Liturgy Ancient and Modern

Heads up! This post was published about 9 years ago.

The New Liturgicals series of posts explores why many Evangelicals moved away from traditional liturgy, how liturgy works on us as human beings, and how we can approach it in ways that bring new life from old roots. The series was largely motivated by James K.A. Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, which is by far the most well-reasoned account I have read regarding how liturgy functions and why it is important for us to reconsider parting ways with it.

Why Did Evangelicals Break Up With Traditional Liturgy?


(A little housekeeping: In this post, I’m using the word liturgy to mean all the elements of a worship service and the order in which they occur. There are plenty of ways to expand that bare-bones definition into something more full with meaning, but we can get into all that later.)

Kevin DeYoung wasn’t the first to question it, and he certainly won’t be the last: should Evangelicals really have broken up with traditional liturgy? Maybe the separation was good for us, but whether we know it or not, we’re restlessly searching for her same old smile on every new face we meet. In fact, we are still liturgical; we just exchanged a traditional liturgy for a nontraditional, unintentional one. DeYoung’s post, “Is the New Evangelical Liturgy Really an Improvement?” has been making the rounds on social media over the past week or so. It doesn’t say much on its own (although it links to a few resources), but it least it brings up the question again: Why do we structure the order, flow, and elements of our worship gatherings the way we do, and is it an improvement over more traditional liturgy?

DeYoung outlines our widely adopted but rarely considered modern liturgy:

If I’m not mistaken, there is a New Evangelical Liturgy which is increasingly common in our churches. You find it in Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, free churches, and non-denominational churches. It’s familiar in rural churches and city churches. It can be found in tiny churches and megachurches. No one has written it down in a service book. No council or denomination is demanding that it be done. No pastor is taught this liturgy in seminary (um, probably not). But it has become the default liturgy nonetheless. It looks like this:

Casual welcome and announcements
Stand up for 4-5 songs
During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
Closing song

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the basic liturgy from which most evangelical churches operate…. For whatever appeal the New Evangelical Liturgy may have in American culture, and for whatever abuses or doldrums may be associated with a more traditional liturgy, I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more prayer? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which ones anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?

He concludes with a challenge: “…I encourage pastors, worship leaders, and churches to consider whether this New Evangelical Liturgy is the best we can do. It may be familiar. It may be simple. It may even be popular. And it may still not be an improvement.”

The Battle of the Baby and the Bathwater

In the Light - cathedral italyThis is not new news. Five years ago Christianity Today published the article “A Deeper Relevance: Why many evangelicals are attracted to that strange thing called liturgy,” and plenty of sources have reported the phenomenon of “young Christians… going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism /Lutheranism in droves.” Christian pundits, pastors, and statisticians have suggested various reasons for this trend, ranging from a search for historical rootedness to a desire for intellectually robust spirituality to (ironically enough) the novelty of chasing a new fad.

But while the DeYoungs of the world question our departure from liturgy and a swath of young people departs for the high church, a large number of other evangelicals are left scratching their heads, especially those who had less-than-stellar experiences growing up in liturgical churches. For them, liturgy conjures memories of endless hours bored in church, disengaged congregants repeating rote phrases, and a complicated script full of kneeling, standing, and chanting. To them, liturgy is at best listlessly insincere and at worst exactly what Jesus meant when he condemned “vain repetition.” Others have slighted liturgy because they mistakenly associate it only with Catholicism. In reality, while many of the Reformers significantly changed traditional Catholic liturgy as part of the process of the Reformation, many Protestant traditions have preserved rich liturgies from the time of the Reformation through the present day. Evangelicals inherited their distrust of liturgy largely from the Puritans, not from the Reformers.

We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship.

James K.A. Smith

Imagining the Kingdom

In his book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, James K.A. Smith challenges our antipathy toward repetition in worship:

We… Protestants have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, although we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (181-182).

Why are we so suspicious of repetition? Smith suggests three main reasons for this: 1) we associate repetition with spiritual insincerity, as in Jesus’ condemnation of “vain repetition,” 2) we think of worship primarily as an individual, expressive act of offering to God in which authenticity is most important, and 3) we align with consumer culture’s “chronological snobbery,” which prizes novelty and fresh expression above all else (out with the old and in with the new!).

Jesus’ Alternative to Vain Repetition Is Surprising

Hagia Sophia ceiling - Turkey 2013It goes without saying that vain repetition is a bad thing, but consider what Jesus says immediately following his condemnation of vain repetition (“empty phrases”):

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others…. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name….” (Mtt 6:5,7-9, ESV, emphasis mine)

Jesus’ alternative to vain repetition isn’t an improvisational free-for-all; it’s a carefully crafted model prayer. His condemnation, as it turns out, is a condemnation of a model of prayer in which I have to perform in order to be noticed, either performing to be noticed by people, like the street corner stander, or performing to be noticed by God, like the empty phrases babbler. The model prayer Jesus provides is not a model of what we must say in order to be heard by God, but rather a model of how to pray in order to align ourselves most fully with God’s Kingdom. It’s actually a prayer that is intended to change our minds, not to change God’s mind.

Liturgy is more or less inevitable; we are creatures of rhythms who live in a world full of rhythms, and it’s not possible or helpful to reinvent the wheel every weekend. But if anything, which repetition is more in vain: the carefully crafted, acknowledged one, or the default, unconsidered one? Like the model prayer Jesus gave us, liturgy shapes us. It’s important that we choose a liturgy that forms us in the shape of God’s kingdom.

This idea of prayer and worship shaping us touches on one of the most important reasons for centering our worship gatherings around historical liturgy, and we’ll explore it more in the next post.

Further reading: Jake Belder: We need an aversion to our aversion to repetition in worship