The Accidental Liturgist

By Garrett Soucy

The Holy Spirit tells us, through His servant Solomon, that a word fitly spoken is like golden apples in a silver setting. What a beautiful image. Golden apples in a kind of silver basket. What does it mean?

The word ophen is regularly translated as fitly in this verse, but in others, we see that it means something like circumstantial. There is an appropriateness to this word . . . a kind of rising to the occasion. The image we are given in order to understand this kind of speech is one of aesthetic pleasure. The color schemes combine with the corresponding shapes to such a degree that we might be tempted to hear such a word fitly spoken and respond by saying, “Beautiful.” We hold that person in high regard who knows what to say in the midst of crisis, who can talk a person down from the dangerous cliff of rage, or who can lift us out of the mire of discouragement with the right kind of encouraging word.

The literal translations often render ophen, “As fits the time.” So, the aesthetic appropriateness is not only how it fits properly, but when it fits properly. This is confirmed by the etymological relationship between ophen and ophan, which means wheel. So, within the root, we see the concept of timing coming into play.

When it comes to liturgy in the church, your options are two-fold: either it is fitting, or it is crude. It is either purposefully timed, or it is spontaneous. Spontaneity may have an appearance of realness, but due to the absence of its having been cultivated, it is lacking in the power thereof. This is not to say that overthinking, over-planning, and rigid conformity to tradition can never go wrong. There is such a thing as dead orthodoxy. But it is not as many want to claim that all liturgy is dead orthodoxy.

Because God has built us as creatures who live in accordance with wheels — we mark the passing of times in seasons and months that perpetually circle back around again — our habits become the when and the how of our lives. Think habitat. It is not likely that a human being would be a-habitual because that is not how God has designed us. Anyone trying to break a bad habit has to face the hard truth that habits have formed, often, without our knowing it. The habits of the church are its liturgy.

Does a church measure its passage through the year by remembering the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord . . . or by circling back around to birthdays, anniversaries, and Super Bowl parties? Either way, the year is marked out in dog-eared pages.

It is not only the yearly calendar that teaches us to mark time in certain ways, but the Lord’s Day gathering does as well. A church that opens its assembly meeting every Sunday with a 5-minute skit the youth group has spent the week developing is setting the tone. It is calling people to worship with a specific kind of message, whether they mean to or not, and that message is, “Quick . . . get to your seats. The show’s about to start.” The value or lack thereof of theater in the course of the Lord’s Day gathering aside, something is being said symbolically with our liturgies. The question is whether or not churches actually mean to be saying what they are saying. As Stanley Hauerwas has repeatedly insisted, “Liturgy is inevitable.”

I was visiting a church one Sunday and overheard a conversation between two church office-holders. One had given the call to worship and wanted to make sure he hadn’t stepped out of bounds with the manner in which it had been delivered. It was tasteful and centered on God calling His people to worship Him, which is how calls to worship ought to work. The more seasoned of the two responded by saying, “That’s the thing about our church . . . we don’t do any of that planned out, read the script altogether stuff. If it’s spontaneous, then you can’t do it wrong.”  And many evangelicals would agree . . . not because they’ve thought about it, but because it happens to be the habit they find themselves in the middle of at present and, if American individualism has taught us anything, it’s that we cheer for our own team, whether we can play the game well or not.

The question of whether or not there is a way that God desires His people to worship Him is actually not a very old question. The Reformers, only 500 years ago, did not promote the idea of worship as events of collective self-expression aimed at God. And yet, that is what much of Protestantism has become. Historically . . . and by historically I mean for most of humanity’s existence . . . the people of God have understood that God has ordered the manner in which His people are to approach Him. This does not mean that there is no room for Lord’s Day gatherings to look different between Kenya and Cleveland. They should look different. But they should also look the same, not because Western European Christianity sets the pattern for earthly worship, but because Heaven does.

The New Testament does not get rid of the covenant renewal structure that is obediently followed in the Old Testament. Rather, it shows how Christ fulfilled it and so, under the Spirit’s tutelage of the apostles, it was continued, not only in the language of sacrifice and temple which permeate the New Covenant structure (Romans 12, Hebrews 13, etc.) but according to the traditions they brought with their preaching.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

There are a few components that make up the ancient structure of how one ought to worship God. Firstly, there is the Call to Worship (Leviticus 9:5/Revelation 19:7). This should be derived from the Scriptures since we are gathering per the invitation and commandment of God, not in light of our own inclinations to sing with friends on Sunday. Secondly, there is the Confession of Sin (Leviticus 9:15/1 John 1:9). This is always to be done when we enter into the presence of the Lord. From Jacob being told to bury his idols and change his clothes to mom’s telling their kids to wash their hands before coming to the table, we see the pattern of confession preceding fellowship and washing preceding eating throughout Scripture and society. Then there is God’s Consecration of His People (Leviticus 9:16/Hebrews 10:19), which He does with His Word. This should not only be thought of as the time when God’s people hear His Word preached but the time in which we sing it back to Him. Any songs we sing should either be the Word of God or perfectly state what we know to be true from His Word. Worshipping God in Spirit and in Truth does not mean trying your hardest to feel the words as hard as you can during the key change. Truth is not genuine self-expression; it is that which God has said. Then we move into the Collection of Gifts (Leviticus 9:17/2 Corinthians 9:6-7). This is a time for gifts of any kind to be offered to God in the midst of the congregation. This would be our tithes and offerings and also the offering of other gifts. Penultimately, we see God calling His people into Communion with Him (Leviticus 9:18-21/1 Corinthians 11:17-24). This is why we wash our hands in the confession of sins at the beginning of the service so that we might have obstructions to intimacy with God removed. We are able to receive His Word because we are emptied and opened in confession, and our sins are removed in accordance with His own promise to us regarding confession. We are clean and invited to the table, called even, and expected to obey. Lastly, we are then Commissioned by God (Leviticus 9:22-23/Romans 15:5-6), through His Word and the authority of the elders to be sent out into the world as ambassadors of the Kingdom.

Because this is a Heavenly model that imprints itself on the earth in both the Mosaic Covenant era and the New Covenant era, it should be understood as supra-cultural. Church should look African in Africa, but it should first and foremost look Heavenly because it is from Heaven. Heavenly, then African. Heavenly, then American. Heavenly, then Welsh. Heaven is the unifying agent that saves all nations from destruction.

It’s not that churches ought to be liturgical rather than non-liturgical. It’s that many churches are accidentally liturgical, and they ought to, rather, faithfully order their liturgy to match the ancient and Heavenly pattern of how God desires to be worshipped.