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A little bit of liturgy . . . please!

I grew up in a non-liturgical church. No written prayers for us! Even responsive readings from the hymnal brought the scorn of some. We figured that using written forms for worship would be letting someone else do all our praying for us. It would hinder the flow of the Spirit and elevate literary skills to a dead formalism. To use “liturgy” was thought to inhibit liberty in worship.

It was considered questionable if the preacher should use notes. It might give the impression that he planned the message before hand and did not really have a word from God for the hour!

The positive side of this non-liturgical approach was that one never quite knew what was going to happen when one went to church. God was free to do whatever he wished!

While such an approach supported an expectancy that is not to be despised, it often contributed to a lack of preparation for worship. It resulted, more often than not, in a “let’s wing it” attitude towards worship. We justified this kind of carelessness by suggesting that knowing in advance about anything was to quench the Holy Spirit.

The meaning of liturgy

Liturgy comes from a Greek word referring to an act of public service or work. The work of the church is the worship of God and, therefore, in our time, liturgy has come to mean the form we use to worship. To use a form or plan can unite a congregation in worship. It can be a great help in expressing appropriate attitudes of worship to God.

Formless worship is foreign to Scripture. Click To Tweet

Formless worship is foreign to Scripture. While the early Christians simplified some of the elaborate Jewish forms because of Christ’s coming, (e.g., the Lord’s Supper replaced the Jewish Passover ritual), Christian worship followed forms nonetheless.

It contained psalms, hymns and spirituals songs, prayers, Scripture readings, Scripture exposition and Holy Communion. One of the earliest Christian documents is the Didache, a manual for liturgical worship, complete with written prayers and responses for the people.

Christian worship can be both formal and informal and still be genuine worship. Click To Tweet

Christian worship has recognizable parts and any attempt at worship renewal that ignores or rejects the biblical and historical foundations will eventually fail. Christian worship can be both formal and informal and still be genuine worship. Yet, both formal and informal worship ought to be done in humility by worshippers who are constantly in search for the true meaning of worship.

A little bit of liturgy, please!

Recently, at a worship event, I felt like calling out, “A little bit of liturgy, please!” The Call to Worship went like this.

The leader, in sweat shirt and jeans, ran up to the microphone, gave it a few taps, and said, “Testing, testing! Is this mike on! If you can’t hear me in the back, please raise your hand!” All I could do was to lean over to a friend and say, as we say down home, “Oh, me nerves!” And I added, “Almost he persuadest me to be an Anglican!” Apologies to Paul.

Going to church nowadays is quite a challenge. I hardly recognise my own tradition half the time. It helps to have a sense of humour about it all. If you don’t, it might make you bitter. After all, I was saved in the Jesus movement and went from town to town dressed in a tie-dyed shirt, bell-bottoms and sandals strumming a guitar and singing Scripture choruses. And, the church survived!

While I deplore the therapeutic approach to worship rather than the theocentric approach, I am hopeful for two reasons.

First, people can change. I got rid of the bell-bottoms and the tie-dyed shirt quite some time ago. I sold my guitar to pay tuition. I’m acquiring a taste for the Gaither videos. I rather sit than stand to worship. I’m growing to love Acts 2:2, “and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Stress the sitting!

Most of the worship leaders today are very young. They’ll grow in the Lord and mature in knowledge. I certainly hope I have.

I’m hopeful for a second reason. Experience teaches us that emotional excesses cannot be long sustained. People eventually need a more ordered structure in which to live out the Christian faith and with which to worship God. They will eventually ask, “Has God given us any direction at all in the way he ought to be worshipped?”

Liturgical interest is bound to come, even for Pentecostals and Charismatics. People were patient with me and I trust I can be patient with others.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Dr. Garry E. Milley is an ordained PAOC minister, author, and speaker.