The word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek word leitourgia, which literally means “the work of the people.” In ancient Greek society, it referred to the public rituals or festivals which elite patrons subsidized for the public benefit. Today the term liturgy is usually used to refer to a particular order or format of worship activity involving standardized components such as readings, spoken or sung responses, communal prayer, etc.
It is common these days to describe churches and denominations as either liturgical or non-liturgical in their worship practice. However, this is a bit misleading in that it is difficult to imagine any form of worship that is completely lacking a liturgy, in the sense of not having a plan. Even among groups such as the Quakers, who simply sit in silence until someone in the assembly is moved to speak, that in itself constitutes a predetermined plan, and thus a kind of liturgy. The reality is that in order for any group of people to hold a coherent assembly, there must be some kind of order and structure. So the issue is not really whether or not a given church has a liturgy that it practices, but what kind of liturgy.
This church mostly conforms to a long-standing Lutheran tradition of a rather formal liturgical style of worship. The format involves many traditional elements, many of which come directly from the Bible (e.g., the Lord’s prayer, psalms, the words used to institute communion) and others which developed over many centuries of Christian experience (such as the Apostles’ Creed). Even when we employ “contemporary” variants of liturgy, we retain many of these components.
It is important to recognize first of all, that we harbor no illusions that our use of a particular liturgical style somehow imparts any kind of special “holiness” to our worship or makes it inherently superior to other forms. It is certainly true that we attach considerable importance to honoring God with our practices, but we also humbly recognize that the Lord of the Universe isn’t impressed by the grandeur of our efforts! Rather, we know that God takes pleasure in the giving of our hearts and lives to Him (Hosea 6:6). Thus, if we are to serve God, our efforts should be focused on bringing ourselves into joyful union with Him through experiencing His grace, praising His works, and nurturing a life in conformity to His will.
This essential principle of worship is one which all Christians adhere to, but how best to achieve it involves a lot of diverse opinion. A strong case can be made for both spontaneity and structure – and both approaches are laudable when they truly honor God and feed His children – but both are also fundamentally flawed if they serve mostly to gratify our own sense of self-importance, be that in the form of pompous ritual or emotional abandonment.
An adequate discussion of how and why we worship as we do cannot be accomplished in this limited space, but a couple of generalizations can be made: (1) We seek to provide a worship experience which elevates, rather than entertains; (2) We do not think it a bad thing for worship to require some effort on the part of the worshipper; and (3) We value the historic traditions that have nurtured many generations of believers.
For those who have not been brought up in a formal liturgical tradition, it can seem artificial, perhaps even “boring” when so much of the service is predictable. However, this can largely be a matter of developing a familiarity and appreciation of the forms. Few of us think it boring that a family celebration involves predictable rituals (such as singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the candles) or that our alma mater or favorite sports team might have crowd traditions. Indeed, we would find the experience lacking without them. Similarly, familiar worship rituals can also provide the framework for joyous and contemplative engagement with our Lord and the opportunity to experience community with our fellow believers of all times and places.
However, there is also the reality that any kind of ritual can degenerate into mindless routine, if we allow it to. Thus, part of our “work” as the people of God is to always seek the deeper meaning of what we are engaged in.