A Return to Liturgical Worship

Commentary by William Mikler on

Sunday morning worship isn’t about an evangelistic crusade


THE BROADER EVANGELICAL WORLD needs very much to return to liturgical forms of worship. In this brief essay, I will try to explain why. Stay with me as long as you can.

The popular form of what passes for worship in most contemporary Evangelical churches actually has its roots in the evangelistic crusade culture that developed in the 19th Century evangelistic campaigns of D.L. Moody (1837-1899).

Moody’s evangelistic aim was the conversion of sinners, and he conducted his campaigns in a way that attracted sinners to them. His playbill was simple, and featured music that was more on the order of entertainment than worship. Sinners were made comfortable in Moody’s campaigns, and his preaching often had a saving effect on them.

Moody understood that the key to a successful evangelistic campaign is good evangelical preaching, not disciplined liturgical worship, and he ordered his campaigns accordingly. I don’t fault him for that.

The ancient Celtic missionaries, who operated between the fifth and ninth centuries of the Christian era, conducted far simpler services of worship outside their monasteries than they did within them. Within the monasteries they were highly disciplined and liturgical; outside they did what occasion demanded, which often was something as simple as teaching under a tree or in a village commons.

(Our Communion employs a phrase that describes the difference between formal, liturgical worship and the simpler orders that guide us in evangelistic and teaching events. The phrase is  “the Abbey and the Oak Tree.” Simply put, we conduct ourselves differently under the oak tree, i.e., in an evangelistic service or informal Bible study than we do in an abbey, church or cathedral where formal Eucharistic worship takes place.)

Most pastors I know believe that their Sunday worship services exist for God’s worship and the edification of the church. So I ask them: Why employ an order of worship that derives from D.L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns, especially when such an order works against pastoral aims?

Musically, many Evangelical church services have more in common with entertainment than genuine worship. New church architecture is more like a nightclub or theater than a church. When you add light shows and smoke machines to church services, well, it becomes a nightclub. Beware the church service that conforms to the world instead of to Christ. Entertainment entertains. It may accidentally evangelize. But it doesn’t edify. The primary worship service of the Christian community should edify. It should also be a worship service, which most evangelical church services are not.

That’s why I call for a change.

From early on, historical worship services developed along the lines of Christianized adaptations of Jewish synagogue worship. (Most evangelicals aren’t aware that the synagogue services our Lord ministered in were liturgically disciplined.) Jewish synagogue worship was guided by the Hebrew Scriptures and informed by the temple rites in Jerusalem. Since all of those rites pointed to Christ, the early church employed the worship order to teach Christ at every point in the service.

Building on Old Covenantal foundations in New Covenant light and reality, historic Christian worship provides a disciplined but lively rehearsal of the great truths of the Christian faith.

Historic worship follows this general order: (1) An entrance rite that is a holy ascension into the presence of the living God, often preceded by confession of sins and absolution; (2) the ministry of the Word that involves biblical reading and instruction, the confession of faith, and prayers (and, if not already done, confession and absolution); (3) the Great Thanksgiving (i.e. the Eucharist or Holy Communion) that invites us to share in the body and blood of our Lord as per his command; and (4) the dismissal, which is a commissioning that sends the people of God into the world with apostolic purpose.

Participating in worship ordered in the historic fashion not only informs our faith, it develops good habits and disciplines. Doing so, it does far more to develop Christian character and knowledge than any entertainment event possibly can. Historic worship pleases God even as it arms the Church for witness.

For these and a dozen other reasons I haven’t space to record, I call for Evangelicalism to first learn what a true service of worship is, and then start conducting them. If she does so, God will be glorified and the church will be edified.

I don’t think we need to do away with simpler church gatherings, either for evangelism or for teaching. Those are needed too. In fact, many liturgical churches are looking for ways to add such services to their weekly schedules; and that’s a good thing.

But evangelicals need to go in another direction. Evangelicals need to go back to church. †

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