Every congregation has a liturgy, even those congregations which shy away from the word. For them, the word “liturgy” may seem like a dirty word… suggesting the Roman Catholic mass or the Episcopalian prayer book, accompanied by vestments, candles, and altars.” (D.G. Hart & John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship, 92). But the term “liturgy” could have more play, especially among Evangelicals.
The word derives from the Greek λειτουργια, transliterated as “leitourgia,” a word that means “the work of the people.” In contemporary conversations about worship, the word “liturgy,” refers to the collection of components within a ceremony, ritual, or service. While many self-identified “non-liturgical” congregations use the word as an adjective to describe a type of worship (i.e., formed worship), the noun simply refers to the order of actions or activities that take place during the weekly gathering of a local body of believers. So understood, the word liturgy includes a congregation's coming and going and everything in between.
Surely we can agree that, so understood, every congregation has a liturgy and every congregation has liturgists, those individuals responsible for guiding the congregation through the liturgy from its beginning to its end. Up until about fifty years ago, the primary liturgist for American Evangelicals was the pastor, supported by an aptly trained organist who guided congregational singing and prompted actions like standing and sitting.
During the past thirty years or more, the pastor has begun to share responsibility as liturgist with one or more individuals. In my experience as a pastor, for example, the Associate Pastor often provided one or more prayers, a worship leader led congregational singing, and a member of the congregation offer a “Prayer for Illumination” and read the Scripture lesson. Your experience may be similar. If so, as a side note, you may have learned, as I did, that the congregation appreciates less than more when it comes to the number of people on the platform.
If every congregation has a liturgy and every congregation has liturgists, doesn’t it make sense to prepare individuals to serve as liturgists? Wouldn’t the witness and worship of the church be strengthened by encouraging those called by the Lord and His church to serve as liturgists?
Most Christian traditions, most notably Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, seem to think so. My experience and research suggests, however, that Evangelicals and Pentecostals are less inclined to do so. Both of these traditions have exerted considerable energy in preparing sermons and songs for preachers and cantors (the traditional title for song leaders), but appear to have neglected those elements in the service other than sermon and song. (One notable exception to that trend has been the work of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, MI).
The lay of the land so described among Evangelicals and Pentecostals led me to create a course at Northern Seminary (Lombard, IL) entitled “Everything BUT Sermon and Song. Traditionally, seminarians commit considerable energy towards the preparation of and delivery of sermons. More recently, seminarians have dedicated considerable energy towards the discussion of congregational worship. In contrast, little attention has been given to the other elements of the weekly gathering, the most prominent of which is public prayer. This course has been designed to help students develop as liturgists, as those who plan and lead the weekly gatherings of God’s people. We hope to explore the basics of public speaking, the shape and power of liturgy, the public prayers of the gathered community, and the practice of liturgical leadership.
While preparing the syllabus for the course I discovered many excellent resources, such as the The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive Resources) and Kimberly Bracken Long’s The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship (Westminster John Know Press, 2009). I also discovered a great text from an unlikely source: An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving Your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue by Quentin Schultze who serves in the communications department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker, 2006).
Without question, there are many similarities between effective public speaking and effective liturgical leadership. So I should not have been surprised to receive help from a book on the former for those involved in the latter. And Schultze caught my attention right away. In his “Introduction” Schultze notes that speech is God’s gift to humanity, and one that speech should be used to faithfully serve others, virtuously, and skillfully.
As I read those words, I wondered if the same could be said about the words used by liturgists. Isn’t speech God’s gift to liturgists? And should they not speak faithfully, virtuously and skillfully in the service of the Lord and His church? Of course they are and of course they should.
So in today’s blog I follow the lead of Quentin Schultze and encourage liturgists to function as virtuous servants who faithfully serve their congregations, in the biblical sense, and skillfully use verbal and nonverbal methods.
- Serve Faithfully – To meet this outcome liturgists must cultivate a spirit of humility. Guiding the liturgy of God’s people, the Bride of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, requires humility to serve Christ and His church. If we draw attention to ourselves, we have failed (37-38).
- Virtuous Service – To meet this outcome liturgists we must cultivate our hearts and seek to develop fruit of the Spirit. Then we will experience unity between our inner and outer selves. Then we will minimize the number of times our lives contradict our leadership of the liturgy (86).
- “Crafting Artfully” – Too meet this outcome, we need to work hard at crafting liturgies characterized by “thematic unity, expressiveness, and situational fit” (57).
Schultze offers excellent tips towards achieving that last outcome. I have paraphrased and applied a few of them to the work of the liturgist:
- Plan your liturgy as a unified work of art – just as you select clothes to wear that go well together (58).
- “Enhance verbal expressiveness by varying your verbal pace, loudness, and frequency range” (65). Also, wisely use nonverbal means – such as arms, hands, and eyes – to express yourself (64).
- Remember, “not all topics, illustrations, gestures, and vocal styles are for all” congregations (67). It is given, then, that context shapes liturgies.
In conclusion, surely we can agree that every congregation has a liturgy and every congregation has liturgists. May we also agree that the weekly gatherings of local Christians will be strengthened, not only by giving the appropriate amount of attention to sermons and songs, but by doing the same for everything else that takes place in between a congregation’s coming and going?