The Higher the Liturgy, the More Scripture is Heard

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & Thought2 Comments

Yesterday’s post, “The Higher the Liturgy, the Lower the Preaching” was made as a generalization based on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ observations of England 40 years ago and of mine in the present.  Dissenting commenters made a good point, however…which I don’t believe is in contradiction with yesterday’s observation.  Their comments can be summarized in an experience relayed to me by Don Sweeting–former pastoral mentor and colleague, and now President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Don took a much needed sabbatical in 2009, and in his months off he attended a wide variety of churches in the Denver Metro area–Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Evangelical, etc.  He came away from his experiences with this stunning observation: He heard more reading of Scripture in the Catholic service than he did in the Evangelical worship service.  More generally, the churches whose worship was characterized by a higher liturgy always had more Scripture read, prayed, and sung than in the low-church evangelical environments.  Furthermore, as a friend pointed out yesterday, even the “non-Scriptural” readings (e.g. prayers or responsive readings), are filled with Scripture quotation, Scripture allusion, or language and ideas that are obviously bathed in the words of the “hallowed page.” 

Contrast this with the typical evangelical low-church liturgy: a block of songs, announcements, the offering, the sermon, and a closing song.  Apart from the worship leader pausing in the middle of the song set to read a passage of Scripture, or apart from the songs themselves containing Scriptural statements or quotations, there’s not much room for Scripture reading without some subversive, creative liturgy-bending.  Thankfully, more and more evangelical churches are seeing this.  The reality remains, however, that one can attend an evangelical church service and they may very well hear very little Scripture read.  

As Don pointed out in his comparison of his Catholic and evangelical experiences, there is a huge historical irony in all of this.  It was the proto-evangelicals (the Protestants) who criticized the de-valuing of the Scriptures by the Catholics during the time of the Reformation.  And here we are, 400 years later, struggling with fluffy preaching and straining to fit Scripture into our sacred “worship experience.”  Meanwhile, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters faithfully walk through their lectionary, receiving a steady diet of the whole counsel of God. 

This should make us appreciate the merits of high liturgy.  It is bathed in and allows space for Scripture to speak in multi-faceted ways.  Personally, I am on a quest to prove that one can infuse high church elements into low church liturgy without sacrificing what many people prize about “modern worship”–flow, continuity, passion, etc.  I don’t know that I’ve achieved my goal, but far be it from us to think that Scripture reading falls in the category of a mere “high church element.”  Scripture reading is a transcendent category all to itself.  I don’t just want to hear Scripture reading prior to the sermon.  I want to hear God’s voice at the start, calling me into worship.  I want to hear His voice at the end, blessing me and sending me forth.  And I want to hear Him in the middle, sustaining my weak mind and feeble spirit. 

My dissenters said yesterday that high liturgy doesn’t necessitate a devaluing of preaching, and I agree.  But the generalization still holds true: high liturgy can tend toward lower emphasis on preaching.  By the same token, lower liturgy can tend toward devaluing the raw power of Scripture reading.  And these are claims made based on existential observation, as opposed to philosophical investigation of the foundations of either liturgical expression.

2 Comments on “The Higher the Liturgy, the More Scripture is Heard”

  1. Your posts are very interesting and provide good thoughts concerning what any of us who are termed "worship leaders" struggle with each and every week. The balance seems to be between experience (liturgy whether "low" or "high" depending on how you define that) and truth (the Word). The risk we have whether low liturgy or high liturgy is forgetting why we are gathering. I think that risk is as easily seen in a high liturgy service as a low one. To combat this risk, the constancy of scripture MUST be a focal point of any gathering. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to teach and empower the people of God.

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