If you have been watching the worship services for Christ Reformed Church while in quarantine or have read much of our literature, you have certainly noticed that we are a liturgical congregation. What you may not have known is that Pastor Angelo and I did NOT grow up in a setting of repetitive, printed liturgy like CRC. (More than likely, there is some sort of consistency in the order of service for every kind of church, but over the years I have come to appreciate the overt nature to the formal liturgies we use every week.)
Since the quarantine began, Pastor Angelo has been intentional to choose the exact same words for many of the elements of our service. We have heard concerns about becoming too familiar with the flow of service becoming a detriment to spiritual growth, but I would like to lay out some of the wondrous benefits I have personally gleaned from repetitive liturgy over the last few years. I pray it is of benefit to both your understanding of our services and your Christian growth.
Training Children and New Believers
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep.” If you’ve heard these words in our services, you have likely also heard our two-year old scream “sheep” then “baaaaaaaaaa”.
Repetition is one of the foundational keys to learning anything, including what it means to worship God. (Did you memorize the ABCs, your phone number or even your favorite song after hearing it only once?) Doctors encourage new parents to talk to babies long before they can understand words so that when they begin to form their own words, they have a bank of words to express themselves. In the same way, children and new believers receive the language of the Church by participatory repetition. My daughter may not understand what is communicated in the language of that Confession of Sin, but from her earliest memories she will begin to see the Lord as her Shepherd and herself as His sheep. Using repetitive liturgical forms will enable her to grow in her familiarity and understanding of the Lord, as well as her place in His World.
Mental Engagement in the Midst of Distractions
My husband is the pastor. I am six months pregnant am on my own with three young children in the pew next to me. Potty breaks, snack requests, helping finding hymn numbers, and many other such distractions often make listening to every word from the pulpit rather difficult. It’s hard to juggle a bulletin, a hymnal, and a two year old who wants to be held. However, because of the repetition of the service and liturgy, I am still able to participate in the service. Even before my children (and I imagine will be the case when they are more independent as well), I found that such strict attention to every changing words made it difficult to engage my heart in what was actually happening. Have you ever noticed yourself singing a familiar song and then actually hear the words coming out of your own mouth? I find that because my mouth already knows the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles Creed, I am more readily able to engage in the content of those words. I can truly consider what is being said because I’m not preoccupied with what to say or what comes next.
Pattern of Confession and Forgiveness
Have you ever noticed that kids are quick to say they are sorry, then run away? Normally they do this when they are caught doing something wrong. However, they are really just sorry they got caught. The church service’s liturgy of Confession of Sins aloud and privately, followed by the pronouncement of my forgiveness from God in the Assurance of Pardon reminds me of the weight of my sin. My wrong doings are not something I can run from quickly, but must be handled with the severity they deserve. I have sinned against the Almighty God in thought, word, and deed. The rhythm of confession and forgiveness not only tells of my sin, but of the greatness of my Savior’s forgiveness. This pattern in service begins to instill in my heart (and the lives of my children) that sin is great, but grace is greater. Experiencing this before the face of God week after week etches this reality onto my own heart for the remainder of the week.
Common Language for Shared Faith Across Denominations
A few months ago, there was devastation in our family. Very few people knew and I wanted to talk about it with even less. One person that knew the events surrounding our sadness is from a very different denominational background. Her response to the news was simple, yet so very meaningful to me. I told her of our loss and she her simple text said “Lord, have mercy upon us.” We had never been to church together, never talked theology before, never compared liturgy. Being in the same homeschool group, surrounded by little ones doesn’t normally lend to those sorts of conversations, but I knew her church background was radically different than my own. Yet those simple words joined us in a way that communicated so much more than “I’m sorry”. She spoke with words my heart understood when my own mind was reeling. She said that we needed the Lord, she said that she stood with me, she said that He was still good. All without any of those vague truisms that just sting when you are facing tragedy. Each and every Sunday since then, as we sing the Kyrie Eleison, I am reminded of my tragedy, and I am reminded of the way that my friend, with a very different set of doctrinal standards, was a comfort to my heart because of these ancient words. I am reminded that the global Church is bigger than my congregation, or my context, but by the language of the church handed down for generations, we are all connected.
Gives Me Words When I Have No Words
Real life is not always as pretty as we like to think; life is messier than pre-determined church liturgy. But, like roots give stability to a tree in a hurricane, repetitious liturgy gives my heart stability when life is going crazy. When I’m distressed and can barely pray, when my children anger me beyond words, when I have sinned and feel the weight of shame, when I’m overwhelmed and can’t silence my own thoughts, the familiar language of liturgy gives me the words. When I’m full of anxiety and frustration, I don’t have to be eloquent or creative in my prayers; I can pray the comforting words of the Lord’s Prayer. As guilt encompasses my heart, I can remember the words of comforting Assurance of Pardon, and rest in the steadfast love of the Lord. Though others belittle my beliefs and challenge my faith, I can stand on the words of the Creeds and Confessions to have my back. I don’t have to be original in my expression of faith, but when I have no clarity for words and articulation, the repetitive liturgy of the church provides me with the ability to continue in communion with the Lord.
These are just some of the benefit I have personally gleaned from repetitive liturgy: training children and new believers; mental engagement in the midst of distraction; pattern of confession and forgiveness; common language across denominations; and, giving words to a restless heart. Is it easy to mentally check out in church? Yes. Was it easy to mentally check out of church without relative liturgy? YES. The style of a worship service certainly does impact different people differently, but I have seen the tremendous bonus effects of printed, repeated elements of worship in my own life as well as the lives of my children. It is our prayer that as you hear the repeated words of the liturgy week after week, you would be encouraged as the Lord writes His words on your heart.
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