On Liturgy and Its Value: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Emerson

As a pastor, I’m constantly thinking about worship. It is my vocation, after all, to lead people to God, and this is something I take very seriously. God is the object of worship – he is the focus, the aim, the center of it all. Part of my job, then, is to protect the sanctity of this “center.” That is to say, my responsibility as a shepherd is to make sure I am leading God’s people to God alone. But in order to do this, I have discovered that I have to give prayerful attention to the way of worship.

I have come to discover that all worship, like life itself, is liturgical. That is to say, our souls are formed and shaped by repeated patterns of actions, habits, and customs – and these are always directed toward objects of our love and devotion (on this, see Jamie Smith). For example, one might argue that our modern culture – with its repeated bombardment of advertisements about the latest product – has formed and shaped us into a very materialistic culture, a culture that is devoted to seeking the next best thing (say, the latest iPhone). We are a consumeristic people, often obsessed with wealth and “stuff,” because we (myself included) have allowed ourselves to be caught up into culture’s captivating flow. Thus, we are shaped and formed to think certain ways, to believe certain things about reality and about ourselves. To be sure, we are often profoundly shaped by the prevailing cultural habits and customs. Jamie Smith has argued, for example, that our culture has its own liturgy – a liturgy that has, among other things, power and wealth as its focus, aim, and center. Indeed, certain segments of our culture, like the church, want to make people into worshippers – a people whose devotion, though, is to something other than God. But as Smith often observes, the culture does a better job of making worshippers than the church. The reason is because the culture sees what many in the church often fail to see, namely, things like the formative power of repetition for changing people’s thoughts and behaviors.

All of this has led me to prayerfully re-think the ways of worship in our own church. Though I still have much more to learn, I am convinced that the church must do a better job in seeing the value of thoughtful liturgy if it wants to successfully train people to be worshippers of God. I believe the corporate worship gathering on Sunday morning provides fertile ground for such training and discipleship. For it is there where we can recite the Lord’s Prayer and thereby train our children about what it means to petition God for our “daily bread.” It is there where we can, together, rise for the Gospel reading, likewise teaching those younger in the faith what it means to respect the presence of the King. When we repeatedly pass the peace of Christ, every Sunday, we are all – together – teaching and proclaiming Gospel. And if we let it, such repeated actions will, over time, shape and form us into a people that God desires – not least into a Gospel-proclaiming, missional people. 

In the course of things, I have had the delightful opportunity to get to know Dr. Matthew Emerson, the Dickinson Chair of Religion and Associate Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist UniversityHe also serves as one of the Executive Directors at the Center for Baptist Renewal (CBR), an organization that helps local congregations come to see the value of Christian tradition and its related practices for worship. I highly recommend the work of CBR to you as a resource for future study. To shed some more light on the subject of liturgy and worship, Dr. Emerson was kind enough to field some questions. I pray that you find the conversation edifying.

Note: My words are in bold; Dr. Emerson’s answers follow.

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Dr. Emerson, many people might be unfamiliar with the word “liturgy.” What exactly is liturgy and a liturgical form of worship?

The word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word, litourgos, which just means “the work of the people.” The “work” referenced is the act of worship, specifically the priestly activities in the Old Testament related to the Tabernacle and Temple. Because for most of church history worship has contained the same basic elements acted out in essentially the same way, it has also come to refer to the repeated practices of churches in their worship services.

Is it true that, in some sense, all church worship services are liturgical?

Since “liturgy” as a generic term just refers to the repeated practices in a worship service, yes, every church has a liturgy. It may not contain elements from what we would call “liturgical churches” like responsive readings, singing the doxology, and the like, but it does typically contain repeated practices. Take an average Baptist church, for example – usually there is a call to worship, followed by (announcements and then) a greeting, three songs, offering and special music, reading the sermon passage, the sermon, and an invitation coupled with a final song. We could break that down into two basic categories – Song and Sermon. Other churches may vary from this, but the point is that most churches include the same elements in their worship service every week, and usually in the same order. This means that every church has a liturgy, a set of repeated practices ordered in the same way that shapes its people.

There is a tendency among some evangelicals to object to liturgical forms of worship on the grounds that liturgy is too repetitive, rote, and cold. Shouldn’t worship be lively and free? What spiritual advantages are there to be gained by having repetition in worship?

I think the easiest analogy here regarding the importance of repetition is to think about habits. At least for me, I remember in my childhood the idea of good habits and bad habits being reinforced by a variety of people – parents, pastors, scout leaders, teachers, etc. Our culture, along with most other cultures, implicitly acknowledges the value of repeated practices. We understand the value of exercising regularly, of repeating the same routines in our workplace, of using prayer calendars or devotional guides, of having a daily quiet time. And we also have habits that we may not even be aware of – maybe you visit the same coffee shop every day, or maybe you drive the same way to work, or maybe you call a friend or family member on the same day of the week. The point is, we repeat all kinds of things, and we recognize that some of those repetitive actions are good (exercise, prayer) while some of them may be bad (unhealthy eating habits or lifestyle choices, for example).

Regarding worship, there are two things to be said. First, the benefit of repeating good practices – i.e. good habits – doesn’t stop at the church door. Repetition is still beneficial in worship, and for the same reasons as it is outside of worship. Repetition of good habits in worship by those who have faith in Christ is like repetition of an exercise routine – it builds spiritual muscle, so to speak; it maintains a healthy heart, from a spiritual perspective; and it produces spiritual endurance. (Of course, none of that happens apart from faith in Christ, because it is Christ who works by his Spirit through these practices to form us.) The second thing to be said about repetition in worship and whether or not it becomes cold and lifeless is that we repeat all kinds of things in worship each week. As I mentioned earlier, most churches have a fairly stable order of worship, even if we don’t call it liturgy. We sing, pray, and hear the preaching of the Word. And when we look at each of these elements, I’d guess that, if I visited any church on any given Sunday, the songs they sing have been sung at least once in the past month, the preacher probably repeats any number of phrases, points, or themes, and the prayers sound fairly similar. Repetition in and of itself does not produce lifelessness. Faithlessness produces lifelessness. That is not to say that any particular person will always “feel” engaged in any particular worship practice. I don’t always “feel” good going to the gym or while I’m at the gym or when I get home from the gym. But I do know that repeating those practices is for my good. I also know that, in worship, singing, praying, and listening are for my good and that the Holy Spirit is working through them for those who have faith to produce holiness.

When I was a young elementary student, the entire class had a ritual of sorts where we would, in unison, stand and then publicly proclaim our pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States. We did this regularly, repetitively, daily. Why are we quick to accept cultural liturgies like this one while being reluctant to embrace Christian liturgy?

I haven’t quite figured out the answer to this question, although I think it’s a good one. Maybe in our rejection of churchly liturgies the state has filled the gap, so to speak. We avoid repetition, liturgy, and the like in our churches, and so our government, along with sports (think about the patriotic elements leading up to games) has stepped in to fill that role. Another possible answer, given by Jamie Smith, is that our habits are both the evidence and producers what we love. And so there may be something to be said about what we love more – America or Jesus. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is always the answer, but it’s an idea worth considering. I think more prominent in people’s minds when they reject repeated worship practices is the idea that liturgy is too cold, too Roman Catholic, too inhibitive for evangelism and church growth. Those are also objections worth considering, but I think we’d have to do that with more time and space.

You are one of the executive directors for The Center for Baptist Renewal. Can you tell us a little bit about your organization and what its mission and aim is?

About Us – CBR (centerforbaptistrenewal.com) is a group of conservative, evangelical Baptists committed to a retrieval of the Great Tradition of the historic church for the renewal of Baptist faith and practice. The work of CBR is grounded in an affirmation of the supremacy of Scripture and a commitment to Baptist convictions as articulated in historic Baptist confessions. While we hope CBR will edify all kinds of Baptists, the CBR Staff find the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 to be an appropriate confession upon which to base our own work.

Mission – The mission of CBR is to equip leaders to appropriate perspectives and practices of the historic church within the context of their local congregations for the sake of renewing Baptist faith and practice.

Vision – We envision Baptist churches in which:

  1. Scripture is held in high regard as the inerrant written revelation of God in Christ and regarded as the final authority for faith and practice;
  2. The wider Christian Church is approached in a spirit of unity while maintaining a convictionally Baptist identity;
  3. Historic creeds of the church are used as catechetical resources for the edification of members and recited regularly as part of the gathered worship of the church;
  4. The preaching of the Word of God and the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the central acts of corporate worship; and
  5. Worship, spiritual formation, and witness are shaped by Scripture and informed by the rich traditions of the church.

Goals –

  1. Build awareness among Baptist church leaders of the value and relevance of the traditions of the historic church.
  2. Provide leaders with resources and tools necessary to implement elements of the Christian tradition in their churches in ways that are meaningful and edifying.
  3. Encourage leaders by fostering relationships in which mutual learning, mentorship, and collaboration can take place.

What books and resources would you recommend to those who are interested in learning more about the value of liturgy?

The first place I’d go is Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love. I’d also check out Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace.

Thank you, Dr. Emerson, for taking time to answer these questions.


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