Every local church has a liturgy. That is, every church has a particular form and arrangement to their worship service that includes certain elements each time they gather. In this series, I want to explore how the liturgy of the local church should be formative, showing us how to live during the other six days of the calendar year. For this first article, I want to give an overview of liturgy itself.
High Church Versus Low Church Liturgy
When it is said that every church has a liturgy, some people want to object. It is a commonly held belief that the only liturgical churches are churches like the Catholic Church, The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Church, The Presbyterian Church and all of their variations. Typically, these churches are seen as stuffy and dead, focused more on appearance, ritual, and tradition, rather than the lively worship of Spirit-led non-liturgical churches. Unfortunately, this stereotype can be true at times, but it doesn’t need to be so. If done correctly, a church’s liturgy should be life-giving rather than life-robbing.
These churches are called “high churches.” This means that they have a formal liturgy—a definite structure and order to their services. They also tend to have liturgical clothing such as robes, see a distinction between Church leadership and the laity, and make use of confessions, creeds, and other documents as a connection to the historical church and its tradition.
On the opposite end of the scale are “low churches.” These churches do not have a formal liturgy, though they do tend to have a structure that is informally followed. Hence, they do have a liturgy, though it may be informal or unstated. Churches in this category include denominations such as Baptist churches, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, Independent churches, and the like.
Low church stereotypes include being agnostic about the historical faith and being less intellectual or sophisticated. Again these stereotypes can be true (for instance, most if not all churches that are anti-intellectual or atheological are low churches), but this isn’t always the case. Nor should it be.
So where is the church I attend? Sojourn is a Baptist church, but we have a formal liturgy. The church doesn’t have a formal position stated, but I would argue that we are “mid-church.” We borrow heavily from the high church traditions when designing our liturgy, but we also reject a fundamental difference between church leaders and “laity.” We don’t have liturgical clothing, but we do often utilize the historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms produced by the historical church.
Liturgy is Story-telling
Regardless as to whether you are high or low church (or mid!), your church has a liturgy. Perhaps it’s not the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but rather more along the lines of greetings and announcments, songs, prayer, offering, prayer, sermon, prayer, songs, closing prayer/benediction. If you want to see if your church truly does have a liturgy, try to start a motion to change when your church takes an offering during its service—you’ll find out soon that you do in fact have a liturgy. Also, you might split your church, so don’t actually do this.
So, your church has a liturgy. This is because it also has a story to tell. In fact, it has The story to tell. When we hear the word “story” we tend to think about fiction—novels and fairy-tales. These are stories of course, but a story is not necessarily fiction by definition. Biographies are stories about someone’s life (unfortunately, the worst biographies read more like fact-sheets at times). In fact, the Bible is a story. It is the story about God and his creation, what went wrong, and what God is doing to make everything right. This doesn’t make it fiction. Quite the contrary.
Stories are important for us as human beings. As one TED speaker has pointed out, we think in narrative structures. That is, we take the events of life, the emotions they bring, and make connections in order to understand our experiences. Stories are how we make sense of the world around us. Thus, stories are formative. They shape us and teach us how to understand the world.
Liturgy is Formative
If stories are formative, and liturgies tell a story, this means that liturgy should be formative as well. Liturgies contain events and connections that help us understand the gospel story, and the gospel story is the upmost formative story that has ever been told. In fact, it’s a re-formation story (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 3:9-11). The liturgical elements are a re-telling of the gospel. From the call to worship to confession to the pronouncement of forgiveness, the order of the service is the order of our faith.
The elements of our liturgy give a rhythm to the service that should also give us a rhythm to life. In other words, if liturgy is formative our lives should reflect this reality. At the end of the local church service we are sent out from one sacred space (where the church gathers) to another sacred space (where the church exists scattered). This is called the benediction. It teaches us that we do not cease to be the Church in our schools, jobs, homes, or wherever else we find ourselves, and so we carry the liturgy of the church—the formative gospel story—wherever we go.
This series will follow the liturgy of my own local church, Sojourn Community Church. Our typical elements are the call to worship, adoration, confession, assurance, the passing of peace, the sermon, and the benediction. This is largely the flow the rest of the series will follow.