How Liturgy Shapes & Makes Us


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UPDATE: I posted a brief history of liturgy and its movements.

A couple of nights ago, those that help lead and facilitate the worship service at my church met to discuss how we should continue to grow and remain faithful to our mission in the city of Philadelphia through our liturgy and music. It reminded me once more of how much I love being a part of this church and its tradition, and how excited I am to live life with these people.

Meditating on these discussions about our liturgy, I was reminded of the myriad of ways that the structure of one’s worship service forms the people that sit there each Sunday. I thought of how liturgy functions. If you go to a church, it has a liturgy: some structure that proclaims a certain story and shape of existence, and it changes people to fit into that shape and story.

And this got me thinking of a document I wrote up a couple of years ago to help train and encourage those leading liturgy at our church. In it, I wrote about six “facets” of the diamond that is liturgy. And that’s what I wanted to post here today.

These are some ways that liturgy acts to shape us. After each thing, I’ve given a sample topic and tried to show how liturgy functioning in that way can speak to and shape someone in that area. This was originally meant as a guide for people that introduce the service and try to acclimate people to the liturgy.

I hope this reminds us that liturgy matters, and being intentional about your liturgy is such an important part of leading and ministering within your church context. If you don’t serve as a leader in this aspect of your church’s life, and don’t really speak to liturgy formation, I hope this helps you recognize the formative nature of your church’s liturgy, and that it helps you connect to and engage with your church in a deeper, more intentional way. For more on this, I could not suggest more highly James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.

Sunday Liturgy functions as…

Story: the liturgy is telling a progressive story of redemption leading up to where we are today.

Mission: The story of Scripture is of a God who calls us to worship him, forgives us for how we don’t, speaks to us, feeds us, and sends us out on mission. This is also the story of our worship that is represented in our liturgy.

Sermon: liturgy is a proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and a call to repent and believe in him. Through Church History, when the service and sermon were offered in Latin, the rest of the embodied movements of the liturgy in a sense “preached” the Gospel to them even when they couldn’t understand the words. On a side note, this should encourage pastors: if you’re liturgy is well-crafted, then even those when weeks when your sermons sucks, the Gospel is still preached to your people. (Still try and write good sermons, though!)

Repentance: In the movements we go through in liturgy, we see and celebrate a God whose call to worship him we have failed. In our time on Sundays we celebrate that he is the one that accomplishes reconciliation and does what we cannot do for ourselves. The hope in a clearly thought-through liturgy is that we see our failure, feel its sting, and turn our hearts to him who has saved us.

Sacramental: At its most basic level, a sacrament is something tangible that God uses to (in a sense) bring himself to his people. It is something he “inhabits”. To look at liturgy “sacramentally” is to see God (or the “godly” idea of something) present and within the liturgy.

Hospitality: We gather on Sundays to worship a God that does not simply command we be hospitable, but a God who was first hospitable to us and invites us to join him in that. In our worship, God invites us to draw near to him by calling us to worship. And as we respond in song and prayer, we are responding to the hospitality of God, trusting that he will be found within the praise he calls us to.

Shadow: If the sacramental facet is where God reveals himself within something, then the “shadow” is when God uses that thing to point outside of itself to him. (Does that make sense?) It’s where he (in a sense) brings his people to him. This is similar to marriage, where we can see God inside of it and within it, but it also points outside of itself to something greater and truer than just itself.

Heaven: All that we do in the liturgy is meant to be a foretaste–a whisper–of the world and worship that awaits God’s people. As we go through these movements of worship, we are in essence training ourselves and becoming accustomed to the sounds, tastes, and language of heaven.

Socialization: Our habits form our identities, our values, and what we love. Liturgy is a habit and a lifestyle that shapes these things. Our liturgy gives shape to the rest of our lives and our identity as the people of God. The repetitive structure provides a rhythm for worship that our hearts become accustomed to and then carry with them outside of Sunday. The components of the liturgy highlight what the church specifically values and wishes to instill into its people.

Sex: The structure of our worship shows us that God has created this physical world and our physical selves to be fully engaged in touching the divine. As we, with our full embodiment, inhabit this sacred space within this sacred time, we are formed as people that see that our physical selves have also been set aside as sacred and therefore have inherent value and worth. Our worship reminds us that our physicality–and therefore our sexuality–deserves to be honored, and that God has declared in what way it is to be honored.

Sustenance: Every Christian experiences very real darkness and pain where God feels absolutely absent. The story makes no sense. God seems to be merely toying with us. We don’t like God. We don’t like his people. We don’t like his Bible. We don’t want to sing songs. And yet something in us knows we still need him. And so, running on spiritual fumes, we grasp at whatever we can just to survive. The repetition and reminders that exist in the liturgy help sustain us by making these truths easier to grasp. It’s preaching the gospel to our lips and bodies and ears, even when our hearts are not there. It keeps us even when we don’t want to be kept. Liturgy provides a consistent structure and rhythm so when you are at your weakest, it doesn’t feel like work. You know these prayers. You know these songs. You know this service. You know what comes next. It feels like rest. It feels like home. It feels like sustenance.

Many topics: One could just rephrase the description above to fit any number of topics like “Suffering”, “Spirituality”, “Prayer”, or “Dark Nights of the Soul”

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2 thoughts on “How Liturgy Shapes & Makes Us

  1. Pingback: A Brief History of Liturgy (for those interested) | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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