down, but essentially I mean this: does this feel like we are coming into the presence of Almighty God?  The book of Hebrews tells us that, whereas Israel came to the burning mountain of Sinai, we come to the heavenly mountain of Zion, gathered into the presence of innumerable angels and the assembly of the saints who have gone before, into the very throne room of God through the Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Does the tone of our worship reflect that?  The tone we're going for is reverence and awe with cheerfulness, a sort of serious joy.  This tone will be set by the nature of the greeting, by the voice and posture of the service leader, by the choice of hymns, and perhaps preeminently by the way we are led in prayer.  Does it feel like we are meeting with God?

Structure helps to underline what it is that we are doing.  If we are coming to God through Christ in the Spirit, it is helpful to have some narrative structure, a movement, to what we are doing.  The imagery of spatial movement is useful and thoroughly biblical here: we draw near, we enter, we come.  The sense of movement and direction fosters the sense of encounter, as we approach the Lord.  This is not a manipulative thing; we're not trying to manufacture something that isn't there.  Rather, we are trying to make the outward structure fit with the inner spiritual reality.  When God calls his people together to worship, he does meet with them, and we want to show that.  And of course the particular narrative structure for our worship is the gospel.  That is the story we retell and in a sense relive each Sunday.

Content is actually much more flexible from my perspective, but it has to serve tone and structure.  A jokey little sketch is inappropriate tonally (and can't be justified by the bad excuse of talking to kids!); a lack of Scripture reading and preaching is inappropriate in terms of narrative, missing the central place of God's speech in the gospel story.  A participatory liturgy - the congregation doing more than just singing the hymns! - helps with that sense of coming together to worship.  Responses, confessions, corporate prayers - all good.  As an aside, in the sorts of churches I'm most familiar with, this is often hindered by too much talking from the front; there is no need for an explanation of each Bible reading, or an extra sermon before Communion!  And speaking of Holy Communion, this should ideally be a weekly feature of our worship, the highpoint of our time together.  Giving it this place will help with tone and structure as well.

There are lots more specifics that we could get into, but I imagine the more specific we are the more likely it is that there will be disagreement.  I have strong opinions on all sorts of minor details!  But in the end I'm convinced that what really matters for our spiritual health as believers and as churches is that we be able to come week by week, with serious joy, to rehearse the gospel as we come into the presence of God to worship him.

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