I am still far from proficient when it comes to talking, or writing, about traditional liturgy in Christian worship. I often feel like there is a really good, fancy word for how to refer to something but I simply don’t know that word. Regardless, I think I am starting to better understand the power of liturgy in Christian worship and I am finally able to describe it and talk about it in a way that I definitely wasn’t able to a few months ago. Thank you, C.S. Lewis.
My entire life, I have attended what most Christians describe as contemporary Sunday worship services. I am not just referring to the musical part of worship, but to the whole pie. Whether collective church worship happens on a Sunday, Monday morning, Wednesday night, Friday night, or Saturday at noon, it doesn’t matter because I am referring to the entirety of church worship.
To make a long story short, about four years ago I hit a wall in which I no longer understood what was the point of “church worship.” What was it about? Is it a collection of my Christian brothers and sisters doing stuff in the same place? Is it a tool to deliver the Gospel to people? Is it a musical concert with a nice message at the end? I was asking myself all those questions because “church worship” had lost its meaning. Was it just a place where we hang out together, because if it is, then isn’t that what we do in small groups? Is it a place for just teaching, because if it is, then why is it so seeker-friendly and why do we put so much emphasis on “new people?” Isn’t church worship for…the church?
I was at a bad spot. I was in a really bad spot and, instead of hitting automatic and cruising through it, my wife and I decided we were going to ask God to show us what was the point about “collective church worship.” This decision led us away from what had been our home church for many years. I had been attending that church for twelve years! Twelve years! But looking back on that decision, I am overjoyed by the journey that we have undertaken alongside the Holy Spirit, which brings me back to the point of this writing.
Even though each Christian’s experience is somewhat different, God has used traditional liturgy to powerfully reawaken my walk with Jesus and my desire to be part of worship alongside a church community. Having only experienced contemporary church worship for 28 years, it has been through liturgical worship that I have come to actually see and feel what it is like to “collectively” worship as a church and not as an individual. Let me give you some examples.
The first time I sang out loud the Doxology, I started crying and I don’t know why, but all I knew was that the entire congregation was declaring these short, simple, but powerful truths together in a way that united us as a flock and a community. The first time that I saw a pastor perform a “collective prayer” and ask the congregation for prayer requests, I understood that Sunday morning could be a time in which I could actually learn and help carry my brothers and sisters’ burdens. It was through Sunday after Sunday of a pastor or priest explaining, in detail, the significance and symbolism of the Eucharist or Communion that I finally understood why it is so important to church worship. I had never knelt to pray in church, but now we do, together as a church before the Holy Spirit, and it is a rite that brings me closer to my fellow Christian. As a final example, I have never felt the power of collective church worship more than each time that at our current church we kneel and bow to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to declare out loud the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, to pray a Psalm together, or to read a prayer out loud as a congregation, and to receive the Eucharist.
Yes, traditional liturgy is old, and to many Christians it reminds them of the “old way of doing church.” Trust me, I thought that way too. Liturgy was just “too Catholic” for a neo-Calvinist like me; however, it has been through a journey in Presbyterian, Catholic, and Anglican churches and services that I have finally understood the power it has to bring a community of worshippers together. God used traditional liturgy to help me grasp what it is like to be in a room on Sunday morning and actually feel that we are all, collectively, as a body, and not as individuals, engaging, worshipping, and having community with the Trinity.
Having said all this, traditional liturgy maybe isn’t for everything, and I totally get it. If you’ve asked me 7 years ago to be part of an Anglican, Lutheran, or liturgical Presbyterian church, I would have laughed at you and told you why all those traditions and rituals are “too Catholic, and they are getting between you and your personal walk with Jesus.” I would have definitely said or thought something along those lines. But then I realized that the contemporary, individualism-centric, mainstream, and upbeat church worship that I had been experiencing for many years wasn’t really leading into church worship at all, because if church worship doesn’t draw your closer in fellowship with your brothers and sisters across the aisle and across the sanctuary, then why even call it church worship?
Final Thoughts: There are a lot of comments in this post to make a lot of people angry. I have a lot of friends that would question my faith knowing that I am now “down with the old school liturgy.” Additionally, some of you will read this and say, “he is bashing my church,” but that is not the case. If your contemporary church worship actually leads you into collective, communal worship, then that’s awesome. It wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t doing it for us.
When I think of C.S. Lewis, I used to most often think about his classic books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. However, it didn’t hit me until I started reading Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm that C.S. Lewis was an Anglican, and that every Sunday he went to church and worship in a traditional liturgical style that, for many years, I looked down and judged. I find it extremely humorous that God is using an element of ancient Christian worship that I ridiculed in order to bring me back into the fold, to help me better understand church community and worship, and to better grasp the role that as believers, we have in one another’s lives.