Paper Plates and the Wisdom of the Liturgy

Trevin Wax’s blog post Steak on a Paper Plate and various responses have caught my eye (thanks Matt!). Wax worries that the focus on being casual and making people feel comfortable in many evangelical worship services is in tension with the centrality of the Word and the majesty of God. He’s not advocating a return to liturgy, but it is hard not to read his post without thinking about it. Clearly he’s calling for something more like liturgy. This is very much an inter-evangelical discussion, so I am something of an outside observer. But I can’t resist commenting.

In some responses, and even in Wax’s post itself, there’s a theme that style and structure are not the important parts of a service:

When it comes to worship, we are frequently told that form doesn’t matter. Style is not what’s important. I get that. I’m not downing contemporary music or advocating a return to liturgy, organs and hymns.  --Trevin Wax

…You don’t have to be wearing a suit and tie to get a healthy sense of the grandeur of God’s beauty, sovereignty, and holiness. Again, this has more to do with the men leading the service and less about what structure they choose to use for the service. –-Zack Nielson

We must worship God in Spirit and in Truth, and He looks on the heart. Certainly. But the benefit of a good liturgy is not that its form is so good that heart attitude doesn’t matter. The benefit is that it embodies a lot of knowledge about human nature and how best to prepare ourselves to approach God.

We don’t enter the church in silence just because we’ve always done it that way. We do it because it has been discovered to be a powerful way of preparing the heart for worship. Likewise, we kneel during prayer because generations of Christians (and Jews before them) have found it a powerful way of humbling the heart. We read a passage from the Gospels, Psalms, New Testament and Old Testament every week because it is important as the people of God to be exposed to the breadth of Biblical teaching, and also to put special emphasis on the words of Jesus and the Psalms. We sing old music and take special care for the vessels of the altar and the aesthetics of our service as an offering to God of the best we have. We use incense because it is a strong picture of our prayer rising before God. We pray written prayers corporately because they have been found by many generations to powerfully express the thoughts of our hearts, and to be helpful in drawing us toward God. We involve all 5 senses in our worship because it has been found to be an excellent way to drive home what we are doing.

All of these things are grounded not in the details of a particular culture but in the details of human nature. To understand the wisdom of the liturgy is to understand that we are whole persons, that our bodies are part of us, and that what we do with them (kneeling, dressing them up, etc.) actually matters. It is to realize that the tradition and ritual of the church are grounded not in anachronistic legalisms but in living truths.

Which is not to say that you can never change anything, only that you must be careful. Like writing your own wedding vows, it’s easier to make it worse than to make it better. How you construct your service can have unintended consequences. Wax puts it this way: “Form and content mirror one another.” The early church had a phrase for that: lex orandi, lex credendi. As the church worships, so she will believe. You say a lot about your theology in how your service is constructed, and your members will pick up on it.

But I’m not trying to convince evangelicals to embrace liturgy, really. I just get carried away. I’m trying to spotlight some of the truths about how we humans relate to God that are not emphasized by most evangelical forms of service. Many of these could be fixed without subjecting your poor members to a King-James prayer in Ben Stein monotone. Here are some unsolicited suggestions on how Evangelicals might incorporate the wisdom of the liturgy into their services:

  • Ask your members to keep pre-service conversation in the foyer. When you enter the sanctuary, spend your time in silence or quiet prayer until the service starts.
  • As you plan your sermons, remember that the lectionary places special emphasis on the Psalms and the Gospels. Never let your members get too far away from them.
  • Make Holy Week a little less spartan. For heaven sakes, institute a Maundy-Thursday footwashing service!
  • Try kneeling occasionally in corporate prayer or when receiving communion.

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