From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, things follow patterns. This is as inescapable as it is undeniable. Night follows day, the moon waxes and wanes, the tide ebbs and flows, man rises up and lies down again. This is life under the sun. But what seems monotonous really testifies to the marvelous: there is something beyond the sun. Learning to read between the lines of sunrises and sunsets (through the lens of Sacred Scripture) helps us to see the transcendent realities beyond the metaphor in which we live. And yes, we do live in a metaphor—this is a spoken world created by Spoken Word.
Every sunset says, “The wages of sin is death” as darkness covers the face of the deep. Every sunrise says, “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” as the sun rises yet again to give its life-giving light. This is also true of daisies and daffodils, of milk cows and molecules; everything testifies to a greater reality than meets the eye. So what are all of these prolific patterns? In a word—liturgy. Creation is liturgical. If this is the case (trust me, it is) then how much more should the Church be conscience of this fact?
Defenders of a liturgical approach to worship, as I am, are fond of pointing out that liturgy is inescapable. This is quite true—all churches are liturgical. Not all churches print out their liturgies beforehand or have them bound in books that are centuries old, but all churches have a set pattern of worship that they follow, and all of them would be distraught if someone changed that pattern one Sunday morning without telling anybody.
So liturgy is inescapable. But high-church liturgy is not inescapable, and neither is low-church liturgy. There comes a point when we must make our choices about which way to go, and this choice is genuine. This means that pastors who are working through this issue must really divide it into two issues.
The first stage is to develop a high view of liturgy— recognizing that it is in fact inescapable, which is just another way of saying that this is how God made the world. The second is to develop a biblical approach to that liturgy, grounding what is done in the Scriptures. A corollary to this is that the development of a high view of biblical liturgy means developing a low view of unbiblical forms of liturgy—even if the unbiblical forms are “higher” than the biblical one.
We have a natural (Pharisaical) tendency to assume that stricter, more rigorous, more developed “whatevers” are somehow automatically more biblical. This is because the advocate of the looser forms is immediately behind the eight ball in any discussion. His laxity is clearly a cover for his own spiritual laziness. But maybe, just maybe, this assumption is radically false.
To say up front that liturgy is extremely important—that having a defined, biblical structure to the worship service is crucial, and that formality does not necessarily drive out genuine love for Christ—does not require us to then embrace any particular costume pageant that some Anglicans might be doing. To follow fixed pattern of worship not only does not require us to adopt any proposal (provided it is “higher” than what we were all doing ten years ago), it actually requires us to be suspicious of all such tendencies to overshoot the goal.
There is a difference between a pastor who studies an issue thoroughly, and decides, for example, that a worship service should include confession of sin and absolution, singing of Psalms, regular communion and so on, and who pursues this out of obedience, and another man who adopts all the same things (not to mention a bit more decorative finery) because he likes funny hats and has a deep spiritual need to play liturgical dress-up.
Sinful men have long felt that they could impress God with what one writer exquisitely called “scandalous pomp and impossible vows.” But God asks them who required them to come in and tromp around in circles in His courts this way. And He wants them to haul away the noise of their songs—the God we worship (always liturgically) cannot endure iniquity coupled together with solemn assembly.
These are not academic questions for us. Speaking as an observer of the human condition in the ecclesiastical world today, the higher the liturgy, the more likely it is that the man of God involved is also involved in crime and corruption. And when it is the case that a worshipper would actually go to heaven if he were to die, the more likely it is that the worship service he attends resembles a high-school pep rally. And both kinds of people need to learn something fundamental about God. If the Holy Spirit is grieved by the way you are living, He will not be bought off by some gaudy worship service. And if the Holy Spirit is grieved by the way you are worshipping, He will not be bought off by long-sleeves and short hair.
This means that reformation is needed across the board. Too many Protestants have forgotten that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a liturgical reformation as much as a doctrinal one. The Reformation was not brought about because of a clash of propositions between the Reformers and the Schoolmen—although that was involved. The Reformation transformed worship services all across Europe.
But how did everyone know what to do? How did they set their course? This is where we see the crucial role of the pulpit. Liturgical reform was enacted, but it was preached before it was enacted. Men were raised up by God to study the Scriptures afresh, and to break out of them what God was calling men to do. James tells us that the tongue is like a rudder that steers a vast ship—the effect of what it does is much greater than the size of the rudder itself. In the same way, the tongue of the church (the pulpit) is a rudder that steers the whole church. Liturgy by itself is a ship without a rudder. Preaching by itself (without resulting in embodied worship) is a rudder without a ship.
This preaching has to be clear, and it has to warn distinctly against the errors to which men are prone whenever they worship God. The preacher cannot be mealy-mouthed about it. When modern evangelicals disrespect God with their rah-rah ways (which they routinely do), the preacher must address it. And when high liturgical wannabes want to parade around like they were at an initiation ceremony for the Moose Lodge, somebody needs to point it out. If we want liturgy that truly honors God, we must have preachers with backbone— and a lot more of them.