Why do we do that?—STRUCTURED LITURGY
In this mini series, we are considering why we do certain things at Table Rock the way we do. For this post, Luke Salik is answering the question, “why do we do a structured liturgy for our Sunday morning service?”
Every Church Has a Liturgy
A liturgy is nothing more than a form of public worship. In this sense, every church has a liturgy, regardless of how structured or unstructured it may feel to any individual. While the Bible has a number of things to say about what should be normal within Christian gatherings, like singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:18–19; Colossians 3:16), taking communion (1 Corinthians 10:14–22; 11:17–34), preaching (2 Timothy 4:1–5), etc., it does not prescribe a specific order for these things within the gathering. There is much within the storyline of Scripture (particularly the storyline itself!) from which to draw helpful paradigms, but no singular liturgy has been prescribed for when the church gathers. In other words, what is most important for our gatherings (what makes them right) are that they are distinctly Christian (Christ-centered) and that they normalize what the New Testament normalizes. That is what we value most at Table Rock. From there, we have particular values that influence the way we structure our liturgy and why that basic structure is nearly the same each week.
Liturgy as Discipleship: How Habits Shape Our Hearts
Jamie Smith, who uses the term liturgy to refer to “formative, love-shaping rituals,” says that “The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices.” In other words, the form of our worship matters. The story we tell and the things we practice when we’re together profoundly shape our longings, and these longings will impact what we believe and pursue Monday through Saturday. We are discipled by the habits we form through our liturgy.
This is why we make it a habit at Table Rock to rehearse the gospel, the story of our redemption through Jesus Christ, because we want our hearts and lives to be shaped by that story. We do this in four main ways:
1) We adore our God for all that makes him holy (adoration).
2) We confess that we have fallen short of his glory, that we have rebelled against him and continue to do so (confession).
3) We thank him that though we were once unable to have fellowship with him because of that rebellion, he sent his Son Jesus to live the life we could not live and die the death we deserved to restore what we have broken (thanksgiving).
4) We receive his Word, commissioned to go from that place believing and living out what our King has called us to. God is holy. We are sinful. Jesus saves. Jesus sends.
Remembering and Encountering
As mentioned above, one of the main reasons we do what we do with our Sunday morning liturgy is to remember the real story, what is true about God and us. We are a forgetful people. We are more like the wilderness generation than we are often willing to admit. We too have wandering hearts. Though God has revealed himself to us in mighty ways, though we have been shown great redemption through our Savior Jesus and have been led by him through many trials, what Jeremiah said about that generation can also be said of us. “My people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway” (Jeremiah 18:15). Part of what we want to do when we gather is remember the Lord who rescued us and promises to be with us so that we would not veer off “the highway” of the gospel and fall into idolatry. One of the ways we do this is by rehearsing the gospel throughout our liturgy. That word rehearse is reminiscent of a drama. We as God’s children are caught up in the drama of the gospel and rehearsing this renews our vision and continues to change us; it reorients us away from the false liturgies of the world that we are bombarded with day in and day out.
God actually did this with the Israelites when he established regular feasts for them! When the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were instituted in Exodus 13, Yahweh told the Israelites that the purpose of these feasts were to “remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place” (Exodus 13:3). In Deuteronomy 5:15, God commands the Israelites to keep the Sabbath and told them: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These feasts created rhythms for the people of God that they might remember their story of redemption and keep living according to that redemption. We structure our services praying that our liturgy would be a similar help to us; the way we do it at Table Rock is not the only way, but we believe it is a helpful way.
But sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can move through a liturgy in a way that subtly treats our Lord and his story as a thing of the past. We don’t want to simply tell or rehearse the story well to create a nice nostalgia; we want to meet with the God of the story and be changed from one degree of glory to the next as we behold him week to week. Rehearsing the gospel should not be mainly inspirational but relational. This is why when we remember that God is holy, we don’t simply marvel at him as though he were a great masterpiece on a wall. We praise him, knowing he receives our praise. When we remember that we are sinful (which is a personal offense not an impersonal mistake), rather than simply hanging our heads at our sorry state as though we are watching our own documentary, we confess to the God we’ve actually offended and who promises to forgive us when we repent (right then and there!). When we remember that Jesus paid the ultimate price, canceling our record of debt from the past, present, and future sins of those who trust in him, we thank him.
As an important side note, one of the reasons we try to incorporate Scripture readings throughout our gathering is to remind us that we are engaging personally with God and one another. God is living and active, and so is his word (Hebrews 4:12). If this is so, then when we read a passage like Psalm 103 together, God is actually saying to us who are his children that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” He is directly assuring us of his commitment to forgive us. And this is also why we make prayer a priority in our gatherings. For instance, once he has spoken these assuring words, we personally thank him by speaking (praying) back to him our thanks for that assurance. We pray because our God is really there with us, really speaks with us, and really hears us when we speak back to him; we are there to commune with him together. And we both (us and God) delight in that communion.
A Final Word
It is worth noting that though we believe the Spirit is at work in the preparation process as he is when we gather, the living God who is present with us in our gathering has agendas that we don’t prepare for (many that we don’t notice or know about!). Sometimes these agendas may create unplanned interruptions in a noticeable way. We ought not be unsettled by this but rather welcome his presence in any way he chooses to manifest it among us! Some have talked about the importance of having a liturgy that breathes. In other words, we should hold our structure loosely enough that interruptions or changes do not frustrate us but rather humble and excite us. This will always be a work in progress and will test where our trust truly lies. We do not trust in our liturgy. We trust in the one to whom our liturgy points, and he does whatever he pleases (Psalm 135:6).