I often get asked why I am so committed to being a pastor of a liturgical church. I am always tempted to say, “Good fences make good neighbors” or something like that as a flippant reply, but I think it is important to get to the core of why we need to respond using our voices in the process of worshiping God, and not just in our singing.
The purpose of worship is to glorify God and to be shaped after God’s image in the process. James K. A. Smith writes that liturgies should be considered “love-shaping rituals” (Smith, You Are What You Love, 22). Although it is not just through spoken and sung liturgies that worship occurs, these methods have been a reliable means for the church for a long time. Though the main purpose of worship is to praise God, we are also changed and shaped by God’s grace in the process. Several things happen in worship: we thank and show our adoration for God, we receive God’s grace, we renew our own and our church’s commitment to God, and we look to, and tell the story of, Christ’s past, present, and future saving action in the world. The way we order our worship helps us to understand that the story of God is a covenant, a promise that goes both directions, and, that by worshiping, we are invited to enter into and respond to that story of our good and gracious God.
If these liturgies are practices that shape us in the love of God, while also lifting up and cherishing our God, then the Bible is full of liturgies. Even in the early parts of the Hebrew Bible, we witness the people come together in God’s name for, as Brueggemann calls it, the “practice of covenant” (Brueggemann, Worship in Ancient Israel, 8). When the Israelites do this do this, they tell the story of God’s past salvation, times in which God reached into creation to help, and with prayer and celebration, they reaffirm their promised covenant relationship with God. One of my favorite examples of this retelling and reaffirming worship style is from the 24th chapter of Joshua. Joshua gathers the people together and tells them the story of God, pronouncing all of the gracious things that God has done, saying that God “gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built” (24:13). In his narrative, he shows the people how blessed they are to worship only Yahweh, through
One of my favorite examples of this retelling and reaffirming worship style is from the 24th chapter of Joshua. Joshua gathers the people together and tells them the story of God, pronouncing all of the gracious things that God has done, saying that God “gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built” (24:13). This is my current working definition of grace. In the things that he says to the people, he shows them how blessed they are to worship Yahweh, through the covenant with Abraham (24:2-3), and how God miraculously freed them from Egypt during the time of Moses (24:5).
After he has finished his storytelling, he invites them to respond. He begins a litany in which he proclaims, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15), a demonstration of his devotion that urges the people to follow his lead. They answer by repeating the story of God’s grace and affirming their bond with God. Finally, he closes by writing it all down in the law book as a reminder (24:27). Using the story of Israel and his understanding of God’s grace, he proclaims God’s past action in the life of Israel, invites the people to respond, and sends them back into their lives renewed in their relationship with God.
From the Joshua story, we learn that the methods the Church has used for worship are quite old, from even before the earliest days of the Church. Brueggemann calls the methods of worship that we use, “trusted, thick signs.” They are, for us, reminders of God’s grace. In the early Church, worship leaders also told the story of God as they understood it, but this time the story included Christ Jesus. They focused on the gracious gift that he is. As early as the second century, Justin Martyr described Christian worship in detail and stated that the usual response to the story of faith was to be baptized and to take communion. These sacraments are still our covenant with God.
Worship retells the story of God and helps us to practice for loving God and loving neighbor. By using our word together, in prayer and thanksgiving, we can receive a kind of faithful, sacred muscle memory that can be used as we live our lives in Christ.