A Cross-Shaped Liturgy

There’s a debate between different church bodies as to what the purpose of worship service is. Some of the well-known mega-churches got the idea several years back to create a “seeker service,” designed to lower the bar a bit and make visitors feel more comfortable about coming to check out the church. By and large, these services ended up being well attended, but failed to actually motivate people to grow in their faith. These mega-churches are far from the only ones to hold this view of the service. The Lutheran church continues to be in debate with these other church bodies because we continue to disagree on the purpose of the service.

I say the liturgy is cross-shaped, not because I want to make some clunky analogy about how the liturgy resembles a cross or some such. Rather, the cross defines what the liturgy is about. It sets the parameters of why we gather and what we do. Many still argue the liturgy is aimed at newcomers, as a way to bring them into the church.

While I don’t think the liturgy should be artificially made convoluted or obtuse, I will also argue the service was never intended as an evangelism tool. Certainly, the Word is proclaimed in the service (and if it isn’t, you have more fundamental problems already), and so the Spirit is at work and can bring people to trust God as they hear His promises. Wherever the Word is proclaimed, the Spirit is at work, and that is no less true in the liturgy than anywhere else. Nevertheless, that is not its primary purpose. The early church had this same understanding, for, when the liturgy entered the Service of the Sacrament, all those who were not yet communing were asked to leave. Now, you might argue that even the peripheral way non-communicants can participate in the rite, either by receiving a blessing or simply as observers, can be beneficial. But regardless, the early church saw the importance of the sacrament and was not willing to dumb it down to make it accessible to newcomers. The liturgy was not constructed with the lowest-common denominator in mind. The liturgy was never brought down to the level of the congregation. Instead, the congregation was lifted up to the level of the liturgy. This is why, in “high church” settings, you see the perfusion ritual elements such as chanting, chasubles, incense, and other liturgical developments whose meaning would be completely unknown to the newcomer.

Granted, one may argue, as Luther often does, that ritual for the sake of ritual rarely benefits anyone. No one can be forced to see a ritual element as beneficial and if something is being over emphasized it may actually be harmful to the overall purpose of the liturgy. So, I say the liturgy is cross-shaped because the work of Christ is what makes the liturgy capable of doing anything at all. If the liturgy, and in particular the divine service, is about evangelism, as some argue, or about praising God, as others argue, then it really isn’t any different than what Christians anywhere else can do. You can evangelize on the street corner or in a coffee shop. You can praise God out in your fishing boat or out on the beach. These are all perfectly valid activities. If the liturgy’s purpose is these sorts of things, then it is just an orderly way to do them as a group so things don’t devolve into chaos. Its only benefit is to bring people together.

But the liturgy is special. It is distinct from any other act of worship or praise and it is certainly distinct from any evangelism, because the liturgy is built on the foundation of God’s Word and sacraments. Without these, there is no liturgy. You may praise God without referencing His Word. You may evangelize without the sacraments (as, in truth, you must). But, take away Word and sacrament and you have no liturgy. The liturgy is not focused on our actions at all, but on the work of Christ. His work defines it. He works shapes it. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, of all of creation and, in particular His church. For all of that, He explains to us in Matthew 20, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The primary service given in the liturgy is God’s. It is His grace that heals us and redeems us. It is His life that is given on our behalf. Without His gifts, we have nothing to return to Him.

His gifts are found primarily in Word and sacrament, hence why the liturgy is built around these two things. This is where His grace is found in a unique and special way. While the Word can be proclaimed anywhere, the sacraments are necessarily communal. They are an act of the church gathered together in worship, gathered together around the God who gives these gifts to begin with. Those gifts also require one to trust the promises God makes in them to begin with. Without faith, one never wants what God offers. This means the liturgy is directed at those who already trust God. It may have aspects that resonate with those outside the church, but it meant for those in the church, those who wish to be with God and receive what He has to offer.

Next week I’ll unpack a bit more of the specifics of what the liturgy is doing for the church.

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