The Connection between Liturgy and Theology
|“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (Jesus Christ to the Samaritan woman, in John 4:24, NIV)
Liturgical relativism dominates the thinking of the Christian world today (at least in the American context). Many Christians seem to have no problem with the fact that so many different worship “styles” can be found within the churches today. In fact, there might be any number of “worship styles” found within churches of the same denomination or association of churches, ranging all the way from the contemporary “praise and worship” style (with a large emphasis placed on the singing of contemporary praise music with the help of a praise band) to a highly-formal liturgy (with the minister clothed in colorful vestments, scripted prayers and liturgical responses, and communion as the climax of the service). I have seen church signs advertise two separate worship services on Sunday mornings – one is the “traditional” service and the other is the “contemporary” service (thus splitting the congregation in two along the lines of congregants’ liturgical preferences). The assumption undergirding all of this seems to be that “worship style” is merely a matter of personal taste. Just as I might prefer cookies and cream to mint chocolate chip ice cream in terms of my personal taste in ice cream, so (it is thought) the individual might prefer one particular “style” of worship over another in terms of his or her personal taste in worship practice. Just as one might prefer a fish fillet sandwich to a Big Mac when ordering food at McDonalds, so one might prefer a contemporary worship style to a more formal, “traditional” style (or vice-versa). And just as what you choose in the way of a fast food sandwich or a flavor of ice cream is a matter of personal liberty and is ultimately inconsequential, so (it is thought by many) worship style and liturgical preferences are likewise matters of personal liberty and personal taste. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it is rooted in the assumptions that the church’s practice of worship is morally-neutral, based upon mere personal preferences, and that it is inconsequential in its effect on the church’s theology and doctrinal thinking. It also evidences the radical individualism that pervades the contemporary American cultural context in which we live. In this blog article I hope to challenge the reader to consider that there is a close connection between liturgy and theology, and that such things as “worship style” are not morally or theologically neutral. As someone once said, if you take the finger of liturgy, you eventually end up with the whole hand of theology. The church’s liturgy has the tendency either to support or to undermine its professed theology.
By “liturgy” I do not mean written out prayers (though some liturgies feature such written prayers as a prominent feature of worship). Rather, by liturgy I mean the church’s worship practice as a whole, including the elements of worship, the order of service, the movement and flow of the service toward its climax, etc. The church’s “liturgy” is its structure and practice of public worship, including its “style.” Whether we like it or not, the church’s liturgy can have a profound effect upon its theology. For example, Calvinism is a very God-centered theology. In line with the Scripures, Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God over all of life, and especially the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. When a Calvinistic church adopts a more charismatic, Arminian and man-centered “style” of worship (such as is so common in the revivalistic, contemporary “praise and worship” style), the chuch’s liturgical practice will have a distinct tendency to undermine its professed theology. When the chuch’s preaching is focused on God and His glory and sovereignty in saving sinners, but its singing and praying is focused on me and my feelings and my felt needs, the church’s preaching and liturgy are in theological conflict and will send a confusing message to the congregation. Furthermore, let us say that a theologically-Calvinistic congregation becomes accustomed to and comfortable with a more man-centered, Arminian-flavored worship style/liturgy. Sooner or later the tendency will be for the content of the preaching to align with the content of the worship song of the church. Furthermore, if any members of the such a Calvinistic congregation end up moving to another community and looking for another church, and if the only viable choices for a church home in their new community are a local Arminian church with a worship style they are used to (on the one hand) and a Calvinistic church with a more “traditional” liturgy (on the other), which church would they choose to associate with? I suspect that many Christians in such circumstances would choose the church with the more “comfortable” worship style (the style they got used to in their Calvinistic church) over the church with the better theology. And so you would end up with professed Calvinists worshiping in Arminian churches. One suspects that many a Calvinist who takes this journey into an Arminian church due to attraction to an Arminian-style worship practice will, sooner or later, end up adopting and embracing an Arminian theology to one degree or another. The point in all of this is that because there is such a close connection between liturgy and theology, the church’s liturgy should support and uphold its professed theology, not undermine it.
To illustrate the point that a church’s worship practice has a tendency to influence and bolster its actual (if not its professed) theology, I want to contrast what is probably a fairly typical “liturgy” in many contemporary Arminian-evangelical and charismatic churches with a more historically Reformed liturgy.
In your typical Arminian-evangelical and charismatic church in America today the order of service will usually include the following “elements” or parts in something like the following order:
The Singing of Praise (often 30-45 minutes of contemporary “praise and worship” music led by the praise band)
Scripture Reading (often a brief Scripture passage is read that serves as the springboard for the “Message” delivered by the preacher)
Sermon/Message (often a 15-20 minute moralistic pep-talk designed to address the “felt needs” of the listeners and to give them “life principles” to help them become better people; sadly there is often very little actual gospel content to such man-centered messages, other than passing references to Jesus dying on the cross for our sins; such “preaching” often involves a moralistic motivational speech, rather than God-centered preaching of Law and Gospel)
Prayer (usually a brief prayer of response to the message)
The “Altar Call” (where congregants are invited to come forward to the “altar” to “ask Jesus into your heart” or to “rededicate your life to the Lord”)
As the reader can see from the above, some of the things included in such a “liturgy” are biblical, God-ordained elements of worship (for example, the Scriptures command the singing of praise, the reading of Scripture, and the preaching of the Word). But from what I have observed and from what I understand, such elements of worship are often carried out in such a man-centered way that God’s glory and the gospel message get obscured. When the central act of worship is our singing of praise, rather than the preaching of God’s Word, that sends a very man-centered message: The message that our response to God and what we do for God is far more important and central than what God has done for us in Jesus Christ! When the “sermon” is reduced to a light inspirational pep talk that involves a moralistic motivational speech with a few Bible verses sprinkled in for effect, rather than the careful and painstaking exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God revealed in the Word of God, then such man-centered “sermons” bolster and reinforce the man-centered theology and self-absorbed living typical of so many professing Christians today. Liturgy and theology are very closely intertwined.
In contrast to the above, consider one example of a Reformed liturgy:
Call to Worship
Opening Hymn / Psalm
Confession of Sin and Declaration of Pardon
Old Testament Reading
New Testament Reading
Reading of Sermon Text
Hymn / Psalm of Response
(Celebration of the Lord’s Supper)
The above liturgy, when carried out correctly and with liturgical sensitivity, is God-centered to the core. It begins with an apostolic benediction, with God through His ordained servant (the Minister) declaring His grace and peace to His covenant people. Then God calls His covenant people into His presence through the reading of a Scriptural call to worship (usually one of the Psalms or a Psalm portion calling upon God’s people to praise the LORD is used for the call to worship). The people respond to God’s pronouncement of grace and call to worship by invoking His grace and assistance in the act of worship, by offering Him a hymn or psalm of praise, and by reaffirming their faith in Him (usually in the words of the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds). Then the congregation humbles itself before God in the confession of sin and receives God’s declaration of pardon as the Minister reads Scriptural promises of forgiveness to those who repent and believe. Upon being assured of the forgiveness of their sins, the congregation then gives reverent attention to God’s Word as it is read from both the Old and New Testaments (such Scripture readings usually involving whole chapters or significant portions of such chapters, rather than the reading of short, isolated Scripure texts yanked out of their contexts). At some point there is a comprehensive pastoral prayer, where the Minister offers a lengthy prayer in which he acts as the mouthpiece of the congregation in praising God for His perfections, thanking Him for His mercies, and petitioning Him for that which is needful for the advance of His kingdom and the provision of His people. A collection is taken, an act of praise in response for God’s gracious provision for our material and spiritual needs. The Sermon Text is read and then comes the Sermon. As the preaching of God’s Word by God’s ordained servant, the Sermon is viewed as the center and climax of the worship service. (This is even the case at services where the sermon is followed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for as a sacrament the Holy Supper seals the Word proclaimed.) Through the Sermon God speaks to His people through His Word as His Word is faithfully expounded and applied. The congregation responds to the preaching of God’s Word by singing a hymn or psalm, and the Minister closes the service with a declaration of God’s Benediction or blessing upon His people, using the words of either the Aaronic or Apostolic benediction.
As I hope the reader can see, the above Reformed liturgy is God-centered and involves liturgical dialogue between God and His redeemed, covenant people. (To use more fancy terminology, it is theocentric and dialogical.) It begins with God in the salutation, ends with God in the benediction, and its central feature is God’s Word (especially the preaching of the Word, but also the reading of the Word). Our response to God, while important, is subordinated to what God by His grace does for us in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. This is an example of Reformed liturgy reinforcing and supporting Reformed theology.
Some of my Calvinistic brethren whose worship “style” is more in line with revivalistic Arminianism seem to be able to live contentedly with this happy inconsistency between their Calvinistic theology and their Arminian-leaning liturgical practice. I am thankful that we share together a common love for the doctrines of grace. But at the same time, I would like to humbly suggest that our liturgy should support and reinforce our theology, not contradict it. By the grace of God let the church in its worship practice and liturgy be “reformed and ever reforming according to the Word of God.” And may our theology and liturgical practice mutually support and reinforce each other, rather than contradict each other.