I grew up in a fine Presbyterian church – a good church, excepting for the Sunday school unit on higher criticism that traumatized me [note to self: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?] But one thing of which the Presbyterians never had much and now have less is the liturgy. And liturgy is something I desperately wanted. I didn’t know it’s what I wanted, but I loved the few times we’d do responsive readings from the Psalms, the doxologies, and so on.
As a nouveau Lutheran (vs. an Old Lutheran, who would have the catechism memorised, would know the colors of the church year and would know the difference between Matins and, um, not-Matins), I may yet have some insights on the liturgy that those who have lived with it don’t: A poor man might have a greater appreciation for the marvel that is clean tap water than a rich man.
- The liturgy is memorable. I love confession and absolution, and miss it terribly when the service doesn’t have it. Because I can remember so much of the liturgy, the confession rolls off my lips any time I am reminded of my sinfulness (although I don’t typically absolve myself). The words are concise, essential, complete, scriptural. And there are the songs, praise, thanksgiving, doctrine. These appear on the tip of my tongue at appropriate or inappropriate moments. It gives me a wider repertoire than I had as a child, where our regular service component was limited to a doxology and a benediction.
- It’s scripture. The LSB has nice scriptural references next to each part of the liturgy, and Christians love to hear the words of scripture. They dig it. Scripture makes ’em want to dance in their underwear (well, an ephod) as the ark did for David. In a world where a standard church reading is one verse, being surrounded by scripture throughout the service is A Good Thing.
- It’s participatory. I don’t know why this is important, but try going to a service where your only participation is to sing a hymn. It’s better to be able to have a role and speak the words of scripture as part of the body of Christ. Our society is oriented towards the individual, but the church is a body with each part doing working together. Somehow liturgy makes that real.
- And liturgy unifies not only with the Christians next to us, but with the larger church in “all times and places.” The liturgy is similar to what was done 1000 years ago and 1900 years ago, and the singing of psalms goes back to David’s day. Another way to look at it: In New Testament days, there were no pastors driving up the aisles on Harleys and there were no swaying dancers in church, but there was most certainly the singing of the scriptures, there were doxologies and scripturally meaningful songs of praise.
- Finally it’s filled with song. Music means something to us that’s different from prose. The Psalms have been sung since they were first written: David, in addition to dancing before the ark, was singing and making music with Israel when the ark was being brought to Jerusalem, and Paul writes in Ephesians 5 about “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” And music is beautiful. There is value in it, and liturgical services are brimming with it.
One can have a good church without a good liturgy, but good liturgy is an excellent tool for worship and the Christian life. I’d put it as second in importance only to sound doctrine. If you have a church with a good liturgy, then you’re probably in a very good church, and if you aren’t in a church with good liturgy, it’s certainly worth finding.