Liturgy has become a hot topic in the church.
“Excuse me, but what’s a liturgy?” you ask.
Liturgy is the pattern or program of worship chosen by a church. It includes the gospel-related topics, themes, forms, symbols, styles, seasons and days that help facilitate effective worship for that particular church. In other words, liturgy refers to the whole set of seasons, days, tools and methods we use to worship, celebrate and enjoy God.
We all agree that God doesn’t want his people to fight about when to worship him. Our worship should be a source of unity and joy in the power, love, glory and grace of God. Yet our choices about when and how to worship our God and Savior sometimes become a source of division and controversy.
While some members don’t mind attending everything the church offers, and some simply avoid activities that are not meaningful to them, others get angry just knowing any space is being given to the “other side.”
In this article, we’d like to present a few basic principles related to worship that might help us all to lay down our weapons and give each other some space about when we choose to worship our great God who loves us all.
Worship is celebration
The first thing that might help us get some perspective is to understand that worship is a human response to God — who he is, what he has done and what he is doing. It is an active, often spontaneous, celebration of God’s work through Christ. In worship Christians are participating in Christ’s work of human redemption.
New Testament liturgy is the recurring patterns of worship that developed among the first-century Christians. It developed as the disciples rehearsed and remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection by meeting together to participate in the Lord’s Supper and to baptize new converts. These events were discussed, read about in the Scriptures, rehearsed and reenacted in an atmosphere of prayer, singing of hymns, thanksgiving and praise.
God likes variety
As we learn to obey Jesus’ command to love one another, we also learn to appreciate and respect our cultural diversity. Jesus values human culture and human customs because he values humanity. Our cultural “lenses,” we might call them, are a necessary part of who we are. The forms or styles we prefer for worship are necessarily shaped by our particular culture, and that is OK.
As we view life through our particular cultural lenses, we tend to look on other ways of doing things with suspicion, distrust, ridicule, or even fear. Our culture tends to shape our values, and our values govern how we draw our conclusions about what is good and what is bad.
When we come to faith in Christ, God purifies our hearts. He softens our hearts toward others. He gives us a new commandment — that we love one another. This does not require that we must abandon our unique cultural values. It means we must learn to respect the cultural values of others, without feeling threatened ourselves. (Of course, if a particular cultural value is sinful, we must abandon it. But most of our cultural values are not sinful; many are neutral and many are quite compatible with godliness in Christ.)
Culture and sin
Culture, of itself, is not evil. Our unity in Christ affirms and purifies culture; it does not do away with it! When Jesus returns, men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will form the kingdom of God. God works with us in the context of our respective cultures. He is the author of human freedom, and he enjoys the rich tapestry of human diversity and cultural variety. God hates sin, but he does not hate culture.
It is sin that corrupts and spoils culture, not culture that causes and produces sin. Because there is sin in every human, there is sin in every culture, including our own. As God’s people, Christians should turn away from sin, but they do not need to turn away from their culture to embrace someone else’s culture.
No particular cultural form is an absolute. We must not think that just because we happen to like a particular cultural form, and it has a certain value in worship for us, therefore it must be used in worship everywhere else, too. To make any cultural form essential to worship is to make the opposite mistake from discarding all cultural forms.
We must be free to use cultural forms in worship, while also remaining free not to use a particular cultural form. We must not allow any form or style of worship to become an end in itself. We worship God, freely using forms and styles of worship; we don’t, however, allow ourselves to become slaves to those forms and styles.
Communing with God
God is just as comfortable communing with Filipinos in a Philippine culture as he is communing with Arabs in an Arab culture, Indians in an Indian culture, Danes in a Danish culture, Mexicans in a Mexican culture or Latinos, Anglos, African-Americans or American-born Chinese in a United States culture. God loves the worship of his people regardless of its cultural flavor and style.
Our congregations do not need to have the same songs, the same musical instruments, the same style of body movement or even the same days on which we worship in order to be united in Christ. Our unity comes from our faith in Jesus Christ and our love for one another, not from worshiping in the same way and at the same times in every congregation around the world.
Each culture may have different symbols that are meaningful to them. In many cultures, for example, the cross is a fitting symbol of Christian faith, while in certain other cultures it may not be, because of its widespread use in that culture as a symbol of something else. In many cultures, the Christmas season is a fitting celebration of the birth of Christ, while in certain other cultures it is not, because it has become so confused with ungodly rituals.
Liturgy and culture
As a congregation matures, it develops an increasingly deeper participation in the Incarnation of Christ through its worship and liturgy. That means the members of the congregation are growing in love for God and in love for others. They are becoming less and less likely to condemn others for being different and for doing things differently.
The more we love God, and the more we worship and honor him, the less we will condemn our brothers and sisters in Christ who prefer to worship him on days and in ways different from those we choose. But we tend to condemn anyway.
Less than 25 years after Jesus’ death, Paul addressed this issue in his letter to the Romans: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls,” Paul writes. “And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
Such instructions are necessary because Christians do tend to have a spirit of condemnation toward others. Paul continues in verse 10: “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
What does this have to do with liturgy? Just this: We must learn not to condemn one another over the seasons and days on which we decide to worship. For example, if one of our congregations in the United States decides to adopt an unusual format for worship, then congregations in Europe and South America do not need either to 1) feel they must immediately do the same thing, or 2) get angry and upset that the U.S. congregation has made this decision.
Likewise, if a congregation in South America feels it should not get involved in local Christmas customs, then congregations in the United States and Canada do not have to feel their South American brothers and sisters are being disloyal to Christ. We do not know enough about the local situation in order to make just judgments.
Freedom not to condemn
We are all free in Christ to worship during whatever seasons and on whatever days we find fitting and appropriate. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6).
Can we let this principle rule our attitudes toward one another? If our brothers and sisters in other congregations are gathering to worship the Lord, then we should not get upset about the particular days on which they do so, or the specific details they incorporate in their worship.
Let’s take it one step further. In any given congregation we have fellow believers who want to worship in one way, as well as fellow believers who want to worship in quite a different way. How do we treat one another? Are we angry and judgmental? Are we considerate and patient? Do we try to understand and appreciate the feelings of those who differ from us? What is the value of worshiping if the result is judgmentalism and condemnation?
Within the essential and central framework of Christian orthodoxy, there is much room for diversity. We have unity in the worship of the Lord, the faithful observance of the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism) and the faithful proclamation of the Word. We have diversity in the styles and forms we use in administering the sacraments, proclaiming the Word and worshiping the Lord. The Holy Spirit makes us one in Christ, and our diversity in how we express that unity is a gift of God.
Each congregation in its unique setting in the world must take up its own task, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of filling cultural forms with Christian substance. Choices about symbols, order of meeting, styles of music and prayer forms, and choices about seasons and days, must be the responsibility of the local congregation under the pastor’s guidance within the broad and general guidelines provided by the denomination and the regional offices.
We allow for flexibility. Congregations are free to gather for worship during those seasons and days that are most fitting for their circumstances and situations. They are not compelled to make the same choices as other congregations (there is significant freedom within denominational limitations). At the same time, congregations are expected to respect the choices made by other congregations.
These issues are complicated. Some of our members worship in a particular manner for wrong reasons: they believe it is a sin not to observe a particular custom. Many of these members also believe it is a sin to worship in other ways. They feel sullied or dirtied, as some have put it, belonging to a church in which there are people who worship in a different way.
Some have defined the old customs as a “better” way to celebrate Christ, and they look down on others as inferior. They are upset that we no longer forbid or avoid the customs that they view as sinful. However, there are others who observe the old customs simply because it is their tradition and custom. They associate pleasant memories with those patterns of worship, and they have made them better than they used to be. They are glad they can worship Christ in a new and meaningful way and see their tradition as one way to do that.
But on the extreme, some of them do not want to belong to a church where anyone still observes the old traditions. Many of these have a keen sense of having been freed from legalism, and they want to steer completely clear of it. They cannot understand why the church would continue to allow for the old customs when those customs emphasized exclusivity and a misunderstanding of the gospel. Others don’t mind people observing the old traditions, as long as participation is not mandatory and as long as new forms of worship are used as well.
There is no solution that will please everyone. Our goals are 1) faithfulness to God, and 2) denominational unity in the light of his Word. That is why we provide flexibility within an overall biblical framework. Congregations are free to formulate their own liturgical calendar and practices, taking into account the needs and preferences of the members.
Can we have diversity in this way and remain united in our faith in Jesus Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit? That is a matter of choice. God loves all his children, but his children still struggle with the challenges of working together in love. May we join together in prayer that as we assemble for worship, God will lead us into a closer walk with him and with one another.
Randall Dick and J. Michael Feazell