Understanding Liturgy, Pt. II: An Evangelical Definition

Holy_Eucharist_Rite_2In my last article I offered an evangelical perspective on liturgy. While not a conversation that evangelicals have often participated in for some time, the work of numerous theologians, including Robert Webber and Simon Chan has stirred an interest in knowing our Christian history, and therefore an understanding of how those who have gone before us have worshiped. With this uncovering of the past, learning the language of liturgy has become a necessity.

Deterred by the word “liturgy”, many evangelicals are unable to take the time to grasp liturgy and all that it means and encompasses. This article seeks to present a working evangelical definition of liturgy as influenced by its historical definition. I am comfortable offering a working definition for two reasons: one, theology is concerned with uncovering the best human language possible for God and His work, and two, I am more than willing to concede my thoughts to another who appears to use “more right” language than myself (although probably not without a stubborn discussion).

As I mentioned in my last article, plenty of works have been published on the development of leitourgia in Roman life and how the early church applied the word to its own life, so we will simply begin our work here with the definition of liturgy often associated with the apostolic age, and that is “the work of the people”. This historic definition will launch our conversation.

“The Work of the People”

“The work of the people” has historically consisted of the Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours (or Daily Office), and the Christian Calendar (also called Church Calendar or Liturgical Calendar). Other rites may be included in this definition as well, including Baptism, Ordinations, and Initiations (for catechumens). This looks like the worship of the Church, some may exclaim, and they are certainly accurate.

Right now evangelicals are looking at their faith from a “missional” lens. This is the hip and hot word for evangelical churches right now, but this is not historically the approach the Church has come to understand herself. The Church typically identifies with her worship to understand herself. It is in the Word that Christ speaks, and the Table in which He actualizes His presence and invites His people for communion. Therefore this is the heart of the Christian’s life.

Evangelicals, however, identify with the Church’s mission as an act of going out into the world to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection. I will write about worship and mission in a future article, as I think evangelicals can certainly better understand the relationship between worship and mission; they are not paradoxical as many evangelicals have come to believe. For now, though, we will accept the prior statement, right now, and recognize that evangelicals may struggle to adopt this definition and interpretation of the liturgy.

“The Work of Christ”

Some scholars have reacted to this definition and suggested that the liturgy is the work of Christ. Since the liturgy is so tightly knit with her worship, and God initiates worship, this definition allows our worship to be theocentric, and more specifically, Christocentric. This is a wonderful balance to understanding liturgy as the work of the people. This also aligns with the Reformation that stemmed from Martin Luther’s concerns, that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, the work of Christ, rather than the work of the people, saved by works.

Balancing these definitions, liturgy as the work of the people and liturgy of the work of Christ, certainly seems to be refining our working definition of liturgy. If the reader will allow, I would like to draw an inference from these two definitions when they compliment one another. These two definitions side-by-side suggest that Christ initiates the liturgy and the people participate in the work that Christ initiates. This allows liturgy to be Christocentric and recognize the Church’s role in that work.

The Liturgy and Christ’s Presence

There is another aspect to understanding liturgy through the historical lens that we must consider when attempting to define liturgy. The liturgy culminates at the Table. It is at the Table that Christ’s presence is actualized, and for the liturgy, there is no greater gift. Remember, there is no Table without the Word. Christ invites us to the Table after He has spoken to us, so the Word still maintains a central part of the liturgy. Even the Roman Catholics recognize this with Vatican II.

This adds an interesting dynamic to how we understand liturgy. It asks the question, “How does Christ’s presence relate to the liturgy?” After all, Christ did say “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV) For evangelicals to understand the liturgy with a relationship to Christ’s presence opens up some exciting possibilities for how evangelicals relate to, understand, and identity with liturgy.

If the liturgy consists of when Christ is present, where two or more are gathered in my name, this may include the evangelism and missional posture evangelicals have historically attempted to take. When we are gathered in Christ’s name, we gather to participate in His work. This work includes both worshiping the Father, Christ as His Son and the Church as His redeemed, which is possible with Christ as our High Priest. Christ speaks to His Church and we respond in faith.

When we assemble to do Christ’s work in the world, He is with us then, for He is our Head and we are His Body. We are doing the work of the Church, historical understanding, which is ultimately the work of Christ, we participate with Him, and He is among us, which is why the liturgy culminates at the Table.

To clarify “the work of Christ” as it relates to “when two or three are gathered in my name” (my italics), I would like to point us to the Sacred Scriptures. It is within the Sacred Scriptures that we find everything pertaining to life and salvation, and it is in them that we find the person of Christ. His work and His Church’s calling are clear: “seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). When we gather to hear His Word, eat and drink at His table, defend the voiceless, feed the hungry, or clothe the poor, we are gathered in the living name of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Son of God, the ruler of all creation.

An Evangelical Definition of Liturgy

In my pursuit of defining liturgy, I am not attempting to redefine liturgy or provide an original insight. I am, however, trying to understand liturgy in its fullest nature. With the definitions and perceptions that have been regarded as quality theological scholarship, I am drawing my own inferences and conclusions in an attempt to provide an evangelically shaped meaning and understanding of liturgy.

At this point, I would like to present a clear definition of liturgy. Liturgy is “the work of Christ in the presence of His Church, and His Church participating in that work.” This definition synthesizes the three aspects of liturgy that have been addressed in this article. It presumes Christ’s presence and His work, then the Church responding in faith and participating in Christ’s work, which consists of worship and mission.

This definition keeps the historical practices that are normally thought of to be within the liturgy, including the Assembly (Word and Table), Liturgy of the Hours, Baptism, Initiations, and Ordinations.

The Liturgy and Personal Piety

There is one aspect of the evangelical faith that becomes greatly affected with this approach to liturgy, and that is our understanding of personal piety. You hear it referred to as personal devotions, individual Scripture reading and prayer, or a host of other words or phrases. How do we understand this personal piety within the context of liturgy?

At first glance, your individual spirituality does not play a part within the Church’s liturgy with my proposed definition of liturgy. There are two routes to take with this conflict. The first is to propose a different definition of liturgy, and the second is to reshape our personal piety paradigm.

How does the Liturgy of the Hours make the cut, one may ask and personal devotions do not? Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, 1928, 1979, whatever you may have on hand. Open to the Morning or Evening Prayer, either Rite I or II. Does the liturgy presume a single individual or a gathering? It most certainly understands Morning and Evening Prayer within the context of a local Church gathered, as it is written with a Celebrant and People.

There is not enough space in this article to delve into understanding personal piety, especially as it relates to liturgy, but I invite the reader to ask a couple of questions:

  • How do we understand personal piety knowing our relationship with God takes place within the New Covenant, between God and His people through Christ?
  • How does personal piety affect the Church?

As evangelical Christians continue to pursue an orthodox understanding of liturgy, these may be some great questions to begin asking for when we invite people to spend time reading Scripture and praying in their own spaces. What exactly are we asking our congregations to do?

Benediction

These are my initial thoughts when it comes to defining liturgy. While we continue our explorations, we find ourselves forced to provide an ecclesiology, especially the relationship between Christ and His Church, and our individual relationships towards Christ and towards the Church.
May the Spirit so draw our hearts to God, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly His, utterly dedicated to Him.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all this week.

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.

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