My fascination with the universe began at an early age. As a child, I remember having solar system maps, moon posters, and glow in the dark “stars” covering the walls and ceiling of my bedroom. The more I learned about the nature of the universe and all that is within it - stars, planets, nebulae, black holes, etc. - the more I wanted to know. I was in complete awe of the vastness of space and its mysteries, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Now, my wonder and amazement of the universe in and of itself was not bad, and was not a problem. What was a problem, however, was that my wonder and amazement stopped there. I didn’t realize it, but I had an awe problem. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned to appropriately turn my fascination and amazement toward the God who was responsible for the existence of it all. Like the Psalmist says:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by
the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke and it came
to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”
The awe that the universe filled me with should point me to its Creator and, in turn, should inspire praise and reverence.
As a worship leader in the local church, I believe that a large part of my job is to call people in our congregation to be reminded of who God is and what He has done. Because our affections and desires are constantly being pulled in many different directions, my goal is to refocus our attention and devotion on the Creator. This is why I begin each service with a Call to Worship. Our starting point is to re-frame our attention and devotion by acknowledging the magnitude and majesty of our God; we intentionally create space at the start of a service to stop, redirect, and call the congregation to step into something greater, which is the worship of the God of the universe, the God who made all things.
What Is Liturgy?
Historically, the Call to Worship has been used in Christian worship services, especially worship services that are more “liturgical” in nature. While I do not come from a Christian tradition or denomination that typically incorporated these more traditional liturgical elements, the longer I have been a worship leader, the more I have used traditional liturgies to help shape worship services. So what do I mean by liturgy? The dictionary definition says liturgy is “a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted,” or, “a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship.” So while this idea of liturgy may conjure up images of very rote, high church rites and sacraments, I would propose that, for our purposes, we simplify this definition. Annie Dillard famously said, “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.” Simply put, liturgy consists of the words that we use in worship. Traditional liturgical elements may include a Call to Worship, Assurances of Pardon, Corporate Confession, Lament of Sin, Statements of Faith, among others. While we don’t use every single one of these elements in our services each week, we do include many of these elements each week. In doing so, there are five ways that I have observed that incorporating liturgies leads to more theologically robust and gospel centered corporate worship gatherings.
1. Liturgy helps us to learn how to mean the words given to us by someone else.
A common mental barrier to utilizing liturgy is the feeling that it lacks authenticity. “But I didn’t think any of this on my own!” someone might protest. Admittedly, adhering to written liturgies may minimize a feeling of spontaneity that may otherwise be experienced in other types of services. While I can understand the sentiment, I think it is important to remember that so much of our worship services are already pre-scripted. The songs that we sing were written by someone else, yet we sing them without a second thought about spontaneity or authenticity. Likewise, no one would think twice about using the Psalms in a Call to Worship, or a passage from Romans in the Assurance of Pardon. Scripture is God’s word to us, and was definitely written by someone other than ourselves. Athanasius once said, “He who recites the Psalms is uttering the rest as his own words, and each sings them as if they were written concerning him, and he accepts them and recites them not as if another were speaking, nor as if speaking about someone else. But he handles them as if he were speaking about himself.” I know that this is true for myself even when just reading the Psalms. Singing, reading the Scriptures, and engaging in call and response readings in corporate worship gives us the opportunity to really learn how to mean all of these things that were written by someone else, yet accurately represents the state of our souls as we come together to worship the one true God.
2. Liturgy helps ensure that our worship is shaped by the holy Scriptures.
Scripture invites and commands us to worship God, our Creator (Psalms 95, 96, and countless other psalms; John 4:23-24; 1 Chronicles 16:8-34). Because the Bible is the word of God, our worship of God should be dictated by and rooted in Scripture. The Scriptures inform our worship by providing us with an understanding of who God is and what he has done. The purpose of scripture through liturgy, then, is to saturate our worship services with the Word of God. All of the liturgies that we read together in our congregation are either based on Scripture, or are directly out of the Bible. We do this so that the Word of God may take root in people’s hearts, and in turn would shape their worship of the Holy Trinity.
3. Liturgy promotes collaboration and participation in corporate worship.
Another historical definition of liturgy is that it is “the work of the people.” Liturgy can be and should be engaging and participatory. From a call and response, to a reading of the Lord’s prayer, these moments are participatory in nature, inviting the worshipper to momentarily share the role of worship leader. Another thing I love about liturgy readings, is that it doesn’t take any special training to lead them. Anyone in the congregation can come up and lead a prepared liturgy or Scripture. This level of participation promotes collaboration, and helps to shift focus from one specific person that is leading up front. Having congregants come and lead different moments in the service shows to the rest of the church that our worship should be participatory, and truly is “the work of the people.”
4. Liturgy establishes a rhythm of revelation and response.
In his book Doxology and Theology, Matt Boswell says that, “The chief end of theology (knowledge about God) is doxology (worship). And the rhythm of worship is revelation and response; our beliefs about God’s revelation dictate our response. What we believe about God surely shapes our worship of Him.” In corporate worship, we want to reveal the nature of who God is and what he has done so that people can respond to that. Using liturgy provides a framework to do exactly that. We can reveal God’s nature in the Call to Worship. We can return to what he has done in the Assurance of Pardon. We can recall our own need for salvation in a Corporate Confession. We can respond to his goodness and grace through song and the Benediction. Each of these elements is aimed at pointing the worshipper toward the goodness and mercy of God, so that they might respond in spirit and in truth.
5. Liturgy points us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, not just our liturgy but every aspect of our corporate worship gatherings should be aimed at pointing people to the gospel. The way I look at incorporating liturgies in our worship services is that it’s like we are rehearsing the gospel over and over before we’ve even gotten to the sermon. The goal is to walk through the gospel story - starting with the nature of God, moving to our sin and need for salvation, then on to the cross and Christ’s death and resurrection, finally providing an opportunity for response to all of this good news. Our entire faith hinges on that pivotal moment in history when Jesus Christ walked out of the grave. Paul says that without the resurrection, our faith would be meaningless (my paraphrase). Likewise, a worship service without the gospel would be meaningless. Liturgy can be a great way to provide a framework to read, pray, sing, and respond to the gospel as the body of Christ.
I know that not every church and worship style will resonate with the use of liturgical elements, and I’m certainly not saying that this is the only way that a worship service should be planned. I should also probably clarify that stylistically, our worship service still has a modern feel and sound to it, to the point where if you removed these liturgical elements, it wouldn’t feel drastically different from most “contemporary” services in American churches. I will say, however, that since incorporating more of these types of elements in our services, I have seen a marked shift in each of these five areas, and a stirring of a robust and meaningful time of worship in the life of our church. Now that we use these elements on a regular basis, it would be hard to imagine going back to not using them.