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Notes on Liturgical Change

This article is taken from a 1980 editorial in Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship, the precursor to Reformed Worship. Unlike back issues of Reformed Worship, the jewels in these newsletters are not available online, so we decided to share a few of them with you. You may be surprised at how much hasn’t changed in the last 30 years.
—JB

Liturgy came out of the closet recently. It had been in hiding since the 1960s when it was thought to represent all that was cold, sterile, and rigid in the institutional church. But that’s all changed now. [July 1979]’s conference on liturgy both reflected renewed interest in our own denomination and promised something more for the future.

With the revival of interest in liturgy has come growing anxiety . . . about liturgical change. For those who retch at orders of worship that have remained unchanged since Nixon was in office, anxiety can take the form of tight-fisted frustration. They want change, and they want it now. For those who bristle at the prospect of “gimmicks” and “nonsense” in the place of familiar words and phrases, anxiety can easily be translated into defensiveness or anger. When both groups line up in a single congregation, the potential for conflict is high and the opportunity for thoughtful, helpful change is remarkably low.

As for my tastes, they run strongly toward liturgical change. I become impatient when liturgies become static, rigid, or frozen. I stop listening when I hear the Ten Commandments read the same way, at the same place, week after week. But I can’t rid myself of the memory of an elderly man in our congregation who, after a service I’d found particularly moving, quietly told me: “Everything’s got to change; all the time . . . can’t leave anything alone, can we? Play with this, play with that. My brother died yesterday.” The service had moved me, but it hadn’t comforted him.

What follows are some reminders to myself that questions faced at the congregational level aren’t as simple as “to change or not to change.” Some notes caution me to move carefully when calling for change. Others encourage me to keep moving.

1. Change is not, in itself, an assumed good. Neither is the status quo. But in the church’s liturgy, the status quo has two things going for it:

a. It has weathered the test of time. History is important to the church and our worship means to be both existential (“now”) and part of “the church of all ages.” The status quo, rooted somewhere in our history as God’s people, shouldn’t be casually uprooted.

b. It has common acceptance. Worship is meant to be corporate, not individual. This isn’t merely what I do on a pleasant June morning, but what “we” do, together, as a family. As one member of that family, I may not insist on having my way at the expense of all others.

2. It’s clear to me that boredom is not a virtue in worship services. Inducing it is, I think, a sin. What passes itself off as “solid tradition” is sometimes nothing more than a mindless routine into which we’ve settled and which we’re too lazy to alter.

It’s not clear to me, though, that confusion is an improvement on boredom. Services in which I’m never certain if I’m supposed to stand or sit, speak or be silent, pray or applaud . . . have seldom moved me to praise God powerfully. Neither do I find “a little of this” and “a little of that” mixed together into a liturgical hash very conducive to worship.

If the status quo is to be replaced with fresh actions, the new—no less that the old—needs to be carefully constructed, disciplined, and given dignity. I don’t think that means “Jesus Loves Me” should never be sung during worship. It does mean, however, that I’d rather not sandwich it between a chorus from “Messiah” and the taking of the morning offering.

3. When we make changes we take risks. So when someone argues, “You’re taking a risk by changing the order of worship . . . ,” he or she is quite right.

But it’s also risky not to change. If God isn’t pleased with chaos in our worship, neither do I suppose God is much in favor of petrification. We may not be flippant about calls for change, but we mustn’t be sullen in opposing them either.

4. It isn’t fair to equate “faithfulness” with “sameness,” though we have a tendency to do that. We’re thought to be most “faithful” when we never deviate from what has been done or said in the past. That is, it seems to me, an abuse of tradition such that [tradition] becomes an idol rather than a gift.

God’s alive and well and ruling today. To be faithful, I must respond obediently in today’s context. . . . Intoning liturgical elements drafted by nineteenth-century poets or pastors may keep me in line with my tradition but leave me disobedient to my Lord. Faithfulness, after all, must be measured in terms of living obedience to God, not in terms of unyielding sameness. The two are not always contrary to one another, but neither are they always identical.