I sat on the second row of the small college theater. The floor gently sloped toward the elevated platform. The lofty ceiling was held in place by solid cement walls. Long, skinny windows stretched to the rafters. A small choir gathered in the balcony behind me, singing a hymn I was not familiar with. It was a haunting tune, a prayer, reflecting on God’s goodness. The words stirred the air with the gentle reminder of God’s care for us.

The chapel was an intriguing mixture of music and liturgy. Words offered in prayer. Five flautists playing their flutes to a classical music piece. It was unlike any service I have ever attended. I didn’t mind the distinct rhythm of worship that was offered by the community. As an outside observer, I tried to listen and hear the heartbeat of this community.

But, when it came time for the sermon and the final song, something struck me as odd. The sermon did not proclaim the Gospel. Rather, it was a sermon about “doing what you want to do regardless of what others say.” Hardly the Gospel. God was never mentioned. It was an empty homily. I tried my best to shake off the disappointment.

The choir began singing a familiar tune. The musical notes were ones I had heard many times before. I knew beyond any doubt that I had heard the song before, but something was off kilter. Something wasn’t quite right. Finally, in the third or fourth verse, it struck me. The words had been significantly changed. The music was to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Yet, the words never mentioned God nor anything remotely dealing with something that Luther would have penned. Instead, the words encouraged getting along with others – not inherently bad, but a good deal short of proclaiming the Gospel. The words felt hollow, empty. The familiar tune sounded dead without its usual theological depth.

Thinking about the Church’s liturgy (“the work of the people”), which is the practices that shape our character toward something ultimate (i.e., James K. A. Smith), it seems to me that too much of our contemporary worship has been hollowed out, like the sermon and the song from the chapel. There is a form that appears to be Christian, but we have emptied it of the Gospel and its power. There is a “form of godliness, but we [deny] its power” (2 Tim. 3:5a). When our worship, our liturgy, maintains the form but is emptied of its power, our character is pointed in a direction that doesn’t reflect God’s character and nature. It doesn’t look like Jesus.

Liturgy is important for this reason. It shapes us. The practices, rhythms, rituals, traditions, and way of life of a community shape and re-shape us toward a particular end or goal. If that purpose is not to be more like Christ, we simply reflect more of the world. Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men. Tradition is the living faith of dead men.” Therein lies the distinction between faithful liturgy and dead ritual. We can’t get away from having rhythms and rituals of worship. But, we can get away from their intended purpose. When our practices fail to shape us to be like Christ, we must reassess those practices. Sometimes that means that we divest older practices for new ones. Sometimes it means we must re-energize old practices through education and recovery. Regardless, we must allow our liturgy, our way of life and worship, to constantly be centered upon Christ and his cross.

The results of our liturgy say a great deal about what our liturgy is pointed toward. Faithful liturgy, by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, form in us the fruits of the Spirit. Unfaithful liturgy will produce fruit, but it will not resemble the Spirit. Instead, it will cultivate “people [who are] lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2-5).

The question is not whether a church will have a liturgy. All churches have a liturgy. The more important question is whether the liturgy reflects Christ and is shaping us to be more Christlike in our life together and in our ministry to the world. In other words, do we increasingly reflect the holy love of God to our neighbors.

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