Growing up in “low church” evangelical congregations, I was always raised to believe that “tradition” and liturgy were the enemies of true spirituality. Reciting creeds and prayers, I was taught, are nothing more than works-righteousness—legalistic acts that enable Christians to disengage their hearts to mindlessly recite words they wrongly believe are their saving grace.
Further, having grown up in churches that were influenced by the church growth movement, which came into full swing by the mid-1970s and has defined evangelical ecclesiology in the intervening decades, I was also raised to believe liturgy and tradition were a hindrance to the mission of Jesus. They actually keep us from reaching people for the gospel.
After all, these traditions are weird to non-Christians, and they often keep people from feeling comfortable being in a church. And so in order to reach the world, we have needed to shed stuffy liturgy in favor of worship experiences that feel more relevant.
To a certain extent, my spiritual fathers and mothers had a point on both counts.
Apart from a real encounter with the Spirit of the Living God, liturgical traditions are little more than superstitious incantations. And if their meaning is not properly explained and those unfamiliar with them are not warmly invited to participate, they can alienate those who did not grow up with them.
However, I have begun to think that many of our evangelical churches have overcorrected for these shortcomings. Maybe we could stand to add a little liturgy back into our worship services.
Before I explain why I think that’s the case, here are some elements I think are worth re-introducing into Sunday morning worship gatherings, even (and perhaps especially) if you’re leading a low church contemporary congregation like the ones I was raised in.
Elements of Liturgy
First, let me say that this is not an exhaustive list of liturgical elements that could be included in a worship service.
Further, I’m under no illusions that I’m saying anything revolutionary in the world of evangelicalism. These are practices that evangelical Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others never stopped doing. Even some Baptist churches implement some liturgical practices (though they tend to be the exception rather than the rule).
Nevertheless, with the Southern Baptist Convention being the largest protestant denomination in America and having a theological and stylistic influence that expands far beyond the churches under its umbrella, many are unaware of such traditions or approach them with suspicion.
Disclaimers aside, here are elements of liturgy that could breathe new life into low church congregations.
Despite ongoing efforts on the part of pastors and church leaders to get their people to regularly read their bibles, very few Christians actually do. So why don’t we read scripture together?
There are lectionary systems in which a churchgoer, if they attended church every Sunday, would have the entire Bible read to them every three years. I understand that it’s a pipe dream that an average churchgoer would have perfect church attendance for three straight years. But even if they’re only semi-regular in their attendance, Christians who attend a church that does regular scripture reading are still getting a lot of bible—certainly much more than attenders of churches who don’t do regular scripture reading.
Beyond pragmatic reasons, this practice would take seriously Paul’s command to Timothy: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
The Lord’s Supper (Communion, the Eucharist)
Every faithful church participates in the Lord’s Supper. But if your church is anything like the churches I was raised in, you only do it once every month. (That is, unless you forget to do it in a given month, or it gets cut when the sermon runs long and you need to clear the parking lot in between services.)
Other churches take part in the Lord’s Supper as seldom as once a quarter.
Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance that was not only given to the Church directly by Jesus, but it is also one of the most tangible, corporate symbols we have for our most central message. We may want to consider making it a priority every time we gather.
Corporate Prayers and Recitation of Nicene Creed
Another liturgical element that I rarely see in low church evangelical settings is the recitation of the Nicene Creed or other historic creeds, call and response prayers, and corporate recitations of biblical passages like the Lord’s Prayer.
These kinds of regular recitations engage the congregation in a corporate act of worship, as well as center churchgoers’ hearts and minds on core Christian convictions that they will eventually come to memorize, even if inadvertently.
Why Church Leaders Should Consider More Liturgy
Few pastors would dismiss these practices out of hand. Of course they have value. But why should church leaders consider changing their worship services, likely incurring opposition and criticism, to include them?
Well, it is no secret that the American church is facing a crisis of discipleship. Even devoted Christians only attend church, on average, once or twice a month. When compared to the number of weekly hours they spend watching cable news, it is little wonder why most Christian’s view of the world is shaped more by Fox News and MSNBC than by the words of Jesus.
While there isn’t much pastors can do in the short term to increase church attendance, they can think creatively about how to equip and disciple their people during the short windows of time they have them in the room.
To be frank, it doesn’t appear that “three songs and a sermon” are making as big of an impact as we would have hoped. This isn’t to say that these liturgical elements will solve all our problems, but they could help nudge us in the right direction.
Here are three ways liturgy can help us disciple our people more effectively.
1. Liturgy Gives the Church a Well Rounded Theology
Even as technology has allowed people to have greater access to the bible than any generation in the past, biblical literacy is still at an all time low. This is reflective in recent research gauging the common beliefs of evangelicals.
In the State of Theology study conducted jointly by Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries, researchers found that evangelicals—defined by surveyors as people who said the bible is their highest authority, that they value evangelism, that Jesus is their only hope—held theological views that could not be described as Christian.
For example, 65% of evangelicals said that people are born innocent, which runs against the biblical doctrine of human depravity. 48% said that God “learns and adapts to different circumstances.” 56% agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” 70% strongly agreed that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God,” and not himself an eternal part of the Trinity. 38% said Jesus isn’t God. 60% said that the Holy Spirit isn’t a personal being.
These findings are deeply troubling.
Reading lots of Scripture together, reciting creeds that summarize core Christian beliefs, and giving people prayers that repeat and rehearse important Christian practices could go a long way toward inculcating core truths that, for many evangelicals, have simply been lost.
This may mean our sermons will need to be shortened, even by up to half their length. But it may also mean that our people are exposed to a greater portion of the “full counsel of God” on a weekly basis than they are with our 30 to 45 minute sermons that cover only a handful of verses.
2. Liturgy Creates Unity
In addition to the educational value that comes with repetition, liturgical elements also can create a sense of unity. And unity is something the church desperately needs right now.
For many evangelical churches, their worship experience is both passive and individualistic. Churchgoers hear worship songs, with which only a few sing along. They then sit silently and listen to announcements (which typically run way too long) and a sermon (also too long).
For many, their worship experience would not be qualitatively different if they were the only person in the pews—though pastors and worship leaders wouldn’t be a fan.
Taking the Lord’s Supper together, reciting the words of Scripture together, and praying with one voice in a corporate setting are all powerful reminders that we are unified. They are also a reminder of exactly where our unity is centered.
When we are constantly faced with the fact that we are not merely a collection of individual souls but the living, breathing body of Christ, we may be less inclined to view each other as the enemy in our various points of disagreement.
3. Liturgy Reminds Us of the Sacred
So much of our culture is commoditized and trivialized. Many of us have come to believe that nothing is sacred anymore. People feel that, and they long to experience something hallowed.
Liturgy and tradition connect us to our sacred past, thereby calling us to create a sacred future.
When pastors and church leaders approach these practices with solemnity and sincerity, they are far more than dusty, old practices that keep us from having a real encounter with God. They are the means of grace by which we invite a real encounter with God. They become an ancient comfort that connects us to God and each other.
Perhaps you aren’t a church leader and don’t have any sway over how your church orders its corporate worship services. But you don’t have to leave your church for a different denomination to begin experiencing some of the benefits of tradition and liturgy.
You can incorporate sacred practices and traditions in your home, with your family, roommates, or friends.
One small thing that I have begun to do with my sons, who are still toddlers, is to recite the Lord’s Prayer with them at bedtime. With our hands clasped, I say one line and they repeat it after me. I’m certain they mostly see it as some sort of playtime activity, and they may soon grow tired of it. Nonetheless, my hope is that when they are grown, those words will have made an impression on their souls—that a seemingly dull, repetitive practice will have somehow shaped them.
And if I believe that repetitive yet sacred practices have the power to shape their souls, then I have to believe they have the power to shape my own.