What Liturgy Isn’t

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Nicholas Wolterstorff  proposes a helpful answer to the question, “What’s the point of liturgy?” is in his essay “Choir & Organ: Their Place in Reformed Liturgy”, one derived from Reformation principles but free of tired, Regulative Principle strictures:

An answer which has enjoyed great popularity in our century is that the actions comprising the liturgy are characterized by the fact that they are all aimed at producing a certain effect on the congregation- the effect of religious feelings, the effect of an edifying experience. The assumption is that the people of God assemble in order that their religious emotions may be stirred. And everything- architecture, choir, organ, congregational singing, sermon, vestments, processions-everything is chosen with that purpose in mind. Should there be a choir? It depends on whether the use of a choir would heighten the religious experience. Where in the liturgy should the choir sing? It depends on where it would have the most moving effect. Should the organ play soft background music during the transition from one liturgical action to another, thus “papering over all the cracks”? It depends on whether this would heighten the edifying experience. Such a liturgy, on casual glance, will often appear purely episodic, just one thing after another without rhyme or reason- a disconnected array of pieces. But deeper analysis will reveal a cord on which the pieces are strung- the cord of religious experience as the intended effect.

I shall not conceal from you my abhorrence for this way of understanding and shaping the liturgy. I most emphatically agree that our emotions and feelings should be involved in the liturgy. But to think of the people of God as assembled in order to have religious emotions evoked in them has no basis in the authentic Reformed tradition, and more importantly, none in the biblical witness. It reflects, rather, the pietist tradition of Christendom, where inner experience often becomes the all-determiner…

Often it is said about the biblical understanding of communal worship that worship is there understood as part of the response of God’s people to God’s acts of creation and redemption. God is the initiator. His people are the responders. I think this is true- worship is part of our response to God’s action. Yet I suggest that this formula is incomplete in a most important way. Our worship represents not just our response to God’s creative and redemptive activity, but also a continuation of it. Liturgy is a response to, and a continuation of, God’s activity.

For God is active in the liturgy. He is one of the main liturgical agents, the other being his people. If anything characterizes the Reformed understanding of liturgy, it is that the actions comprising the liturgy include both actions on the part of the people and actions on the part of God. A good many Reformed liturgists have in fact espoused a dialogic analysis of the liturgy. Liturgy, they have said, is a dialogue between God and his people, a back-and-forth sequence of address. And indeed, the extent to which this is true in a well-constructed liturgy is striking. God addresses his people in the greeting, the people respond by addressing to God their confession of sin, God addresses to his people his word of forgiveness, the people respond by addressing to God their gratitude in the words of the Gloria or some other hymn, and so on, back and forth, until finally, at the culminating part of the Lord’s Supper, in the Communion, we share the meal of our Lord with Christ our host and no longer can acts on the part of God be unraveled from acts on the part of the people. In short, the structure of that sequence of actions which comprise the liturgy is that it is predominantly a dialogue of mutual address between God and his people.

In sum, liturgy is not a contrived way to maximize religious emotions, nor is it a way to package all the disparate parts of a church service together more tightly. It’s something incredibly more important than either of those things (even though it ends up accomplishing those things in the process). Rather than being some random tack-on to the conversion experience, corporate worship is tethered to the economy of God’s saving acts through its rehearsal and continuation of salvation history. This continuation isn’t effected by some magical formula, though: it’s the result of the church being the church and bringing the reign of Christ to bear upon the world through his Spirit.

Wolterstorff’s evaluation is so helpful because he doesn’t claim that a more formal/ritualized liturgy of the sort he’s describing is required for authentic corporate worship. An exhaustively prescribed liturgy isn’t another mark of a true church, a legal necessity every congregation has to assiduously meet the criteria of to retain her true church status- he wastes no time on such Regulative Principle concerns. Instead, his exposition gestures toward the narrative quality corporate worship can embody if care is taken to be intentional in this way. This dimension of liturgy has enormous potential for training postmoderns to see with new eyes the narrative shape of the world and their place within it, which I plan to do in future posts. Stay tuned!
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