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Reviving the Liturgy

But in fact, it is the one thing that remained alive even after the hearts of the people had grown hardened to it. God has always used the liturgy to inspire love in the hearts of His people and achieve His purposes here on this earth. It is we who have forgotten that.

So what, exactly, is this “liturgy” that I am talking about? It is a rich tradition for the structure of a worship service that has been practiced for centuries by those saints who came before us. A liturgical worship service will usually begin with a “gathering” or call to worship of some sort–possibly a Psalm read responsively by the worship leader and the congregation. The experience will generally include the practice of the corporate recitation of the ancient creeds of the Church, such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed.

The music at the service can range from hymns to chanted liturgical songs to modern praise songs, and it is interspersed throughout the entire program. A corporate prayer of confession may be spoken by the congregation, followed by an assurance of forgiveness given by the worship leader. Several Scripture readings are included in the service, usually a Psalm, a Gospel reading and an epistle reading. The sermon follows next.

Finally, the conclusion and probably the most central aspect of a liturgical worship experience is the corporate celebration of Communion. The range of beliefs regarding this one Christian practice is too vast to go into here (two words: consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation), but the important issue is that the liturgical tradition regards the sacrament as a necessary aspect of a weekly corporate worship experience. The transformational power of the Lord’s Supper is fully recognized, along with the myriad of meanings that the practice holds for a believer.

Compare all this with the generic “seeker-friendly” model for a worship service, that “focuses on the unchurched in a distinctly unchurched way,” in the words of the late Robert E. Webber. The creeds are almost never recited, a time of confession of sin is usually entirely absent from the service, and the Eucharist is generally celebrated once a month at most, and is seen mainly as a somber act of remembrance for Christ’s sacrifice.

The worship music–primarily contemporary praise and worship songs–is a very significant part of the service, usually serving as the opening and sometimes also the closing of the program. The sermon itself is generally the focal point of the entire program.

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I believe that this format for a seeker-friendly service does come out of good intentions–church leaders were trying to find a way to attract the huge “unchurched” population of this nation. I myself fit into this population for most of my life, as I did not grow up in the church and began my journey as a young teenager. Since then, I’ve been exposed to a myriad of worship styles, from liturgical to very traditional to modern evangelical to extremely seeker-friendly, and I’ve seen how each of these kinds of traditions has helped to shape and form me over the years–all of them in both positive and negative ways.

But here’s the thing: when unchurched people come to a church service, they are probably expecting it to be a new, strange experience for them. Somehow the Church has these seekers coming to their service in the first place, so is it really necessary to be so overly concerned with making sure these visitors don’t feel uncomfortable? I think it’s possible that it could be even more powerful if unchurched people were to experience a completely new kind of gathering at church–not simply seeing people come together to hear good music like at a concert, be entertained as if they were at a comedy club, or “sit back, relax and enjoy the show” as if they were at the movies. When an unchurched person comes to church, they know they’re not at a concert or a comedy club or a movie. They have come to church, so we should give them church.

Ultimately, I think that much of the beauty and mystery of worship is missing from the seeker-friendly approach. There is no a deep-rooted tradition to rely on, little time to contemplate the incredible wonders of our Triune God, and no recognition of God’s power in the sacraments. Young adults all over the nation and the world are beginning to feel this way, and many are crowding liturgical churches each Sunday. It truly looks as if the liturgy is being revived in this generation.

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