We stood for most of the two-hour service. The only time they instructed us to sit was during the priest’s homily. Even then, there were no chairs, just a woven rug on which to sit. And when we stood, we did not watch or listen. We participated, waiting for our turn to sing the replies. Fortunately the choir, which flanked the room on either side, standing perpendicular to the congregation, was well versed in the responses. Their voices were beautiful, echoing in the small dome-roofed room. The dome. I kept looking up at it. Every inch was painted, and the pictures told a story. Paintings of the saints lined the walls, moving in chronological order from left to right. In the center, up in front, was the altar, and behind it an inner chamber of sorts, modeled undoubtedly after the Holy of Holies.
The service also included responsive music and specific actions and symbolic gestures. The priest wore robes meant to recall images of the high priestly robes. His going into the inner chamber to bless the sacrament and coming out to present it to us reenacted Christ’s coming from heaven to earth for us. Even his beard and long hair represented a living portrait of Christ.
It was our first time to an Eastern Orthodox church.
Holly and I talked about our impressions on the way home. “They didn’t cater to us,” she observed. And she liked that. It’s not that the people didn’t care about guests. Quite the contrary. This was the most welcoming community of people we’d been in as guests. They greeted us warmly at the door and were genuinely sad that we couldn’t stay for their weekly after-service potluck lunch in the adjoining room. But no part of the service put the worshipper at the center.
The liturgy—the whole structure of the service and the very words that were said and sung (except the sermon)—was a translation of the liturgy written by Saint John Chrysostom in the fourth century. And they sang it, said it, and prayed it every week, with few exceptions. Joining this liturgy that Sunday reminded us that “church” did not begin when we arrived; the worshipping people of God is an ongoing drama. We joined a program that was already in progress. Sitting on the floor was a way of communicating: we are all on level ground. Your comfort can take a backseat for a few hours. There is only One who is seated on a throne. And the list goes on. Because everything spoke. And it told a Story. And the Story was of Christ and His salvation.
…Attending the Orthodox church made me look more closely at the historic liturgies of the Church. I thought about the Anglican services I had visited. I began to read more about why those great theologians who wrote many of these liturgies did what they did. As I studied the European Reformations—because there were several, and they differed from each other—I discovered that many of the reforms applied to the worship service. Imagine that: to effect a theological change, many reformers began with corporate worship. I read most about Thomas Cranmer, the brave and brilliant mind behind the English Reformation and the architect of the Book of Common Prayer.
Here’s what I learned: the people who, to say it in our parlance, “planned the service” were not creative directors or production managers; they were theologians. They weren’t primarily concerned with organizing volunteers or coordinating logistics. Those things are important, but they shouldn’t be the central concern. No, the people who labored over “service order” were preoccupied with the gospel—how it would be proclaimed and entered into and celebrated. My point here is not to denigrate creative directors but to show the difference between how people used to plan a worship service and how we plan them today. It wasn’t an event to produce; it was a salvation story to tell. Over and over, throughout the Church’s history, the brightest theological minds turned their attention to the content and context of corporate worship. Why? Because the way we worship becomes the way we believe.
Liturgy is not just a fancy word for “traditional worship.” It carries meaning. Quite simply, it means “the work of the people.” It was often used to describe a civic project, like a bridge or a public park. It is what a community builds together.
What is the work of the people of God when we gather each week in worship? It is to tell a Story and to participate in it. But, as we discovered in the previous chapter, we aren’t starting with a blank slate. We inherited our faith from others. Moreover, those who came before us handed down our faith through certain worship practices. You might say that part of how our faith was preserved and passed on through the centuries is through liturgy. This should be no surprise by now, because—say it with me—the way we worship becomes the way we believe.
If that is true, then we ought not begin with the question “How would I like to design our worship service?” or even the more “customer-oriented” questions like “What kind of service would people respond to the best?” Those are valid questions, and they have their place. Many people, assuming that I prioritize questions of contextualization above questions of theology, ask if our new life DOWNTOWN “neo-liturgical” service was designed to “reach a particular demographic.” Honestly, I squirm when I hear questions like that, though I understand where the person is coming from. In our American church context, it’s a fair question to ask. After all, we’ve been trained to think first of pragmatic questions. We want to ask how before we ask what.
I suggest that the first question is, “How has the Spirit of God led the people of God to worship God in corporate gatherings throughout the centuries?” In short: “What were the historic liturgies like?” Before we change anything—and we should change things in the name of contextualization (more on that in the final chapter)—we must try to see what was good and beautiful and true about the way the Church worshipped throughout the centuries. Then when we change something, we ought to ask, “What have we left out? What have we added? What’s better? What’s worse?”
Or, better yet, ask, “What does our service say? Is it telling a story? What story is it telling? Whose story is it telling?”
After all, as our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters taught me, everything speaks.