For many evangelical Christians today, the liturgy smacks of mindless rituals that stifle the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and suffocate the Christian life. They argue that if the Spirit of God is indeed present in the church, then Christians should not resort to wooden props of repetitive words and actions in worship.
This attitude is in many ways nurtured by the modern derision of tradition, which some evangelicals share and defend—mainly due to an erroneous understanding of the Reformers’ emphasis on the authority of Scripture. But evangelicals may also undervalue the liturgy because they unreflectively harbour an equally modern disdain for ritual and form.
Mary Douglas has pointed out that while a troubling phenomenon in our day is the lack of commitment to common symbols, “more mysterious is a widespread, explicit rejection of rituals as such. […] Ritual has become a bad word signifying empty conformity. We are witnessing a revolt against formalism, even against form.”
What moderns sometimes miss, however, is that the whole of human life and all its endeavours is characterised by a system of rituals. In fact, many psychologists—for example, Erik Erikson—have argued persuasively that rituals play an indispensable role in human development and integration into society.
Just as there is no development of human life without ritual, so there is no unritualised Christian life. This is also true of that activity which is at the very centre of the life of the Christian community—worship. Frank Senn explains: “The liturgy is the activity in which the life and mission of the church are paradigmatically and centrally expressed.”
The distinction, often made by Christian writers, of “liturgical” and “unliturgical” worship is therefore unhelpful because it is misleading. Even the most “charismatic” and “Spirit-led” services are ritualised, that is, they gradually assume a repeated pattern, a discernible convention.
The liturgy also mirrors life in the significance that it places on time, and on the rhythmic patterns of everyday life. Like the rest of life, Christian worship (and liturgy) is structured on the repeated rhythms of life—of the day, the week, the month and the year. The worship of the eternal God is based on events in history—the exodus, Incarnation, resurrection, etc.—through which God makes available His saving and transforming grace.
This means that the liturgical calendar has a very important role in Christian worship as a constant reminder of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It reminds us again and again that the salvation that we have in Christ is something that we cannot create for ourselves, but is a gift. “When we recall the past events of salvation,” writes James White, “they come alive in their present power to save. Our acts of remembrance bring the original events back to us with all their meaning.”
By remembering Christ—and by performing certain rituals that help the church to remember—we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26, NIV).
For the Christian, the liturgy shapes life. We see this in the experience of the ancient people of God at Sinai—they did not only receive instructions on how to worship, but also how to live in obedience. Worship and obedience can never be separated.
As Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has rightly pointed out: “the ‘cult’, seen in its true breadth and depth, goes beyond the action of the liturgy. Ultimately, it embraces the ordering of the whole of human life.”
Right worship does not only mirror life—it also redeems and transforms earthly life, enabling it in some measure to reflect or image the Creator, the Source of all life. It enables us to anticipate the life to come—the new heavens and the new earth.
Douglas, Mary. Rules and Meanings: The Anthology of Everyday Knowledge; Selected Readings. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Collected Works: Theology of Liturgy. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press 2014.
Senn, Frank. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997.
White, James. Introduction to Christian Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
Picture by zolnierek/Bigstock.com