What are your associations with liturgy and liturgical churches? Many Christians appreciate worship services that connect them with Jesus. But the use of liturgy in those services might feel:
Dead, like a brick in your backpack. Liturgy has no use, it’s just heavy, useless dead weight that loads your soul and church with heavy forms of legalism.
Boring, like a wet blanket. You have passion for God that burns bright. Free-form worship stokes that flame higher. Yet for you, liturgy extinguishes it through endless repetition.
Strange, like Grandma’s parlor room. Some grandparents have rooms with plastic-covered couches, pictures of the dearly departed, artifacts from their lives, and a list of protocols for how to act when you are in that room. Like your grandma’s parlor room, you might associate liturgical services with strange sights, smells, and meanings. The whole environment makes you feel uncomfortable, confused, or obligated. Your whole body screams, “Get me out of here!” You would never invite your friends or neighbors over to hang out in that room with you.
Is it true that liturgy is dead, boring, and strange? Does it load up a life of grace with useless works, nitpicky rules, and funky smells that would turn off the friends and neighbors we want to reach with the gospel? If so, let us be rid of liturgy!
But what if liturgy is not what we always assumed?
What if instead of burdening us, liturgy freed us to live a life of grace?
What if instead of boring us, liturgy, rightly practiced, could usher us into joy?
What if instead of alienating us from the presence of God, liturgical services caught us up into the throne room of God with confidence?
Liturgy is any activity of the body that shapes the soul. Liturgy is “the work of the people” that works on the people. It will involve repetition, effort, and discomfort. Yet far from being dead religion, liturgy makes us alive and spiritually awake. In other words, liturgy is meant to be a grace-filled training program that can leave us better prepared to face the trials God allows in our life.
Early Christians used gospel liturgy to train for trials and emerge victorious from them. Though their world was dangerous and the times unpredictable, their liturgical habits readied ordinary people to stand in Christ no matter what they faced. It was passed on to each generation, whether kids or converts. If you wanted to join the church, the habitus—a battery of liturgies and exercises involving mind, body, memory, and community—was the first thing you learned. And it made the Christian church shine like stars in the universe—it made them alive, not dead. The repetition and habits practiced “off the spot” gave them the freedom to obey Christ when they were put “on the spot.” The same was true of Christ Himself.
Consider Jesus under extreme stress and trial: He applies old prayers to new challenges. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is hours away from trial, scourging, and ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Notice what He prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Can you hear the echoes of the prayer He taught His disciples to pray? Our Father . . . deliver us from evil . . . your will be done. He prays it again, and then a third time, using the same words: My Father . . . your will be done (Matt. 26:42, 44). The Lord’s Prayer is in His memory. He needs it. He prays it again and again. Even on the cross, we can hear a final echo of Our Father . . . forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He is ready for His fight.
Are we ready for ours? Contemporary Christians could take a page from Jesus’ playbook. Many people in the pews are struggling in their prayer life. With biblical illiteracy on the rise, fewer are holding to basic theological orthodoxy. Even more concerning are the rising numbers of children raised in Christian homes who abandon their faith in high school or college. Even for those who stay, the rates of mental health struggles, including depression and anxiety, continue to climb.
Are our non-liturgical Christian practices really making us alive for the moment?
We stand in need of life-giving rituals that can impart healing for the soul, training in prayer, and good gospel theology, all in the powerful presence of Jesus Christ. In other words, liturgy isn’t just a brick in the backpack. Christian liturgy, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is a habitus for our day. Gospel-filled liturgy strengthens the heart, enlivens the will, and exercises the soul. Gospel liturgy makes us vigorous and strong for faithful obedience to Jesus.
During the Eastertide season at Immanuel, we end our services with something called “the Kenyan Blessing.” Along with the pastor, the whole congregation stands to their feet and extends their hands toward a visible cross as they say,
Officiant: All our problems of this life on earth,
People: We send to the cross of Christ!
Officiant: All the difficulties of our circumstances,
People: We send to the cross of Christ!
Officiant: All the devil’s work from his temporary power,
People: We send to the cross of Christ!
There’s a sense of defiant joy and relief as we place our sicknesses, conflicts, injustices, curses, or any number of problems under the authority of the cross of Christ. This also serves as an exercise we take into the rest of the week, where the problems, difficulties, and attacks of the evil one continue to test our faith. The blessing ends with everyone lifting their hands toward heaven, as they conclude,
Officiant: All our hopes for wholeness and eternal life,
People: We set on the Risen Christ!
Officiant: May Christ the sun of righteousness, shine on you and scatter the darkness before your path. And may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen!
Some celebrations are so joyful that liturgy erupts all by itself.
Have you ever participated in a joy-filled wedding? Chances are that liturgy was involved somehow. Traditionally, the liturgical movement begins far in advance with a proposal (“Will you marry me?” on bended knee), followed by the father of the bride walking his daughter down the aisle, parting a sea of loved ones who stand in awe of her beauty.
The pastor asks pointed liturgical questions: “Will you have this woman to be your wife? . . . Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” We all know the correct liturgical response: “I do.” Vows are taken, rings are exchanged, a kiss-to-end-all-kisses, on the mouth, is kissed, a newly married couple is introduced. Cheers erupt.
But the wedding liturgy doesn’t end there. Liturgy moves us through to the end: a dance for the father of the bride and his daughter, the same for the mother of the groom and her son, followed by feasting, dancing, and toasts and roasts to the happy couple.
Whatever the celebration, liturgy does not compete with joy. In most cases, liturgy clarifies the joy. Liturgy helps us channel our joy. Joy and liturgy go together like a bride and groom.
Did you know that each Sunday is like a joyful wedding feast? That is how many of the first pastors of the church thought of it: our beloved groom Jesus Christ gave His life to be united with His bride, the church. He loves us with a love stronger than death. His blood covers our offenses and makes us worthy to stand in a pure wedding dress, without spot or wrinkle, in great splendor. As we approach Him each Sunday, our Groom sings over us, speaks His love over us, and is quite ready to embrace us in love.
“The door to heaven’s glory and heaven’s liturgy has been opened to you by the blood of Jesus. Enter it.”
Each line of the liturgy, every time we say “Amen,” every full-throated “Alleluia! Alleluia!” during Easter, and every time we lift the chalice and drink the new wine of His covenant comprises our joyful “I do.”
I acknowledge that not every liturgical service is filled with joy. It should be! Similarly, not every non-liturgical service is filled with joy. In both cases, liturgy itself is not the problem. Churches and services without joy need the presence of the Holy Spirit. They need pastors whose souls have been refreshed and have had some training in leading the liturgy in a heartfelt way. They need congregations ready to follow and participate with whole hearts.
Liturgical churches in the global south (including Africa, Asia, and South America) model joyful participation well. They lead the liturgy with passion, with leaders and congregants alike even dancing during songs, as they bring forward their gifts to the altar, and in seasons of the church that call for joy.
One of the most difficult blocks to joy in liturgy is how unfamiliar it is. Let’s discuss that next.
I have a friend with a huge heart for evangelism. He’s concerned that liturgy is a stumbling block for the unchurched because it is so strange. In his message to me, he wrote, “Unbelievers without liturgical backgrounds feel alienated from liturgical church services. It’s like requiring a secret handshake when you walk into the living room. The whole experience of unfamiliar words and gestures can leave first-time participants feeling like outsiders.”
This common concern contains some truth. Consider the following strange elements of a worship service at the church I lead (Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago):
I wear a white robe. Few people in Chicago, especially grown men, wear a white robe in public. What’s more, a cloth hangs around my neck that is color-coded to the liturgical season we are in.
Before the gospel passage is read aloud, a minister picks up a large gospel book, holds it aloft, and processes around while the congregation sings the word “Alleluia” over and over again. The singing and the processing happen again after the reading is over.
People worship with their bodies. They make the sign of the cross (sometimes over their lips!), kneel, bow, stand, raise up their hands, and drink from a common cup.
We burn incense on “Feast Days” so that the aroma and smoke fill the sanctuary.
I engage in a formal call-and-response with the congregation. We talk to each other, like actors in a drama, using lines from Scripture. Here’s an example:
Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Pastor: Lift up your hearts! (I raise my hands)
People: We lift them up to the Lord! (They raise their hands)
Pastor: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give Him thanks and praise.
In our modern world, who does this? Who talks like this? Why wouldn’t we use more casual, off-the-cuff, less formal language? And what purpose is there in strange sights, funny clothes, and processions? No wonder people leave confused.
Of all the charges against liturgy that could be made, this one might land. Liturgy is strange—it’s strange on purpose. Liturgy trains us for citizenship in our true home and city, the New Jerusalem. We are learning the language and customs in advance. It feels awkward at first, but over time it enculturates us to the city where we will live forever.
Have you ever visited a foreign country and found it difficult to understand the local customs, language, and food? The funky smells and foreign sounds make us homesick. After a trip abroad, we might want to sleep in our own beds and eat our favorite comfort foods. Yet if we can persist in learning local customs, a whole world opens up to us that was inaccessible otherwise. We are never the same afterward.
Of all the places you or I could travel, heaven itself might be the strangest. The throne room of God is a distinct place with unique, stunning, even terrifying features. Each person given access is never the same. When Isaiah received a vision of God’s throne room (Isa. 6:1–13), he saw the Lord exalted and clothed in splendor. Otherworldly creatures with six wings made gestures and sang a liturgical song about God’s holiness. If this wasn’t unnerving enough, the sound of God’s voice thundered, causing an earthquake beneath Isaiah’s feet as the room filled with smoke.
Heaven’s strangeness shook Isaiah’s body. It shook Isaiah’s soul. This was not a user-friendly worship experience that left him ready to fill out a connection card. Yet enough of it got through: he knew that his unclean lips and his unclean life needed cleaning, that without help he was undone. He looked on God and was about to die.
More strange liturgy followed. The seraphim flew to Isaiah with a burning coal and kissed his mouth with it. Atonement was made.
The liturgy ended with a call-and-response: the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go with me?” Isaiah responded with a vow of willing service: “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah left the vision and went into the world ready to fulfill his calling.
If a door to heaven opened before you, would you walk through it? Would you visit this strange and wonderful place, this terrifying realm? If so, what do you imagine you would see? How might it change you? Might you, dare you, enter the liturgy of heaven?
The door is open, my friend. The door to heaven’s glory and heaven’s liturgy has been opened to you by the blood of Jesus. Enter it. Follow the voice to the throne. Join the liturgical assembly, bow down, and rejoice.
by Aaron Damiani
Christians from a low-church background do not have to be afraid of liturgy and sacraments. On the contrary, these ancient ways of engaging...
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