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Liturgy is cool

Carl Trueman recently addressed the phenomenon within Millennial evangelicalism that is increasingly regarding ancient liturgical practices (especially Ash Wednesday and Lent) as cool. He’s right: it has apparently now become “hip” to add to (otherwise band driven contemporary) worship elements from ancient liturgical practices.

Trueman and others over the past several years have dealt well with some of the theological problems with many of these practices. We have dealt with them here as well. Here’s just a taste:

But what I’d like to focus on today is a caution for those of us who have a healthy appreciation for tradition and a thoughtful liturgy. How do we avoid what a friend referred to as the “grab bag” approach to liturgy where we pick and choose traditions to the degree that we forsake biblical simplicity and even find ourselves in theological error?

First, we must remember that the regulative principle of worship applies just as much to extra-biblical pageantry as it does to extra-biblical puppet shows. Just because a particular liturgical ritual is more reverent and pregnant with meaning than a skit doesn’t make it acceptable for corporate worship. Making sure that our worship practices are carefully regulated by Scripture means that we will trust that what God has prescribed for us in his Word is sufficient, even if we find a particular tradition rich with meaning.

Second, we must learn to recognize those traditions that are “circumstances concerning the worship of God” that by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture (Second London Baptist Confession 1.6) and those that are simple the “imaginations and devices of men . . . not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (LBC 22.1).

For example, reading Scripture is an element prescribed in the New Testament (1 Tim 4:13). Since the form of many sections of Scripture (especially many of the Psalms) are clearly antiphonal or responsorial, the tradition of reading Scripture antiphonally or responsorially is a good and necessary deduction from Scripture. It does not add an element to worship that has not been prescribed in Scripture. On the other hand, lighting incense, putting ash on one’s forehead, or crossing one’s self are more than circumstantial; they are actual liturgical elements that go beyond Scriptural prescription.

Third, it is helpful to recognize the difference between liturgical narrative and liturgical elements. I am convinced from Scripture that the only liturgical elements we should include in worship are those with New Testament warrant. But I am a big advocate of giving more careful attention to the liturgical narrative of our corporate worship services exactly because of the biblical example. What I mean by narrative is the story the order of our corporate worship tells. Most examples of corporate worship in Scripture exemplify a narrative that recounts, reenacts, and renews the covenant relationship God has with his people. Worship services in Scripture from the Jewish feasts, to the order of the sacrifices, to Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, to glimpses of heavenly worship share a narrative shape that tells the story of God’s work on behalf of his people to draw them to himself in communion:

  • God reveals himself to his people.
  • The people recognize their guilt and confess their sin to God.
  • God provides atonement for his people.
  • The people rejoice in the mercy and goodness of God.
  • God instructs his people.
  • The people commit themselves in obedience to God and give back to him.
  • God invites his people into fellowship with him.
  • The people draw near to God in communion and petition.
  • God blesses his people and sends them out into the world.

This is the story of the gospel, and by allowing the narrative of our corporate worship to be shaped by this story, we are shaped by the reality of the gospel each time we worship.

But notice that no liturgical element or practice is added that has not been prescribed by the New Testament. A service shaped by this narrative is still comprised of the basic prescribed elements of Scripture, prayer, singing, preaching, giving, and the Lord’s Supper. The narrative affects only the order in which these elements occur and influences their content.

Another example of liturgical narrative on a grander scale is the celebration of holidays in the Protestant Church Year. Celebrating Advent (four weeks focusing on the coming of Christ), Christmas, Epiphany (focusing on events in Christ’s life where he revealed himself as God’s Son), Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Resurrection Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost are ways to remember the coming, life, ministry, and atonement of Christ that give a biblical narrative to our year. Simply focusing our Scripture readings and hymns on these themes does not add extra-biblical elements to worship. However, a problem arises when in celebrating these seasons we begin to add elements not prescribed in Scripture. This is where a discussion of Lent falls. As I’ve argued before, if the forty days before Easter are simply used to focus Scripture readings and hymns on events in Christ’s life leading up to the cross, we haven’t gone beyond Scripture. But if observing Lent means giving up things, “participating” in Christ’s suffering, etc., we have now begun to add elements and requirements to our worship that God has not prescribed.

Every worship service has a liturgy, and I believe that many of us need to give more careful attention to how the narrative of our worship shapes us.

But let us be careful that in our desire to have worship that is thoughtful and rich with meaning, we do not go beyond what the Bible has commanded.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.