Advice to Evangelicals: Get Some Liturgy!
As a Catholic, writing something like this is sure to raise a few eyebrows, but I feel like it’s necessary. I may be Catholic, but I used to be an Evangelical, and I live in an area where I’m surrounding by Evangelicals of all stripes (Baptists, Pentecostals, Non-denominationals, etc.). I am a convert to the Catholic Church, and I once trained to be an Evangelical pastor, so I happen to know a thing or two about both Catholicism and Evangelicalism. As the short video above explains, the biggest thing missing in Evangelical worship is liturgy, and without it, the congregation can be left spiritually malnourished.
First, we need a little history lesson. Liturgy, as the video says, is the “work of the people” and basically, this is how Jesus and all the Apostles worshiped in first-century Israel. That’s because Jewish synagogue services, even the most informal ones, used some type of liturgical format. The Jewish Temple liturgy was even more elaborate. Jesus was a Jew, and so where all of his Apostles. He never said to abandon liturgy, in fact, all historic evidence shows that the Apostles carried over liturgical practices into the Early Christian Church. Jews still worship this way today, in every synagogue around the world, and the same was true for Christians, up until just about 200-300 years ago. The modern “hymn-sermon” type of Christian service, wherein just a few hymns are sung, followed by a sermon, and then closed by another couple hymns, is a relatively modern innovation in the scope of Christian history. Christian worship has always paralleled Jewish worship in the area of liturgy up until recent centuries. However, even the modern Evangelical church service still contains a shell of liturgy, in that there is usually a certain order to the worship service. It’s just not as structured as it once was, and the people don’t participate in the work of worship as they once did. This has led to a kind of spiritual undernourishment of American Evangelicalism on the whole. The Evangelical worship service has become, in many cases, a music concert, followed by a pep rally or inspirational speech, followed by a prayer and closing song. The people, for the most part, are left out of the organizational structure of the service, and function more as an “audience” to a production or show.
The good news is that the problem is very easily correctable, and any Evangelical pastor, working together with his worship team, can completely fix it with a few minor changes.
What is not recommended is reinventing the wheel. When it comes to liturgy, trying to come up with something “new” or “on your own” is usually a bad idea and not recommended. For a case study in this, look no further than the US Catholic Church. Up until 1970, the US Catholic Church had a rich liturgical tradition. Sure, it was in Latin, but if you were already Catholic, that wasn’t that big of a deal. Do a brief survey of all the Catholic churches built before 1970. You’ll see that they’re designed for a highly structured and systematic liturgical environment, extremely practical for its application. Watch movies from the pre-1970’s era, and you’ll see the same: Catholic parishes stuffed to standing-room only, with a highly structured worship service (Holy Mass), and a religious lifestyle that was the envy of the Western world. Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists sought to emulate it as much as possible. Even a large number of Baptist churches followed suit with their own informal, liturgical services.
Then, in 1970, something happened. The Catholic Church completely dumped its previous liturgical form, and opted for an innovative, and for the most part “made-up,” new liturgical rite. The entire Catholic Mass was overhauled. Latin was flushed. The form and rubrics of the liturgy were entirely reworked. Gregorian chant gave way to folk hymns. The gilded vestments were traded in for bland polyester robes, in some cases resembling horse blankets. The high altars were replaced. The altar rails were torn out. They began building churches in the round, which was totally foreign to American Catholicism. Holy Communion, which was once strictly administered on the tongue while kneeling, was now given in the hand while standing. The Catholic Church traded in her rich liturgical heritage, which had gradually developed for the greater part of a millennium, for a new and innovative (hip and hootenanny) kind of liturgy, which no Catholic had ever seen before in the bi-millennial history of the Church.
What happened next was nothing short of historic. The seminaries were emptied. Religious orders of monks and nuns were gutted. Congregations gradually thinned out. Now, after no less than five decades of this, the US Catholic Church is in measurable decline. Today, the only Catholic parishes that are growing are those that offer some sort of a throwback to pre-1970s liturgical practices. Most of these parishes offer the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), officially called the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.” A smaller number offer a type of liturgy called Divine Worship, which is actually based on the Book of Common Prayer, which the Church adopted after Anglicans started returning to the Catholic Church in the 1980s. This is considered another, more traditional, form of the Roman Rite done in English. A tiny few are offering the New Mass from the 1970s, officially called the “Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite,” but they do so using the traditions and rubrics of the older Latin Mass (TLM). All these parishes are growing and experiencing a kind of “rebirth,” or Catholic “renewal.” While the rest of the US Catholic Church is currently undergoing what can only be described as a “managed decline” or downsizing, as parishes merge and older buildings are sold off.
What’s the lesson here? While the Catholic Church faces many problems unrelated to liturgy, the liturgical changes it made in the 1970s couldn’t have possibly come at a worse time. From a purely objective observation, anyone on the outside can see that the new liturgy was an utter failure, and an example of what not to do when implementing changes to Christian worship. The best thing any non-Catholic can take way from this, is don’t reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. Liturgy is something that’s supposed to develop organically, spanning centuries of experience, not something you make up out of thin air.
For Evangelicals of all types (Baptists, Pentecostals and Non-denominationals, etc.) the good news is that all the heavy lifting has already been done. The Book of Common Prayer has a rich and organic history in English liturgy that, while traditionally Protestant, actually predates Anglicanism and the Protestant Reformation. It’s both comprehensive and flexible, which makes it possible for Evangelicals (of all types) to use it as a template for ordering their own liturgical worship services, to meet their particular needs, according to how they see fit.
That being said, there are a handful of versions of the Book of Common Prayer to choose from. The 1979 American version was highly controversial upon its publication, which led to the fracturing of Anglicanism into multiple denominations, and a good number of Anglicans converting to the Catholic Church. So, I think the best one is the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer in the United States, along with later publications of the same text. Sections of this prayer book, or the entire thing, can be easily downloaded (at no charge) from this website. This Book of Common Prayer is not copyrighted, and is in the public domain. That means Evangelical congregations can reprint sections of this text freely, making their own service booklets or handout leaflets, or slide projections, as they see fit, to meet the specific liturgical needs of their congregations.
For simplicity’s sake, most Evangelical congregations may want to start off with some variation of “Morning Prayer” or “Evening Prayer” as an introduction to liturgy. This is based on the liturgy used in the ancient Jewish Temple, during prayer times at certain parts of the day. Later, as the congregation gets more accustomed to liturgy, they may want to move into “The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion,” which is based on both the Jewish Passover Seder and the Passover Rite of the ancient Jewish Temple. As I said above, Christian liturgy has always paralleled Jewish liturgy.
The liturgical heritage that is expressed in the Book of Common Prayer is called the “English Patrimony,” which is the liturgical birthright of all English-speaking Christians. It’s not just an Anglican thing, or an Episcopalian thing, or a Methodist thing. It’s an English thing! If you speak English, and you’re a Christian, then the liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer belongs to you, regardless of your denomination, affiliation or church membership.