So here are the primary points of my argument:
- Culture is the behavior of a people.
- The formation of certain kinds of behaviors falls squarely in the nature, purpose, and mission of churches.
- The cultivation of holy living necessarily involves shaping the inclinations of hearts.
- The heart’s inclinations are shaped through habitual practices.
- Liturgies are the repetitious practices people perform that produce regular, habitual behavior.
- Liturgy is not just an expression of “authentic” devotion; liturgy is formative.
- Biblical liturgies shape the people of God through reenactment of what God has done.
From these points, here is my simple thesis: In order to make disciples, we must employ biblical liturgies that reenact the gospel of Jesus Christ and aesthetically embody values consistent with God’s holiness. As conservative Christians, we are concerned with culture, with the values and beliefs that shape inclinations and produce behavior. What I am arguing is that the primary way that we can shape the inclinations and impact the behaviors of people in our churches is by influencing their habits, and the primary means we have to do this is through our corporate liturgies. Our Scripture-shaped gospel liturgies will inform our people’s liturgies of life, which will in turn form their culture.
I’d like to conclude with how to do this practically, because the reality is that most of our churches have been conditioned for so long to expect something else, and to change overnight from what they are accustomed to would be very difficult and unadvisable. So here are a few suggestions for how to gradually make such a transition.
First, you can introduce some things right away with little difficulty. Begin reading the Scriptures more in your service. Not just the passage to be preached, but other passages. Both start and end the service with Scripture—that’s the function of a Call to Worship and a Benediction. It communicates to the people that God initiates worship and that he speaks to us in worship. Involve the people in Scripture readings as much as possible through corporate readings or responsive readings. Gradually lengthen the Scripture you read to shape people’s ability to read long sections of Scripture themselves. Give more weight to congregational singing rather than “special music.” Make the service dialogical—in other words, move back and forth between God speaking through his Word and our responses to him in song and in prayer—to communicate the fact that worship is communing with God.
You can do other things that are part of a historic liturgy without drawing attention to them or labeling them as such. Remember, doing often comes before knowing. You can begin to lead your people to participate in a gospel-shaped liturgy before they even know exactly why they’re doing it or what it is. Then later, it is often very easy to begin teaching them the reasons, and because they have been doing it for so long, they will likely say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” So, for example, you can structure a service according to the historic Christian liturgy—Adoration, Confession, Pardon, Instruction, Dedication, Petition, Communion, Benediction—without calling it that just by giving careful thought to what Scripture passages you choose and what songs you sing. Begin the service by reading a passage of Scripture in which God calls his people to worship. Then choose a hymn that expresses praise and adoration to God, and offer a prayer that focuses primarily on praise. Then read a passage of Scripture that reminds us of sin and unworthiness to draw near to God, followed by a hymn with a similar theme. Then read a passage of Scripture that proclaims us forgiven in Christ and sing a hymn of thanksgiving for salvation. After the sermon, choose a hymn of dedication that corresponds to what has been preached. Then spend some time in intercessory prayer and end the service with a benediction from the Word of God.
Finally, begin introducing other historical liturgical elements along with teaching about their function and value. Introduce a corporate prayer of confession first by using the confessions of Scripture, and later by using prayer of the saints of old. Remind people that when we sing hymns we are using other people’s words to express our hearts; using the prayers of others is no different. There are also several liturgical practices that Christians have used for centuries that have great value in shaping the habits of our souls. Beginning the service with an explicit Christian Greeting—“The Lord be with you; And also with you”—sets apart the service as something distinct from the rest of the week. Ending Scripture readings with “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God” regularly reminds the people of what they are doing. Beginning the time of Intercession or The Lord’s Table with the Sursum Corda—“Lift up your hearts”—and Sanctus—“Holy, Holy, Holy”—regularly reminds the people that in Christ they are seated in the heavenlies and are spiritually worshiping God with the angels and saints who surround his throne. These shorter liturgical acts especially resonate with children who can pick them up very easily and participate. Finally, consider celebrating the Lord’s Table weekly, for eating at Christ’s Table is the ultimate expression of communion with him. Do not allow the abuses of Rome to deter you from the climax of Christian worship. There is a way to observe the Table weekly without being sacramentarian or mystical.
These are just a few suggestions, but my primarily point is that if we are going to preserve biblical truth, goodness, and beauty in the lives of the people in our churches, then our liturgies are the central place this will happen. We must consider what habits we are forming in our people through our liturgies. Today we have lost the gospel narrative to our corporate worship. Yet when our knowledge of God and his works shapes our loves, a certain kind of behavior—culture—emerges. And what shapes our loves is liturgy that is informed by our knowledge of God’s character and his works.