Looking at Change in the Church’s Liturgy

A church’s form of worship is called its liturgy. In our churches, liturgy includes prayers, songs, reading of the Scripture and of the Law or Apostles’ Creed, an invocation, a benediction, a sermon, an offering and most often an organ prelude and postlude.
Have you ever thought of our services as such; a list of proceedings? (I hope not). But very often lately the churches’ liturgies have been re-examined for the sake of relevancy. People raise questions because they wonder if they fall short of praising God to the best of their ability.
Actually, this is a touchy subject. A person begins to wonder if he may question the traditional church service without offending God by experimenting with new forms of worship.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume for now that God puts these new ideas into our hearts and makes us wonder.
Let’s start out with a common question: “Why do you go to church?”
“Because I want to praise God.”
“Can’t you praise Him just as well by meditating on His creation?”
“No, I believe that I can worship better when I learn more about Him by hearing His Word expounded, to see what God really has to say to us. I feel that God’s Word is most important. In II Timothy 3:16, we read, ‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ We have to know more about God’s Word to know more about God. That is one underlying reason for the sermon and Scripture reading before the sermon.”
Paul says in Romans 10 by a series of rhetorical questions that God saves His people only through the preaching of the Word by one who is sent for that specific purpose. And again in I Corinthians 1:21, “For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its ‘wisdom’ knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the ‘foolishness’ of the preaching to save them that believe.”
“Okay, so a sermon is necessary for a worship service, so what about everything else—prayers, for instance?”
“We pray because we need God’s care, and because we can’t do anything right on our own. God says in Luke 11:9, ‘Ask and it will be given to you.’ God wants His people to talk to Him so that they’re dependent on Him.”
“Well, then, how about the collection? Paul said he supported himself.”
“The offering is for more than salary and church upkeep. It helps support needy brethren and sisters. But most important, Christians should want to give. And as to Paul’s supporting himself, and our ministers not, Paul wasn’t as busy as a minister with a large congregation. Elders were established in Paul’s day to take care of visiting the sick and leading services in the absence of a minister. Paul didn’t have two new sermons to prepare every week, nor did he have a lot of societies to lead.”
“What about the reading of the Law or the Apostles’ Creed?”
“The Law shows us how inadequate we are. It sets us in the proper mood of humility we so often fail to have in the presence of God in His house. The Apostles’ Creed is a summary of our beliefs.”
“But do these have to be read? Isn’t there too much of a chance that we lose the meaning of these if we seem to read these out of habit alone? Scripture doesn’t say anything about reading these.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t. And I do see a danger if people don’t realize why we read these documents. But you’re right, they’re not mandatory.”
“What about the invocation and benediction? When you use the same ones week after week, they become more-or-less automatic and so uninteresting that it becomes irreverently meaningless. Did you know that the secular magicians’ term, ‘hocus pocus’ originated from Roman Catholic priests who chanted their mass so fast the ‘Hoe est corpus meus’ (This is my body) was thought to be magic?”
“That means, to avoid such a pathetic situation in our churches, the congregations should know exactly what’s being said, and never just assume a this-is-the-place-we-bow-our-heads attitude.”
“And your songs! I realize God wants His people to sing Psalms and sacred songs, but do you have to have seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century music on an organ or piano?”
“No, but so far we haven’t adopted any new songs for fear of being called irreverent by those who uphold the established tradition. I think they’re afraid that if we sing new songs, we will want new doctrines, too, but that doesn’t seem logical. Psalms will always be precious to God’s people even if chorales are sickening.”
“And do you have to sit quietly listening to calm organ music when you arrive at church?”
“The purpose of the prelude is to set us in a reverent attitude. But there could be other means to the same end. A good attitude-builder could be something novel. Even a pre-service singspiration with special numbers wouldn’t be out of line. It would be a good opportunity to use our talents to God’s glory. The question is; who’s going to take measures to change things? Some of the brethren are really offended by a change of tradition and we may not offend our brethren.”
“But aren’t they in the wrong to take offense at efforts to save Christians from the death of apathy, when traditional ways lose their force and become dull and boring?”
“I’d hate to accuse them too much because the danger of all-out change for the worse is terribly prevalent, and those who uphold tradition are saving us from going too far in that direction. A happy medium is almost impossible to reach. Speaking of offense, there are those who are offended by having to uphold tradition for tradition’s sake.”
“A few more questions: ‘Why is the sermon so long?’”
“The sermon is long enough for the minister to ‘go into depth’ on his topic, not that he exhausts it, but that he gives underlying reasons, proofs and related arguments for his points. He even states and attacks opposing points of view. We don’t learn that much from a ‘shallow’ sermon. Sometimes I think a minister may go awfully deep for some people, and sometimes it seems he ‘stuffs’ his sermon with ‘unnecessary’ examples or too many ‘Reformed clichés’, which have very little meaning for any visitors who might be in the audience. But you see, when a minister is preparing a sermon, he has his congregation in mind, which is how things ought to be, considering that he has been called of God (through the consistory) to preach in his specific church. The minister knows that abilities of his congregation and tailors his sermons to their level of understanding. I think our ministers are doing a good job of (subconsciously, maybe) reaching ‘our level’.”
“What about these do-it-yourself church services, where people wear any clothes they want to and sit on the floor and have discussions about spiritual and moral matters?”
“I have no qualms about that, but I don’t think that discussion groups should be substituted for a sermon: instead, they could be a welcome addition to our present services. Sitting in chairs or pews is often more comfortable than sitting on the floor. And concerning dress, I think we should dress neatly when we go to God’s house, but not get so dressed up that we make ourselves uncomfortable.”
The important thing to watch for in any form of service is the philosophy behind it. Ask first of all, “Is it Biblical?” If it isn’t, forget it and try again another way. If a form is Biblical, then you may check if it’s relevant and practical, and then if you want to, try for change. But always remember that we must tailor ourselves to fit God’s Word, not tailor God’s Word to fit our crazy wants.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 8 December 1969