January 30, 2017

“Liturgical Worship”

I occasionally consult with churches who are looking for renewal and revitalization in their worship. Often these churches tell me that they are hoping that I can help them negotiate a transition from offering  "traditional" to offering "contemporary" worship. (Though I have consulted with churches moving in the other direction!)

Reject the Terms

But I don't like those terms. So one of the first steps in my consultation is to quite explicitly reject them. Strike them from your lexicons, I say. Don't use them anymore at all. Here's why: I don't think they mean what we often think they mean. Largely related to expressive styles (mostly music), these terms have polarized worshipers into opposing camps. Traditional and Contemporary have now become code words, used to divide and demean, rather than helpfully describe.

The word ‘contemporary,’ etymologically, refers to anything “with the times” (con=with; tempus=time), anything happening now. But at 11:00 this Sunday morning, whatever worship is being offered by God’s people will be “contemporary,” whether it is the centuries-old liturgy of the Armenian Orthodox church or the we-just-nailed-down-our-praise-set-five-minutes-ago worship at the local community church.

Likewise, the term “Traditional” is often invoked without much clarity about whose tradition is under consideration. If a worship service, or a song, or a prayer, or a sermon style is “traditional,” what does that mean? Is it in the tradition of 1950s New England Presbyterianism? Or 1820s Baptist Revivalism? Or 1220 French monasticism? Or is the tradition being tapped that of 4th century Alexandrian church?

So the terms "Contemporary" and "Traditional" won't do.

But I admit that I am quite frustrated in my search to find adequate substitutes.

The Alternatives

One alternative I sometimes hear is "liturgical." Someone will say, "We're a liturgical church," (with a hint — or more — of pride).

But I'm not sure what this means, either. And I'm not sure it means what the folks who use it think it means.

In my experience, the people who use it might mean it apophatically: "We are not one of those fad-following pop-music playing churches."

  • Or  they might mean it descriptively: "The structure of our worship is pretty well fixed, and rather fussy; it's detailed and determined — you know what you're getting when you come here."
  • Or they might mean it illustratively: "We aren't embarrassed to use litanies." (I actually find it remarkable how many people functionally equate "liturgy" and "litany.")
  • Or they might mean it aesthetically: "We have a more refined taste in our modes of expression — especially music and words."

The thing is, none of these definitions has much to do with what it means for a church to be "liturgical."

The Work of the People

The meaning of the word "liturgy," etymologically, is "the work of the people." It comes from the Greek words λείτος (public or "of the people") and εργος (work). Serious scholars will tell you this term originally referred not to the worship offered by the crowds of Greeks, but to the offerings of a select group of rich folks who hired others to mourn or sing or offer sacrifice on the people's behalf. However, as the word came to be appropriated by the church in the early centuries of its existence, the word "liturgy" came to mean something more inclusive: "the stuff God's people all do when they gather to worship." It refers to the words and actions, the rites and symbols that comprise the worship of the whole people of God. If you worship on Sunday, and you aren't just attending a show, whatever you're doing is the "liturgy."

By these lights, a congregation's worship is "liturgical" if those worshiping understand who they are and what they're doing. They are not passive spectators observing clerical ministrations; rather, they are active participants, traversing the contours of covenant life with God through dialogic speech and action, augmented by artistic expressive features like music, dance, visuals, etc.

Being "liturgical" has very little to do with musical style.
Being "liturgical" has very little do with the structure of the service.
Being "liturgical" has very little to do with spoken "back-and-forth" readings of scripture or prayers or anything else.

And it certainly has little to do with how aesthetically "refined" a services artistic expressions are. I know of lots of churches who would consider themselves "contemporary," yet are very liturgical. Good for them. And I know lots of churches who consider themselves "traditional" who are not particularly liturgical. They could do better.

What do YOU think? I would LOVE to hear what sorts of terms you find helpful in describing the expressive worship styles of the people of God that do not fall into simplistic traps of caricature. Let’s start a conversation. Look for this blog on Facebook and comment there, or write to me at

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).

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