My church upbringing was in a denomination that didn’t have a lot of time for formal liturgy. I don’t mean that our worship services were completely spontaneous and unstructured; there was a formula or pattern to these things and we followed it. You might call that an informal liturgy, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of formulaic responsive recitation or reading. “Lift up your hearts” “We lift them up to the Lord” or “May the peace of Christ be with you” “And with your spirit also” didn’t have a place in our services.
The closest thing we had to a liturgical formula was that the pastor would frame our participation in the Communion with I Corinthians 11:23-26: Paul’s explanation of what’s supposed to happen in the living ritual. And that was his personal practice, not a denominational custom or mandated liturgy. Oh, and we’d usually end our services by saying “the Grace” to one another: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.”
With this background, naturally as a teen I was a little suspicious of formal liturgies. How can worship be genuine, it was reasoned, if you’re just going through the motions of reading or reciting the same old stuff every week? How does that really touch wherever you are right now?
As an adult with a vastly broader church experience, I look at this reasoning and see a lot of missing the point. I’ve seen some of the drivel that some people unfortunately come up with when left to their own devices. It’s like people writing their own wedding vows: some people do a good job and create something both personal and meaningful, others shouldn’t have been let near the process without close editorial supervision. You never know what you’re going to get.
Beside that, it’s rather arrogant to assume that anyone worshipping with the aid of a formal liturgy is only going through the motions. And by implication, all “free” and “spontaneous” worship is always pure and genuine.
Real worship isn’t what your mouth is doing so much as what your heart is doing. I can remember plenty of completely spontaneous “times of worship” in which I was just going through the motions, pursuing an emotional high and not the Lord. In certain circles you look really spiritual if you’re willing to dance up and down the aisles – and I’ve done that from sincere and insincere motives – but there’s no place for any feelings of superiority over those whom God meets in quietness and stillness and the reading of time-honoured words.
So I’ve made my peace with liturgy as an adult, more or less. I think one of the main driving forces in my personal reconciliation with formal liturgy was spending several years in Charismatic-type churches and watching them botch Christmas by seemingly failing to acknowledge Our Lord’s birth in worship. When you fetishise not using hymns, apparently that means you can’t sing Christmas carols either, not even the ones replete with truth like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. And so Jesus’ birthday gets sidelined and ignored by His own church.
Sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Anyway, what most liturgical-type churches do really well is the church calendar. It’s an entirely different mode and model of a worship service, in which any one service is conceived as being part of a larger, ongoing flow of service through the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, Pentecost and right around to the end of what’s called “Ordinary Time” and the start of the next cycle. The focus seems more long-term and ongoing than immediate and “today”.
Ideally, we should be able to find a way to have both. There’s a place for spontaneous worship that breaks out of stale patterns and finds God at work in ways that no-one expected. The Holy Spirit doesn’t tend to like it when our formulas become so all-encompassing that He doesn’t have any room to do something different, but sometimes even our “free and spontaneous worship” just becomes another formulaic straitjacket for Him. Dancing before the Lord can be a wonderful expression of liberated devotion to hHim, or it can be someone looking like a prat because they think on some level that God can only really meet them in a place of emotional high.
These days, I approach a liturgical formula like “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” “It is right for us to give thanks and praise” and I think “you know what? It is right”. And that’s a truth you don’t often encounter outside of a liturgical-type worship service. Much of the formal liturgy is written the way it is because it expresses certain truths that have withstood the test of centuries.
Oh, some of it’s dross. Often the bits that have been generated by people meddling with the originals in the name of “updating” them, in my experience. And unless you’re careful to maintain a worshipful heart, just mouthing words will do you no good at all. But that’s true whatever our corporate worship services look like.