I think about worship a lot, even though I rarely if every “lead” in it. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to learn from more liturgical churches, the how and why of standing and sitting, chanting and reading in their tradition. It’s been a good challenge for me, one that has often led me to reflect gratefully on my Baptist roots while also despairing some at the “state” of worship music in many churches today.
Nestled snuggly into After You Believe, N. T. Wright’s book on Christian virtue, you can find a thoughtful digression on worship and its connection to spiritual formation. In it, Wright contrasts liturgical and “spontaneous” worship (more on that after the quote).
That, of course, is the difference between liturgy and spontaneous worship. There is nothing wrong with spontaneous worship, just as there’s nothing wrong with two friends meeting by chance, grabbing a sandwich from a shop, and going off together for an impromptu picnic. But if the friends get to know one another better and decide to meet more regularly, they might decide that, though they could indeed repeat the picnic from time to time, a better setting for their friendship, and a way of showing that friendship in action, might be to take thought over proper meals for one another and prepare thoroughly. In the same way, good Christian liturgy is friendship in action, love taking thought, the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared—an ultimately better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about.
In particular, Christian worship is all about the church celebrating God’s mighty acts, the acts of creation and covenant followed by the acts of new creation and new covenant. The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of scripture—the written account of those stories—has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. It isn’t only that people need to be reminded what the stories say (though that is increasingly important in an age where otherwise “educated” people simply don’t know the Jewish and Christian stories at all). It’s that these stories should be rehearsed in acts of celebration and worship, “telling out the greatness of the Lord,” as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Good liturgy uses tried and tested ways of making sure that scripture is read thoroughly and clearly, and is constantly on the lookout for ways of doing it even more effectively—just as good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, so that they come to be “second nature” within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshipping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders. It’s interesting to study the scriptural account of the early church at worship in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the first Christians drawing on the Psalms and other scriptures to celebrate God’s love and power and to be strengthened and sustained in mission. Because the early Christians were attempting to live as the true Temple, filled with the Spirit, we ought not to be surprised that the major confrontations they incurred were with existing temples and their guardians—the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and the whole culture of pagan temples in Athens and elsewhere. That’s what you’d expect if a new royal priesthood was being called into existence.
I’m not totally sure of what Wright considers “spontaneous” worship. He could easily mean those churches that do not use the order and prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer. What’s interesting, what has been good for me to reflect on, is how even the most basic “Baptist” worship service, as heartfelt as they come, is “liturgical” in its own way: it is put together with certain flow and intent, leading to a particularly significant moment in the church’s life, most often the sermon. One thing I do like about Wrght’s approach (and that is more evident in the Book of Common Prayer, is the prevalence of intentional biblical language.
(image from zenit.org)