What is a Liturgy For?
We are very grateful that Howard (Howie) willingly shared the wisdom he gleaned through out his years of ministry with Reformed Worship. Since 1990 he has written over eighteen articles and resources for RW, all infused with his pastoral heart. Howie passed away just before Holy Week and while these are his last words to us here on Earth we look forward to engaging with him again as we worship together in the new heaven and earth. —JB
I love leading a congregation in worship. I’ve been doing it for fifty-five years now and the challenge of it never seems to change. On the one hand, the more I do it, the more intimidating it seems to be. Yet at the same time, the more I do it the more I understand what ought to happen there.
Let me explain, for those considerations go hand in hand. The longer I live, the better able I am to get a grip on just how needy most of us are a good bit of the time. We hurt in so many ways. We have such big questions whirling around in our minds much of the time; life throws us so many curveballs; a fallen world does its best to make us stumble; so many things go wrong; and we’re embarrassed sometimes at the sinful impulses hatched in our hearts. And then we bring all that stuff to worship! John Stott, a well-known British churchman, once said in a lecture that when he looked out over his congregation on Sunday, he assumed that nearly 70 percent were carrying little white flags with red letters H-E-L-P on them. No wonder I have to say that the more I lead worship the more I understand what needs to happen there—and also that I’m intimidated by it.
So I stand before the congregants with a studied eye, scanning them row after row. I may have been their pastor now for a number of years, and in that time I have come to know them very personally. Pastors are able to know people in a way few others are. The pastor is often welcomed into their personal life. A pastor sees their hurts, knows their disappointments, their questions, their fears, their dashed dreams, and the confusion they live with.
And they bring it all to church with them. Try as they might, they cannot leave it behind as they come. They may try to hide their hurts from others, but the pastor knows, and the Spirit knows even better. So here they are before us, expecting that I (and God!) will reach out with some understanding and deep caring.
And then I feel a strange mixture of emotions bubbling up inside me again. I have joy in the challenge to be the one to minister to them. I have professed that to be my calling before God. I also find satisfaction in the fact that they are here in worship even with all their needs. And I am confident that God’s Word and God’s Spirit have balm for their hurting spirits today. But I also have fear—fear that I will let them down and fail to provide the care that they need.
My parishioners have essentially been no different from yours, so you must surely experience much of the same. They’ve heard so many confusing messages this week that they need to hear the Word of truth. They’ve failed God and others in so many ways that they need to hear the word of grace. Their dreams have been dashed so thoroughly they need to hear of God’s hope. They are feeling isolated and alone and need to hear of the acceptance and affirmation offered here. They are estranged from people who were at one time close to them, and they need to find the power of reconciliation. Perhaps they have felt very alone and need to sense God’s presence here. They might be confused about who they are and need to start the process of finding a renewed sense of personal identity. And when things seem to fall apart they need to find the strength to pray and the courage to trust God.
It is to be assumed that all such needs will be brought to church. All of us live in a fallen world and we experience the consequences of that fallenness in all sorts of ways. Some worshipers might have received the care they need in the pastor’s office this week; some might have had a pastoral call, or have been engaged with another counselor or a trusted friend. But it is safe to say that most needy parishioners will not be helped in some of these ways. And so they’ll bring their needs to church with a hope, perhaps only subconsciously, that they will receive some help there.
Is that what a liturgy is for? Every church has a liturgy whether they like the word or not, whether formal or casual, printed or not, carefully planned or spontaneously followed. We’ve heard those messages about the liturgy as the warm-up for the sermon. We’ve heard that it has such potential to foster our dialogue with God.
I think about all those needs arranged in rows before me, and my heart leaps at the profound privilege of being God’s servant to care for his needy sheep. And then the rumbles of intimidation creep in again whispering to me: What if I fail to help them? What if I stand in the way of what God wants to do for them today? What if I am thinking more about how well I am leading and less about connecting with their needs? Then they might go home feeling a bit empty without being able to identify why.
So much has been said and volumes have been written about the purpose of preaching. The sermon, some say, is the time and place for such caring. Sermons must connect. They are to be prepared with a spirit of caring, with an aim to address the needs that worshipers have brought with them.
But the liturgy, from the opening prayer or blessing to the closing prayer or benediction, is where we ought to focus more of our attention. The solution to finding more care and healing in worship is to look more closely at the liturgy and to learn to see it as the time and location for providing the most personalized pastoral care. That’s right! Worshipers should be able to expect that the liturgy has been planned with needy folks like them in mind and is being led by folks who know human need, care deeply, and are skilled in knowing how to address those needs.
After all, what is more pregnant with the possibility of pastoral care than a trinitarian greeting, words of assurance of pardon, intercessory prayer, reading God’s word, faith affirmations, recalling our baptism, hearing a lament, and receiving a benediction upon leaving? All this and more without even a sermon yet! It’s not that the sermon can be overlooked, but that an effective sermon needs to be supplemented and surrounded by a liturgy that is filled with sensitive caring.
Howard Vanderwell, Caring Worship: Helping Worship Leaders Provide Pastoral Care through the Liturgy (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017).