Liturgies Are the Pipes, But the Word Is the Water


Over the past decade or so, I’ve been grateful for the surge of interest in liturgy in my little circle of evangelicalism.

I know the term itself can be a little slippery. I’ve seen it applied to everything from an ancient prayer book to your morning coffee routine. But where it refers to an intentional structure for our weekly gatherings, liturgy captures something that ought to be precious to all of us.

Whether we recognize it or not, all of our gatherings have a liturgy. Our corporate liturgies affect us, and none of them is neutral. We’re shaped by what we regularly do in powerful ways we may not recognize. So much the wiser, then, to be intentional about what we’re doing and why. We must be careful to aim our service order at what will honor God and encourage each other.

But in our embrace of liturgy, there’s also a danger to avoid. Liturgies are tools we develop and deploy. Whether we draw them from an ancient sourcebook or build them in weekly staff meetings, we must realize that the order of our gathering is a strategy that we’ve decided is best. We have to guard against the assumption that the key to effective formation of people is what we bring to the table.

To put it positively, we have to make sure our hope and confidence for Christian formation rests on the power of God’s Word backed by God’s Spirit—from the miracle of the new birth through the lifelong process of sanctification.

“Faith comes from hearing,” Paul says in Romans 10, “and hearing through the Word of Christ.”

“Having begun by the Spirit,” Paul says in Galatians 3, “are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

From beginning to end, our formation depends on God’s power at work in us. He works in us by his Word. Good liturgy is merely the delivery system for this miraculous power to save. It’s the piping that carries the life-giving water. It’s the trellis that holds up the fruit-bearing vine.

So here’s the key question: in our use of liturgy, how can we make sure our confidence is in the power of God’s Word, not the creativity or ingenuity of our methods?

Here are three questions to ask.

First, is your liturgy saturated with the Bible?

Make sure you’re drawn to more than the gravitas that comes with age and formality, or the transcendence that comes through terms rarely used in common speech. What makes a guide like the Book of Common Prayer so useful is not how old it is or how consistently beautiful its language may be, but the fact that Cranmer filled these forms with Scripture. Does your liturgy make room for lots of Bible reading? Are your prayers regularly responding to what the Bible says? Do your songs draw heavily from the language of Scripture?

Second, is your liturgy shaped by the story of the Bible?

The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia. It’s a love story. It explains why we exist, where all this beauty comes from, what’s gone wrong and what we can hope for. Through many twists and turns, it tells a story about the God who made everything and the people he made in his image. Our liturgies show confidence in God’s Word when they take on the shape of God’s Word. We want to make sure they account for creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

That means we should make sure our gatherings praise God for the beauty of his character—for who he is as God. We need regular confession of sin that prepares us for the assurance of the gospel. We need to give thanks for that good news. We need prayers of supplication that treat God as a Father who loves to give good gifts to his children. And we want to listen to his Word for the perspective and hope we can’t get anywhere else.

Finally, is your liturgy centered on preaching from the Bible?

My impression is that renewed enthusiasm for liturgy sometimes comes with a devaluation of the sermon in our gatherings.

The argument goes something like this. Protestants have overemphasized the importance of verbal communication. This creates malformed, bobble-head Christians, with minds full of knowledge but everyday lives that are too often unaffected. Their lives remain unaffected because embodied people need more than new ideas to experience change. They need new habits. They need embodied practices that work at a subconscious level to aim our desires in new directions. If we want to form people, then we have to account for how people work and choose our strategies accordingly.

I see more of my own imbalance in that critique of word-centered Protestantism than I’d like to admit. I know I’ve got a lot to learn about the value of habits in the process of sanctification.

But here’s my central concern with this argument: our commitment to biblical preaching has never been based on what makes people tick. It’s not a strategy that flows from anthropological insight. We don’t assume that people are best formed by 40-minute talks that move ideas from one mind to another.

We don’t build our strategies with anthropology any more than Joshua, at the walls of Jericho, built his strategy with structural engineering. We preach Christ in all the Scriptures for the same reason they circled that city and then blew their horns. Not because this is supposed to work, but because God promised that it would. This method isn’t ours. It’s his. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).

We prioritize preaching because we trust the Word. It’s the sword of God’s Spirit, two-edged and piercing, living and active, reaching beneath the surface and all the way down to the marrow of the soul. We know people aren’t hard-wired for formation by what passes through their ears and into their minds. But this is entirely beside the point. Old, childless men don’t normally father nations. Small young men don’t normally slay giants. Crucified men don’t normally bring life to the dead. The fact that biblical preaching shouldn’t be expected to produce heart change is part of why God chose this delivery system for the work he’s doing in our lives. He loves to confound our expectations. He loves to show his strength in our weakness. Or, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians, it pleases God “through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Why? “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corin 1:21, 2:5).

When we start with people and build our strategies on what we’ve learned about them, the pressure to get through to them rests on our shoulders. If we’re successful, the glory stays with us, too. But when we start with what God has said, even something so foolish as the preaching of the cross, he gets the glory when Christians take on the image of his Son. And what we get is freedom—the freedom to do as we’re told and to watch as he works.

Matt McCullough

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Edgefield Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

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