Liturgy is not just a Sunday order of rituals.

This essay in no way is meant to discredit or disagree with anything from the article, “Top Ten Reasons Why We Use The Liturgy.”  This essay operates with a different definition of liturgy, which is defined as the thesis of the essay, and the linked essay on why we use the liturgy defines its use of the word liturgy from the outset as well.

A recent Systematics quiz asked the question, “According to the Lutheran Confessions who is the Church?”  The leading answer by many students was “where the Gospel and the Sacraments are rightly preached.” The professor quickly blurted out, “That’s great.  That tells us how we can locate where the Church is, but what is the answer to who the church is?”  The “who” answer is all true believers.  That is who the Church is.  In response to Rome’s insistence that only the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church, the Book of Concord places repeated emphasis on how the Church is visibly recognized by the right proclamation of the Gospel and the right distribution of the Sacraments, in an effort to assert that the Lutheran churches were most certainly part of the una sancta, while drawing into question the validity of Rome’s claim to the Church catholic. This Reformation Movement emphasis has led to a predominant association of the Church with the gathered body of believers on Sunday – thus Church is viewed as a place that Christians go and not as individual people in missional movement in their daily vocations united as one through the same shared faith in Christ.

In many LC-MS congregations, Sunday services use one of the Divine Service orders in one of the LC-MS hymnals.  These orders are commonly referred to as the historical liturgy of the Church.  Orders of rituals and ceremonies used for Sunday services in Lutheran congregations that do not explicitly follow one of the Divine Service orders are typically referred to as being non-liturgical, or perhaps called contemporary.  This suggests that the historical liturgy (the Divine Service) has been jettisoned in such congregations, replaced by something new, and potentially entirely different or wholly disconnected from the Divine Service, which can imply a withdrawal from the Church.  Liturgy, in an etymological sense, refers to public service, which certainly does occur on Sundays.  The church’s public service, however, is not just limited to a particular place and time on Sunday morning.  The Church is, after all, all true believers, each a priest in the Kingdom of God, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a particular gift and role in the Church for the edification of all in the local Church community.

Much of these giftings of the Spirit and Spirit-given roles within the Church are not actively involved or provided the opportunity to serving the Body of Christ within the Divine Service orders.  This necessitates a broadening of the common usage of the word liturgy within Lutheran circles that would embrace both the “who” and the “where” of the Church from the Book of Concord. The following is my proposed use of liturgy for rectifying this disconnect between Sunday services (and in particular the concept that the Divine Service is the only liturgy of the Church) and the rest of the Christian’s life as the Church: liturgy in a Lutheran congregation should be understood as the performance of the Christian faith, both corporately at gathered services on Sunday mornings, as well as individually throughout the week, for the purpose of making and sustaining disciples within the Christian faith that is being performed.

Jim Marriot defines liturgy concisely as “the performance of faith.”[1]  The “performance” aspect of this definition of liturgy can be best understood by the formal sense of the definition of rituals. Mark Searle describes the aim of formal definitions for rituals as seeking to “differentiate ritual activity from other forms of behavior in terms of its distinctive features, usually identified as repetitive, prescribed, rigid, stereotyped, and so on.”[2]  As an example of a formal approach to rituals, Searle points to Roy Rappaport’s definition of ritual, which is “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not encoded by the performers.”[3]  Rappaport’s definition implies that the Church’s rituals have been given to us and we perform them, but with his use of coding language, there is also the implication that these rituals are doing us.  The rituals of the Church are informing us and molding us into the people God wants us to be.  To this end, liturgy as a set of performed rituals of the Christian faith also function symbolically to provide meaning to our lives[4] by teaching us, or informing us, of the Christian faith that accounts for all things.  With that knowledge we can become the people God wants us to be as we live out the Christian liturgy.

The liturgy of the Church is not just relegated to Sunday morning.  There is an interplay between corporate and individual ritual performances of the Christian faith.  In the corporate sense of liturgy, James K. A. Smith describes the church as “the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and restrain our appetites.”[5]  This work in our lives comes through the visible markers of the Church as identified in the Lutheran Confessions, the right proclamation of God’s Word and the right distribution of the Sacraments  It is the function of the Word and the Sacraments that lead Smith to refer to the Church as a “household […] where the Spirit feeds us what we need and where, by his grace, we become a people who desire him above all else.”[6]  But we are not to stay in that “household,” the Church forever, because the Church is not a place, or the gathering of Christians.  No, the Church is the people of God.  Smith explains that the liturgy of the corporately gathered Church functions, continuing with the food analogy, as “the feast where we acquire new hungers – for God and for what God desires – and are then sent into this creation to act accordingly.”[7]

As an example of how the corporate ritual performances of the Church form and shape our individual performances of the Christian faith in our day to day vocations, Smith points to the historic prayer of confession (that the LC-MS uses in some of its Divine Service orders):

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.  Amen.

Smith says that this prayer was written poetically, so that when it is said as a whole congregation, verbally, week in and week out, it becomes like a song, and the poetry of this corporate ritual “makes it stick and enables it to seep down into the deep wells of our imagination – which means it is also latent there, ready to rise to our lips throughout the week.”[8]  When this confession is given corporately, the absolution of sins is immediately pronounced by the pastor.  This sticks with us too, and it forms us in the week to live in a state of daily repentance, contrition for sins and turning to Christ for the forgiveness of those sins.  The corporate ritual of confession/absolution should also drive us to be a people who forgive those who sin against us.  In our individual ritual performances, Monday thru Saturday, this corporate performance works to form us into people who have the Gospel upon our lips in proclamation to our neighbor, in the humble position of one beggar in need of God’s grace to another.

The purpose of this liturgy, the performance of the Christian faith, both corporately at gathered services on Sunday mornings, as well as individually throughout the week, is to both create and sustain the Christian faith that is being performed.  In short, faith in Christ is central to everything the Christian does in Christian liturgy.  Earlier it was stated that Rappaport’s definition of rituals implies that the Church’s rituals have been given to us and we perform them, but yet the rituals of the Church are not encoded by the one’s performing them.  This gives the implication that these rituals are doing us; we’re not doing them.  A similar interexchange can be spoken of with faith.  Faith is not something that Christians create, or encode in themselves.  Faith is given to Christians, but yet Christians in response to the gift of faith hardwired into them perform that faith when gathered together in worship on Sundays.  The faith is always present in the Christian and is not dormant the rest of the week either; faith is performed daily in the life of the Christian.  The Christian worships God every day in performances of faith, which are a demonstration of the faith within the believer.  Such performances are ever as much an act of worship as what occurs in a church service on Sunday.  Thomas Winger details this dual-role of liturgy to both create and sustain faith as the “rhythm of worship”:

“God generates and nurtures faith with his Word-and-Sacrament giving, enlivening      faith so that it rises up to meet the Giver with its thanks and praise, and overflows the gifts towards the neighbor.  Faith is worship because worship is reception. This means that true worship occurs whenever God’s gifts are received according to Christ’s mandate and institution.”[9]

Recognizing that all of the Christian life is one of faith being expressed through the performance of rituals, it is best for members of the LC-MS, in particular pastors in their positions of teaching office in the churches, to not refer to the order of Sunday services as being either liturgical or not-liturgical.  To make such a dichotomy is to not recognize that all of the Christian life is liturgy, a performance of the faith.  A church service that does not adhere to the order of the Divine Service is still a liturgy!  It is best for the LC-MS to discern better performances of the faith from worser performances of the faith, and to be humble enough to admit that in particular contexts an order of worship that does not contain any, or most of the specific words and order of the Divine Service, could be a better performance of the faith than a service that adheres to every single jot and tittle of the Divine Service order.  This is why better and worse performances of the faith need to take into account the context of the community of believers and the role of inculturation in the performance of the faith in each particular church setting.  This is a discussion that warrants more words than what fits into the limitations of this essay, and which might distract from the main goal of this paper’s thesis to create a harmony between “the who of the Church” (individual priests with liturgies throughout the week) and “the where of the Church” (corporate gatherings where the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly distributed).

In closing, to drive home the point of this essay, liturgy is not just a Sunday order of ritualistic repetition.  We don’t lock God up in his golden cage in the sanctuary of our church buildings to take him out and wind him up each Sunday morning.[10] We don’t leave our faith at the doorsteps of the church building when we exit on Sunday morning to race off to eat lunch and/or watch sports.  It is time that our use of the words, liturgy, worship, and rituals, accurately represent our performance of the faith the whole-week long.

[1] Jim Marriot, “Liturgy and Discipleship: How the World is Done,” Self-published (n.d.): 3.

[2] Mark Searle, “Ritual,” in The Study of Liturgy: Revised Edition, eds. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ, and Paul Bradshaw (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 54.

[3] Searle, “Ritual,” in The Study of Liturgy, 54.

[4] Searle, “Ritual,” in The Study of Liturgy, 55.

[5] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 65.

[6] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[7] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[8] Smith, You Are What You Love, 109-110.

[9] Thomas Winger, “Theology of Worship” (unpublished essay for the Lutheran Service Book, Desk Edition), 3.

[10] Jethro Tull, “My God” and “Wind-up,” tracks 1 and 5 of side B on Aqualung, Reprise Records, 1971, vinyl.

105. Lutheran Theology Part 6

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Andy and Wes close the series on Lutheran Theology discussing worship, the Church, and ministry.

Topics:

Liturgy
Contemporary Worship
Invisible Church
Visible Church
Marks of the Church
Luther’s Two Kingdom Theory
Priesthood of All Believers
Office of the Public Ministry
Office of the Keys