By Lucas Hagen, Crosswalk.com
Liturgy is a term that is often met with either unrest or confusion among Christians. For many, it brings with it a negative connotation, triggering old memories of hyper-conservative churches with very strict rules and services. For others, it is an often-heard term, but does not bear any meaning.
Liturgy is an important term and idea for all Christians to understand, and in this article, we will explore what liturgy actually is and why it is still important in the church.
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What Does ‘Liturgy’ Mean?
The term liturgy pertains to the order of events of a church service. Churches that are described as “liturgical” have very strict, predictable worship services that follow a rigid pattern of events/activities. Oftentimes parishioners will be provided with a document that lays out the order of the service so that all are aware of what is happening and what is upcoming.
If you are familiar with the term liturgy, this is likely what comes to mind when you hear this term. Maybe you attended such a church as a child, possibly a Catholic church, Orthodox church, or some form of highly-conservative Protestant church. Many, although not all, find this variety of church experience to be dry, impersonal, and boring.
If many don't prefer this form of worship, then why does it still exist? What is the value of a strict liturgy in a worship service?
For some church groups, the reason for a highly liturgical church service stems from a high value of tradition. The priority is placed on doing church services as they have always been done, rather than trying to adapt worship services to the changing times. The goal is to ensure quality and consistency in church experiences. The thinking is, why change the church services now, when our method of arranging a service has been working for centuries?
This line of thinking is not to be scoffed at. While it may come across as dry and stodgy to newcomers, for those who have been present for years, it is a tried-and-true tradition. The strict liturgy allows one to mentally prepare for, and engage in a spiritual experience that is beloved and reliable. While some believers feel variety is the spice of worship, others value consistency and reliability as one's gateway to a profound experience with Jesus Christ.
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What Does Liturgical Worship Signify in the Catholic Church?
Liturgy is central and foundational to worship in the Catholic Church. A Catholic mass centers around tradition, and the means through which tradition is maintained is by keeping and following a strict, consistent liturgy.
If you go to a Catholic mass, you will find that if you return again in six months, the worship service will be very similar in order and feel. This is very intentional, and is more common throughout religious groups than one might initially think.
Is Liturgy Only in the Catholic Church?
A common misconception about liturgy is that Catholic churches are the only churches that have a liturgy. This is not true. Every church has a liturgy. While your church may not feel as strict as a Catholic mass, it is likely that your church services follow a reliable order of events as well. If you attend an evangelical church, it is likely that your church service follows a consistent pattern looking something like this: worship > greeting > prayer/reading > sermon > worship > benediction.
It is also likely that this order of events is rarely deviated from. While it may not feel dry and impersonal, most churches are very consistent in their general order of operations. This is your church’s liturgy, and it is a good thing.
Liturgy is important in the church because structure is important in worship. While spontaneity can be helpful in facilitating spiritual experiences, complete uncertainty may not be. If you are a Christian who regularly attends church, you can probably predict the structure of your local church service with great accuracy. As you drive to church on a Sunday morning, you can mentally prepare your mind and heart for what you are about to experience. You can anticipate how the Holy Spirit will move among your congregation. This is a direct benefit of liturgy.
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Is Liturgical Worship Biblical or Man-Made?
The short answer to the above question is yes. Liturgy is both biblical and man-made. There is certainly biblical precedent for strict and consistent liturgy as it pertains to gatherings of worship. However, there is no specific prescription of a liturgy in the New Testament that dictates the worship services of Christian churches.
The biblical precedent for liturgy is in fact not found in the New Testament at all, but rather within the first few books of the Bible. Leviticus (you know, that book that everyone tells you to skip) contains very specific and purposeful instructions for how God’s people were to go about worshipping Him, primarily through the ordinance of the sacrificial system.
The laws pertaining to the sacrificial system are very specific, and the reason why is not because God is a controlling dictator who demands that we jump through hoops in order to please Him. Rather God is a holy, sovereign God who is fully-deserving of worship and praise of the highest degree, and His commands for worship reflect his holiness and righteousness.
Leviticus 20:26 provides this context for the purpose of these laws, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Our manner of worship ought to reflect God’s holiness, and utilizing an effective liturgy helps in glorifying God as well as possible through our worship services.
While Leviticus provided the Jewish people with strict operations for worship, there are no such specific commandments for worship in the New Testament. Therefore, Christians have the freedom to adapt different forms of worship according to theological emphasis, preference, and cultural accommodation. In this way, liturgy is biblical, due to the precedent set by God Himself in the Old Testament, and it is also man-made, because the forms of liturgy we know today are not prescribed in Scripture.
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What Scriptural Liturgy Can Look Like for Individual Believers
While liturgy is important for worship gatherings such as a Catholic mass or Sunday-morning service, liturgy is also beneficial for the individual routines of Christians today. Many Christians struggle with their daily devotional routines, and a common reason is that the ‘routine’ aspect leaves much to be desired. There is often little rhyme or reason and great spontaneity in devotional times, and this can lead to a lukewarm faith walk.
So how can one apply liturgy to improve our devotional time?
The simplest way to use liturgy for your personal time with God is to implement a simple structure. This can be very strict or relatively relaxed depending on your personality and preference. However, adding a simple structure to your time with God can help you both stay motivated to continue with your routine, as well as give you direction when you may not be ‘in the mood’ to spend time with God.
Your personal liturgy may be as simple as prayer > Scripture reading > prayer. It may also include spiritual disciplines such as fasting, meditation, lectio divina, journaling, and musical worship.
The beauty of a personal liturgy is that it can be completely customized for your personality and relationship with God. The goal of this process is to facilitate intimacy with God, not to promote dry, impersonal Bible-reading habits. In the same way that church services ought to reflect the holiness and sovereignty of God, our personal time with God ought to reflect the love, intimacy, and devotion of God Himself.
The term ‘liturgy’ is often met with negative reactions among Christians today, and this is a shame. While “hyper-liturgical” churches are not the best fit for many Christians, it is important to recognize the universality of liturgy among Christian churches, even though some liturgies are not so front-and-center.
Not only can liturgy facilitate God-honoring worship among congregations of believers, but it can also be a game-changer for individual believers and their devotional routines. Liturgy is a means to know God and worship Him better, and it is vital to the health and vitality of the Church today.
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