There Are No “Non-Liturgical” Churches


There Are No “Non-Liturgical” Churches

Several observations might be made. First, we really do not have a choice of whether or not to use liturgy. By definition, when a congregation worships, it is doing liturgy—the work of the people. There is no such thing as a “non-liturgical church.” The choice is not between liturgy or no liturgy, but between having an agreed-upon, well-thought-out liturgy or leaving things to the spur of the moment and the discretion of the leader. As one wag has rightly observed, if you think “organized religion” is bad, try disorganized religion.

Experience tends to show that even churches that glory in their freedom from set liturgy inevitably fall into patterns of repetition. The leader often uses nearly identical phrases week after week, though they may not be written down anywhere. It could hardly be otherwise. Certain things are absolutely mandatory. God is to be praised at every service. He should be thanked for his graciousness and for the blessings he has bestowed. The sick and sorrowing should be lifted up in prayer. The leaders in government should be prayed for. The worldwide Church of Jesus Christ, in all its variety, its missionary endeavor, and especially in its tragic division, should be undergirded by prayer.

How many different ways are there to pray for these things? Is it really to be expected that the leaders of churches who pride themselves on their free-form or spontaneous worship are going to come up with new pastoral prayers each time? In fact it is very likely they may be just as repetitious as the Book of Common Prayer, though it is unlikely they will be able to match its beauty, clarity, or consistent orthodoxy.

A set liturgy provides another important element for worship: balance. Rather than reflecting merely a particular leader’s feelings and insights at a particular moment, it incorporates a full expression of generations of faithful Christians. It requires discipline to use a set liturgy.

At the opening of the communion service, worshipers are asked to “lift up your hearts,” and they are expected to do so, whether or not they feel like it at that moment. They are told to confess their sins even if they do not feel particularly guilty. The confession states “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent,” which calls worshipers to seriously examine their hearts. This is part of what Paul meant when he said Christians are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5b).

We worship God, not merely because we feel like doing so, but because he is worthy of worship. The word “worship” comes originally from “worth-ship.” And we are to discipline our worship according to what is true of him.

Finally, a set liturgy can have a teaching aspect that an entirely extemporaneous service lacks. The constant and consistent repetition of pattern and lesson has a way of ingraining truth into the minds and hearts of those who participate in it. It is neither irreligious nor overly simplistic to note that this method of learning works for alphabets, multiplication tables, months of the year, and the basic truths of God. Such exposure to divine truth was extremely valuable during the periods of relative illiteracy in the church’s history and even today helps young children learn to worship.

Author C. S. Lewis somewhere observed that when a leader’s prayers are entirely extemporaneous, the congregation is forced to hold two irreconcilable attitudes at the same time. On the one hand, they want to worship God; they want to focus attention on him. But in order to do this, they must agree with what the minister is praying. This involves analyzing the prayers that are spoken. One continually finds oneself focusing on the prayer itself and asking, “Is this orthodox? Do I agree with this?” The prayer can then become an obstacle to worship, rather than a vehicle for it. Someone has remarked that when extemporaneous prayer is good, it is very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.

John W. Howe and Samuel C. Pascoe, Our Anglican Heritage: Can an Ancient Church Be a Church of the Future?, Second Edition: Updated and Revised. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 44–45.