The Art and Heart of Successful Liturgy
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (May 2012). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
Have you ever noticed that most encounters take place at two levels? There is the spoken and the unspoken. We use words, but we communicate as well through facial expressions, body language, making or avoiding eye contact, etc. At one level we use language to communicate concrete ideas; carefully chosen words offer the greatest chance for clarity. At another level the way we say things can either reinforce or confuse the message we hope to communicate. What we say is extremely important; how we say it will add or detract from the conversation. Good conversations involve both the art of well-chosen words and the heart of the message behind the words.
Worship liturgies are a lot like that. Biblical worship is an encounter between God and people. Like any good encounter, worship takes place on multiple levels at once, using both spoken and unspoken means of communication. A successful worship liturgy has both art and heart. Every worship leader plays a vital role in creating conversations between God and the community that are both functional (the art of creating liturgy) and passionate (the inherent heart of the liturgy itself).
What Is Liturgy?
Liturgy refers to the complete collection of words and actions that facilitates the prayerful worship and full participation of all worshipers in the context of corporate worship. Our English word “liturgy” is from the biblical Greek word leitourgia meaning “the work of the people.” Whatever people do to offer their work of worship to the Triune God is their liturgy. You can see that every church has a liturgy because every church uses words and actions to offer God praise and adoration.
It is very important that all pastoral worship leaders in every setting understand the art and heart of creating liturgies for worship because it is their primary, God-given responsibility to shape encounters between God and people in such a way that is pleasing to God. And these encounters happen at several simultaneous levels at once. Every good liturgy consists of at least three things: function, form, and flow.
Worship Involves Choice
First, a leader will choose worship elements that serve a certain function in the conversation with God such as the invitation to worship, various prayers, songs, offerings, Scripture readings, sermon, responses, and so forth. There are many rich and wonderful worship elements that are available to help us function as worshipers. Most biblical worship acts use words to help us express our worship clearly and concretely. Unfortunately, many times we lean almost exclusively upon singing to carry our message of worship. We should re-think this in light of biblical examples of worship so that we take full advantage of the many avenues to converse with God in worship.
Worship Is a Conversation
Next, a liturgist will bring form to the encounter between God and people. Form is nothing more than placing the functional elements in order that make sense conversationally. Don’t underestimate the power and necessity of form in worship. The form itself carries an unspoken level of meaning. For me, one helpful way to think of the service is in four large movements of a conversation:
- We gather as God’s people (the conversation is initiated).
- God speaks directly through Scripture and sermon (we listen to God).
- We respond directly to God (we acknowledge what God has said and commit ourselves to obedience).
- We are sent out to bear witness to God’s love and mercy (the conversation continues in the world).
Worship’s Medium Is Its Message
Perhaps the most important thing to note about this overall structure for the liturgy is that the form itself is the message! The order of the conversation proclaims the Gospel: God calls us to himself, God allows us to hear the Gospel, we accept the Gospel message and commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we bear witness to others of the love and mercy of God. Communication is taking place at more than one level here. We are encountering God not only in the elements of worship carrying the conversation, but also in the order of the conversation itself.
Worship Has a Natural Flow
Last, all good liturgy has flow. Here I am not speaking of flow as melting one song seamlessly into another or smoothly changing keys between songs. Instead, I am speaking of intentionally viewing the whole worship service as a conversation—a conversation between God and people and also people-to-people. A good liturgist thinks through the beginning of worship (God calls us to worship, the community offers themselves in return, etc.). From there it flows back and forth into a natural (intentional) exchange through using the functional worship elements mentioned above.
When we consider function, form, and flow in our service designs, our worship liturgies will have both art and heart—spoken and unspoken dimensions that result in real encounters with God.
Constance M. Cherry (DMin, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of worship and Christian ministries at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. She formerly taught at Winebrenner Theological Seminary and is a permanent part-time professor for the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. She has served local churches as a minister of music/worship and as a United Methodist pastor. Her new book, The Music Architect is available now.