When people think of the liturgical church, the repetitive nature of the Catholic mass often comes to mind. Reciting the same prayers and creeds week after week, this type of service is sometimes found in the Protestant faith as well. People assume that the words “traditional” and “liturgical” are interchangeable. Yet, through the observations during this project, most of the contemporary services also included some form of liturgy.
What is Liturgy?
According to James White, the word “liturgy”
“comes from the Greek leitourgia (λειτουργια), composed from words for work (εργον) and people (λαως). In ancient Greece, a liturgy was a public work performed for the benefit of the city or state…Paul speaks of the Roman authorities literally as “liturgists [λειτουργοι] of God” (Romans 13:6) and of himself as “a liturgist [λειτουγωη] of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Romans 15:16 literal translation).Liturgy, then, is a work performed by the people for the benefit of others. In other words, it is the quintessence of the priesthood of believers that the whole priestly community of Christians shares. To call a service “liturgical” is to indicate that it was conceived so that all worshipers take an active part in offering their worship together.1”
Liturgy is also often characterized by an order of service. According to Dennis Bratcher and Robin Stephenson-Bratcher, this order includes:
- 1. Communal Prayer
- 2. Reading/Hearing the Word
- 3. A Response of Confession
- 4. Passing the Peace of Christ
- 5. Eucharist
- 6. Music
- 7. The Church Year2
This order frames the weekly makeup of a liturgical worship service. Though, it is possible to include liturgy in a service without following it. As White stated above, liturgy is an act of participating in worship with those around you in the service. In the end, to say that liturgy is the recitation of prayers and creeds is actually a pretty accurate statement. But its significance goes much deeper than that.
How does liturgy impact the worship experience?
According to Robert Webber, “Liturgical worship is criticized for its ritualism, dead orthodoxy, and vain repetition; for being merely a rote recitation of the words of the prayer book3.” But while some people may criticize this style of worship, “Participating in liturgical worship frees the self from its own subjective self-consciousness and places him in a “work of the people,” as liturgy means, larger than his own private acts of piety4.” Furthermore, the recitation does not lead to vain repetition, but rather, “worshipers… see the prayer book as an order which organizes heartfelt worship to God, an order that is not closed but instead contains open spaces where they may respond to what God is doing in worship5.” Many people reject the notion of liturgical worship because they don’t find themselves personally or emotionally connecting through that style. Simply by having conversations with people who have left the liturgical church (mostly adults who were brought up in that tradition and then left when they reached adulthood), its clear that many people don’t find meaning in liturgical worship because the significance behind the tradition is not taught to people in the church. They don’t understand why they repeat the things they do, or why they stand at certain times. If one doesn’t have an understanding of the worship practices, then it is much harder for them to connect with the experience on a spiritual and emotional level.
However, liturgy and liturgical worship practices are not limited to the liturgical church. In fact, liturgy is included in many different styles of worship. Just because a service fails to follow the traditional order or include the traditional prayers does not mean that they don’t have other forms of liturgy embedded within.
Gerardo Marti goes so far as to argue that “Music is common in Christian liturgy and considered absolutely necessary to the worship of God. Whether Gregorian chant, Lenten Kantakion, metrical versions of the Psalms, or contemporary Christian rock…Music has always been considered a powerful influence on belief and behavior in the Christian tradition through the words of music as well as by the practice of singing together6.” Music is an important part of the worship service, and is central in churches that are considered non-liturgical. But music itself is a form of liturgy. Liturgy is any instance where people come together to participate vocally, whether it be a call-and-response prayer or a powerful worship song.
So next time you think about the “liturgical church”, you may want to consider broadening your definition.
1. White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. Abingdon Press. pg. 26.
2. Bratcher, Dennis, and Robin Stephenson-Bratcher. “What Is Liturgy? Evangelicals and Liturgical Worship.” The Voice, 2015, www.crivoice.org/whatisliturgy.html.
3. Webber, Robert E. The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pg. 53.
4. Webber, Robert, and Lester Ruth. Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church. Morehouse Publishing, 2012. pg. 128.
5. Webber, Robert E. The New Worship Awakening: What’s Old Is New Again. Hendrickson Publishers, 2007. pg. 54.
6. Marti, Gerardo. Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation. Oxford University Press, 2012. pg. 10.