by David Cassidy, Christ Community Church, Franklin
“Liturgy” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In fact, it can be one of the most beautiful we use.
In my previous post I mentioned that Luther and Calvin worked on liturgies – orders of worship – for their congregations. Is that still needed today? I believe it is.
I know that the mere mention of a word like ‘liturgy’ is almost certain to elicit some pretty strong negative reactions. Like me, many people’s early experience of a highly structured liturgy was fairly negative at some point. In many cases, such structures seemed to be designed to choke vibrant congregational participation, a narrow, dead formalism quenching any sense of the Gospel’s joy in the service. For many, structured liturgies felt more like orthodusty than orthodoxy, deadening the soul rather than enlivening the heart.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And it won’t be at CCC. We can avoid the twin ditches of spiritual lethargy and apathy on the one hand and reckless individualism on the other by blending the ancient with the modern in a Biblical proclamation of the Gospel that glorifies God, unites our hearts, and welcomes the seeker.
One reason why vibrant ‘liturgy’ is good and needed is the same as when the Reformers were doing their work: liturgy demands of us a certain degree of participation. It isn’t just a leader at the front who’s speaking, but all of us, with one heart and voice, speaking together. We are also gathered as a people to hear God speak to us through his word and nourish us with the feast of his Table.
The Basic Structure of Ancient Worship
Briefly, ancient Christian liturgies were shaped by the experience of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. There the risen Savior opened the Scriptures to them and then made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread (see Luke 24). That’s why ancient worship consisted essentially of two closely related sections: the ministry of the word and the ministry of the Table.
These two sections of worship unfold in liturgical elements that include a call to worship, confession of our sins and hearing God’s promise to forgive us, passing the peace, praying the Lord’s Prayer, hearing Scripture read and proclaimed, confessing our Faith through an ancient Creed, coming to the Lord’s Table, and receiving the benediction. In each of these the Lord is taking the initiative, but we are also participating. It is ‘the work of the people’ in response to the mercy of God.
Around 150 AD the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote a brief description of Christian worship for a non-Christian to consider. After a very compelling overview of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Justin offers this summary of the entire service. You can see the basic Word-Sacrament structure.
“…On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
Is our worship along the lines Justin describes? If not, why not? That’s a beautiful service to share together.
Many object to such structures – often because their past experience of them was so dull and dreadful. I get it! But it need not be that way my friends. A river without banks is a flood, something destructive; a river with banks brings life to to the whole area. Those banks of the river don’t impede its life. The banks channel its power!
How does this happen? Let me offer five observations.
First, great liturgy, suffused with God’s power and soaked in the vocabulary of Scripture, also focuses the Church on the life of Christ through the flow of the Church’s Year. Beginning with Advent, moving to Christmas and Epiphany, through Lent, and culminating in the Feast of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost, this way of ‘redeeming of time’ keeps Christ central in our thought and discipleship. Great Liturgy leads us to constantly meditate on Jesus.
Second, great liturgy preaches the Gospel to us every Sunday as well. It begins with God calling us to himself, and then moves to our awareness of our sins and God’s promise to forgive us in Jesus Christ. It proceeds to God’s word being brought into our lives through singing, reading, and preaching. From the word of the Lord we move to the Table of the Lord and commune with him, remembering what Christ has done and anticipating the age to come, the “It is finished” of the Gospels leading us to the ‘It is done!” of Revelation.
Now just think about that order and compare it with the order of our salvation: calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Do you see how worship invites us week by week into the deep story of God’s grace? Those elements are given to us in every worship service. And its a good thing too. We are a forgetful people! Great liturgy leads us deeper in the Gospel.
Thirdly, great liturgy immerses us in the whole Biblical story. That narrative begins with creation, moves to the tragedy of the fall, unfolds the promise and fulfillment of redemption, and culminates with all things being made new. That’s also the way worship flows. God called the worlds into existence and call us into his presence. The fall is something we confess and deal with right away in worship, and this also leads to the promise of the Gospel and our assurance of forgiveness. God will finally bring all things to their completion at what Revelation called ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’. That’s why worship moves towards the table, proclaiming the history and the hope of our salvation. Great worship cultivates Biblical theology in our souls by guiding us along the journey of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
Fourth, great liturgy also makes us full participants in the entire service, tethering us to the text of Scripture and every part of worship, culminating at the Lord’s Table. That means the focus will be on the majesty of Jesus rather than the personality in the pulpit. Great liturgy emphasizes that we need both word and sacrament to grow in grace.
One last thing about these liturgical structures: they unite us across the centuries and the continents with our brothers and sisters who have gone before us as well as with those who bear witness with us right now in a thousand other places.
We experience and demonstrate the unity of Christ’s Body when we employ these ancient words, share the same creed, the same prayer, the same benediction, and the same table with millions of others. We really do believe the Church is ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic’, as the Nicene Creed says. These elements of worship deliver us from modern sectarianism and elitism, uniting us to all believers across the globe and across time. How beautiful is that! Great liturgy leads us to a deeper awareness of our unity in Christ.
That’s why great music and Biblical preaching belong in the context of great liturgy. Without this, attenders become an audience rather than a priestly people. The passive stance of the participants moves them away from their true calling as worshippers, even if they like the music and the message they’re hearing.
Welcome to the Priesthood!
In short then, let’s humbly embrace the ancient inheritance we’ve been given, while blending it with the right now creativity of singing a new song to the Lord.
Let’s position our gifted instrumental and vocal musicians to be lead worshippers rather just worship leaders. Let’s put the sermon in the context of the wider service leading us to the Table rather than as the ‘main event’ for which the music is just a preliminary.
Lets allow the whole service to be worship, rather than just the music, and the whole service to be instructive, rather than only the sermon. Let’s see the whole congregation, young and old, rich and poor, all races and all genders, put on their priestly robes and raise their voices in exuberant, authentic sacrifices of prayer and praise through Jesus.
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