Liturgy As Formative, Not Expressive Worship
Liturgy is the order of worship each local church implements every Lord’s Day. Most modern churches tend not to publish their liturgy and assume it as tradition. Some churches have a fluid liturgy, perhaps in the hope of avoiding perceived rigid expressions of worship. However, whether rigid or fluid, most of these churches aim to find the best way to express their worship to God and feel close to Him.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church are perhaps our best examples of liturgy-based worship. They both prize and prioritize liturgy unlike any other because they integrate their salvation and spiritual vitality into their worship service. That is why, in the sixteenth century, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church played a part in the Reformation protest. The Reformers saw a contrast between God’s Word and the Church’s worship, so in the Reformation, they replaced the mass with preaching, they took down the images from the walls and removed the confession booths. Why? Because they saw them as directly contrary to the clear teaching of the gospel.
The mass, or the Lord’s Supper, took center stage of the Church’s liturgy, and by the sixteenth century, it had become the most significant means by which Catholics obtained and maintained their salvation. Because of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Reformers saw the mass as a gross misuse of the Lord’s Supper and even more awful teaching of salvation. The images had to go because of ties to idolatry, and they no longer needed the confession booth in light of the Reformer’s recovery of Christ’s priestly intercession. The liturgy had to change because of biblical doctrine.
Today, the trouble we have with our liturgies is not so much about biblical doctrine. The problem we have is in our approach to liturgy, in that we use it to express ourselves and fail to approach it as something that forms us into better Christians. The Catholic Church had a sense of this problem in their liturgy—in their grand outward displays of piety and hollow hearts toward God—but today, it has become part of the liturgy approach. Yet, there is a connection between the two. When the Reformers took over abandoned cathedrals, they removed the table for mass, located front and center, and replaced it with a pulpit. This change signified the supreme authority of the Bible over the congregation. Today, many churches have replaced the pulpit with a stage. If we apply the Reformation model to them, I suppose the stage signifies the priority of entertaining the congregation.
It also signifies something about the congregation’s approach to the liturgy, in that the congregation’s priority is to be entertained and express themselves through song (and maybe dance). For them, it is about the experience of expressive worship. As opposed, Reformed liturgy was meant to form the congregation by the Word of God.
It is at this point I want to ask, why do you attend church? What draws you to the church you attend? Is it the “freedom to express yourself”? Is it more nuanced, in that you attend to experience the presence of God through your worship to Him? Is it the people? Is it because you have always attended, and that is just what you do? Is it to be formed by God’s Word into someone more Christ-like?
Preaching was prioritized in the early Church and the Reformation, and should be prioritized today because it is one of God’s primary methods for forming us. My guess is you remember little of what your pastor said last Sunday, but that doesn’t matter. God was forming you as you heard His Word proclaimed. The apostle Paul tells us that faith comes through hearing the Word of God preached (Romans 10:17), so when you hear God’s Word proclaimed, God is building your faith. What is more, at the moment you heard God’s Word preached, God’s Word was renewing your mind (Romans 12:2). You and I must, therefore, approach our church’s liturgy to be formed, not to express ourselves. Likewise, our churches must prioritize formation into Christ’s likeness over and above personalized expressions.
Some might rightly object that worship is not so cut and dried as that. We express ourselves when we come to God, and we express ourselves when we come together to worship Him. The book of Psalms records many different expressions in prayer and worship, some of which even the most expressive of us would be embarrassed to perform. However, in the Psalms, you will notice that the psalmists never rely on their expression of worship, but seek to form themselves to the Word of God. Besides, what good is it to express yourself to God and go home empty-handed? If a Psalmist begins with grumbling, they usually end with praise. If they start fearful, they usually end with hope. They are centred on God’s Word, and they are formed and filled accordingly.
It isn’t only because God intends to form us by His Word that we should come to worship Him, ready to be formed. Ultimately, what God wants from us when we gather to worship is our hearts, not our expressions. God requires we come before Him to be formed from within, not to perform externally. That alone is reason enough to change our attitude towards liturgy.
When we take part in church service—singing truth, hearing truth preached, and encouraging one another in the truth—God makes us more like Christ. This changes our expectations for our church experience. We don’t necessarily need a challenging sermon every Lord’s Day to change us, nor do we need to be moved by the singing and the programs. We cannot morph into the best Christian overnight. Instead, we need consistency in the truth because that is what formation into Christ’s likeness needs.