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2009 February 10
by Julie Clawson

Recently a conversation has developed in a post from last fall, Vespers at the Orthodox Church, on the purpose of liturgy and worship. I know very little about liturgy and barely understand what I do know. So I want to ask some questions and relate a bit of my experience. These questions aren’t meant to condemn, just to relate my confusion. I would love to hear from those who do participate in and love liturgy. Here’s part of the recent conversation –

“I understand in theory how liturgy is meant to feed and fill worshipers”

But that’s just it — liturgy isn’t meant to do that. Expecting to be fed and filled is part of the consumerist mentality.

Liturgy is “the work of the people”. It’s not directed towards the people; it is done by the people, and directed towards God.

And that is the chief difference between liturgical worship and other kinds. Non-liturgical worship may directed towards the people, to instruct them, to edify them, or to entertain them. But liturgical worship is done by the people, and directed towards God. So it’s definitely not “seeker sensitive”.

Now I’ve confessed here before that I am a very low church mutt. I grew up not only thinking denominations were bad, but that Catholics and Orthodox weren’t really Christians. I didn’t even start attending “big church” until I was in 6th grade and instead spent the worship hour hearing stories told by puppets and singing songs with motions. My first liturgical experience was at a Vespers service at Westminster Abbey when I was 12. And, I kid you not, I spent the whole time thinking I was participating in idolatry because of all the kneeling.

At the same time I seriously can’t stand singing songs in church for worship. I liked it back in youth group days when that involved upbeat rhythms that prompted a somewhat uninhibited letting go of the self. But honestly there is much more a sense of that in pagany drum circles than in any church. And while in theory singing songs is a way to worship, thank, or praise God – I generally hear people mention how singing connects them with God. It is a personal relationship issue, using things they like to help them feel close to God.

So it is with this low church “worship as personal experience” lens that I look at liturgy. I know it’s technically the “work of the people” and like low-church worship theoretically directed to God, but I have a hard time really understanding that. In one sense I’m uncomfortable with the system having never participated long enough to become accustomed. Recitation, repetition, kneeling, standing, crossing oneself, putting to the same flat music any number of different hymns or verses – none of it seems done by me. Instead I feel directed to perform and scorned for not knowing the right steps.  How exactly is it “my work”?  Is it a ritual meant to be done by me but in spite of me?

But beyond my unfamiliarity, my underlying questions are what is the purpose of this work and why do those who abide by various forms of liturgy insist that theirs is the best (or only) way of doing church? I don’t understand how some 17th or 18th century program represents the highest calling of the people. How exactly does chanting verses fulfill our call to serve others? If it’s not meant to “feed” those doing it, how can it be for the benefit of others? Similarly I’ve had Catholics, Orthodox, and Presbyterians quite forcefully tell me how their formulation of the liturgy is the only real way to worship. To an outsider if often seems like they are insisting that the correct incantation and sequence of pew calisthenics is the magical formula that (abracadabra) creates worship. Or that God is too small to be found outside of whatever century’s chosen formulation they happen to settle upon.

So all that to say I’m confused about liturgy. I’m not one of those who want to push some crappy low church model instead, to me insisting on the rightness of any form seems culturally imperialistic and a far cry from worship. So I’m honestly asking those that participate in liturgy why. Why do you do it? How is it the work of the people? What is it’s purpose? Is it the only or best way?


27 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009

    Hi Julie,

    You ask good questions. I like liturgy. I feel really at home in it. I was raised happily suburban Presbyterian but when I got my first taste of an Episcopal services with all of its “smells and bells” and kneelers, I found something new resonated in me. But, I also feel really at home in traditionally black churches, so apparently I’ve got a lot of bells inside of me to be rung.

    In my experience, chanting verses doesn’t fulfill my call to serve others. However, it does create a space for me to focus on God and reset myself, bring myself back into alignment with her desires for me. From there, I can more easily go out and serve others. It may be considered consumerist because I do get something from it but I’m willing to live with that.

    Although I dislike the aspects of C.S. Lewis that were not-at-all open-minded about, well, anything, a passage he wrote about liturgy has stuck in my head for the last 14 years. I found it again here.

  2. Don permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I can only speak from my own experience. I grew up in a Methodist church which was, for a Methodist church, somewhat high-church (we actually sang chants during the [relatively rare] Communion services we had). After we were married, we attended a “charismatic” church for 23 years. I hated the worship style almost from the beginning, precisely because I felt it was “me” focused rather than God focused. And I disliked much of the music as well. It seemed trite and repetitious to me and lacked musical interest. (You have to understand that I was a music major during my undergraduate years. But that–as you put it–so-called “flat” music really resonates for me. For one thing, I like to sing harmonies. For another, the best hymns do more than provide a vehicle for worship; they also teach theology. And I need much more than a “Christian mantra” to sing. And most of that music isn’t really “flat” at all anyway; it’s how the music is performed that’s the issue.)

    This church was almost arrogant about their worship style. They almost believed that they had reinvented worship, or at least rescued it from “dead tradition.”

    Obviously, we stayed in that church for other reasons–not the worship style. However, after a job change required us to move, we immediately vowed to look for a church that had a more traditional liturgy. (My wife grew up Episcopalian, by the way; her father was a priest.) Eventually we ended up in a Lutheran church.

    There’s just something for me in the repeating of familiar words and the singing of familiar tunes; the reciting of the Creed, reminding me every Sunday of what I believe; the familiar words of Institution before Communion, etc., that puts me not only in mind of God but in the presence of God, and that reminds me of God’s majesty in a way that other worship models just are unable to do.

    There’s more, theologically speaking, and this is far more important. The liturgical forms go back to the early church; in some cases (such as some of the chant melodies), they actually go back to pre-Christian synagogue worship. By using these forms, models, and chants in our everyday worship, we are truly participating in the communion of saints. We’re worshipping in the same way that the saints throughout history worshipped. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, while singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth…” or “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us your peace,” that the saints in heaven are actually singing along with us and thus are worshipping God alongside us! In fact, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, the liturgical forms are designed in part to bring a bit of heaven down to earth.

    We still occasionally attend churches with other worship models. And I would never say that they aren’t really worshipping God properly or that their worship model isn’t genuine worship. But it really galls me when people from these other traditions scoff at liturgy, especially when they say it’s just “dead tradition,” boring music, or, worst of all, that we really aren’t worshipping at all. They simply don’t know what they’re saying.


  3. February 10, 2009

    I’m not a liturgical Christian, but I respect it as one form of Christian worship, one that resonates with some people and helps them lift their hearts to God.

    As I understand it, liturgical worship developed before the advent of the printing press and widespread literacy. So it would be natural in that setting that worship would consist of things memorized, learned by repetition, physical gestures, and sensory things like art and incense. Actually, I think those of us who are non-liturgical can learn from this kind of whole body worship.

    Whatever we do in worship — whether praise songs sung with hands raised or a high Episcopal liturgy — these are all our offerings to God. They are the ways we offer ourselves, body and soul, to God and seek God’s presence and love.

    Peace to you.

  4. Karl permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Here are some words from one Christian on liturgical worship in the Orthodox church:

    “The appeal of joining this vast, ancient, rock-solid communion must be something like the appeal of joining the marines. It’s going to demand a hell of a lot out of you, and it’s not going to cater to your individual whims, but when it’s through with you you’re going to be more than you ever knew you could be. It’s going to demand, not death on the battlefield, but death to self in a million painful ways, and God is going to be sovereign . . .

    “My vague assumption was that early Christians just sat around on the floor, probably in their blue jeans, talking about what a great guy Jesus was. It was embarrassing to review Scripture and realize that from Exodus to Revelation worship is clothed in gold, silver, precious stones, embroidery, robes of gorgeous fabric, bells and candles; I don’t know of an instance of scriptural worship that doesn’t include incense. God ordered beauty, even extravagant beauty, in worship even while his people were still wandering the desert in tents. Beauty must mean something that no-nonsense, head-driven Christians fail to grasp . . .

    “A kaleidoscope of images flashes through my mind. The textures, the scents, the music of the liturgy, a continuous song of worship that lifts me every week. The Great Fast of Lent, a discipline far more demanding than I’d ever faced in my Christian walk. Kneeling on Holy and Great Thursday and listening to the hammer blows resound as my husband nailed the icon of Jesus’ corpus to the cross; seeing my daughter’s shoulders shake with sobbing. Easter morning giddiness and champagne at sunrise. Hearing my son say that, after a year of the Divine Liturgy, he didn’t like the sentimental hymns of the last 300 years any more: “They make me feel further from God.” Seeing icons change from looking grim and forbidding to looking challenging, strong and true. True.

    “Truth turns into Beauty in unexpected ways. What was strange and perplexing has become my sweetest home.”

  5. February 10, 2009

    Don & Karl – while I get how the liturgy connects us with the long history of the communion of saints and traditions of the church, I’m curious if the theory that Jesus attempted to dismantle the temple system has been addressed by those who promote the “tradition” defense. While there is nothing wrong with tradition, taking Jesus’ words on how that tradition usurped service and “true worship” makes me wary of placing tradition as a primary focus. if that makes sense…

    But what I’m hearing in a few of these responses that liturgy is about connecting us with God –

    “create a space for me to focus on God and reset myself, bring myself back into alignment with her desires for me.”

    “There’s just something for me in the repeating of familiar words and the singing of familiar tunes”

    “Hearing my son say that, after a year of the Divine Liturgy, he didn’t like the sentimental hymns of the last 300 years any more: “They make me feel further from God.””

    Not that there is anything wrong with any of that at all – but it all seems to be just personal preference and what works the best for individuals. Just the same as in any seeker sensitive style church. But I keep hearing arguments to the contrary. So what exactly is the distinction?

  6. February 10, 2009

    Julie, I am new to your blog. And only in the last hour did I notice your log entree
    regarding Vespers at the Orthodox Church. I was only introduced to the English language version of the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy less than 2 years ago. Since that introduction I have attended many vesper services at the little Orthodox church near where I live. I am not an Orthodox Christian though I often think about the possibility of joining the church. I in fact have either been a liberal Protestant Christian or semi Pagan for much of my adult life. But I must say my own experiences with the Orthodox liturgy has had a powerful positive pull on spiritual life during the last two years. I love the Eastern Orthodox liturgy as much as you seem to dislike it or find it irritating.

    Regarding some of the issues that have been brought up. It has been suggested that
    liturgy is either the work of the people in the praise of God or it is something to feed and
    nurture the people. Thus it is an either or. This does not make sense to me. Clearly it is
    both / and. In the Orthodox liturgy prayers for the people, the nation, salvation, etc are
    made. Any petitionary prayer is either for self or others. If one in fact believes that God
    in some ways answers these prayers then of course they feed and nurture the people.
    But of course the liturgy also is a praise and honoring of the Trinity, of Jesus, and of the
    Theotokos. So it is a work or performance of the people. God receives praise and love.
    Of course the people are feed by this as well. Does it hurt the people to give praise and
    love to God?

    Julie some of your comments express an experience of the Orthodox liturgy that
    is the opposite of my own experience. You refer to the “flat” music. I love that “flat” music. I believe that it is much more beautiful than most of that which I generally experienced in Protestant churches. You state that “Instead I feel directed to preform and scorned for not knowing the right steps.” I have never felt this. I have enjoyed the process of learning the liturgy. And the people at the church have always been very gracious in helping me learn. It has also been of great value that a friend of mine is a convert to the church. Thus I ask her questions
    about the church fairly regularly.

    Again some of your questions! Why do the liturgical churches tend to think that their own liturgy is the best? Human nature maybe. Why do many Protestants believe that only their own interpretation of the Bible is correct? How is all that chanting going to help us serve others? My answer then is well why pray at all then? Why listen to all those sermons that Protestant
    preachers push down the throat of people. I guess Julie that you also do not understand
    all the icons or incense and all the other stuff either. I know that I am putting word in
    your mouth here. Well again all that I can say is that I love the icons. I believe that beauty
    is directly connected to worship and praise. And I have never experienced any Christian
    services equal to that of Orthodoxy in beauty. I do suspect though that if I knew Latin
    the Old Tridentine mass would be a close second. I will stop here. I just had to respond
    to your comments. I am also sorry if I got a bit harsh at times. I am also sorry about the
    negativity that I have sometimes expressed toward the Protestant tradition. I know that it is right for some people. It is just that I really felt called to defend something that has been having a major positive effect in my life over the past few


  7. alaina permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Julie, I’ve grown up in and still attend a liturgical church. While many of the reasons for liturgy offered here are valid, in my quick scan of the comments, I’ve noticed something missing that I’ve always appreciated about liturgy.
    Liturgy is not necessarily hymns, chants, etc. Liturgy is following a process of worship: call to worship, confession, absolution, praise, confession of faith, lessons, sermon, communion, response (offering), prayers, praise.
    The process is meant to mimic the believer’s faith journey.
    In our congregation we have high liturgy with the chanting and the organs and the vestments. And we have modern liturgical worship with the band and the videos and conversational teaching times. But it is liturgical because it follows the process of liturgy.

  8. Scott M permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I’ve engaged in many sorts of religious activities throughout my life. Some have been utterly focused on my own experience and self. (My late preteen/early teen practice of transcendental meditation springs to mind in this category.) Others have been focused outward. Most have been a mix. Within the Christian realm, both before and after becoming somebody whose personal story was being reshaped and rewritten by that of Jesus of Nazareth, I’ve experienced a pretty wide gamut of the available experiences. At the same time, I’m very much still learning what it means to worship as a Christian, even after fifteen years. So I’m going to approach your question from the standpoint of what others say.

    Mark Galli, in ‘Beyond Smells & Bells’ (an excellent little book on liturgy, btw), hits the nail on the head. ‘But the liturgy puts a brake on narcissism right up front.’ Low church worship really does nothing in that arena. If anything it encourages it. He also makes another important point. ‘God is incomprehensible. A liturgical corollary of this truth is this: authentic worship of this God must, at some level, remain incomprehensible.’ The liturgy is also meant to be an incarnation of the Kingdom, a place where time and space are transcended.

    Interestingly, I just listened to a podcast recently from Ancient Faith Radio that discussed the ‘work of the people’. I recommend it: In fact, the whole podcast series focuses on aspect of Orthodox liturgy.

    Liturgy is also meant to change us. But it doesn’t do it primarily through experience. We may ‘feel’ nothing. Rather, over the course of months and years, it seeks to reorder the rhythms of time, space, and our senses in ways that align with the Kingdom.

    I’ve never really been a Christian in a liturgical church. But I feel like I do grasp at least some of what it means, even if I have a hard time finding words.

    Don’t know if any of that really helps. But maybe something in it will.

  9. February 10, 2009

    Julie, I’ve recently started attending an Episcopal church after a long sojourn in various low-church settings (some “lower” than others). One thing that struck me right away was how substantive the liturgy is. I found myself wanting to pray more like those thoughtful prayers– both the historical ones in the book and the ones written for that week. There’s a lot that’s unfamiliar still, but for me it feels like we are doing “the work of the people” through the liturgy. Everyone can play, not just those who enjoy singing.

    As far as being “fed and filled” — I find a commitment to liturgical worship requires giving up that attitude. “How was church?” isn’t really a question that makes sense in this context. Ask me in a year or two or ten how I’ve been formed by worshiping with this community.

  10. Don permalink
    February 11, 2009

    I will try to address the questions you raised in your response to me earlier. But I’m not really sure what you are looking for. If you want a simple explanation of what makes the liturgy different from other worship experiences, I’m afraid you will be disappointed, as there is no simple answer. Everything that has been written here in response to what you ask is valid. And scanning through the responses that were posted overnight, I especially appreciate alaina’s response about liturgy as a procession that parallel’s the believer’s faith journy. I would only add to alaina’s comment that the liturgy, in particular the Communion liturgy, reenacts the biblical story of redemption in Christ and is rooted in, fed by, and permeated with the Gospel itself.

    But how can one explain the differences in artistry between, say, a Beethoven symphony and modern American pop music? How does one compare the rhymes found in greeting cards with the poems of George Herbert (my favorite liturgical poet, by the way)? How can one describe the differences between the Sistene Chapel and the kind of Christian art that one commonly finds for sale in a Christian bookstore? These things are mysteries and are beyond the capability of mere words to explain.

    Regarding the topic of ‘personal preference,’ you are correct that many of our responses indicate a preference that is personal. But you must keep in mind that this is a relatively modern invention. Throughout most of Christian history, there was basically only one way of corporate worship, and that was through the liturgy. It’s only been in the modern era that alternatives have grown.

    Your comment about Jesus and tradition is actually a false analogy. The ‘traditions’ that Jesus condemned were requirements added to the law by the religious leaders and made by them to be more important than the law itself. In other words, the requirements of Scripture were being obscured by these ‘traditions.’ However, even though the liturgy is timeless and not culture bound, it is nevertheless renewed every generation; indeed, in every service. So there’s no comparison between it and the ‘tradition’ that Jesus criticized. I can’t speak for other traditions, but Lutherans believe that whatever doesn’t “convey Christ” or conform to the Gospel is to be discarded. We don’t accept ‘traditions’ that obscure the Gospel.

    I am rambling, but I hope this makes some sense. If you are truly interested in understanding the whys of liturgy, I suggest you do some reading on the topic. Here are a few suggestions:
    Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, by Frank C. Senn
    New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview, by Frank C. Senn
    For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann
    And the trilogy of liturgical works by one of my son’s seminary professors, Dr. Gordon Lathrop:
    Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology; Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology; and Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology.

    May God bless you with peace as you search out this lifegiving topic.

  11. Karl permalink
    February 11, 2009

    I agree with Glenn that there needn’t be a dichotomy between the work of the people in worshipping God also feeding and nourishing the people. But as others in the thread have pointed out, that feeding is often experienced differently, in less immediately gratifying ways. I liked the comment that in a liturgical service, the question of “how was church today?” doesn’t make much sense. I also liked the comment about the liturgy itself being designed to reflect the stages of the spiritual journey. It’s also designed to re-enact significant portions of the gospel story on a weekly basis. Rather than the focus being on one person’s “performance” (i.e. the preacher), the focus is on the re-enactment of the gospel culminating in the celebration of holy communion as a community, commemorating Christ’s death on the cross and celebrating the resurrection. The “success” of the service is guaranteed – it doesn’t rise and fall on how great the lecture/sermon was, nor on how great the discussion was (if a church is more along the lines of the “sitting around on the floor in blue jeans talking about Jesus” variety). And actually, unlike lecture-format or discussion-format churches “success” is or should be a foreign concept in liturgical worship.

    On the other hand, while a beautifully orchestrated, very formal “high church” liturgy can be profound, I don’t think the highest purpose of liturgy is well served if the service gets so stylized and formal that you feel singled out if you don’t know exactly what to do at every instance and feel like others are condemning you – that’s not the point at all (assuming they really are judging/condemning and it’s not just our own insecurity speaking to us). I like C.S. Lewis’s comments on that subject after visiting Greece:

    “What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox Mass I once attended was that there seemed to be no prescribed behavior for the congregation. Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. I wish we Anglicans would follow their example. One meets people who are perturbed because someone in the next pew does, or does not, cross himself. They oughn’t even to have seen, let alone censured. “Who art thou that judgest Another’s Servant?”

  12. February 11, 2009

    Julie, I want to respond to your reply to Don and Karl. First I would suggest that there is no consensus historical point of view regarding Jesus’ relationship with the Temple. I have certainly heard the arguments that Jesus wanted to destroy temple worship all together. However many good biblical scholars do not agree with this position. If Jesus really had been so set against the Jewish Temple then it seems hard to reconcile this with the fact that the early Christian community in Jerusalem regularly worshiped in the Temple and seemed attached to it. Further more even if one assumes that Jesus did oppose the Temple, there is no reason to assume that Jesus would oppose the liturgical churches of Christian history.

    Julie, you seem to assume that tradition usurps “service” and “true worship.” What is true worship? Why must tradition usurp service? With what would you replace liturgical worship? How is liturgical worship inferior to other “better” forms of worship? I assume that you believe that Christianity is not about “service” only. I would also be interested in how you define “service.” Is service only about doing charity works for the poor? About being peace and justice makers? Is not providing a liturgy and the sacred spaces and times in which a people can worship a service also?

    I will finish with a response to your thoughts about the relationship of liturgical churches with seeker sensitive churches. I have never attended a seeker sensitive church. But my understanding is that they are light on theology and tend to gear their worship and activities around the contemporary tastes and desires of contemporary people. Obviously on the face of it the churches that hold fast to ancient liturgies are not seeker sensitive. The liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox churches are probably around 1500 years old. These liturgies will not be changed. And I suspect that if you suggested to most Eastern Orthodox that the liturgy be changed their reaction would be one of horror. The liturgy would be viewed as inspired by Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is set in stone. But of course in another sense, of course, the people who decide to worship within the context of a liturgical church get something out of it. They get a sense of connection with God, Christ, the Trinity, etc. Yes I assume that most often do enjoy the liturgy, icons, the beauty of the services. I would assume that for many people these are immediately attractive. So what? Again what is this true worship and service standard which the liturgical churches fail to meet? What churches and communities do meet these standards?

    Glenn King

  13. February 11, 2009

    Thanks for all the responses – there is a lot to think about. A few questions running through my head –

    Is there a way to learn the liturgy, or help in doing so? Or are newcomers just expected to stick it out until they catch on? And do they ever learn what the purpose of it is?

    for the non-western that don’t uphold western art as the absolute pinnacle of aesthetics are there culturally meaningful liturgy’s or do they just have to become Western to worship?

    and I’m still confused as to what exactly “work of the people” means.

    I really hope I’m not sounding too argumentative. I really don’t see anything wrong with liturgy, its just that recently I’ve had so many people pushing it as the “right” way to worship. And while I’ve flirted with the idea in recent years, I find myself being drawn more and more these days to the very simple. I don’t want prayers with lots of words when a simple expression will do. I understand providing beauty for God and for our hearts, but I’m at a point where I see how such things can be stumbling blocks if they are seen as the only proper way to behave in church.

  14. February 11, 2009

    Glenn – I was thinking of Isaiah 58 where God accuses the Israelites of sincerely practicing the forms of worship while ignoring the very parts of worship he desires of them (what he calls true worship).

  15. February 11, 2009

    This is something my wife (who studies liturgy as part of her PhD) is more qualified to comment on than I am, but she doesn’t blog so much….

    The main point I’d like to add to this conversation is that all worshipers have a liturgy. “High church,” “low church,” “Baptist,” “Anglican,” “Presbyterian,” “non-denominational,”… it doesn’t matter. Every body of believers has their own pattern of worship, whereby if that pattern is suddenly changed, the worshipers will not only notice, but likely protest. That pattern of worship is that church’s liturgy. Their own “work of the people,” if you will.

    The question, it seems to me, isn’t whether or not one has a liturgical background, but rather how one’s particular liturgical background is at play in how one learns and thinks about God.

  16. February 11, 2009

    There are a few points I want to respond to.

    As far as “the work of the people” goes, one characteristic of liturgies is that they are participatory. The sermon is not the bulk of the service, nor does the bulk of the service happen “to” the congregation, but rather the congregation does the “work” of worshiping: there are communal prayers, spoken and sung responses, and even the simple acts of standing/sitting/kneeling. Moreover, “the work of the people” implies that worship is a place where we do the work of worshiping God, rather than passively expecting to be fed.

    I agree with others who point out that “liturgy” refers to the shape of the service rather than the style of it. To be liturgical means to follow a particular purposeful order. Most churches that we consider to be “liturgical churches” follow a liturgy resembling the Catholic mass. But within the structure of the service, there can be any style of music, any style of preaching, and flexibility as to what the pastor wears, whether there are screens or hymnals, how communion happens, etc.

    I think that the church does a TERRIBLE job of coaching and teaching people about the liturgy. It’s a shame. That being said, I don’t think that the shortcomings of the church in this area negate the worth of liturgy itself.

    I find the liturgy meaningful because it connects me to other worshipers. But more than that, while some find the repetition boring or uninspiring, the repetition of the liturgy in the midst of the whole of the worshiping community means that I have words of faith to speak in worship even on days when my faith feels shaky, and I have a community speaking those words with my on days when my faith feels lonely.

    I understand your frustration about those who push liturgy as the “right” way to worship…and hopefully you will understand my parallel frustration at those who push non-liturgical worship as the “right” way to worship. In this and so many other conversations, Christians all need to learn how to give one another more grace!

  17. Don permalink
    February 11, 2009

    Julie, two more comments:
    You wrote, “for the non-western that don’t uphold western art as the absolute pinnacle of aesthetics are there culturally meaningful liturgy’s or do they just have to become Western to worship?”

    This is rather backward. Liturgy helped Western art reach its pinnacle, not the other way around. Non-Western cultures will find their own cultural expressions of both liturgy and art. In fact, they’re doing that even now, especially in Africa, and without dependence on Western models.

    Earlier, I thought about writing what Mark Baker-Wright did write, but had too many other things to say. He’s right: all Christian worship is “liturgical” on some level. Even the church I once attended, that I mention in my first post, fell into a pattern of worship. Their liturgy developed partly from their own innovations and partly borrowings from other traditions. In this sense, there are no truly non-liturgical churches, just as there are no truly non-creedal churches or non-denominational churches (an independent congregation is really a denomination unto itself).


  18. February 11, 2009

    Let me first say, I’m a worship-o-phile. It’s not so much that I enjoy worship, but I enjoying being in worship services. I was a religion reporter for awhile and went out of my way to visit as many christian and nonchristian services as possible.

    That said, I see few structural differences between them. Each service I have attended is generally arranged to lead worshippers to a moment of crescendo, of religious ecstasy, of stepping outside of oneself. For liturgical traditions, it is generally the Eucharist, the moment in which the congregation joins together and the service reaches its climax. In many evangelical circles, that moment is the sermon/invitation, where the congregation welcomes new or backslidden members or reaffirms their faith through the shared invitation to others. In more postmodern contexts I have experienced, the moment is in the conversation that takes the ecstatic place of the Eucharist and the sermon/invitation.

    You are right that there are lots of folks pushing liturigical traditions as the way, the truth and the life. Which is just as silly as pushing seeker-sensitive or traditional protestant services. Most services seem to share more in common than not, in my opinion, as they all seek to get people to connect with God and step outside.

    I think the whole “work of the people” might be tied to the pre-Vatican idea that the Mass was a kind of reincarnation of the sacrifice of Christ in real time. It was work, as I understand it, that all participated in this divine enfleshed reenactment. If that makes any sense. At least, that’s what a Latin mass priest told me. :)

    Most churches are sink-or-swim liturgy. When I started to attend an Episcopal church, I nearly got blisters on my thumbs from turning the pages. But, it was the prayers that kept me and the in-unison confessions of sin and the assurance of absolution. I’ve written about it on my blog, that the liturgy was a bridge of faith when I had none.

    Now, of course, I mumble through half of it because I don’t believe most of it. It’s lost a lot of meaning. But no more meaning than every other kind of service.

    I don’t know if that answers any of your questions, but that’s just my experience with worship and the liturgy.

    If you are uncomfortable with the liturgy, I wouldn’t recommend trying it… as a relative jokingly refers it to as Church Aerobics.

  19. February 11, 2009

    This is an excellent topic. I can only offer experiential insight. I attend a liturgical church, and have been off-put by the intense focus on participation in liturgy as the end-all and be-all of the Christian life. For some reason I have stuck with it for almost 6 years now, and I can see how formed I have been by this type of worship. Brian McLaren in Finding Our Way Again asks us to think of liturgy beyond “the work of the people” to the “work out” of the people. And the more formation I have received (outside of the liturgy – through small groups and my own reading/disciplines) the more the liturgy means to me. It really is a “work out”. There are layers upon layers to be unfolded and unpacked one at a time as each individual worshiper is ready. I, myself, have only just begun to discover the richness that exits. My favorite liturgy is morning prayer. I do it by myself (if -big if – the kids don’t get up first). You can find it at: (would be a great Lenten discipline for anyone interested in liturgy).

  20. February 12, 2009

    Scott – “Liturgy is also meant to change us. But it doesn’t do it primarily through experience. We may ‘feel’ nothing. Rather, over the course of months and years, it seeks to reorder the rhythms of time, space, and our senses in ways that align with the Kingdom.” Interesting. I can see the importance of this, I think I just have a hard time grasping the hows and whys. I know it’s a mystery as is all spiritual transformation, but I’m reacting to years of being told “read your bible, pray, and have a daily quiet time and POOF you will be changed.” All the works are good, but just their existence doesn’t mean anything. But that’s not the sense I get from those promoting them. Hence my confusions.

    Mark – I agree that all churches have a liturgy and freak out when something different emerges. I think I’m just most curious about those that ascribe something transformative to their liturgy. Those that say that simply participating in this way will shape you as a person. Granted all churches assume something like that from their church services, but it is more upfront in so-called liturgical churches.

  21. February 13, 2009

    Julie, I think that this will probably be one of my last posts on this subject. I want to respond to the comments that you made in your last two posts. First, I understand the desire for simplicity in prayers and worship. My own private personal worship is in fact very simple and not really much informed by traditional forms of prayer. However I do desire to have some communal level of worship. And for this for example the Quaker silent meeting form of worship or the Protestant form of worship in which the preacher’s sermon is the central event does not work. The Eastern Orthodox form of worship on the other hand satisfies. In this context I can really worship. I do not face the alienation that I do within Protestant services.

    Now on the issue of whether liturgy transforms a person. I suspect that liturgy like any other religious practice offers the opportunity for transformation. After all worship and praise of God, I think, in itself makes some difference at least until one’s habitual sins and negative attitudes begin to get in the way again. I do not think that doing any kind of liturgy, however, automatically makes one a better person. After all as much as I have come to love the Eastern Orthodox liturgy I have to admit that the fact that the Serbian people are Serbian Orthodox did not prevent the Serbian government in the 1990s from conducting a genocidal war in Bosnia. One can in fact perform liturgies as a matter of routine or simply as a person dominated by sin. This person in spite of his or her words does not intend to do right. I think that a good liturgy should impact peoples lives in a positive manner and in fact does effect some peoples lives as it should. However, the force of original sin often blinds even the most faithful in many ways. Look at the Example of the Slave Owning Christian South’s attitude toward slavery prior to the American Civil War. In spite of the fact that the South’s religion was centered on Christ, the people of the South embraced slavery and after the Civil War racism. I see no reason to believe that the people of the liturgical churches have been any better at fighting against the forces of social economic or political evil.

    Note. In my own life my increasing involvement in both Eastern Orthodox liturgy and Old Catholic liturgy I think have helped. I am much more interested in more traditional ways of seeing Jesus and the Trinity than prior to my experience with liturgy. However I am hardly a transformed wonderful person yet.

    Glenn King

  22. February 13, 2009

    Since I seem to have been the one who started this by some comments I made on Julie’s earlier post, perhaps I should explain. We invited a bunch of emerging/missional church people to Orthodox vespers last Saturday, and I looked at Julie’s post to see what other emerging/missional Christians had to say about it.

    In the end about 25-30 emerging/missional people came to Vespers, and you can read about what happened and links to the various reactions in my post on Orthodox emerging missional dialogue.

    As for what “liturgy” means, perhaps the best explanation is given by the Orthodox theologian, Fr Alexander Schmemann, when he said:

    “The Eucharist is a liturgy. And he who says liturgy today is likely to get involved in a controversy. For to some — the “liturgically minded” — of all the activities of the Church, liturgy is the most important, if not the only one. To others, liturgy is an esthetic and and spiritual deviation from the real task of the Church. There exist today “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches and Christians. But this controversy is unnecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding– the “liturgical” understanding of the liturgy. This is the reduction of the liturgy to “cultic” categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the “profane” area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself. But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals — a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose.

    “Thus the Church itself is a leiturgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. Just as Christianity can — and must — be considered the end of religion, so the Christian liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular, are indeed the end of cult, of the sacred and religious act isolated from, and opposed to, the “profane” life of the community. The first condition for the understanding of liturgy is to forget about any specific “liturgical piety”.”

  23. dianne p permalink
    February 13, 2009

    This has been such a great post, I’m printing it all out.

    My childhood background was in the Byzantine Catholic Church – under Rome and the Pope, but looked just like Eastern Orthodox – the Holy Eucharist of St. John Chrysostom. And when I was a child (admittedly decades ago), the language was Old Slavonic. I still have a mass book using the Cyrillic alphabet. You think liturgy is indecipherable today? Ha. (Joking)

    Along the way and across many decades, we’ve traversed Latin Rite RCC, Quaker home church, Presbyterian, non-denominational evangelical, and now, ELCA Lutheran – which has a traditional liturgical service – even wine with communion!

    While I greatly enjoyed and spiritually grew from certain parts of the non-denom, I wearied of the 3 point sermons on happiness, success, etc that sounded more like Dr. Phil than like God, and of the happy-clappy-sappy music. I love rock n roll – but I’ll take mine with the Stones or U2 or Coldplay. I don’t need some weak elevator music stylized imitation in church.

    What I don’t understand is your experience that liturgicals have it all right – except that this seems to be a universal human experience that is well demonstrated within churches, rather than any perspective unique to liturgicals.

    And I don’t understand the sense (self induced) that you have to somehow be following each hymn and articulation or be subject to some sort of group-think liturgical judgment. As one of the EO sorts said here, an EO service is all about each person’s response within the context of an overall commonality. Sit, stand, kneel – whatever – except for a few key times such as the reading of the gospel (stand up! “Wisdom, be attentive!”) or the consecration. I don’t mean to be harsh, and I am just making it up here, but I think that your (perhaps) exaggerated self awareness might be more related to your non-denom type of experience rather than to a liturgical one.

    Two things I want to add on to here…

    1. For me, at the core of it, the liturgy is simply more substantive. It’s about something that transcends centuries, not some pastor consulting the latest church marketing trends to see “what sells”. Even in today’s trendy missional churches, sometimes it’s the word “missional” that sells more than the act of mission. BTW, I especially appreciated someone’s recent blog on MINO – missional in name only. No kidding on that one.

    2. You mentioned somewhere that you crave “simple”. To me, liturgical means just that. There is a simple beauty in reciting timeless prayers, especially on a Sunday, when one is reciting them with others around the world. Just like any structure that can be ultimately freeing, the structure of the liturgy frees me from the restrictions of time and place and worldly obligations as the liturgy creates space for me to enter into God’s world. Just as a committed relationship such as marriage frees me to be honest and open and affords opportunities for growth that “dating” (ok now I’ve really dated myself) does not, the commitment to the structure of the liturgy frees me to respond to God and to hear his response to me.

    Great question, btw. Thanks for the discussion.

  24. February 15, 2009


    It seems that many have written extensively and I don’t suppose that I will clarify it all. I also know a few books were already recommended, but I would also like to recommend one.

    Simon Chan is an Asian Pentecostal who has written a rather spectacular (little) book on the liturgy and the theology behind it. If it helps to motivate an “emergent” Christian such as yourself, it comes recomended by Jonathan Frankes (at Biblical Seminary – a rather emerging friendly school)

    As an Episcopalian I can say that it is pretty much right on the mark.

  25. February 20, 2009

    This is all personal preference. Certainly, there’s much to be learned from traditional liturgical forms (and charismatic forms, Wesleyan hymns, or what have you), but…

    “But how can one explain the differences in artistry between, say, a Beethoven symphony and modern American pop music? How does one compare the rhymes found in greeting cards with the poems of George Herbert (my favorite liturgical poet, by the way)? How can one describe the differences between the Sistene Chapel and the kind of Christian art that one commonly finds for sale in a Christian bookstore? These things are mysteries and are beyond the capability of mere words to explain.”

    That’s just snobbery, and just as ignorant and judgmental as those who scoff at the “Cat-licks” and their “dead traditions”.

    I don’t at all find it appealing to think of Christians from every century and corner of the earth singing the same song the same way. I want to hear the Greek Orthodox worship as Greek Orthodox, Africans worship as Africans, and the Navajo worship as Navajo, and so forth.

    Let’s be honest enough to admit when something just isn’t our cup of tea, as liturgical worship isn’t mine, and then be smart enough to realize that just doesn’t matter. That we can learn a lot from forms we don’t like, but in the end, there’s no right way to worship, except to love God and our neighbors.

  26. Don permalink
    February 23, 2009

    “That’s just snobbery, and just as ignorant and judgmental as those who scoff at the “Cat-licks” and their “dead traditions”.”

    Travis, I am sorry you felt my comments to be elitsm and snobbery.

    But you took me out of context. I had just finished writing that there were no simple answers to Julie’s questions about liturgy. I was comparing the complexity of seeking answers to her questions (and the futility of seeking a simple answer) to the equal futility of a simplistic comparison of complex art to simple art.

    I was not trying to compare liturgical forms of worship themselves to “high art” (and therefore, by way of contrast, non-liturgical forms to less complex art). Again, I’m sorry you misunderstood me.

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