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Ten Reasons Why We Need the Liturgy

August 30th, 2011
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My friend, Pastor William Cwirla, posted this somewhere…..just passing it along.

Why the Liturgy? First a definition and a disclaimer. By “liturgy” I mean the western catholic mass form as it has been handed down by way of the Lutheran Reformation consisting of the five fixed canticles – Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Pardon the Greek and Latin, but it sounds cool and we still use ‘em. “Liturgy” also includes the assigned Scripture texts for the Sundays, feast days, and seasons. Most of what I will say about the liturgy of the Divine Service will pertain to “liturgical worship” in general.

Now, why do we worship according to the western, catholic liturgy?

  1. it shows our historic roots. Some parts of the liturgy go back to the apostolic period. Even the apostolic church did not start with a blank liturgical slate but adapted and reformed the liturgies of the synagogue and the Sabbath. The western mass shows our western catholic roots, of which we as Lutherans are not ashamed. (I’d rather be confused with a Roman Catholic than anything else.) We’re not the first Christians to walk the face of the planet, nor, should Jesus tarry, will we be the last. The race of faith is a relay race, one generation handing on (“traditioning”) to the next the faith once delivered to the saints. The historic liturgy underscores and highlights this fact. It is also “traditionable,” that is, it can be handed on.
  2. It serves as a distinguishing mark. The liturgy distinguishes us from those who do not believe, teach, and confess the same as we do. What we believe determines how we worship, and how we worship confesses what we believe.
  3. It is both Theocentric and Christocentric. From the invocation of the Triune Name in remembrance of Baptism to the three-fold benediction at the end, the liturgy is focused on the activity of the Triune God centered in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Worship is not primarily about “me” or “we” but about God in Christ reconciling the world to HImself and my baptismal inclusion in His saving work.
  4. It teaches. The liturgy teaches the whole counsel of God – creation, redemption, sanctification, Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, and reign, the Spirit’s outpouring and the new life of faith. Every liturgical year cycles through these themes so that the hearer receives the “whole counsel of God” on a regular basis.
  5. It is transcultural. One of the greatest experiences of my worship life was to be in the Divine Service in Siberia with the Siberian Lutheran Church. Though I spoke only a smattering of Russian, I knew enough to recognize the liturgy, know what was being said (except for the sermon, which was translated for us), and be able to participate knowledgeably across language and cultural barriers. I have the same experience with our Chinese mission congregation.
  6. It is repetitive in a good way. Repetition is, after all, the mother of learning. Fixed texts and annual cycles of readings lend to deep learning. Obviously, mindless repetition does not accomplish anything; nor does endless variety.
  7. It is corporate. Worship is a corporate activity. “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” The liturgy draws us out of ourselves into Christ by faith and the neighbor by love. We are all in this together. Worship is not simply about what “I get out of it,” but I am there also for my fellow worshippers to receive the gifts of Christ that bind us together and to encourage each other to love and good works (Heb 10:25). We are drawn into the dialogue of confession and absolution, hearing and confessing, corporate song and prayer. To borrow a phrase from a favored teacher of mine, in church we are “worded, bodied, and bloodied” all together as one.
  8. It rescues us from the tyranny of the “here and now.” When the Roman world was going to hell in a hand basket, the church was debating the two natures of Christ. In the liturgy, the Word sets the agenda, defining our needs and shaping our questions. The temptation is for us to turn stones into bread to satisfy an immediate hunger and scratch a nagging spiritual itch, but the liturgy teaches us to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
  9. It is external and objective. The liturgical goal is not that everyone feel as certain way or have an identical “spiritual” experience. Feelings vary even as they come and go. The liturgy supplies a concrete, external, objective anchor in the death and resurrection of Jesus through Word, bread, and wine. Faith comes by hearing the objective, external Word of Christ.
  10. It is the Word of God. This is often overlooked by critics of liturgical worship. Most of the sentences and songs of the liturgy are direct quotations or allusions from Scripture or summaries, such as the Creed. In other words, the liturgy is itself the Word of God, not simply a packaging for the Word. Many times the liturgy will rescue a bad sermon and deliver what the preacher has failed to deliver. I know; I’ve been there.

Ten is one of those good numbers in the Bible signifying completeness, so I’ll stop at ten. I’m sure there are more.

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  1. Jonathan Trost
    August 30th, 2011 at 08:42 | #1

    Thanks for sharing that, Pastor. It should be mandatory reading for all Lutheran “pewsitters” (and clergy!). It reminds me that “In darkness dwells the people which knows its annals not.” That is, we should know where we’ve been, where we are, and why we do what it is we do.

    As an ELCA layman, I fear for our ELCA liturgy. As to the content and flow of The Service, what used to be rubrical (required use) now has become permitted use. In too many places (IMHO), “shall” has been replaced with “may”. Examples of now permitted but not required uses each Sunday are: Confession and Absolution, the Entrance Hymn, the Kyrie, one of the Creeds, and the Agnus Dei. Where are we going with that, other than in the wrong direction?!

    I know that Martin Luther called for unity rather than uniformity in The Service. But, in addition to failthful preaching and right celebration of the sacraments, didn’t he just assume the continued use of the Roman “ordo” (as modified)? As to song, for example, that would allow for use of some of the great British or other Christocentric hymns, rather than chorales only. But excluded would be syrupy, subjective “gum drops” such as “Heavenly Sunshine” or “Have You talked to the Man upstairs?”

    The last verse of the OT Book of Judges bemoans the state of civic affairs at that time: “And in those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was appropriate in his own sight.” Modified and contemporized for the ELCA today, that verse might read: “And in those days there was no authority (consensus) in the church, and every pastor did what was approriate in his own sight.” Ugh!

    The current winds blowing which permit, if not encourage, each pastor liturgically to “Do your own thing, man!” are dangerous to the unity of the church.

    Kyrie eleison!

    Veni Creator Spiritus!

  2. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    August 30th, 2011 at 09:09 | #2

    I like the list! I would put the first two reasons at the bottom though — “historic” and “distinguishing” wouldn’t be worth crap if the other eight were not true, and make it right and deserving to be distinguishing and passed on through the ages.

    And speaking of passed on through the ages, I’d say too “liturgy” ought to qualified to mean just that, as distinct from the pastiche services made by modern liturgical scholars from bits and pieces of what has been passed on, rather than actually passing it on.

  3. Christopher
    August 31st, 2011 at 10:53 | #3

    I believe that the modern copier and computer/printer has done great damage to the tried-and-true form of worship that we know as “the western liturgy”.

    Now, I’m no luddite; technology can be a GREAT and very helpful thing- for communication, research, for efficiency in the use of time, etc.
    But when it comes to the liturgy- it empowers every pastor and/or “worship leader” (?!)
    to become their own individual “commission on worship”. Somewhere in all of this cutting
    and pasting of unique or creative resources… we lose. We lose our heritage, we lose our unity of practice, and sometimes- we even lose the center of the Gospel, as we put our felt needs and desires and varying “spiritual sensibilities” in place of God’s work and testimony
    in “our” worship services. ( As Dr. Norman Nagel was oft to say concerning “the mass”, “It’s not OUR supper… it’s the LORD’S Supper!” ) Please~ Cutting and Pasting is not such a good idea when it comes to the core of something that God uses to bring us the riches of His grace. So let’s tell folks to put a STOP to it. Lord have mercy upon us.

  4. Christopher
    August 31st, 2011 at 10:57 | #4

    ps. Sorry about the paragraph formatting in the last post- I tried to make it look good, but
    it somehow fell apart. It’s the thought that counts though.

    See- that’s what I mean when I say, technology isn’t always “all that”. Cheers~

  5. Bill S
    September 1st, 2011 at 06:23 | #5

    I attend an LCMS church where we do not follow the standard liturgical but instead have elements of it incorporated throughout our worship time. After a lifetime of Catholic and ELCA traditional liturgy-style worship, I finally feel like I am in a service where I can truly worship God with spirit and energy. Despite its many merits, for so many church-goers, the liturgical style of worship is one where we are on auto-pilot and not engaged in true adoration and worship of our living God.

    • September 1st, 2011 at 07:35 | #6

      “the liturgical style of worship is one where we are on auto-pilot and not engaged in true adoration and worship of our living God.”

      Bill, that’s really quite a judgmental comment, which is simply not true. How would you define “true adoration and worship of our living God”?

  6. September 1st, 2011 at 09:23 | #7

    I am an old man who entered the LCMS professional ministry later in life as worker/priest than full time parish. I had tried several other groups along the way but returned to LCMS believing that was the foundation that I wanted to follow. Liturgy (the work of the people) is basic to our beginnings. Luther did not throw out the baby with the bathe water but purified the water of God’s Word. Why rid ourselves of something that has been around 100′s if not K’s of years. God is the action in our Divine Services towards us while the syrupy is based on feelings and emotions. When I was a youth I often wept during the liturgy (I embraced the church at 17 so was not raised in it), I wish Missouri had “LAW” that required usto be faithful to liturgical practices. I would like to be at home when I visit other churches. I am presently assisting a new mission formation (NALC) and am their primary servant. I have decided to walk them through the rubics in LW and LBW to instruct them on the “shalls” and “mays” and we are goin to follow litury as printed for our benefit. We may no chant most of it but we will use all of it. I think the younger generation is looking for something to hold on to for stability. The church is the only place that can offer stability.

  7. September 1st, 2011 at 09:33 | #8

    I think that this is a good article on the *benefits* of the liturgy. I don’t know if the title (Ten Reasons Why We Need the Liturgy) was assigned here on this blog or was original with the article, but I don’t think the article really addresses the *need.*

    A few other comments:

    The liturgy only serves as a distinguishing mark (Reason #2) when all “who do not believe, teach, and confess the same as we” do not use the liturgy. I’m not sure this is the case.

    I don’t know that we can objectively, meaningfully define the phrase “repetitive in a good way” (Reason #6).

    I wonder if the liturgy (as defined by the author, including the “five fixed canticles”) is truly more “external and objective” than other worship services where God’s Word and the sacraments are rightly preached and administered (Reason #9).

  8. September 1st, 2011 at 12:57 | #9

    Luther’s “Exhortation to the Christians in Livonia Concerning Public Worship and Unity” should be mandatory reading for anyone considering “tinkering” with the traditional liturgy.

    As needed, offer both a contemporary service and a liturgical service … and leave the latter alone. For myself, I can pray the liturgical service, but only recite the contemporary service.
    However, I’m happy to see that service offered for those whose “heart language” is fulfilled by that service.

    In our congregation, the Pastor and Elders had the wisdom to offer both, although the traditional service has been seriously damaged by omission of several beautiful and historic elements (the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Preface, the Proper Preface, the Sanctus, and the Nunc Dimittis). If I leave this congregation, it will be for that reason alone.

  9. JJR
    September 1st, 2011 at 19:37 | #10

    @ptmccain

    I think Bill’s comment is right on the mark for many of us. Robotic worship is weak worship at best. The Bible warns us of this, and I don’t see the warning taken seriously in many places.

    It may be that Dr. Luther would be surprised and disappointed to see that many Lutheran churches have codified 500-year-old worship styles without improving the service in any meaningful way. Is the reformation vision fulfilled? Really?

  10. Bill S
    September 2nd, 2011 at 05:33 | #11

    @ptmccain
    I apologize if I sounded judgmental – true worship comes in many forms and I believe the liturgy is one way and is deeply meaningful for some. It’s just not for all.

    • September 2nd, 2011 at 06:53 | #12

      Bill S, can I ask a question? How old are you? The reason I ask is that I like to notice different attitudes in generations when it comes to these issues.

  11. Bill S
    September 2nd, 2011 at 07:06 | #13

    54! And let me add that in our church we have a liturgical service as well as a contemporary one. My brothers and sisters who choose the liturgical service are worshiping God in the way that best expresses their adoration of God. For me, I can more freely express mine through a different style.

  12. Jonathan Trost
    September 2nd, 2011 at 08:37 | #14

    Just the name alone that I give to Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. (or whenever) makes a difference for me. Do I attend “Gottesdient” (Divine Service) or do I attend the “worship service”. The distinction emphasizes the difference between God’s acts and ours.

    In “Gottesdienst”, God gives, we receives. In “worship”, the primary roles can be, or tend to be, reversed, which allows The Service to become primarily mostly about us and our doings. (Perhaps, at some subconscious [?} level, we prefer it that way?)

    At “10 o’clock” on Sunday mornings, God acts and we respond. He provides us with the means of grace, i.e., the word and the sacrament. We, in turn, respond gratefully. That is, we worship. We offer up our prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, and through song “make a joyful noise to the Lord,…and sing praises.”

    The historic liturgy contains and reflects the God-given wisdom (consensus) of the ages. It must always contain and express the unity of Christ’s church. Consequently, pastors should approach tinkering with it “solo” only “in fear and trepidation.”

    God acts; we respond. And, the primary actor is God.

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