The Failure of Liturgy by Steve Bezner

In later years, evangelicals have discovered liturgy. We are reciting more creeds, confessions, and prayers than ever before. We are taking the Supper more often. When I was a child, most Baptist churches took the Supper quarterly so that it would be “special.” Now more and more churches opt for a weekly observance. More of us are celebrating Advent and Lent, incorporating the church calendar into congregations that once had never heard of either. Even more recently, some Baptist theologians have founded the Center for Baptist Renewal, self-described as, “evangelical Baptists committed to a retrieval of the Great Tradition of the historic church for the renewal of Baptist faith and practice.”

The reasons for this retrieval are multi-layered. Theological drift plays some role. As some denominations and churches moved towards unorthodox theology and practice, the cries of “no creed but the Bible” were found somewhat wanting, pushing some to buttress them with ancient practices of the past. I believe the change of hymnody also plays a part. Modern worship songs appeal to younger audiences and newer believers, but with the loss of ancient songs, worshippers have a desire to know that the local congregation is rooted in something larger, something more established. Shifting culture almost certainly plays a part, as well. As technology and customs evolve at increasing speed, the desire for tradition and permanence increases.

Liturgy is helpful. We know what we believe as we recite the creeds. We appreciate the gift of the Incarnation through Advent, the beauty of fasting in Lent, the power of God’s sacrifice through Holy Week. I personally love a congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As we do these things—speak, sing, eat—over and over, our hearts are formed in powerful and beautiful ways. I am certainly not the first to observe this. The most influential voice of late regarding liturgy is that belonging to James K.A. Smith. His Kingdom Trilogy is among the best I have read on this topic, but can be summed up thusly: You are what you love, and you train yourself to love by what you do.

Liturgy in the church, Smith notes, is helpful, for it trains us through repetition.

It is helpful.

But it is not enough.

I have been serving in Baptist churches for about 25 years. In those 25 years, I would say that about half of the people who have joined those churches have come from liturgical backgrounds. These Catholics, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and the like have come with a far richer understanding of the church calendar. They can recite the creeds from memory. They know the rhythms of sacraments better than I do in some cases.

So why do they leave their churches and venture into one like mine?

Almost to a person: They want to know the Bible.

Smith calls this “The Godfather Problem” in the third book of his Kingdom Trilogy—knowing a great deal of theology and liturgy but not knowing the Scripture behind the liturgy. (Minor claim to fame: I wrote him an e-mail that led to him discussing this very issue.) Indeed, as he says, we can participate in liturgy and yet be “unformed or perhaps even malformed.”

After all of these years, I’ve realized that liturgy is good for the formation it offers, but it cannot be separated from the systematic and intentional reading and teaching of the Scriptures. Many liturgical traditions feature multiple Scripture readings in a traditional worship service. I would humbly suggest that reading the Scriptures is good, but having someone to explain and teach the Scriptures is even better.

The actions of liturgy cannot be divorced from the teachings of the Scriptures.

We need our hearts and minds to be formed by doing, yes. But we also need our hearts and minds to be formed by understanding.

This is why the best liturgies (in my mind) will always incorporate serious study and explanation of the Scriptures. To be sure, my tradition and denomination has its issues. But one of our strengths has been a long-standing tradition of engaging the Scriptures. We teach them faithfully in our pulpits, our classrooms, our small groups, and in our devotional resources. We encourage our people to consistently read the Bible, and we provide resources to help them understand the Bible. Just as we are a healthier church when we in the evangelical tradition retrieve the jewels from the mines of the liturgy, I would commend our brothers and sisters in more liturgical traditions to buttress their efforts with grassroots Scriptural teaching.

It’s not surprising that we would have something to learn from one another.

Let’s learn through the liturgy, and let’s return to the Word.

Together, they can form our hearts well.

Image Credit: Karl Frederickson