Wait, what’s a liturgy?
If you haven’t already read this, it might help to start there and then come back.
Liturgy might be an intimidatingly churchy word, but it just refers to the order of the service. It is from the Greek word leitourgia, which comes from the words leitos (public) and ergos (working). So the liturgy is literally “the work of the people,” specifically with regard to the actions of worship.
Today, people associate the liturgy with traditional churches, hymnals and lots of sitting/standing/kneeling, but in reality every worship service has a liturgy (order). It’s just that, generally speaking, people refer to the liturgy as the one followed in churches where there are many parts and pieces of worship, rather than just 3o minutes of singing followed by 30 minutes of preaching. The traditional liturgy is much more complex, and does require some degree of familiarity in order to know where we are in the service at any given moment.
So why would anyone choose a more complicated order to worship? Wouldn’t we want to make things as simple as possible for people?
Well, sometimes simpler is better, but in some cases, when we over-simplify things, we lose the beauty and purpose of why we do what we do. I can skip the game and see the final score, but then I miss the emotions and experience of watching it played out on the field. Unfortunately, it is far easier to complain that nobody appreciates something than it is to help them appreciate it. But the liturgy is not supposed to be a secret language known only to insiders! What we should be doing is inviting people in to be a part of an incredibly beautiful tradition of worship that dates back to the time of the Apostles, while also making use of modern language, elements and technology in order to communicate God’s timeless Truth most effectively within a given context.
So what are some of the parts of the liturgy, and what do they mean?
- A worship service, be it Sunday morning, Saturday night, a wedding or a funeral, typically begins with an Invocation. An Invocation is a good idea, because it calls upon (invokes) God to be present and bless the service and the people who are there to worship. The Christian Invocation calls upon the name of the triune God: In the name of the Father and of the Son † and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The † indicates that the sign of the cross may be made, which is to remind you of your baptism. Amen is a Hebrew word which means ‘truth’ or ‘certainty.’ It is used at the end of prayers or phrases to indicate the assurance of faith with which they are to be spoken.
- An important component, especially when there is communion, is Confession and Absolution (forgiveness). Here, we acknowledge that our sins destroy our right relationship with God, and deserve damnation and misery. The pastor is vested with the authority of the Office of the Keys by the congregation (related to being ordained and called) to speak for God the words of God’s forgiveness to you. God’s Word, spoken by God’s servant the pastor, restores us to a right relationship with Him. Understand, it is not the pastor who forgives, it is God who forgives via the pastor speaking God’s Word.
- The Introit, or Entrance Hymn, was originally chanted as the ministers entered the church and processed to the altar. Introit literally means “He goes in.” It may be followed by the Kyrie, which is short for the Latin kyrie elision, which means “Lord, have mercy.” The Kyrie asks the Lord for pretty big things: salvation, peace for the whole world, blessings upon His whole church, and for the care of those present in worship. The Salutation is a greeting that dates back to biblical times: “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.”
- Prayers are, of course, an important part of worship. A Collect, prayed by the pastor on behalf of those gathered in worship, ‘collects’ their silent prayers.. Often, The Lord’s Prayer is also prayed by the congregation, and one of the Creeds may be spoken as a statement of faith.
- Readings from the Scriptures are another important part of any service – the Pastor will expound upon them in the Sermon, but it is also good to just hear God’s Word read. Hymns and other music can be beautiful and powerful components of worship as they emphasize the readings, but they should focus on God more than on the worshiper (“Lord, Lord, Lord,” not “me, myself and I”).
- Because there is enough to say about each of them to fill their own blog posts, I will save the Offering and Communion for just that.
- Finally, the Benediction (“good words”) is a blessing which closes the service, and may include an exhortation (reminder or charge) to put what you have heard into action. Most frequently used is the Aaronic Benediction: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you/look upon you with favor and give you peace.
Incidentally, the congregation I served in my first call celebrated worship with a strictly “modern” style, yet most of the elements I listed were present – I called it “stealth” liturgy because it wasn’t as obvious as it would be when following out of a hymnal. So if you attend a “non-traditional” service, see if you can spot these elements ‘hiding’ within the service! And thank you, as always, for reading.
A special thank you to my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Richard Zeile, pastor of St. Johns’ Lutheran Church in Taylor, MI, for his research and writings on the liturgy, much of which is used here with his permission.