Lessons from Liturgy:

But just how does a community learn how to use liturgy?

Understanding and Incorporating Ancient Practice

Amid the candlelight dancing on the walls and the faint smell of incense, a group of young worshippers gather to chant compline, the evening worship service found in many monastic traditions. A line of people stand facing another line of people at the edges of the pews, each holding a candle. A leader begins chanting a simple melody, one that the rest of the worshippers copy in response. They meet three times a week during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. They take turns chanting and reliving this ancient service.

In an open, warehouse-type room, a band cranks up. The group of gathered worshippers sing, pray, read from Scripture, follow the lead of the band singing tags or choruses and go through the whole process again. From one perspective, this “harp and bowl” way of worshipping seems carefree and free-form. From the perspective of the worship leader and the prayer leader and the singers and the band on stage, they are following a well-defined liturgy, one that takes people to a deep place of intercession. Found in a number of nondenominational contexts, this type of worship gathering, like many liturgical churches before them, relies on a prescriptive pattern of worship so that there can be spontaneity. It’s the very structure that allows such a high level of participation.

The clean, beautiful art gallery, peppered with stations in front of creative pieces, creates space for the worshippers to interact. Many of the stations are pieces of the Anglican liturgy strewn about: confession, readings from Scripture, prayer and the communion table. Prayer stations create space for the congregation to pray for themselves, others and the world. The TV set up in the back shows someone walking and talking about the Scriptures. Several instruments set up in a corner allow anyone who wants to play and sing at any moment. At one point in the decentralized worship experience, a priest stands behind a table, prays some prayers, sets out bread and wine, and invites people to receive communion. All the elements for an Anglican liturgy are present, but in a very decentralized form.

These three snapshots—one from a monastic tradition, another from a nondenominational context that has appropriated a very specific form of liturgy and another from an Anglican context—offer three different perspectives on the ways that liturgy is used in different contexts. But just how does a community, especially a community for whom liturgy is not its norm, learn how to use liturgy?

Liturgy as the work of the people

Liturgy quite literally means “the work of the people.” Liturgy at its best recounts the story of God and God’s people throughout history. There are particular moments where we, as God’s people today, are invited to both remember and live this story. Helping people understand a particular liturgy and giving them ways to participate in the liturgy (instead of something that is “done to” them) provide ways to make liturgy a true work of the congregation.

The most practical way to allow liturgy to be the work of the people is to invite the people into creating it. This means that liturgy is not the job of one person but rather the creation or an offering of a smaller community. Liturgy, done the way described above, takes a team—or, at best, multiple teams—both to create synergy between the different parts and to encourage as many people as possible to create spaces for God to move in worship.

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Do some research

Liturgy offers a holistic picture of worship—from the beginning to the end. It invites the congregation to live into a new reality, a different story. It offers a process that includes many components such as confession, a statement of belief, a portion of Scripture and corporate prayer. Only implementing one portion of the liturgy or another misses the overall rhythm. So before you implement just one piece, do some research—what is this liturgy hoping to do? What does this pattern create in people who practice it? How might people be formed by the whole of a liturgy if a community lived into it for a certain period of time?

Use a specific liturgy for a season

One of the most helpful ways to introduce a community to a liturgical pattern is by adopting a specific liturgy for a season. Like the group at the beginning chanting compline three times a week, using a specific liturgical form exposes people to something different and invites them to see what it is all about. As with any major change, or addition, to a community’s pattern of worship, conversations about “why” such a change and “what” such change might mean provide a way for the community to decide they, too, want to live into a specific liturgy.

Liturgy, when done well, can offer a structure that allows for participation. It can invite people into a different type of rhythm of life. It can open new doors for creativity and participation. Liturgy can truly be a way a community offers themselves to God in worship. Liturgy can provide a pattern in which our God is worshipped and adored.

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