I was raised in a Pentecostal church. As you can imagine, we were always suspicious of liturgical worship. To tell you the truth, I don’t know that I ever encountered the word liturgy. But if I had, I’m sure I would have considered it the “vain repetitions” of people so distant from God that they had no words of their own to use in worship. God surely has a sense of humor, inviting a Pentecostal boy down a winding road that eventually led to Church of the Servant! As my appreciation of liturgy has deepened over the years, I have found three ways of looking at liturgy:
The Worship Order • The most common use of the word liturgy is to describe a church’s worship order. For example, it’s likely that you’ve heard people refer to COS as a “liturgical church.” What they probably mean is that our worship is highly structured, with specific acts of worship repeated from week to week. Some see this structure as a straitjacket that stifles spontaneity and inhibits heartfelt engagement. There is certainly a danger that worship can become a liturgical “to do” list. But a set liturgical structure can also be quite freeing, giving people a familiar flow that frees them to worship rather than concern themselves with what’s coming next. To use C.S. Lewis’s worship metaphor, “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.” Of course, this point is moot. Every church’s worship follows an order. Even the most innovative or charismatic churches, given a few years, will settle into a routine that they will follow week after week. So the important question isn’t whether a church is “liturgical” or not, but whether the church’s worship routines encourage a dialogue between God and the people.
The Work of the People • The English word liturgy is derived from the Greek word leitourgîa, which is a combination of the words work (érgon) and people (laós). So a richer definition of liturgy is “the work of the people.” This definition stresses that when we gather for worship, we are active participants rather than passive observers. What’s more, we have work to accomplish when we worship—we open ourselves to God’s presence, we confess our sins, we hear the Word, we receive the sacraments. But our liturgical work is more than just busyness; more than just a sum of its parts. That’s why I’m reluctant to refer to printed worship order as “the liturgy.” Our worship is so much more than words printed on a page! Liturgy is an indescribable new thing that God creates among us when we are attentive to the Spirit and each other.
A Life of Service • Liturgy doesn’t stop when we leave the church building. If we tease out a second meaning of the Greek word leitourgîa, we find that it can also mean a work performed by the people for the benefit of others, as in a public service or a service project. Wonderful things may happen among us during our worship services, but it will mean very little if it doesn’t shape us into the image of Christ and renew us for work in his world.
All three of these definitions of liturgy are important. In fact, taken together they form a trajectory that starts with the details of the church service, moves to the renewing of God’s people, and propels us out to work in the world. May God empower us to be a community of Christ’s servants, a home for all God’s children, and a prism for God’s light in liturgy and life.
Can’t tell a leitourgîa from a Leitmotiv? Contact Greg: firstname.lastname@example.org