How Liturgy is Really “The Work *ON* the People”

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought4 Comments

Four years ago, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff initiated what would become a change in my perspective on worship by diving into the etymology of an often mis-defined word. We often hear that “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” Wolterstorff challenges that:

Etymologically the word leitourgia comes from two Greek words, leitos and ergon, meaning, respectively, “of the people” and “action.”  In numerous books on liturgy it is said, accordingly, that the word originally meant action of the people.  And often nowadays an argument for more participation of the people in the church’s liturgy is based on this claim.  It is said that for something to be liturgy, it must be action of the people and not action of a few priests or pastors.  But the word leitourgia never did mean action of the people.  It meant action for the benefit of the people.  A liturgy was a type of public service.

(Read my earlier post, with more extended quotation, here.) Now why fuss over etymology? Am I just engaging in semantic one-upsmanship? A “glossary gotcha”? No. Lurking in here is a deviant theology as ancient as the earth. 

The Quest for Eden’s Back Door

Ever since our father Adam and mother Eve were banished from the garden, they’ve been trying to circle the earth to get in through the back door. This instinct–the desire to be gods unto ourselves–has been passed on through every generation. You and I bear the “Old Adam” within us. The Old Adam is the one to whom Paul refers often when he is speaking of the “flesh”–especially in a negative context (Paul uses “flesh” in several ways). The Old Adam desires to circumvent every gracious gift of God, not because he doesn’t like gifts, but because he likes earning them more than receiving them for free. The Old Adam is the one who rises up within us to stake his claim of worthiness before God. He likes to reference his resume, his record of past successes and works. God’s words of Law and Gospel are offensive to him because the former tells him that his works amount to nothing (even his best good works are tainted and sinful), and the latter tells him that God, in Christ, gives him everything anyway. 

Now imagine this fellow lurking in our flesh, pacing back and forth, just waiting for a word to be “called up.” He’s been benched, but oh, how he itches to put his hands around that bat and take his stand at the plate. There are things we do in worship that can inadvertently call him up. They are words of triumph, such as: “Jesus, I’m living for you every day”; “God, I’m giving it all away for you”; “I surrender all.” They are words, which, when used in over-abundance and improperly placed within the narrative of the gospel, become “fighting words” for the Old Adam. They itch his ears. They energize him.

Understanding liturgy as “the work of the people” can be like this. Now, I get that many times, this definition is summoned in contexts where worshipers have become too passive in worship, forgetting that their worship requires intentionality, commitment, and, yes, even effort. But there may be a different way to summon the worship of the people than to rally them around the battle cry, “It’s your work!”

Worship as the Work of Jesus

Worship thinker Ron Man has done a great service to us by pouring over a small section of the book of Hebrews in his booklet, Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship. Hebrews 2:12 quotes Jesus as saying: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

As we worship, Jesus is pouring into us His work and power by whispering, speaking, shouting the name of God in our ears. As we sing, Jesus is efforting His song in us. This is what James Torrance meant when he said, “More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience.”* Listen to Torrance’s analogy:

Christ does not heal us as an ordinary doctor might, by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take and then going away, leaving us to get better as we follow his instructions. No, he becomes the patient! He assumes that very humanity which is in need of redemption, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of perfect obedience, by dying and rising again, for us, our humanity is healed in him, in his person.**

Now think of it this way. Christ does not sit back, arms folded, (justly) demanding our worship. No, he becomes the worshiper! He assumes His position amongst the people, and in the Spirit cries out “Abba, Father!” on our behalf. Christ is our substitutionary worshiper. The liturgy is, in the deepest sense, His work.

Worship as the Work of the Spirit

It gets even better, though. Hughes Oliphant Old points out,

Worship is far more than a human work. Worship is the work of the Holy Spirit…As the apostle Paul tells us, it is the Holy Spirit who cries out within us when we pray (Rom 8:15-27). The apostle tells us that when we pray, “Our Father,” it is the Holy Spirit praying within our hearts (Rom 8:15). The hymns and psalms that are sung in worship are spiritual songs, that is, they are the songs of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25; Eph 5:19). Even the preaching of the church is to be in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:8). Jesus promised to us that when we present our testimony before the world it is not we who speak but the Holy Spirit who gives us utterance (Mark 13:11). Christian worship is inspired by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, directed by the Spirit, purified by the Spirit, and bears the fruit of the Spirit. Christian worship is spirit-filled.***

The Old Adam needs to hear far more about the Trinitarian shape of worship’s work and far less about his own. Of course, as we’re engaging in worship, we’re active. Our muscles are employed, our vocal cords sounding, our minds centering, and our hearts aiming. But I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it does very little good to tell people, “Worship is your work, so get to it!”

Perhaps the Reformers’ best insight into theology and the human condition was that commands (i.e. the Law) offer no power to fulfill what they ask for; only the gospel does that. God’s good Law can tell me to worship, but only His Gospel can actually cause it. It’s like the difference between a wife demanding to her husband, “Love me!” (command), versus freely and tenderly saying, “I love you” (gift). Which stokes the husband’s love?

Worship as Gottesdienst

The Germans have a delightful word for their worship gatherings. They call Sunday worship “Gottesdienst,” or, “Divine Service.” With the above understanding of the roles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we come to realize that liturgy is actually God’s work ON the people…God’s work IN the people…God’s work THROUGH the people. Even our “response” is a gift.

When I hear that worship is my effort to God, I suddenly feel a weight dropped onto my shoulders. But when I hear that worship is God’s free gift to me, I suddently feel like, well, worshiping. Fancy that.

*James Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IVP: 1996), 34.
**Ibid., 53. 
***Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, rev. ed. (Louisville, WJK: 2002), 5. 

4 Comments on “How Liturgy is Really “The Work *ON* the People””

  1. Hey Zac!

    I've been following your writing and music for the past few years. I've not ever properly said thank you.

    I'm a worship pastor at an evangelical community church in the fashion on Willow Creek where entertainment CAN be the name of the game. I'm often tempted to believe that the musicality of the band, and the congregation's emotional experience (The Work OF the People) are the determining factors of a quality service. When I'm in that mode I leave church a bit depressed and always exhausted. Your blog has been a catalyst to me understanding that all of our worship is predicated on Christ's work, not ours. When I'm tempted to think worship is predicated on performance your blog has been a great reminder.

    Thank you for offering this exhausted worship pastor such great relief.

    In Christ,

  2. Tommy,
    I feel you, man! Your comment made me see that I have felt the same pressure and exhaustion (and I lead worship in a tiny church in Canada). I'm appreciating Zac's awesome post even more now that I've read and digested your comment. Thanks!


  3. Thanks for this, very helpful re-orienting of the way we can so often see worship. I might steal some of this for leading this coming Sunday. I was preparing an opening to our sung worship to try to encourage people to be less passive, but I now think it may have been too works-focused.

    This does remind me of something I read in Worship Matters (I think) from Bob Kauflin, when he says that when we become followers of Jesus we also become singers. This chimes with that thought because here we see that it is God in us who allows us to worship God!

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