Churches with a “non-liturgical” worship tradition tend to equate liturgy with rituals (what my friend Professor Eddie Gibbs describes as “bells and smells”), including standardized prayers. Though a “liturgical” approach toward worship might seem contrived and stiff to people used to a less formal style, it is valid when given to the Father, through Jesus, “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman in John 4.
But liturgy is much more than a style of worship practiced by “high churches” like Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox. Whether we recognize it or not, liturgy is fundamental to the rhythm of a Christian’s daily life before God.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word abad is used to describe both worship and work. In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek words are latreuo and leitourgia, from which comes our English word “liturgy.” The original meaning of leitourgia was not just religious good works, but any public duty or service rendered by a citizen for the benefit of the state.
In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship [latreia].” He saw a parallel: as citizens of a community accepted their responsibility for public service, so Christians should make themselves available to God for the work of the kingdom. The sacrifice here seems to represent an act of total self-giving of one’s life for the benefit of and in response to God’s mercy.
Notice the radical transformation of the idea of sacrifice. In most religions of the first century, the animal lost its life as its blood flowed out. Here Paul proclaims that we are living sacrifices, continually self-giving.
Where did Paul get this striking insight? From the gospel of grace, which he had set forth in Romans 1-11! Our sacrifice is a mirror, reflecting Christ’s own self-giving. He passed through death to eternal life, never to die again! We join in and participate in Christ’s liturgy of pouring out his life even to the extent of death, but in a way that leads to fullness of life.
Christ’s act of worship transforms the notion of sacrifice and worship. Paul goes on to say: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (verse 2). Our sacrificial worship demonstrates a whole new pattern of living that comes from sharing daily in the grace of Christ, our crucified, risen and ascended Lord.
Hebrews 8:2 says that Christ is a minister [leitourgos] of the true holy place. As a representative of humanity, as one of us, in our place and on our behalf, Jesus is our worship leader in every moment of our lives. In union with him, we daily die to ourselves in repentance, and rise with him to newness of life through faith in him.
Liturgy is not just “religious” activities done in church, or when we pray or study the Bible. It is characteristic of the whole rhythm of our daily life. When Paul admonished Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonian 5:17), the Greek word he chose is used outside the New Testament to describe a hacking cough. When you have a hacking cough, you do not cough all the time, but you feel like you are. That is what it means to pray without ceasing. It means being in an attitude of prayer at all times. So when I say that worship is the rhythm of daily life, it is like saying that we pray without ceasing or breathe without ceasing.
The temple in Jerusalem was a place not just for animal sacrifices, but also other worship activities. At its dedication, Solomon prayed, “May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place” (2 Chronicles 6:20).
We no longer need a physical temple. God’s people are the temple—built up by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 2:5), where acts of sacrifice and service continue day and night, “without ceasing” as together we share God’s love and life with those around us. In formal times of worship, the same truth and reality are depicted. For example, baptism and communion announce in action both the sacrifice of self-giving and the transformation to new life we share with Christ. In immersion and in the breaking of the bread, we portray our death with him; when we rise from the water and consume the wine, we portray our participation in his life. In both instances we share in what is his, enveloped in his baptism and partaking of his bodily death and resurrection. That’s part of our liturgy.
Joseph Tkach, 2012