Understanding Liturgy, Pt. I: An Evangelical Understanding

CommonWorshipBooksThanks to the work of evangelical scholars, particularly Robert E. Webber, there has been a renewed interest in evangelical circles on the history of our faith. The rise in interest in our Christian history has primarily peaked concerning the historic Church’s worship. In this pursuit, “liturgy” has made an appearance within North American evangelicalism

Plenty of scholarship outlines the origination of the word “liturgy”, or leitourgia, so I will not spend time describing its entrance into the Church. Often understood as “the work of the people”, some scholars offer an extended definition, that liturgy is primarily “the work of Christ”, as well as “the work of the people”. The latter definition offsets the tendency to see the liturgy as a good work performed by the Church.

To simply define liturgy as “the work of the people” would suggest that all churches perform liturgies on Sunday morning. However, when we understand the liturgy to be the work of Christ and of His people, we must pause to consider our Sunday morning services. Evangelicals, especially Pentecostals and Charismatics, quickly recognize the role of the Spirit in their assembled worship, but how often do we understand the person of Jesus of Nazareth to have a part in our worship?

During the Word, the reading of the Sacred Scriptures and the preaching, Christ speaks to His people, and at the Table, Christ hosts His Church. Certainly Christ acts within our assembled worship. If our understanding of worship excludes the work of Christ and only
recognizes the work of the Spirit, do our churches enact “liturgy”?

God’s grace extends far, and if Christ truly works within our churches on Sunday morning, then He works despite our lack of recognition and understanding.

If then, all churches practice liturgy, how do evangelicals understand liturgy? Is liturgy not Roman Catholic?

Why yes, Roman Catholics practice “liturgy”. So do Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and many other “high-churches”. When people associate liturgy with Roman Catholics, frequently they are addressing the complexity of their liturgy, the smells and the bells, rather than whether a church practices liturgy or not. “High-liturgy” or “low-liturgy”, “high-church” or “low-church” are often used to describe the nature of the liturgy. “High” suggesting a more complex liturgy, “low” suggesting a much simpler liturgy.

Shared Spirituality

I would like to present a couple ways for evangelicals to look at liturgy. The first perspective comes from Dr. Don Davis. Dr. Davis talks about “shared spirituality”. Dr. Davis notes that the purpose of shared spirituality is to reconnect our spiritual journeys to the Story of God and to reaffirm our common sacred roots to the orthodox historical faith. This shared spirituality allows us to affirm our faith together, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It allows for common ground for all of us to to be shaped by and grow from.

Applying shared spirituality to our liturgies has immense ramifications. First, our liturgies become the common thread for faith and doctrine in our churches. This understanding of liturgy allows us to understand liturgy beyond Sunday morning. We can now incorporate other services, daily prayer, small groups, etc. into our liturgies. This provides the framework, if you will, for our church life. It allows everyone to operate from the same page. What an invaluable source for garnering the same language and cultivating unity.

Liturgy Shapes and Forms

The other perspective to see liturgy is that liturgy shapes and forms us. Surely what we practice week in and week out affects us, therefore what we do ought to be taken under great consideration. This includes what we equip, empower, and train our congregations with during the week. How will our liturgy shape and form our congregation? Are we shaping holistically, orthodoxcially, and biblically?

I recognize that liturgy does not inherently transform us, provide life and inspiration, and does not magically or mystically call on God to do what we ask or seek. True worship results in transformation, which is observed through growing obedience to Almighty God. Here is what I will argue though: the liturgy will still shape and form us. Regardless of how our congregations interact with the liturgy, they will still be shaped by worship known as liturgy.

Worship and Liturgy

Speaking of worship and liturgy in the same sentence: what is the difference between worship and liturgy? A recent article of mine explored in depth a biblical theology of worship, so I will not spend a lot of time here on defining worship. Simply put, worship is a response to the holy, triune God within the redemptive covenant fellowship for God’s glory by the Holy Spirit, through the Son, to the Father, and brings about transformation, which is evident through obedience. Liturgy, as its ecclesiastical definition suggests, is the work of Christ and His church. This is what we do together as a body of Christ’s disciples.

Worship can be far more encompassing than liturgy. Liturgy orients the communal worship of the Church. I offer this caution, however, that just because you can worship outside the liturgy does not minimize the importance of the liturgy. Christ said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV) Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is among us during the liturgy. Here the Word and Table are celebrated with Christ the Word and Christ the Host. The author of Hebrews is right to encourage their audience to not forsake the act of assembling together (Hebrews 10:25).

So this may be all well and fine, but what are the practical implications of a liturgical understanding of the church’s worship? This is a great question.

Liturgy and Evangelicals

A most appropriate first step for evangelicals in developing liturgical worship, is to simply become more intentional about our worship. My professor and mentor at Central Christian College of Kansas, Dr. Jacob Kaufman, wrote a rubric for his worship leaders at the college to help guide their thoughts and intentions as they designed worship services. This is a very practical way for designing more intentional services.

Part of the goal with being intentional with worship design is one, to design biblically faithful and theologically sound services, and secondly, to provide holistic worship. What happens to our spirituality when every Sunday we sing five songs on Christ’s celebration and never recognize that “from dust we are and to dust we shall return”? We will being to see some oddly shaped Christians in our congregations! We cannot allow our sights to become narrow when it comes to forming our faith.

Secondly, begin to consider how your Sunday service relates to the piety of your members during the week and the ministries that occur during the week. What will the thread be between all that is occurring within your church? Maybe you can offer a daily devotion that ties in within the weekly Sunday service. How do your small groups tie into the Sunday service and daily devotions? Perhaps the conversation surrounds the daily readings that stem from the sermon? This continuity will begin turning the oil tanker that is our churches towards a liturgical approach to our faith.

Historically, the lectionary has provided this continuity. The lectionary are weekly Bible readings from the Psalm, Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospels. With the intention of walking the participant through Christ’s life every year, the Lectionary provides that lining through all of the church’s work. Highlighting the different seasons of Christ’s life, the Daily Office provides daily readings within the context of the Lectionary. There are some great online resources for the Lectionary and Daily Office and some of them can be found on my Resources page here.

Thirdly, study worship and liturgy as it is understood and practiced throughout the history of your local church. For example, I just graduated from a Free Methodist school, so studying the liturgy of 18th century Church of England, to the Methodists in North America, to B.T. Roberts and the Free Methodists would be a way for me to adopt historic language and understand liturgical developments within my school’s tradition. If possible, you may even be able to track down past pastors of your church and explore how your specific church has worshiped in the past.

Lastly, do not be afraid to try new things. I just finished working with the campus pastor for three years and we had a strong relationship. While this can be attributed to several aspects of our relationship, one was that we were both willing to try anything, and afterwards discuss what occurred. What went well and what did not go well? Should we do this again, if so, will we change anything to improve on last time? Do we need to drop this? These questions were openly asked and honestly answered.

Liturgy and Evangelicalism

I am not attempting to present a liturgical approach as dogmatic or as the “right way” to order our churches, her worship, and her ministries. It has endured for 2000 years as a most effective discipling resource, however, and it certainly would seem to be able to make its place in 21st century North America. The power of evangelicalism is that we can appropriate anything and everything for our time and space with great freedom. Many have begun exploring evangelical liturgicalism in their own contexts, including myself.

If you have begun to explore with some of these thoughts and practices within your own church context, I would love to hear about it! Share in the comments below or write me an e-Mail.

Peace be with you all!

JP#4Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.

4 thoughts on “Understanding Liturgy, Pt. I: An Evangelical Understanding

  1. Great article, J!

    Help me understand your definitions better: if “liturgy” is the “work of the people and Christ,” then does liturgy occur anytime believers do any kind of ministry together?

    Could you give a clear, concise definition of liturgy as it pertains to the worship of the church? I want to give this article to some of my leaders but I’m not sure they would be able to gather a clear picture of what you mean by “liturgy”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Brother Erik. My current working definition of liturgy is “the work of Christ in the presence of His people and His people participating in that work.” I will provide an in-depth explanation of this definition next week in my article, “Understanding Liturgy: An Evangelical Definition”. The short answer to your question, however, is yes. This has potential within an evangelical outlook of the faith, but the definition also may be inconsistent with an historical approach to understanding liturgy as well as require evangelicals to rethink their understanding of personal piety.


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