Liturgy. It’s a word common to some people in the church but not to all. Recently, the word liturgy has become a buzzword in many worship circles. Some local church bodies are beginning a movement towards establishing some type of intentional liturgical worship for the first time in their existence. I come from a Baptist background, and all I knew about the word liturgy was related to Catholics and Anglican worship gatherings I had previously attended. As I began my journey to learn about liturgy, I had many questions. I’m going to share some of those questions and the answers I found. My purpose is not to give a comprehensive teaching on liturgical worship but to take a brief look into this area and what I have done as a church leader to embrace liturgical worship in my church.
What is Liturgy?
For some people, liturgy may be a new word or, like me, you might just attribute it to certain church groups that you know have liturgical worship. Liturgy is nothing to be scared of, but if you are not familiar with it there is a vast amount of information to sift through and the task can be daunting. Let me start with two basic definitions:
Google — Liturgy is a form according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted.
Wikipedia — Liturgy is the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to it’s particular beliefs, customs and traditions.
Considering these two definitions, it’s easy to deduce that most churches have a liturgy. Liturgy is simply the worship method of a church. Therefore every church has a liturgy (a way that they worship), but not every church is a liturgical church. A liturgical church, I found, is something different. A liturgical church is one who follows a specific format each week and many times the church follows that format very strictly and changes are only made at a church governing level.
Over the past few years, a large number of Millennials are gravitating towards worship gatherings that offer liturgical forms of worship. The common thought is that Millennials are looking for something beyond the traditional evangelical church. This need was something that Robert Webber wrote about in his book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted To The Liturgical Church. In the book, Webber talks about the need for himself, and many others, to worship liturgically because this type of worship went beyond “emotionalism and intellectualism.” Webber discovered, for himself, that liturgical worship allowed him to engage in a way he had never experienced before.
The problem many of us will encounter is not knowing where to even begin. And like most people, we often fear what we do not know. So let me encourage you to do some research on your own and ask lots of questions. Liturgical worship is not something we should fear but something we should consider embracing or at least learning about. In my journey, I began asking some questions as I considered liturgical elements for my own church.
Why Liturgical Worship?
My interest in liturgical worship developed initially because of the number of Millennials I saw gravitating towards this method of worship. However, my interest would soon deepen because I repeatedly read in blogs, books and online sites that liturgical worship gives more opportunity to the worshiper to engage in worship. In other words, liturgical worship tends to give more direct opportunities to the worshiper to participate. Liturgical worship often moves the worshiper from spectator to participator. That reason alone was enough to gain my attention.
I began to watch liturgical worship online and even attend in person some liturgical worship gatherings to refresh my memory. More often than not, I began to see something I hadn’t read about or seen ever in worship — expectation. While it wasn’t being said or written down anywhere, there was not just an opportunity to worship… there was an expectation to worship.
An unsaid expectation to worship was quite different than most worship gatherings I have been a part of in my life as a Christian. In most evangelical worship experiences, I have experienced a person is often more of a spectator and has some opportunities to worship if they so desire. In the liturgical worship gathering, I soon discovered an expectation to participate and many more opportunities are often given to participate. Maybe your church is different, but I sat down and compared what our church does on any given Sunday, and I discovered the following:
In Sunday worship gatherings in my local church, worshipers have the opportunity to:
- Hear prayers given by others
- Give a financial offering
- Listen to a sermon
- Occasionally take communion (Lord’s Supper)
In the liturgical setting, worshipera have the opportunity and expectation every week to:
- Vocally pray together (communal prayer)
- Read aloud the Scriptures together
- Hear the Scripture
- Listen to teaching
- Give a vocal response of confession
- Take communion (which is much more involved)
By comparing the basic outline of the two worship gatherings, it’s easy to see that worshipers are given more opportunity to actively participate in liturgical worship settings. This was quite different from what my church does weekly. In my local church, most of the worship elements are left up to church leaders, musicians, and paid staff to lead, while the congregation has just a few ways to participate tangibly.
The other major difference I noticed in liturgical worship was a reverence for the holiness of God. This is a slippery slope because I’m sure many of you will balk at that very statement I just made. Let me do my best to explain. The reverence for God I experienced in liturgical worship was quite different from the weekly worship gathering in my church. Any given week in worship, our local church feels more like a homecoming or family reunion. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or that it’s wrong. That’s just how it feels right up until the music starts and people wonder in for the next several minutes at their leisure.
The liturgical worship that I have seen and experienced is quite different. Outside the auditorium or sanctuary it’s quite friendly and comfortable, but when you enter into the place of worship there is a sense of why you were there. You’re there to worship a holy God, and there was a reverence and awe for God from the moment you entered into worship.
The opportunities to engage more in worship, coupled with a new-found reverence for God that I experienced in liturgical worship settings, left me eager to try something new with my church. So I began then to consider what that might look like with the people I gather with weekly. As I pondered, I began to ask more questions.
Would This Be A Good Fit For My Church?
This is a question I believe we should always ask before we make any changes in the church. Some things we want to change may not be an issue of theology or doctrine, but that does not mean it’s the best course of action for your local church. I began by doing research and trying my best to learn about the changes I thought we might need to make. Then, before making any changes, I began to have conversations with my leadership. I asked them what they knew about the subject and how they felt about it. The final step before I moved forward was a season of prayer with the Lord. Any time we make a major change in the way we do things, there needs to be a season of prayer and examination.
How Can My Church Embrace Liturgical Worship?
My local church is not by any means a liturgical church. We have begun to embrace some of these elements regularly into our worship gatherings and the result has exceeded my expectations. Some of the liturgical elements we’ve begun to implement regularly are:
- Reading Scripture together
- Taking the Communion (Lord’s Supper) on the 1st Sunday of the month.
- Engaging in corporate prayer
As a result, the generations in our church are worshiping together like never before. People often comment on the fact that they like reading and praying together. Also, people have told me they are feeling more connected to God, and His Holy Spirit, in our worship gatherings. I genuinely believe we are seeing this change because the people of God were given more ways to connect together and engage in worship.
Where we might have done these worship elements occasionally in the past, they are becoming a regular part of our worship gatherings, and as a result, we are seeing a change. There’s something powerful when you hear hundreds of voices worshiping God all together. Now in our local church the predominant voices that resound on Sunday are not just paid staff and leaders from a stage, but the local church gathered together.
If you are considering using some liturgical worship elements in your church gatherings let me offer a few suggestions:
Take baby steps — Don’t reformat your entire worship gathering right out of the gate, especially if you’re in an older or established church. A wise preacher once told me (in regards to new things and old churches), “The older and bigger the ship, the slower the turn.”
Research — Do your own research and see what might be a good fit for your local body. Every church is different and not everything might work well in your local body of believers. Make sure to include your primary leadership in discussions before you make any significant changes.
Communicate — Communication is vital and not with just your leadership and teams. As you add new elements into worship, tell the church why and invite them to come along with you.
Through embracing liturgy, even in the smallest ways, our local body is seeing a change in the way people engage in worshiping God. My prayer is not that you will become a liturgical church. My prayer is this — through considering embracing a new liturgy you will find a way to help your church find more ways to engage and worship our awesome and holy God.
James Eric Myers is a pastor and independent songwriter in Northern California. His songs have been published by Lifeway Worship, Daywind, Discover Worship and Worship Leader Magazine’s Song Discovery. Currently he is the Lead Pastor of Pollock Pines Community Church in the Sierra Nevada mountains between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons.