What a small topic! And clearly one I am definitely not the best equipped to answer. But why don’t I share a few thoughts, hopefully, that can help shape a conversation about worship.
A New Discovery?
But why don’t I begin with a short story. A few years ago, I was reading a book by a well-known pastor on the subject of worship. His experience had been primarily in the church-planting evangelical/megachurch world, quite different from my Catholic/Presbyterian upbringing.
After a few years, the church was in need of vision, perhaps even a sense of rootedness.
They had chased the fads of other fast-growing churches searching for the silver bullet of church growth. When those bullets failed, one after the other, the leadership realized they needed something different. They wanted to be rooted more holistically in the gospel and their worship to reflect that rootedness.
They were aware of the fact that their 5 worship songs, a sermon, and a few announcements were not grounding them quite the way they wanted. And so this church staff began dreaming of a worship service in which the entire service, from beginning to end, would do just that-would locate God’s people right in the center of the redemption song of scripture.
Entering the Whole Story of Scripture
At the time, this church thought they had discovered something truly special, but as they began to get to know other church leaders, they realized they were now doing what most liturgical churches have been doing for centuries…telling the story of scripture as they walk through the worship service. (My colleague Scott Bullock has written an excellent overview of Liturgy as Story here if you are interested)
So here we find the first of a number of reasons to incorporate what we might call “higher liturgical elements into worship. Every worship service, as our seminary professors tell us, has a liturgy. Three worship songs and a sermon is a liturgy, and so high and low liturgy (hopefully not seen as pejorative towards contemporary worship) is perhaps a helpful way to distinguish between styles of liturgy.
High liturgy enables the church to experience the whole gospel, from praise and adoration to confession of sin, to being pardoned for that sin, to hear the gospel message of salvation, to taking communion, and so on.
The People’s Work
And this brings us to a second benefit that churches can experience with high liturgy: worship is participatory…The word “liturgy” itself means “the people’s work.” Not exactly what we may have initially thought. Most of us probably assumed it meant “worship,” or “ritual.” But “the work of the people” gives us insight into the nature of Christian worship: that it is meant to be participatory.
We are not mere bystanders, but worshippers, “doing the work” of praising God by reciting prayers, confessing our sin (and our faith), standing to receive the gospel, taking communion as the body of Christ. Every high liturgical tradition doesn’t follow these, but many do, and each has the ability to draw us into the presence of God.
An Invitation to Worship with the Great Cloud of Witnesses
Like many other Wheaties (Wheaton College students), my wife Colleen came in a pentecostal and left an Anglican. When we first started dating, I would meet her at the old “chapel” at the Falls Church Episcopal and we would worship together, reciting the same prayers (with obvious language updates) that have been recited for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
One of the things I remember Colleen mentioning that she found so refreshing is that the focus wasn’t solely on the pastor in Anglican services. Sermons were usually between 10-15 minutes, and it never felt as though there was a cult of personality with the senior pastor.
That’s not to say sermons are not important, but they do not dominate the service as they often do in low-liturgical settings. While I am sure this is not the intent, when a pastor preaches for 40-45 minutes out of an hour’s service, it becomes quite difficult for the diversity of the body of Christ to be well-represented. Biblical and theological truths are conveyed almost exclusively through one person. No matter how faithful they may be, such a model does little to express the full diversity of the body of Christ.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, I am certainly not one to have an exhaustive list of reasons to consider the benefits of high liturgy in worship. But I do think we can see the value, when done in unison with the power of the Holy Spirit, to shape and form us more into the image of Christ. But it is also well worth stating that some of the driest, dullest, least vibrant worship services often happen in “high liturgical” contexts.
So incorporating more liturgical elements into your worship service is not a “silver bullet” either. But, what it can do, is help congregations experience the whole gospel story, act as engaged participants “doing the work” of worship, and experience the beauty of diversity within the body of Christ, not merely across the globe, but from the very earliest expressions of Christian worship.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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