Over the past several weeks I have been making the argument that in order to shape the behavior–the culture–of a people, we must give attention to the inclinations of their hearts, and such inclincations are shaped through habits.
Let us bring this full circle. I have argued that liturgies form us because they embody beliefs and values. It follows, then, that how people worship both reveals their beliefs and values and forms their beliefs and values. Lex orandi, lex credendi, said Augustine—“the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This is why it is essential that we carefully consider how the liturgies of our churches shape the inclinations, and therefore the lives, of our church members. As a strong proponent of the Regulative Principle, I am certainly not advocating introducing some sort of high liturgy characterized by smells and bells that create a beautiful experience of the senses but find no biblical warrant. Rather, at very least I am advocating the necessity of examining the rituals that make up your liturgies. We will begin at the micro level and progress to the broad structure of the service. Here is a series of questions to consider:
- How would the habit of watching people perform on a stage shape a worshiper differently than a service in which the people actively participate in almost every aspect?
- How does a service dominated by congregational singing shape a worshiper differently than one mostly characterized by choirs, ensembles, and soloists?
- How does a thirty minute block of singing at the beginning of a service shape worshipers differently than congregational songs spread throughout a service based upon a logical structure?
- How would celebrating the Lord’s Table weekly shape worshipers differently than celebrating it monthly or quarterly?
- How does singing from hymnals shape worshipers differently than singing from memory or singing from a screen on a wall?
- How are worshipers shaped differently by a capella singing, accompaniment by an organ, a piano, an orchestra, or a band?
- How does a handshake chorus shape worshipers differently than a Christian Greeting?
- What affect does it have on the daily life of a worshiper to have a time of confession and assurance of pardon each Sunday morning?
- How is a worshiper shaped by worshiping in a grand Cathedral or a theater?
- How does it shape a worshiper to hear “This is the Word of the Lord,” and reply “Thanks be to God” after Scripture is read?
- How is a worshiper shaped to join his voices with those of heaven in proclaiming, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”?
- How does it shape the worshiper to stand for a Scripture reading or to kneel for prayer?
We could go on and on. The point is that these are the kinds of questions that should be asked of any element in corporate worship. These are things that occur every single week—they are habits that are shaping the inclinations, and therefore behavior, of people in our churches. They are not neutral; they are not incidental.
Let us move to the broader structure of a liturgy. The liturgy of the service last evening, which we will repeat again this evening, is a liturgy that in its basic form is rooted in practices cultivated in the first few centuries of the church and that has characterized historic Christian worship ever since. Again, there is nothing in this liturgy that goes beyond what Scripture prescribes. It is essentially the liturgy Calvin used. The structure of the liturgy follows the logic of the gospel and is thus a reenactment of the gospel. The goal of the gospel is restored communion with God, yet sin prevents such fellowship. It is only through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf that we are able to draw near to his presence. God initiated this plan, he revealed himself to us, and we who respond in faith are able to draw near to him, where we listen to his Word and respond with obedience. So the logic of the gospel is this: God reveals himself and calls us to worship him, and we respond with adoration and recognition of our unworthiness to be in his presence. God responds by forgiving our sins through Christ and welcoming us into his presence, where we hear him speak to us, we commit to obedience, we bring our petitions to him, and we enjoy open and free communion. This is the same logic that informs historic Christian liturgy: We begin with God’s call for us to worship him, followed by adoration and praise. We then confess our sins to him and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. We thank him for our salvation, we hear his Word preached, and we respond with dedication. And the climax of all historic Christian worship has always been expression of communion with him, either through drawing near to him in prayer, as we are in the services this week, or more often in historic liturgies, through celebrating the Lord’s Table. To eat at Christ’s Table is the most powerful expression that we are accepted by him. All of the Scripture readings, prayers, and songs in this liturgy are carefully chosen for their appropriateness in a particular function within the structure.
Now contrast that basic structure with the two other liturgies most often used today. I would suggest that there are basically three liturgical structures used in evangelical churches. The first is that which we have just discussed. The second is what we might call a “Revivalist Liturgy.” This is a basic service structure that developed out of the nineteenth century Revivalism movements and came to characterize several different streams that flowed therefrom. In a Revivalist liturgy, every service element is intended to prepare the worshiper for the sermon. Songs are chosen, not so much for their liturgical function, but for their psychological and emotional effects. The songs may be chosen based a doctrinal theme that corresponds to the sermon of the day, but their most important consideration is what kind of mood they will create, usually starting with something bright and engaging, so the worshipers feel welcome and comfortable, and progressing to something soft and meditative, so the worshiper’s heart is prepared for the preaching. The sermon is central in a Revivalist liturgy, but the climax of the service is the Invitation. Everything has been leading to this point where a strong appeal is made either for sinners to be converted or backslidden Christians to rededicate themselves to Christ. Not much else usually takes place following the sermon lest the effects wear off. This shapes the worshiper in certain ways. At very least it impacts our view of what spiritual experience, conversion, and sanctification should look like.
The third common liturgy is charismatic Praise and Worship, which is actually a development of the Revivalist liturgy informed by charismatic theology. A Praise and Worship liturgy aims to bring the worshiper through a series of emotional stages from rousing “praise” to intimate “worship.” This progression through which worshipers are helped to experience the presence of God is engineered primarily through musical style. Worship leaders are encouraged to begin with enthusiastic songs of thanksgiving, leading worshipers to an emotional “soulish worship,” and then bringing the mood to an intimate, protracted worshipful response. Like the Revivalist liturgy, song choices are more about mood than function. Unlike the Revivalist liturgy, the climax of the service is not an Invitation, but rather some kind of manifestation of God’s presence. Again, this shapes the worshiper to have a particular expectation about the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of sanctification, and what worship should feel like.
Each of these liturgies shape their worshipers differently because they embody different understandings of the nature of worship itself. It will come as no surprise that I advocate using the historic Christian liturgy rather than the Revivalist or Praise and Worship models. I do, however, not with some sort of sentimental nostalgia or a rigid traditionalism. It would be theoretically possible to go off on our own and carve a new, unique path through the forest that is just as good, or even better, than the one forged over so many years and through so much effort. But I would suggest that to attempt this would be the height of arrogance, and the chances that our path would be just as good are quite small. Instead, I suggest that the wisest course of action is to use the road that has been traveled by so many before us. Yes, along the way, we might need to make some adjustments. We might need to smooth something out here or cut away some dead branches there. But like with theology, to ignore what others before us have built is both unwise and arrogant. I advocate using this historic liturgical shape because I recognize the power and inevitability of being shaped by liturgy, I value what this liturgy embodies, and therefore I see what this kind of liturgy has the potential to do: by reenacting what we are in Christ, we become what we are.