Ever since Christianity began, Christians have been gathering together for worship (Acts 2:42). This gathering is where God has promised to be present to commune with his people.
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt. 18:20)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24–25)
What these verses teach us is that we can’t worship God in a vacuum, off by ourselves, but rather are called to join the company of believers past and present who have worshipped God.
However, with so many different people gathering, how is worship supposed to be structured? Why have structure at all? Can’t we all just worship God in our own individual ways according to what we think we need that day? The truth is that we can’t simply come to God on our own terms. God instructs us where his presence and grace can be found. Therefore, when we walk into church on Sunday, we are not coming simply to hear a lecture or get a spiritual adrenaline shot, but we are coming specifically to meet our God and receive from him what we can’t get anywhere else.
What Liturgy Does
In her book The Undoing of Death, Fleming Rutledge says that we must ask, what is the content of our worship? What are we doing in our liturgy that moves us to think and feel? What does it do—not for us but to us? She answers, “[liturgy] draws us right into the story and makes us participants” (40). Liturgy that is formed according to the Word of God is meant to do more than simply provide a structure to worship. The liturgy takes us from being spectators to being participants. When we gather to worship, we find ourselves members of and participants in God’s story. Taken out of our own personal stories, we find ourselves as faces in the crowds that followed Jesus, coming to be in his very presence and finding healing and forgiveness. We are refreshed as we come once again into the loving embrace of God’s glorious mercy and forgiveness. This, ultimately, is why liturgy matters.
Christ’s Death, Our Life
Having a liturgy that is shaped by the Bible’s redemptive story prevents us from holding ourselves aloof. Instead, we are shown the terrible sin that chains all of humanity. We see that like the Jews who crucified Jesus, all humanity too shouted with them “crucify him.” We call Jesus King while mocking him. It is our sin that drove the nails into his hands and feet. The face of Judas looks back at us in the mirror. We are confronted with the holiness and justice of God that demanded death when God’s law is read to us. We remind one another of the price of sin when we sing songs of lament. When faithful sermons are preached we are reminded we are just like Israel, always failing, or just like the disciples, always expecting the wrong things from Jesus.
However, faithful liturgy never leaves us to stare into the darkness of our own sinful souls, but by the proclamation of the gospel and practice of the sacraments, we receive forgiveness and grace. The gospel proclaimed drives home to us not only our participation in Jesus’ death but also our participation in Jesus’ life! We then can respond in prayers like the robber who turned in repentance to this dying savior and found forgiveness and eternal life (Luke 23:40–43). We too hear and receive Jesus’ words of life to us, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace!” Jesus himself paid the ransom to free us and present us to the Father as obedient children. In response, we sing and pray our praise, adoration, and thanksgiving for the beautiful salvation of Jesus (Rev. 14:3).
This is our salvation and as weak and forgetful sinner-saints, we need to hear this story every week. Fleming Rutledge explains, “Only from Scripture heard in the context of the worshipping community do we learn these things about our bondage and our deliverance” (Rutledge, 43). Worshipping according to God’s Word helps us know and experience our place in God’s story and thereby we are given renewed strength and hope for our lives.
Where God Is
Liturgy that is formed, soaked in, and follows God’s redemptive story is not just a way to worship but actually draws us to worship God as he wants us to. We are pulled out of our own performance and put into another’s performance. It shapes and forms our worship as we confess our sin, pray for forgiveness, hear forgiveness proclaimed because of the blood of Christ, and are renewed in our faith by hearing of our great salvation and given grace in the sacraments. When these things are properly practiced, God has promised to be present by the power of the Holy Spirit through the reading and preaching of the Word of God and correct practice of the sacraments in our gathering together with other believers. God wants us to see ourselves as sinners in need of salvation and calls us to come, to accept his great forgiveness and love in Christ (1 John 1:10).