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...But Isn't Liturgical Worship Dead?

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"Liturgical worship is dead."

"God only likes extemporaneous prayer, not 'canned' prayers."

"Catholic worship is boring! Get up, dance, have some fun!"

Saints in a Stain Glass Window, photographed by David Bennett

I have heard every single one of these objections (and then some) to liturgical worship. When I was an evangelical Protestant, I probably would have even made some of these claims, despite the fact that I had never even attended a strongly liturgical church. My view of liturgical worship was pretty typical of other evangelicals: dead ritual. Yes, I thought liturgical churches were dead. To a non-Christian, the word might mean the worship is not lively, but as Christians, the implications are grander. Being called "dead" means that a church's worship is not only boring, but that it is not following the will of God. Despite my strong opinions, I never even bothered looking into what liturgical worship was, nor did I even know what liturgical meant, let alone its history. For me, liturgical meant ritual and rote, and surely I would never embrace either of the two.

While I was studying worship and Church history as an evangelical, I began to struggle with the reality that the style of worship I preferred was not only unknown until the 20th century, but was strikingly ritualistic. Even though I attended a contemporary "praise and worship" service, rote and ritual abounded. Even though we sang "contemporary" songs, we usually sang the same ones over and over again. Every Sunday, the service consisted of the same structure: praise singing and a sermon. The pastor read from the same book, the Bible, every week. The same people who clapped to the songs one week usually did the next, and those who stood still usually did so every Sunday. We met at the same time every week, and the same day. We never switched buildings, and the same people led the Church services. Many brought their Bibles to church faithfully every week by rote, rarely opening them on weekdays. Once I began to look for ritual and rote in my own "contemporary" tradition, I found them. Even when I returned home to a more old-fashioned evangelical setting, itself suspicious of too much ritual, the same ritualistic pattern persisted, despite the claim that ritual and rote were at best signs of a "dead" church, or at worst, somehow evil. What I realized is that we are all traditional and ritualistic to some degree.

The only way a church can be free from ritual and rote is to do everything newly each week. I guess such a church might exist, but it would have to switch buildings, and even members, to be totally free from tradition and ritual. Imagine a church like that...newly composed hymns each week, new music genres and instruments, readings from all sorts of sacred texts, different members attending weekly, worship services on different days and times, and switching buildings. Even then, after awhile, the factors I just mentioned become rituals of their own. One could go crazy trying to completely escape ritual. I am sure many have tried hard, in an attempt to avoid those dreaded "R" words.

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As I have shown above, we can never be free from ritual. If you succeed in being freed from all ritual, let me know. Just be careful, because if you do something well-enough to succeed, likely it has become a ritual. The question then becomes, "what kind of ritual do I want to participate in?" This might boil down to a matter of personality style, personal history, etc. However, when all is said and done, if one is going to be ritualistic, one might as well worship in a well-grounded, biblical, and historical ritual, that has been proven by time. This is where ancient Christian liturgy comes in.

Among many Christians, Liturgical worship has gotten a bad reputation over the years. The problem is that liturgy has become synonymous with "boring." Many picture a handful of elderly individuals in an old church simply repeating prayers long after they actually believed the words to them. This is certainly a gloomy and inaccurate way to characterize liturgical worship! In reality, liturgy comes from the Greek word meaning "work of the people," and describes a form of worship, directed to God, by God's people. In some ways virtually every worship service can be called liturgical in some fashion, but obviously the worship of some churches involves more work of more people. Try this test sometime during your church service. Pay attention to how much you participate in the worship of your church. Pay attention to roughly how many words are spoken, how many prayers are said, etc, and then ask yourself about what percentage you actually participated in. Did the congregation say any prayers together? Did you sing together? Did you take communion together? Then consider the worship leaders and pastors. Think of a percentage of participation for them as well. The results might surprise you as to how little you actually participate, and how much you simply sit back and provide a passive audience for the worship leaders. Even if you consider your participation level high, ask yourself how much the people actually work together to worship. Does each person simply say his own prayers while the pastor prays his own prayer? Are the people gathered together a real community, or a group in which each does his or her own thing? For instance, do you take communion from a common cup? Do you say anything as a group?

I applied this same test a few years ago when I visited a church I used to attend. I paid close attention to how much the worship service was actually the work of the people. It turned out the service was more presbyturgy, or the work of the pastor. We sang a few praise songs together, but after that our participation ended. Whenever prayer was said, the pastor said it all. Even during a baptism, the pastor was the only one who said anything. The sermon was very long, and I lost interest and my mind drifted. In the end, I observed how the congregation really didn't do a thing; the pastor did. After the service, I left in a hurry to get some lunch, while the pastor and worship team probably felt revitalized. I counted the tiles on the ceiling after the sermon went over 20 minutes, but the pastor probably left with a sense of hearing God's word. Why? The reason is that the pastor and worship team actually participated in the worship service, and I was merely a member of the audience, sitting back passively.

Church Beside Cemetery, photographed by David Bennett

While it took awhile to work through old prejudices rooted in nothing but stereotypes and half-truths, I now know that liturgy is not dead. How could the work of the people worshipping God ever be dead? Praying common prayers like the Lord's Prayer, while not extemporaneous, are at least biblical prayers prayed by the people, and not simply to the people. Liturgy is not synonymous with rote either. Liturgy when done well, and done historically, leaves much room for extemporaneous prayers and petitions, as well as songs and hymns of different styles and ages, different colors, different church seasons, and scripture readings. Liturgy can be traditional and less traditional, and all liturgy should not be judged by bad liturgy. In fact, the great variety allowed in liturgical worship actually rivals that of non-liturgical churches, whose colors, songs, and moods often remain the same the entire year. Think about it. Which is more repetitive, praise songs every week of the year, or worship that varies by the seasons? When does a praise and worship service indulge our need for awe? For Penitence? For reflection? Rarely. Liturgical worship is also thoroughly bible-based. Most liturgical churches have a lectionary, which means that over three years, 95% of the Bible will be read aloud in Church. Every Sunday, an Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel, and Psalm reading are read aloud. Also, the common liturgies of the Catholic Church and Eastern Churches are lifted almost entirely from the Bible. While worshipping in a Catholic or Eastern Church, if you know the Bible well, you will always be saying to yourself, "hey, that's from 1st Chronicles," "oh, Jesus said that in Luke," and so forth. The weekly prayer services of the Church, called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, also consist primarily of psalms and other hymns taken straight from the Bible.

The liturgical churches are participatory in yet another important way: they have Eucharist services weekly or daily, continually observing Christ's command to "do this in remembrance of me." Eucharist, also called the Mass or Communion, is the coming of the entire community to God's table to partake of Christ's body and blood under the species of bread and wine. The Eucharist is the main event, not the preaching. The sermon (called a homily) is simply a 7-20 minute reflection on the gospel, occurring near the middle of the worship service. In this system, the work of the people is the reason for the service. Eucharist requires active participation by the community. One cannot passively participate in the Mass, simply because it requires you to stand and sit, and at least leave your seat (although one can choose to simply remain still...but why even go?). Also, do you find sermons over 20 minutes hard to follow? Well, you can be relieved to know that it wasn't until the 1500s that the sermon became the main event of the worship service.

This is not to say we Catholics and Orthodox don't have a lot to learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters who worship in a more "contemporary" way. Contemporary praise and worship services are full of enthusiasm, purpose, and a general excitement about one's faith. While all of these elements can be taken to excess, we Catholics could use to be a little more enthusiastic and purposeful about our faith. Also, long sermons do provide a good chance for religious education and hearing the message of God. When we Catholics begin to view the homily as insignificant, it causes us to miss out on hearing the word of God.

Now whenever somebody asks me if liturgical worship is dead, I explain to them what liturgical worship is, its basis in biblical worship, especially in ancient Hebrew worship, its celebration of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, its reflection of every human emotion through the celebration church year, and its use of common prayer to engender community. I tell them that liturgy includes room for contemporary worship as well as more ancient forms. If they are curious, I invite them to a service, and I hope they will see that far from being dead, many of us liturgical Christians are very much alive in our faith in Jesus Christ, whose body and blood we partake of weekly, worshiping with Christians past and present.

Last updated 11-17-2009

See also If these Drums Go I Go: A Critique of Contemporary Worship

Ancient and Future Catholics