The joy of liturgy

A few hours after I created a post about classical music, I came across this post by Truth and Tolerance, by way of InsanityBytes. The topic is also music, although it is focused more on music in the Christian Church and especially in worship. The topic is, in fact, the most classical of all music, the traditional music of the Christian liturgy.

I completely agree with everything T&T wrote (although I might have used gentler language). The central point of her post (and hence of this post) is that the Divine Service is not meant to be edited so that it appeals to younger people. The traditions of the Church have developed over time, not because of negotiations with the lowest common denominator or with the next generation, but because the power of those traditions communicates the message of Christ and his Church in a way that is tried, tested, and proven. Making changes because of the felt needs of the worshipers does not work for two reasons. First, the needs they feel are not their deepest needs. Christ knows their deepest needs, and his Church is designed to meet those needs. Second, once the elements of worship become negotiable, worship itself becomes negotiable for the worshipers. Worship attendance in the United States has dropped over the last fifty years, not because churches have not tried hard enough to give people what they want, but because churches have tried too hard to give people what they want.

Children instinctively distinguish between what is important and what is fun. Tell a child, “This is going to be fun,” and the child hears, “This is just to entertain you; it doesn’t really matter.” Sunday School has gradually changed from “bring up these children in the faith so that when they are older they will not depart from it” to “entertain these children and make church seem fun so they will want to keep coming when they are older.” As a result, the children learn nearly nothing about their faith in Sunday School; if their parents are not teaching them the faith at home, no one is telling them what it means to be a Christian.

A few years ago I was in a meeting of church workers. Running the meeting was a progressive church planter, the kind of minister who says that the last words of a congregation are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Several quotes were stenciled on the walls of the meeting room, and he noticed one that said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” The church planter pointed to that saying and told us to take it to heart, that if we cling to our traditions, we are clinging to death instead of life. I responded, “I rather like the idea of democracy that includes the dead. It’s nice to know that, when we worship, we are joining with all the saints who have gone before us.” I reminded him of one of the phrase in our traditional liturgy: “that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name…” “All the company of heaven” includes every believer who has died and is in Paradise with Jesus. Ancient heroes of the faith are there. My grandparents and other Christians I have loved are there. When I partake in the traditional divine service, the Lord hears my voice mingled with their voices in one vast Christian choir.

New music can enter the old traditions, provided that the new music does not refocus those traditions away from the Lord. Great hymns (no matter what century they were written) lead people to know Jesus, not only as the awesome God worshiped by all creation, but particularly as the Savior who has claimed his people, rescued them from their sins, and reconciled them to himself. I’m fine with Contemporary Christian Music on the radio and in my music collection. Very little of it is suitable for the divine service, because its focus is not the same as that of the traditional liturgy.

The liturgy is not culturally bound. It is not merely a European way of worshiping God; it developed from the Jewish worship of the synagogue, and its development happened largely in western Asia and northern Africa. The liturgy is not bound by time. It unites Christians of three or four generations during each service, and it unites Christians of dozens of generations spreading over two thousand years. The liturgy is not bound by the age of the worshipers. Children who have not yet begun to read can learn the liturgy by hearing it every week. Mothers of young children can speak and sing the liturgy without needing to balance a hymnal and a worship folder and a baby in the same two hands. Elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as it used to be can speak and sing the liturgy; it is engrained in their memories so thoroughly that it often survives intact even when those elderly people no longer recognize their own children.

When the preacher’s sermon is poor—and every preacher has a bad Sunday now and then—the liturgy still proclaims the message of the Church. When a worshiper’s mind is wandering, the liturgy brings him or her back again to the message of the Church. When a visitor is sitting in church for the first time, the liturgy tells that visitor what the congregation is doing. No, the liturgy will not be familiar to the visitor during the first visit, or even the tenth time he or she returns. But that unfamiliar liturgy will speak to the visitor more eloquently than any cheerful greeting, telling the visitor what the Church is doing in the service. (One of the most beautiful things I have seen happen in a church happened when a man in his seventies changed pews to share hymnals with a first-time visitor in her twenties.)

If a child is brought to church every Sunday for his or her first five years, that child will have heard the liturgy two hundred fifty times. The familiar pattern of worship will be more comforting to that child than the most entertaining praise song or film clip or (shudder!) puppet show. Families that worship together grow spiritually together. May this weekend’s services be, for each of us, a delight to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J.

4 thoughts on “The joy of liturgy

  1. Very well said. I could not agree with you more.

    There are a number of new “churches” that have sprung up around where I live, which I think of as either do-it-yourself churches (which jettison anything and everything that smacks of tradition, in order to start over from scratch and finally get it right, whatever “getting it right” connotes to them) or market research churches (where everything from the choice of music, the number of musicians in the rock band, and the length of the sermon, to the color of the walls and the font used in the bulletin is determined by market research). Meanwhile, I have to make a fifty-mile round trip every Sunday to worship at a church that actually looks like a church, uses a traditional liturgy, teaches from the Scriptures, sings hymns, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you noticed that these “new churches” invariably develop their own liturgy, of the “I just want to thank and praise you” genre, that become tried and tested within their own boundaries, without having the richness of what is tried and tested in the centuries of the historic church? I am glad that you have found a church that teaches from the Scriptures (especially!) and draws from all of Christian history instead of the latest market research. J.

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  2. You make what I feel are some very insightful points. There are fabulous and valuable connections to be made within the teaching of weekly liturgy. However, I do believe that people are taught in different ways, particularly (as one instance) at certain developmental stages, such as children. Even for adults and teen, balance can be struck between the traditional and the contemporary, as the Holy Spirit is quite creative. As it has been stated, thought methods may change, the message does not. I remember the ’80s when I was told that drums in worship were demonic. Is God that easily defined? (PS one of my favorites: Be Thou My Vision from circa AD 600)

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    • Yes, it doesn’t matter when the music was written, but how well it matches the message. I often have enjoyed services in which each of the several hymns came from a different time period–a Christmas service, for example, with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (both 16th century), “Joy to the World” (18th century), “Silent Night,” (19th century), and “O Sing of Christ” (20th century). That’s funny about the drums, but not so funny–I know of two families who left the church when I was young because the pastor allowed an acoustic guitar to be used in the service instead of the electric organ, with which they had no problem. J.

      Liked by 2 people

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