Is your church a liturgical church?

Before you answer, think about what the term means. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “liturgy” as “a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship.”

If we can use that as our working definition, then every church is a liturgical church. No matter how formal or informal our churches are, we all have our own “order of service” that includes or excludes specific elements of worship.

I was raised in the church where the order of service included singing, invocation, soloist, announcements, pastoral prayer, offering (and choir), sermon, closing hymn, invitation, benediction. The two churches in which I served as a pastor also followed that general outline. While we never referred to it as such, our service order was our “liturgy,” if we base our understanding of the word on the definition above.

But was it an appropriate or helpful liturgy?

During the last several years of my ministry, our staff began to add some other elements into our worship because we believed Scripture warranted their inclusion. So we gradually added a prayer of confession, a prayer of praise, recitation of the Apostles Creed, a responsive reading. We read through books of the Bible (apart from what I was preaching on), taking a moment at the outset of the reading to set the context.

We didn’t use all of these every week, so our services differed slightly from Sunday to Sunday. Did we do it perfectly? Nope. I’m sure we could have done some things better. But filling the service with more Scripture and prayer can only accomplish good.

Many if not most churches within the Reformed tradition have been using these elements in their worship for decades. But some of these worship practices are largely missing in our Baptist and Independent churches.

So what makes this important? Isn’t this all a matter of preference? While I will admit that the Bible does not prescribe an order of service, I would argue that they have great value for the good of our people and for the cultivation of greater reverence.

A few thoughts:

A more informal worship service may seem less regimented and more “spontaneous,” but it’s not. It is as planned as one that contains more traditional elements of worship.

The Bible does not place a value on spontaneity, being casual or on being relaxed. While this seems to be a priority in a lot of modern churches, I wonder if we lose a sense of God’s greatness and holiness when we strive too hard for a casual environment.

The more “formal” aspects of liturgy are important teaching tools.

  • A prayer of confession reminds us that we are sinners, need forgiveness, but are assured of pardon. That’s something that we need to hear weekly.
  • Scripture reading exposes our people to more of the Bible. And if, as the stats tell us, a significant number of our evangelical congregants rarely read the Bible, they need this.
  • The Apostles’ Creed is probably the most basic of creeds. It is not the most complete theological statement you’ll ever read, but it is a reminder of what we believe.

Some would argue that adding these elements of worship into the service adds to the length of the service. But maybe you don’t need all of those songs. Maybe it’s better to read more Scripture and dispense with the closing hymn. Maybe the announcements can be shortened or eliminated. Maybe the prayers can be written so that the person praying doesn’t wander. Maybe you preach for 30 minutes instead of 40. And maybe your worship service goes ten minutes longer. Is that so bad?

I felt that our worship services gained a great deal by including these different aspects of worship. I’m grateful to my friends and coworkers David and John for working these things into our Sunday services.

If your church has a streamlined order of worship and you want to add some of these elements of worship into your service, let me suggest a few things.

Talk with your elders and gain their approval. You may be responsible for the development and conducting of the worship service, but it’s good to get their feedback.

Explain, explain, explain. And then explain more. I can assure you that people may misunderstand unless we educate them. But it’s easy to explain why we do a prayer of confession or a prayer of praise. It’s a piece of cake to show that we are encouraged to read Scripture publicly, and as far as the Creed goes, you can explain that this is a simple doctrinal statement that will help them remember the basics of their faith – as it has done for hundreds of years.

Our people were overwhelmingly accepting of the changes we made, but that is not always the case. Sometimes pastors want to implement something new in their worship, whether it is an unfamiliar but traditional element or a whiz-bang idea they just heard at a seminar. If they move too fast, the congregation is not likely to understand the reasons for those changes. And that’s going to create upset.

The use of these worship elements are not only good for us spiritually, they connect us to the heritage of the broader believing church. There’s a very real possibility that there are people in your church who think the glory days of the Christian Church were from 30-100AD and then from approximately 1930-1955. You need to gently disabuse them of that idea.

Start slow. Don’t add everything at once. Start with a prayer of confession. Add in a Scripture reading. Then, at some point, perhaps introduce the Creed. I preached a series on basic doctrine using the Apostles’ Creed as an outline. I was excited to hear that some of our older members, who were raised in the more revivalistic tradition from which our church came, had memorized the Creed.

Is this worth dying for? Not at all. But these are aspects of worship that enrich the gathering of God’s people. Many of you may be in churches where these elements of worship are already a regular part of your worship service. But if you’re from a more independent tradition, let me encourage you to consider making some modifications to what you do when your people gather. Your congregation will be the better for it.

P.S. John and David, if you guys are reading this, thank you for what you did for our church in this and in many other ways.

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