Is there still a place for liturgy?

When we talk of “liturgy” we mean the use of standard structures and words in worship. Evangelicals have a natural and somewhat instinctive aversion to liturgy. Our concern for genuine conversion and high view of the work of the Spirit make us nervous of rote worship in which we confess what we do not believe and pray what is not "in the Spirit."

Yet liturgy has a strong biblical precedent:[1]

  1. In the Psalms repeated phrases are used such as "his love endures forever" is repeated and seem set out as a response (see Psalm 118).
  2. Similarities in OT prayers show that set forms were used in them. Daniel’s praise in Dan 2v20-23 begins with a phrase “blessed be the name of God” known as the berakah (see Ex 18v10, Ps 89v52) and ends with “to you…I give thanks and praise,” which is known as the hodayah (see Is 12v1, Ps 30v12). Consider also the liturgical introduction he uses in Dan 9v4; “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” It is used almost identically by Nehemiah in Neh 1v5.
  3. It is accepted that the first churches were based on the model of the synagogues. And we know that set forms were used in them. After the scripture readings a set prayer known as the kaddish was said. And key were the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41, which records suggest was said twice a day accompanied by berakah type phrases. A set prayer of eighteen sections each ending with a berakah phrase was also said three times a day and known as the tefillah.
  4. Given all this, it is no surprise that we see allusions to set phrases and forms in the New Testament. There are the “trustworthy sayings” (1 Tim 1v15, 3v1, 4v9, 2 Tim 2v11, Tit 3v8), what is generally thought an early creed in 1 Corinthians 15v3-7, and possibly early hymns in Colossians 1v15-20 and Philippians 2v6-11. Before them all, however, is the Lord’s Prayer, which because of the acceptance of set prayers in the day would almost certainly have been received as a set prayer to be said as is, as well as giving principles for prayer.
  5. Also significant, is that when we are given a window on the worship of heaven, it uses set forms of song or speech with responses (Rev 4v8, with Is 6v3, Rev 4v11, 5v9-10-14, 11v15-18, 15v3-4, 16v5-7, 19v1-8). This is surely intended to give some sense of ideal worship.
  6. As the early church developed, it therefore inherited and incorporated this model. The apostles continued the OT pattern of praying at three set times of the day, which was carried on at the temple (Ps 55v17, Dan 6v10, Acts 3v1, 10v9). The Didache (dating to the late first or early second century) gave instruction that the Lord’s Prayer be said three times a day, the sanctus of Holy, holy, holy Lord of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory” appears in the writings of numerous early church fathers from a similar period, and Justin Martyr gives an order of service used around 150AD which is similar to that of the synagogue.
  7. Finally, we should note that the very use of psalms and songs throughout scripture and history is liturgical. Some react against set prayers, whilst happily accepting the repeated use of psalms or songs. But these are only set prayers that are sung rather than said.

So, liturgy is not an non-biblical add-on from more religiousy Christians. It is an aid that is commended by God in his Word. And a number of reasons can be thought of as to why:

  1. It enables all the congregation to respond in the service, rather than just listen. This is especially helpful for children or those who struggle to find their own words.
  2. It aids certain ideas to take deeper root by regular use as songs do. This is particularly helpful with the Lord’s Prayer.
  3. It provides a familiar structure in which the worshipper is able to relax sufficiently to focus on what is going on.
  4. It ensures what is said is carefully thought through and particularly that the gospel is actually communicated. So, it ensures by preparation that what is being said by the leader is more thoroughly scriptural.
  5. It gives a sense of unity with the worldwide and historic church to the extend that they use similar forms.

I am sure more reasons could be given. Suffice is to say we should not be overly hasty to totally eradicate liturgy – and especially when it uses scriptural phrases. Interesting here, is that when reacting against Roman Catholicism, the reformers reformed the liturgy rather than got rid of it.

Indeed, during a postmodern age in which words are cheap, caution, truthfulness and weightiness in what is said is key. Moreover, as more and more enter our churches with no idea what is going on, a structure can help them from feeling to lost at sea. By contrast, the everchanging services some experience in churches can seem dynamic, but can be rather inaccessible to those not initiated into its words and ways.

This is not to condone rote repetition or dry formalism (although both can be found in non-liturgical churches too, and in the singing of songs). We must do justice to Jesus’ rebuke of those to whom God could say: “This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.”
(Mk 7v6-7). It is up to the leader and congregation to consider ways to protect against this. In particular, space for spontaneous prayers, testimonies, encouragements and songs can quite easily be fitted into a general liturgical structure to keep from a mere going through the motions. This fits well the all-involved services of the early church (1 Corinthians 14:26-18). In line with this, we are not suggesting absolute similarity of service each week. Different psalms used different structures for different purposes, and so can a whole worship event. Here we should note that our culture values variety, and variety itself can make us think twice about what we say because we weren't expecting it. We must also recognise that theologically wordy liturgy is extremely inaccessible to those not understanding our terms (and many who have said them for years don't).

The order of service
What then might a service look like? The reformers established a basic general structure that follows a scriptural progression found in key passages where people meet with God, such as Exodus 19, Isaiah 6 and Hebrews 12v18-29: Reflection on God – repentance for sin – engaging with God as forgiven children – hearing him speak as our Father – responding with praise and service. Within this basic structure, each section could be given varying emphasis dependent on need, and set elements could be used as well as spontaneous prayers and responses made by the leader or by invitation from the congregation at almost any point that "feels right" in the moment.