Liturgy: the work of the people

by Andie Roeder Moody senior communications

Many of us were raised in churches that fear liturgy. Well-meaning evangelical churches have often spurned the idea of liturgy along with anything remotely resembling Roman Catholicism in an attempt to protect us from ritualism, idolatry or tradition. The trouble here is that every church has its liturgy, be it simple or ornate. It may be three songs, an offering and a sermon. Or it may be the order for Holy Eucharist used at my Anglican church. The question we must ponder is whether our liturgies are faithful to Scripture and the heritage of the people of God or are products of the culture that surrounds us. Ultimately, liturgies are not ours to form, for liturgies were made to form us.

The English word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means the work of the people. It rings with the idea of a civic duty, a deed that serves a greater good. For over 2000 years when the Christian community has gathered to worship, they have participated in something that is beyond themselves, that functions, as Christ put it, “for the life of the world.” In our recent flight from tradition, we have often allowed culture to form us in its image when it should be the reverse. The American values of consumerism and entertainment have so seeped into our understanding of worship that we approach Sundays as passive observers, “church shopping” until we find the particular service that “fills” us most. We show up expecting the people on stage to do the work while we just receive the benefits. The liturgy has been contorted into the work of the elite, the exclusive product designed and delivered by the people on stage to the audience, the consumers. Historical, faithful liturgy, however, has always been about the congregation — pastor, parishioner and worship leader — doing the work together.

Since the early church began gathering in the catacombs, they have followed a simple liturgical structure modeled after Jewish temple services: readings from Scripture, an explication of the text, confirmation of faith through a creed, confession of sin, prayer and, at the command of Christ, communion. Within this structure the church receives from God through Word and Sacrament and gives back to him in worship, prayer, confession and confirmation. We come to the table each week not as consumers of a fabricated product, but as the consumed ones, who in the act of a corporate confession have our individual identities swallowed up into the body of Christ.

As those preparing to spend our lives as ministers in the Church, we must get this right. First, we must properly understand our role in the worship service: we are not the privileged ones, the set-apart ones who get to teach and lead in our churches. The participation of each person gathered in our communities is as important as our own. We must invite them all to participate in the work of the people or risk having a church full of puffed-up consumers. Second, we must know our history. Under the headship of Christ, the church has been faithfully ministering to the world for 2000 years; let us resist the temptation to continually re-invent her. Ritual and tradition, the faithful narration of those who have gone before us, may actually be some of the best teachers we have. May we dignify all members of the body of Christ by inviting them weekly into the work that builds and nourishes the Church.

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