Planning worship: Why is having a liturgy important?

July 29th, 2020

“We don’t want a fixed order or any liturgy, not even a bulletin. That locks us in to the same order all the time. We just want to worship.” That was a village congregation’s response to the offer to print bulletins for their service. The interesting thing is that they were locked in to the same order. They did exactly the same things, in the same order, every Sunday! They just didn’t want to see their liturgy in print.

With today’s emphasis on contemporary worship, there is even more confusion about worship. The confusion comes from (1) a misunderstanding about what worship and liturgy are and (2) what the function of liturgy is. In this article, we’ll look at the difference and how liturgy functions in all our worship.

First, the difference.

Worship is what Christians do. This is true whether we mean a high-church service or a service led by a praise band. Worship is the basic function of the church. Liturgy is a tool that helps us carry out our basic function. So how does that tool function in the worship life of the church?

The basic structure of liturgy is the Christian year. If a congregation follows faithfully the outlines of the Christian year — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time — there will be a rehearsal of the story of salvation every year. This doesn’t mean that the pastor has to slavishly follow the lectionary (I never did), but that the festivals of the church are celebrated and their meaning taught to the people. And, again, the basic style of the service is independent of the use of the Christian year.

Sunday to Sunday, having a liturgy is an aid to worship. To follow a liturgy means that we have a structure to worship. Structure provides comfort for the individual worshipper, in that he or she does not have to worry from Sunday to Sunday what the worship structure will be. Instead, the worshipper can relax, knowing what comes next, and can concentrate on worshipping God, rather than on wondering what to do to be ready for the next step in worship.

For United Methodists, there is a suggested liturgy found in both the Hymnal and the Book of Worship. It is not mandated for use by the congregation but is there for a help in planning worship. For church leaders, for whom worship planning is not a gift, it is a helpful tool. Some congregations will decide to emphasize certain elements of the suggested service to make it more formal. Others will choose to ignore the suggested service, believing that informality and praise songs are a more appropriate way to worship.

The orders for the celebration of the sacraments are a key part of liturgy. Each service has its own integrity, whether it is the order for the entire service or only for the sacrament itself. The orders include a rehearsal of the church’s faith, as well as the steps for the administration of the sacrament. Pastors who tinker with the orders do so at the peril of the faith life of the congregation.

For example, some pastors want to eliminate the Thanksgiving Over the Water in the Order for Baptism because “it takes too long.” Actually, it takes only about 45 seconds, less time than most pastors spend on an announcement that’s already printed in the bulletin. And omitting it means the congregation misses a chance to hear again the story of God’s mighty acts into which we are baptized.

Or, some pastors want to omit the Prayer of Confession from the Order for Holy Communion because it doesn’t have anything to do with personal sins. That’s because the prayer is the church confessing the sins of the church! Each part of the liturgy for each of the sacraments has its own integrity and is carefully planned to fit the integrity of the entire service of worship. Using the liturgy as it is prepared for us helps deepen the faith of the congregation, as the story of God’s mighty acts of salvation is presented again.

Effective use of the liturgy will involve some education for the community. At the beginning of each season of the church year, for example, the pastor can make a brief statement about the significance of that season and how it will be celebrated. Printing that statement in the worship bulletin will reinforce the meaning for the congregation. Each Sunday during that season, a brief comment about how the season is being celebrated can build on that initial statement. The congregation will soon find themselves looking forward to the season and its meaning.

The same is true for the sacraments and the regular order of worship. A sentence or two explaining why the liturgy is important will enhance meaning for the congregation and help them enter into the liturgy with a deeper appreciation for the meaning of the words.

Some careful attention to the role of liturgy in worship will soon lead to a more powerful service and a deeper faith for those participating in it.

A version of this article was previously published at Ministry Matters.

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