A while back I happened to talk with a good friend who was a member of our congregation before moving out of the area. There are no Lutheran churches close by to where he lives and so he now worships at a large non-denominational church that has an active smallgroup ministry. It was the small-group approach that first attracted him because he needed the closeness and support that such groups offer. The group he attends is a Bible study and prayer group and he told me that he found it to be both helpful and enjoyable. At least it was until one evening a couple of months ago.
The group somehow got on the subject of how other churches worship and, in particular, how they pray. Every member of the group except my friend began to make fun of churches that follow a liturgical style of worship that involves a set order and printed prayers. According to the group, that was not “real”, “genuine” worship or prayer and members made one derisive comment after another, mocking such worship and prayer. For them, “real”, “genuine” prayer should be spontaneous, “from the heart”, using whatever words the person doing the praying comes up with. And the same is true for worship, they said. It too should be spontaneous, not bound by set forms or words, with plenty of room for the Spirit to do its thing. Well, the more my friend listened the madder he got. He couldn’t believe that Christians would question the genuineness of the worship of fellow Christians simply because it was different from the way they worshipped. What got him was the arrogance of thinking that their way was the best and only way. But what really got him was their mocking the liturgy, making fun of something that had helped him again and again over the years. He said that there had been times when he didn’t know what to believe anymore, if he really did believe, and times when he didn’t know what to pray, couldn’t pray, times when he was prayed out and played out.
Yet he continued to come and worship, hoping that something would speak to him, help him. And the liturgy did just that. It gave him words to say to help him worship when he needed help worshipping, and words to pray or simply listen to when he couldn’t pray a word. And the creeds gave him words of belief when he needed words of belief, words that reminded him of what he once believed and what millions of believers around the world still believe and what he would perhaps come to believe once again. And on his best days when he did believe, could pray, and wanted to truly worship and praise and thank God, the words guided him, allowed him to join with others as they said the same words, kept his worship from being self-centered by pointing him to those beyond himself and the church too.
And that’s a large part of why I love the liturgical style myself, whether it be our traditional service or gospel service or contemporary service. I love the orderliness of the liturgy, the words of the liturgy, and the movement of the liturgy. Every Sunday we are given a fresh start through the confession of our sins and the declaration of God’s forgiveness; we are lifted in praise and thanksgiving; we hear the word God speaks to us in Scripture and in our very lives and all that happens; we affirm our belief; we pray; we are fed and nourished in communion or in other ways; we are sent out to live the Gospel as we serve God and others. And I love the fact that, as for my friend, the liturgy can speak to us and help us worship no matter where we are in our lives or what we feel, giving us the words we need.
In addition, by following the 3-year cycle of Scripture readings as we do we hear a wide variety of passages, not just favorites, even passages we’d rather not hear perhaps, tough passages calling for a hard obedience, passages that confront and challenge us and turn our world upside down and our thoughts and opinions inside out. And those printed prayers make sure we pray not simply for ourselves or our own congregation but for believers everywhere and non-believers too, for creation itself, for the nations of the world and their leaders and for peace and justice, for the hungry and homeless and those who become invisible to us, for those who are ill or grieving or in deep need.
All of it — the orderliness, the words, the movement, assures that my worship will be centered on God and others and not myself and that it won’t simply follow my personal preferences or be dependent on my moods or reflect my views rather the Gospel’s and God’s. And the music? Yes, we do need to keep working on that! I mean, some of the hymns are not exactly toe-tappers. But still I do love the variety of hymns because sometimes I need to be lifted up and brought alive and yet at other times I need something to quiet my heart and mind and there are times too when I need a hymn to help me deeply reflect on what God has done in Christ. And there are other reasons I love the liturgy, but these will do for now.
At any rate, whether you, like my friend and I, love the liturgy, I don’t know. You may be Lutheran “in spite of the liturgy,” as one
member once put it referring to himself. It’s certainly not the only “real” and “genuine” form of worship, that’s for sure. The Spirit works through many different forms and styles. All I can do is to keep recommending it to you. But if you do like it, even love it, and find yourself having to explain why you do to someone who doesn’t, you might want to start by telling the person about a Sunday when it was just what you needed.
God be with you,