A lot of Christians have told me that they’re not into the liturgical tradition. they don’t see the point of it, or they don’t think it means much to them personally, or it’s not their style; some even think liturgy is a bad thing. The majority of these people, though, have never given liturgical worship a fair try, if any! The thing about liturgical worship (or any worship ‘style’) is that it has got to be experienced in full over a period of time before its benefits and shortcomings become personally apparent. Liturgists and ascetical-theologians can talk about the ins and outs, and explain lots of things, but it’s inevitably going to sound dry and dull most of the time. (Not that talking about liturgical traditions is always boring – talking about the “drama of the liturgy” can be quite an engaging approach.) Nevertheless, we who do live in liturgical traditions are constantly asked why we bother with all these formal things.
It is often assumed that those of us who go to liturgical churches mostly share a personality trait (or spiritual disposition) wherein we like liturgy. It’s our style. Several people have referred to ‘traditional Christianity’ saying “that just Matt’s thing.” While it is certainly true that there are a number of elements of liturgical worship that I do deeply enjoy and appreciate, the deeper point has been missed here. After all, liturgical worship includes things that pretty much every other Christian tradition has: reading the Bible, singing songs, hearing a homily or sermon, praying together.
Not everyone enjoys sermons; I know a guy who loves to ask questions, and sermons are frustrating because he wants to have his questions answered. Not everyone appreciates music; I know a guy who focuses so much on musical technicalities when he listens to music that it’s very hard for him to turn it up to God as worship. Not everyone is ‘good at’ corporate prayer; I know someone whose mind wanders easily without something participatory or tactile on which to focus. I think my point is made – there are parts of any worship service of any style that will speak more to certain individuals than others. The question is, at this point, what to do about it. Do we reduce and simplify our corporate worship so that it best fits everyone attending? That’s what many modern evangelical protestant churches have done.
But the liturgical tradition says NO! From our perspective (and, arguably, from the collective wisdom of the Church throughout history), corporate worship is not about serving individual preferences, but uniting individuals into one body to worship one God. Rather than over-simplifying worship, liturgical worship seeks to encompass the whole gamut of gifts, dispositions, and experiences and styles. There is music from and for those who’re gifted in music. There is preaching from and for those who like learning. There is prayer from and for those who have a thing for intercession. There is kneeling and sitting and standing for those who like to express themselves physically and not just spiritually. There is visual art and the sound of bells and the smell of incense for those who wish to experience worship with all of their senses.
This brings out a little irony in the course of history: modern evangelicalism has sought to bring more people into the church by simplifying things. But healthy liturgical worship is actually far more likely to appeal to a given individual because there’s so much more going on! Can the liturgy be overwhelming for some? Oh yes, no question about it. But God is like that too, is he not? Even his angels scare the crap out of people whenever they show up in the Bible, not to mention the fact that God’s face is unsurvivable! I don’t mean to say that our worship ought to scare people away, but it should reflect the character of God. He is holy, different, beautiful, and cares about (and loves) every single person on this planet.
Aside from the visible elements of liturgy we’ve looked at, there are also a number of background features: the order of worship, the pattern of colors representing different seasons and themes, the lectionary (Bible-reading plan for the whole year), and the calendar of holidays and seasons and feasts and fasts. I’ve also heard from people that these, too, mean nothing to them. That may well be true; not everybody is spiritually wired the same way. They’re quick to point out Paul’s words that no day is more sacred than another. But this isn’t an argument against using a calendar, but a practical explanation for Jesus’ teaching that Sabbath was made for man, not the other way round. In other words, the calendar (like every other piece of liturgy) was made to help us worship, not as a mandate from God.
Sure, not everybody’s the holiday type. But in the Sinai Covenant – under the Mosaic Law – you had no real choice: celebrate the Passover or be kicked out of society. Yes, the new covenant in Christ grants us freedom from the legalistic side of things like calendars, but the first Christians had learned the lesson from their ancestors: celebrate their beliefs and significant events together, or unity will crumble.
In short, liturgical worship, in all its elements, is not for everyone. It’s not custom-designed for a certain spiritual disposition or worship preference. After all, none of us lives to himself or dies to himself; we’re one Body in Christ. It’s not for each of us, but for all of us. It’s not made for every individual, it’s made for the whole Church. If you love Jesus, he’ll show you to your place within his Body.