I love liturgy.
It probably sounds strange to those who know me, as I’m the contemporary praise band leader at Union Church. In fact, aside from very classic hymns, I don’t play very many songs that are more than about 20 years old.
I realize that this opens me up to criticism, as modern worship music is largely perceived as shallow, or as a poor Christian substitute for a rock concert. I don’t agree; however, that’s another discussion.
But I love liturgy. I love liturgical worship. A lot of modern-day Evangelicals don’t like liturgy; in fact, many believe it is an empty, boring form of worship. It’s bad, wrong, un-emotional. It presents barriers to a whole-soul connection with God, rather than making that connection easier.
I can sort of understand this. Modern worship is designed to break down the emotional barriers that we come to church with, to help us “open up” and begin to feel the way we think we should feel about God, his love, his mercy, etc. The progression of loud-to-soft music engages the emotions of joy, elation, excitement, and then devotion and love. These are all appropriate emotions to associate with God and using music to elicit these emotions is as old as the world, as far as we know.
People who are used to a certain type and progression of music might find it difficult to connect with liturgy. Reading or reciting or singing the same ancient prayers on a daily or weekly basis might sound dry and uninviting. But I like it, for several reasons.
First, liturgy helps people solidify their identity as part of a community. When everyone in the community comes together for a worship service and everyone knows what prayers to say when, it gives people a sense of belonging. In essence, the same things that make liturgy difficult for outsiders to connect with make liturgy a bonding factor for the community that practices it. Once you have been there for a while, and you know when to stand and when to sit down and when to say “Amen” or “Baruch hu u’varuch shmo,” you feel like part of the family, part of something bigger.
Second, it involves everyone. If you don’t know the songs in a contemporary worship service, you’re hosed. You have to work hard to learn them. While you’re doing that, they are not helping you connect with God. On top of that the music changes every week, and over time, older songs are dropped and newer ones are added. Liturgy, on the other hand, takes a long, long time to change. Many liturgical prayers are hundreds or thousands of years old. Once you know them, you’re golden, and you can participate freely and loudly as a member of the community.
Third, it provides a connection with the past. Knowing that you are praying the same prayers as great saints before you, or, as in the case of the Shema and perhaps some other aspects of synagogue liturgy, Jesus himself, makes you feel like part of an much larger, much older family than your local church.
Fourth, liturgical prayers are well thought out and meaningful. They have stood the test of time. Many times our prayers are vague or self-centered; rarely do they match the eloquence of a great liturgical prayer. Of course, there is absolutely a place for spontaneous and even selfish prayer, for prayers that come directly from the heart, talking to God as one talks to a friend. But the public sphere is not the place for these heartfelt, personal prayers. Liturgy lets everyone pray with the eloquence and depth of Milton or Shakespeare.
There are lots of other reasons to love liturgy; I only have time to relate a few. But if you’re one who has a hard time connecting with liturgical prayer, maybe try doing it for a while and see if it grows on you.