When the subject of worship “style” comes up, people generally start getting antsy. We stop listening and begin forming our objections. The young among us say, “I can worship any way I like.” The more mature, recognizing the self-centeredness of statements like this, will rightly counter with Paul’s limitations on Christian liberty, (1 Cor. 10:23-33) but go on to say, “How we worship is optional, subject to the preferences of the unbeliever, and not mandated by Scripture.” Whether or not that is true will be the subject of a later post.
Let us suspend those arguments for a moment and ask why worship matters… Passages of Scripture that immediately come to mind include the first two commandments, the Psalms, the practice of Jesus both in private and corporate worship (In the gospels we often see Jesus in the synagogue, temple, & private prayer. Jesus begins his ministry at Baptism and ends it with instituting the Lord’s Supper before going out to pray on his way to the Cross to lay down his life. The life of Jesus is surrounded and ordered by worship.) In the book of Revelation, the last thing we are doing is engaged in the “chief end” of humanity, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “to worship God and enjoy him forever.” Indeed, It appears an inescapable fact that all humans, regardless of religion or irreligion, worship something. We were made to worship.
How then, I wonder, can we say, that the manner in which we worship does not matter? Unless, of course, the object of our worship does not matter.
What if we assume three things about worship, simply because it is true of all of the Christian life: First, that what other Christians have done and thought through time is relevant. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Asking how those who stood closest to Jesus worshiped, is surely wise. Second, that the aspirations of our youngest members is relevant, since they will carry the baton when we are gone. Third, that we are part of a universal church, “one holy catholic and apostolic,” …that we are umbilically tied to every Christian in every corner of the globe, so their practice is also relevant.
Interestingly, On all three of those assumptions, the question arises, “What about liturgy?” After all, It is the way the first Christians worshiped and is the worship pattern enjoyed by 90% of all Christians who have ever walked the earth. Liturgy is also making a comeback among young evangelicals in unlikely places like PhoenixOne, a 1000 person young adult gathering, and on the stage of the church that invented the non-denominational “seeker movement,” Willow Creek. Third, it is the form of worship utilized by 2/3 of the Christians on the planet today. So you might want to check liturgical worship out, if only to see what the cool people are doing. Ok, so I’m joking. Sort of.
The most important thing about liturgy is that it isn’t taught, it’s caught…or, more accurately, something you get caught-up in it…like being tossed into a cold swimming pool by the older kids in elementary school.
The Greek word leitourgia comes from two root words – laos, “the people”, and ergas, “a work”. Therefore, you will hear it said that liturgy is “the work of the people.” That’s a little bit true since liturgy is participatory…the term “pew aerobics” comes to mind. Liturgy does involve all of you in worship – your whole body, which is important because our hearts and heads follow our bodies. You know that intuitively if you have raised your hands or bowed down in worship.
But “work that people do” is not really the meaning of “liturgy” at all. leitourgia was the word to describe an act of public service initiated by a wealthy benefactor. For instance, a person of means might build a temple and foot the bill, but the work itself benefited the community. Any public work done in service to the gods, but for the benefit of the community was liturgy. So liturgy is work dedicated to God, initiated for people, and which serves to transform the world–and that is the big meaning: liturgy is about the faith community being transformed for the purpose of going out and transforming the lost world. And a transformed community that couldn’t stop sharing the Good News is exactly how 11 scared dudes turned the most powerful empire in the world upside down in less than 300 years.
So liturgical worship is for God, transforms us, and benefits a lost world. Who wouldn’t want that?