Is the New Evangelical Liturgy Really an Improvement?

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Kevin DeYoung:

Every church has a liturgy. Traditional congregations have a general order to worship. So do contemporary congregations. So do funky, artistic ones. Church leaders do not have time to reinvent their services every week. Congregations are not capable of learning new forms, new songs, and following a new order every week. Even the most spontaneous and creative church will flounder without some predictability and commonality from week to week. Even the most conscientious pastor or worship leader will eventually settle into a basic template for worship. Every church has a liturgy.

But not every liturgy is as good, or strong, or deep, or biblical, or gospel-centered as every other.

If I’m not mistaken, there is a New Evangelical Liturgy which is increasingly common in our churches. You find it in Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, free churches, and non-denominational churches. It’s familiar in rural churches and city churches. It can be found in tiny churches and megachurches. No one has written it down in a service book. No council or denomination is demanding that it be done. No pastor is taught this liturgy in seminary (um, probably not). But it has become the default liturgy nonetheless. It looks like this:

  • Casual welcome and announcements
  • Stand up for 4-5 songs
  • During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
  • Sermon
  • Closing song
  • Dismissal

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the basic liturgy from which most evangelical churches operate. To be sure, there are slight variations. The announcement may go after the praise set. There may be an offering in there somewhere, possibly with a special music number. The service may be tweaked a bit when there is communion or a baptism. But overall, if I were to visit 50 different evangelical churches over the next year, this is what I expect to find most of the time.

The simple question I want to ask is this: Is this New Evangelical Liturgy really an improvement?

Please hear me. I’m not talking about instrumentation or worship style (though form is not irrelevant). And I’m not suggesting God doesn’t take pleasure when his people worship him in Spirit and in truth from all sorts of templates. I’m not saying people won’t be saved or edified in churches that use the New Evangelical Liturgy. I’m certainly not saying they won’t like it. What I am suggesting is that by no biblical or historical consideration can we conclude that the New Evangelical Liturgy is an improvement on the old liturgy.

What do I mean by the “old liturgy”? I mean the traditional Protestant order of worship that stretches back to Luther and Calvin (despite their important differences), runs through Westminster, and used to be what churches did when they didn’t know what else to do. Was it rote at times? Sure. Did some churches use it too rigidly? No doubt. But it was also a better default.

I’m talking about an order of service that included a call to worship, multiple Scripture readings, Psalm singing (along with old hymns and new songs), a Scriptural benediction, historic rubrics like the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, and many kinds of prayers (e.g., invocation, prayer of adoration, prayer of confession, prayer of intercession, prayer for illumination). I’m talking about what Mike Horton calls “the drama of Christ-centered worship” or what Bryan Chapell calls “gospel ‘re-representation’”–a carefully constructed, though flexible, liturgy which progresses with a distinct gospel logic: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing. The traditional Protestant liturgy has an Isaiah 6 movement to it where the gospel is not just preached in the sermon or even sung in the songs, but embodied in the entire order of the service.

For whatever appeal the New Evangelical Liturgy may have in American culture, and for whatever abuses or doldrums may be associated with a more traditional liturgy, I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more prayer? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which ones anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?

I’m not sure where the New Evangelical Liturgy came from. Maybe its origins are in revivalist camp meetings. Maybe it goes back to the seeker movement. Maybe it’s a reflection of the juvenilization of American Christianity. Maybe pastors have taken the basis pattern of Christian conferences and assumed it was meant to be the order for weekly worship. Wherever it came from, I encourage pastors, worship leaders, and churches to consider whether this New Evangelical Liturgy is the best we can do. It may be familiar. It may be simple. It may even be popular. And it may still not be an improvement.

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About Peter Cockrell

I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.

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