Archive for January, 2012

The Liturgy, and the Liturgy after the Liturgy

Wrote this a while back, should’ve posted it. Its part of a “why we do what we do” series of occasional articles I write for Second Pres folks.

Here ya go….

What is “Liturgy”?

Liturgy is a composite Greek word that literally means “the work of the people.” In the ancient world, it most often referred to a public duty undertaken by a citizen (usually a wealthier citizen) in service to the state. However, this concept is also used in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament, translated during the 3rd cent BC) in reference to the public service of the temple (e.g. Exodus 38:27; 39:12) and to describe the function of the priest and temple rites (e.g. Joel 1:9,2:17). The New Testament picks up on these notions of “liturgy,” for example, in Hebrews 8:6, in which the high priest of the new covenant has “obtained a better liturgy” (often translated “a better ministry”).

In our present day, people often assume that “liturgy” strictly refers to a style of worship, but this impression is inaccurate. In fact, we can use “liturgy” to describe any form of “work” or active participation that takes the form of a rite in our culture. Our world is full of liturgies: political liturgies, the liturgy of capitalism, the liturgy of sporting events and entertainment. Our world is full of “rites” and liturgical rhythms. Just think off all the signs, symbols, gestures, language, and customs we share in the various spheres of our lives . The things we say and do at sporting events, malls, political rallies, even in traffic – all of these have their own liturgy.

So, while liturgical worship often indicates a certain atmosphere or style, this is not really what is meant by “liturgical worship.” All churches have some kind of ritual in their worship even if they don’t call it “liturgy.” The congregation sings songs, confesses sins, shares announcements, prays, hears a sermon, and receives the sacraments. Thus, rather than style, liturgy simply refers to the active participation of God’s people in Christian worship. It is, as noted above, “the work of the people.” In the context of Christian worship, this work of the people seeks to be in union with Christ’s work, i.e. a participation in Christ’s liturgy.


Liturgy and the Bible

But what governs Christian liturgy? In addition to the passages mentioned above, there are several key biblical texts that have historically governed the content and structure of our worship. For one, Leviticus 9 suggests an order of worship that proceeds from sin/purification offering (confession) to whole burnt offering (offering our whole selves to God) to the fellowship/peace offering (meal shared with the priest). We should also note Isaiah 6 and Luke 24, both of which suggest the following, similar progression: entrance (focusing attention on God – Isa. 6:1-7, Lk. 24:13-24), word (Isa. 6:8a, Luke 24:25-27), and table/response (Isa. 6:8b, Lk 24:28-35). We gain insight into that Apostle Paul’s liturgical sensibility not only by virtue of his acknowledgement of word, sacrament, and hymn singing, but also via his concern for worship to be “done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul wanted everyone to participate fully in worship; his only concern was that order and decency be upheld, “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor.14:33). For Paul and other New Testament authors, ordered, liturgical worship is one of the ways we connect with the history of God’s people; that is, participation in the liturgy is one of the ways we preserve the continuity of the covenant.

Liturgical Unity and Continuity

And yet the scriptures cannot be read in a vacuum. God’s people are a historical, covenant people whose relationship with God necessarily succeeds from generation to generation. For this reason, we must (1) take into account how God’s people have worshipped throughout the ages and (2) seek to find visible unity and continuity with those who have gone before us (always careful to check, balance, and even correct our traditions with scripture). Taking our cues from the history of the church is not an arbitrary, merely aesthetic impulse. It is, rather, a theological necessity. Our aim is that Christ’s body, the communion of Saints across time and space, be unified. For this reason, we often seek to incorporate the form and content of the worship of the early, ancient church.

The earliest forms of Christian worship were rooted in Jewish temple and synagogue worship.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus participated fully in the liturgical celebrations and rites of theTempleand local Synagogues. Jesus never spoke against the form of worship itself, but against the legalism and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. The form and structure of Jewish worship thus set the backdrop for early Christian worship. Such included the Psalms, creeds, hymns, and verses used by the early church. For example, in the liturgy we recite the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” This chant has its origins in the Hebrew Hosannah, which was used later by the ancient Greek Christians, becoming standardized by the fourth century. In addition, the “Gloria Patri,” which we sing every week, is a chant that is at least as old as 110AD. The “Gloria in excelsis” was derived from the angelic hymn at our Saviour’s birth and is an ancient Messianic song of the Jews. All of the major components of the liturgy, including the Eucharistic prayer, find their origins in Jewish, Biblical, or very early Christian worship. To this day, the emphasis upon active participation in liturgy is expressed throughout most communions of world Christendom by way of singing, corporate confession, responsive readings, kneeling, and other ways for the congregation to actively participate in worship. It is, as such, “the work of the people.”

The Liturgy after the Liturgy

Anything we do in worship – that is, any “liturgy” – can become empty and meaningless when it is not done in the right spirit; like so many other aspects of the Christian life, it needs to be undertaken as fides quarens intellectum, that is, faith seeking understanding. We should not expect a “mountain top” experience every time we enter into worship; we should not expect to leave every worship service as drastically or even marginally changed by any measure. We can be assured, however, that God is faithful, and that over time (and sometimes a long time), the liturgy will shape us and change us in profound ways. This requires a discipline of patience. It requires that we learn to rest in God’s grace, that we receive Him on His terms, that we remain trusting and hopeful despite our desires for immediate response and gratification.

The aim of the liturgy is first and foremost to glorify God by worshiping in spirit and in truth, but we also trust that the liturgywill make more instinctive in our daily lives those practices which we typically undertake only on Sunday morning. Thus, the seemingly repetitive nature of confession and absolution on Sunday morning will, over time, train us to confess our sins to God during the week, to walk humbly, and to be assured of his forgiveness. The repetitive nature of the ministry of the Word will have the effect of making Holy Scripture part of our common discourse during the week. The sacraments on Sunday keep us mindful of our union with Christ and his constant presence and provision. The list goes on and on…

Above all, we must remember that ultimately, the liturgy is not really about us. It is about Christ and his work for us and in us. We are to patiently and humbly submit to Him, and indeed to His liturgy, not only when we gather for Sabbath worship, but also throughout our daily lives. In this way, as it has been said, we become the “liturgy after the liturgy” as our work flows from the work of Christ in our lives. Christ’s love for the world becomes clearer and clearer through our changed lives and witness to him. As Jesus says, our good deeds, i.e. our liturgy, will be seen by others and they will be drawn to glorify the Father who is in heaven.

For more in-depth study, see the following:

Christian Liturgy by Frank C. Senn
The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy by Frank C. Senn
New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview by Frank C. Senn
Protestant Worship by James F. White
Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative by Robert E. Webber
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith
Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community by Simon Chan
To Glorify God: Essays on Modern Reformed Liturgy by Iain Torrance
Reformed Worship by Howard L. Rice
Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present by Lukas Vischer
We Have Seen His Glory: A Vision of Kingdom Worship by Ben Witherington
Liturgies of the Western Church by Bard Thompson
Shape of the Liturgy (New Edition) by Gregory Dix
Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology by Gordon W. Lathrop
Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology by Gordon W. Lathrop
The Jewish Roots of Christian Liturgy by Eugene J. Fisher
Liturgy and life: Lectures and essays on Christian development through liturgical experience by Alexander Schmemann

[1] I am indebted to a helpful article by Rebecca Deinsen. See Some of the content here is taken from her article.

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Glorified Hang-Out Time, Baptized Homogeneity, and Other Fun Ways to Have Christian “Community”: On Small Group Ministry

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. – Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Sorry for the caustic title.  The truth is, I would actually like to be engaged in a serious conversation over this topic, as I could certainly use the guidance and encouragement as I wrestle through these issues in my own ministry context.

Unwittingly, I’ve found myself engaged in numerous conversations about small group ministry, community group ministry, small-group community-based ministry, neighborhood-based community group ministry, common interest small group community based neighborhood ministry, and every other combination of these terms that describe our churches’ smaller clusters of Christians that get together during the week.

Calm down – I don’t hate your community group or whatever you call it. In fact, some of us are involved in small group ministry that is indeed gospel centered and honoring to God. Moreover, I am not saying that Christians can’t just “hang-out,” and I am not suggesting that you can’t experience a degree of sanctification in such a context.

My concern about small group trends is basically threefold:

  1. A tendency towards homogeneity which violates very basic and crucially important gospel principles.
  2. Subjectivism and the community group “market”
  3. No telos (i.e. “end” or “goal”) or purpose that is distinctly or uniquely Christian.

1) Homogeneity. Pointing out that current trends of Christian small group ministry are almost entirely a “white” phenomenon is like shooting fish in a barrel, so I’ll not do that (so as not to offend any vegans). However, the homogeneity goes much, much farther than that. Many of our small group minsitries are designed for people who are in the exact same stage of life. Not only are they the same ethnicity and age, but the marrieds are with the marrieds, the singles with the singles, the students with the students, the parents of young children with the parents of young children, the preggers with the preggers, the yuppies with the yuppies, the boomers with the the boomers (if you’ve convinced the boomers to get excited about “community”).

Why is no one pointing out this enormous blind spot?!?!

Large churches often build their entire ministry based on these convenient divisions. Are there exceptions?  Well of course there are, but there remains enough of a conventional rule – and so few exceptions to the rule – that the trends are predictable and easy to point out. Even if churches don’t design the groups in this way, folks are going to shop for the group that suits their felt needs best (more on this below).

The more crucial issue here is our failure to intentionally break down walls that exist, not only between races, ethnicities and nationalities , but even between generations, and – dare I say – between marrieds and singles?!?! or college students and boomers?!?! or – oh the horror – hipsters and football fans?!?!  Indeed, it sounds ridiculous. And that’s exactly the point – these types of divisions are what happens in our churches when homogeneity goes unchecked, when our failure to uncomfortably embrace the “other” is conveniently ignored and ironically justified as “community.”

2) Subjectivism, consumerism, and the community group “market.” This follows the first point almost seamlessly. Unless the church actively seeks to correct the inevitable homogeneity of its small group ministries, people will freely “shop” for the group that fits them best.  The quest for the “right” community group is all the rage. I continue to have discussions with folks who say “well I liked community group ‘x,’ but community group ‘y’ had more people in my stage of life.” This is of course hardly surprising, given that we look for churches in the same way. We shop for churches and small group ministries with our desire for emotional or social fulfillment leading the way.  Sadly, it seems that our needs almost always trump the needs of the kingdom (any church planter or “revitalizer” like myself knows this to be overwhelmingly true, even – if not especially – of ourselves). Bottom line – if our criteria for the right “community” does not match the gospel’s criteria for community, we have a problem.

Bonhoeffer puts it well:

The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us…That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more. One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. …   (Life Together, 26)

From the pastoral side of things, I fight this tendency in a different way. I am constantly drawn and tempted to make small-group ministry a felt-needs ministry. This is often the quickest way to “grow” a ministry, and thus a deep temptation in a church planting or revitalization effort. However, I am fully aware that over the long-term, this is a recipe for disaster. What tends to happen is this: As the ministry grows and expands without any mission, discipleship, intimacy, or burden-bearing, people on the margins of the group begin to fall through the cracks; they become less committed; they become disillusioned with a group that they thought was supposed to meet their felt needs. Again, Bonhoeffer:  “When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself” (Life Together).

Nipping this problem in the bud from the outset is crucial and yet remarkably difficult; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

3) No telos or purpose in view. This is where the issue has become increasingly eye-opening for me. Over the last several months, when people have shared with me about their involvement with small group ministry, I have almost always immediately asked them about the purupose of that group. I get a lot of blank stares, a lot staring at the ground with a simultaneous “uhhh…..”.

Why isn’t there a quick answer to this question? Are small groups an end in themselves?

Before we say that “fellowship” is the purpose (and I get this all the time), keep in mind that (1) fellowship is part of the greater whole and not the ultimate purpose of any Christian community and that (2) few of us are demonstrating the type of “fellowship” that is distinctly Christian. Fellowship, which in scripture and the early church includes a radical generosity within the community, i.e. “having all possessions in common, ” is a means of breaking down the “dividing walls of hostility” and thus a means of participating in the the missio Dei.  When we read about fellowship in the book of Acts, it is part of a package deal; its almost invariably complemented by worship, benevolence, mercy, and evangelism.

We might say, “Oh well, our congregation as a whole does those things,” but in many cases, small group ministries are the lifeblood of a church. For this reason, its imperative that small group ministries develop habits that should flow two and from the broader liturgical life of a congregation.

Where do we go from here? 

I do not have all the answers. The truth is that I am currently trying to responsibly oversee and guide the small group ministries in my own ministry context, and I often fall very, very short. I fail to clearly communicate the vision of small group ministry, to follow through with actions that proceed from my convictions. All of the above issues are ones with which I constantly struggle, which is why they stand out to me. That being said, a few brief bulleted notes on how we might proceed in our respective contexts.

  • Prayer. We need to get serious about prayer, for the church, and for one another. This is a relatively simple but profoundly effective way to bear one anothers burdens and be a distinctly Christian community.
  • Discipleship. We have to recover the great commission of Matt 28. Small group ministries need to be an avenue for developing more intimate, discipleship/mentoring based relationships. At our church, smaller groups are breaking off from our (what used to be) “small” group for this very purpose.
  • Sussoma. This word from Eph 3:6 is often translated “same body.” The implication here is that any ministry effort needs to have in mind the barriers that we set up that Christ would tear down. Our church is taking small steps on this front, having older members of the congregation host the younger small group ministries.
  • Distinctly Christian Fellowship. Are we taking bold steps to create a unique Christian fellowship, where charity, generosity, and selflessness govern the ethic of the group?

A la Linda Richman’s “Coffee Talk,” Christian community is neither Christian nor community – discuss….