I recall guest preaching at a church once and the blank stares I received from the congregation. Blank stares are never ideal, especially when you are a visiting preacher. I had said early on in the service, “I invite you to turn with me in your liturgies . . . ” None accepted the invitation. No one turned. Then I realized the problem: we were lost in translation. I started again, “Turn in your bulletins . . . ” There we had it!
Who Is Liturgical?
“Liturgy” does sound like a foreign word to some of us, and, in one sense, it is. It comes from the Greek leitourgia, which is a combination of two other words: people (laos) and work (ergon). Literally, a liturgy is a “work of the people,” or perhaps more helpfully, a “public service.” Therefore, at its most basic, “liturgy” refers to the order of a corporate worship service.
All churches from every denominational stripe have an order of worship. Sometimes we think “liturgical” is only a fitting adjective for churches that meet in cathedrals and still use Gregorian chant. Not so. If your church worships, it has a liturgy. Churches that claim to be “non-liturgical” still follow a pattern of worship. Maybe it begins with announcements, then singing, a sermon, and some more singing, before concluding with a sending prayer. That is a liturgy. “Liturgical,” therefore, is perhaps not the most helpful descriptor—much like “canine” would be a less-than-satisfying answer when someone asks what type of dog you have.
Since we are all liturgical, the question to ask is what kind of liturgy do we have? What should our services look like? While the Bible’s relative silence on this point offers latitude and freedom, the Reformed have sought to structure their services on key principles gleaned from Scripture. I will mention four.
1. A Dialogical Principle
First is a dialogical principle. At the dawn of the old covenant, Israel gathered for worship at the tabernacle, which they properly called the “tent of meeting” (Lev. 1:1). Likewise, in the new covenant, we still come to meet and hear from God: we “have come to Mount Zion . . . and to God . . . and to Jesus” (Heb. 12:22–24). We believe that when we gather on Sundays, we meet with God to hear from Him and for Him to hear from us. What goes on is something of a divine dialogue, and a thoughtful liturgy will be structured to reflect the back-and-forth nature of that encounter.
2. A Regulative Principle
Second is a regulative principle, which states that only God’s Word can regulate what goes on in the worship service. “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF 21.1). This follows from the first principle: if it’s true that we are dialoguing with God, then it makes sense that He would set the talking points, not us. He should speak first and most. Recall that “liturgy” means “public service”—we are the servants who come to do God’s bidding. True worshipers say, “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:10). Reformed liturgies are guided by God’s Word, ensuring that in our service we are offering up nothing “strange” to the Lord that would displease Him (see Lev. 10; Matt. 15:9).
3. A Participatory Principle
Third, Reformed worship adheres to what we could call a participatory principle in its liturgies. This would be in contradistinction to a performance principle, which states that churchgoers come to passively observe worship being done for them. This was the state of worship in the medieval church, which was conducted in a language that many people did not understand. The laity simply had to trust the clergy to do the worship for them. In an unfortunate similarity, many churches today have also engendered a performance model, misguiding many to assume they come to church to watch, not to worship. A liturgy in the Reformed tradition enables corporate participation through singing, prayers, and creedal confessions. The Scriptures are read in a language that is understandable and exposited by the minister in a way that is clear, relevant, and applicable to the people. In a word, Reformed worship is accessible to the congregation (see 1 Cor. 14:16–19).
4. A Gospel Principle
Finally, a gospel principle should be evident to all who partake in a Reformed worship service. By this, I mean that the worship service itself proclaims the gospel. This requires a particular structure to the various elements that in their logical progression teach who God is, who we are, and how Christ makes our meeting possible. Therefore, after being called to worship by a holy God, the next cycle in a Reformed liturgy generally will include confession of sin and an assurance of God’s forgiveness in Christ. Next, having been declared forgiven, we are consecrated as God’s people by the hearing and preaching of His Word. Confirmation that we belong to God then comes around the Lord’s Table—a fellowship that proves we are truly reconciled. Finally, God commissions His people with a blessing to love and serve the world for His sake—something we could never do in our own strength, but only with new hearts and wills given to us in the gospel.
Why is all this important? The way a service is structured will inform the way we are structured. A God-centered and gospel-focused service will produce people who are the same. Corporate worship is one of the primary ways we behold the Lord and are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).