We need good liturgy.
I am a worship arts pastor at a pentecostal church. I went to a pentecostal college for my undergraduate degree. I grew up in the home of a pentecostal pastor (and not just any pentecostal pastor, but my favourite pentecostal pastor: my dad). I have a deep love and appreciation for my inheritance, and my tribe. So, if you are familiar with pentecostalism then the term ‘liturgy’ might be unfamiliar to you. If you are familiar with other traditions, you too may find it odd for a pentecostal to be using the term.
I once heard Matt Maher say, “we all have liturgy.” I agree. ‘Liturgy’ comes from the greek λειτουργία which literally translates as ‘public service’. It’s about how we worship in public gatherings. Whatever your church tradition, we all have a way of going about public worship. However, sometimes I feel as though, because of our history as a movement, we pentecostals have settled for the least thought-out liturgy. If you read early accounts of pentecostal services, they seem strictly anti-litrugical. At times they refused to plan anything in a service because they wanted to be open to what The Spirit would do as they gathered.
And yet, for a group of churches who have historically wanted to follow The Spirit’s guidance in our services, we have all come to have very similar services orders. We have worship through singing (sometimes including dance or other specials). We have offering and announcements. We have a sermon. We have some level of response to that sermon (a closing song and time of prayer). I’m not proposing that our services should all look wildly different from each other if we’re following The Spirit’s guiding. Neither am I suggesting that our service orders are necessarily bad. I’m simply wondering if we have thought about our liturgy any further than, “worship prepares people for The Word.” Are we missing out on some deep, meaningful elements in our weekly gatherings because of our aversion to formal liturgy?
Are we missing out on some deep, meaningful elements in our weekly gatherings because of our aversion to formal liturgy?
I believe that we have some misunderstandings about both liturgy and spontaneity. Just as people have some misunderstandings about both classical music and jazz.
Classical music is not for everyone. Some find it stiff, cold, lifeless, boring. Others see it as beautiful and rich.
Jazz is not for everyone either. Some find it confusing, hard to follow, complicated, scattered (I think of Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey, upon hearing jazz musicians for the first time asking, “Do you think that any of them know what the others are playing?”). Others find it full of emotion and spontaneity.
Before I continue, I know that this is not a perfect analogy. Classical music and jazz are both broad categories with a lot of variation within each genre. For the purpose of the reflections I offer here I am thinking of the most mainstream, traditional definitions of each. Further, if you have strong feelings for or against these genres, that shouldn’t interfere with the reflections I offer. Lastly, this is not about style of worship music used in our gatherings.
Classical music. It’s orchestrated. It’s highly formal. Everything is written out. But does that mean that it is stiff and lifeless? Potentially. I could program the notes of a score into my computer and listen to the piece as performed by my laptop. But it wouldn’t sound very good because it would be stiff and cold. But go and hear an orchestra perform that same piece and it will be completely different. It will come alive. How? Because there are people who are breathing life into it. They make choices on how to express the score in a way that brings it to life. They can do this because they have knowledge of the notes they are playing and how those notes fit into the overarching movements of the piece. Because they know this, they are able to breathe meaning into each note, phrase, and section.
They can do this because they have knowledge of the notes they are playing and how those notes fit into the overarching movements of the piece.
Jazz. It’s emotive. It’s energetic. Its trademark is how it includes so much improvisation. But does that mean that it is unplanned and chaotic? Potentially. If I were to sit down at my piano and try to improvise a jazz solo with no context, it would not sound good. But listening to a professional dance around a tune can be beautiful. Why is that? Because they have decided upon the chord changes for a particular song and therefore they know the structure over which they are improvising. They have also practiced and mastered the required scales and techniques that allow them to move with such freedom. They know where they are going, which notes they play at any given time to produce the right expression and emotion. It takes a great deal of knowledge and skill to be able to improvise. And it takes a lot of practice.
They have decided upon the chord changes for a particular song and therefore they know the structure over which they are improvising. They have also practiced and mastered the required scales and techniques that allow them to move with such freedom
There is a level of knowledge and understanding required of both art forms. The classical musician needs to know how to read music. But further than that, they need to understand the dynamics of an orchestral score and the significance of each part to the whole. If they know the meaning and story behind a certain piece, they can bring that piece to life as they interpret it in their performance. The jazz musician also needs to know music. While their notes are not all written down on a score, they need to have a thorough understanding of music theory, chord changes, tempo, and groove. They too need to know what the story is that they are communicating in order to bring those emotions to life and have them make sense in their performance.
Our appreciation of classical music and jazz also increases as we gain more understanding and knowledge of what we are experiencing. Sure, we can appreciate a piece of music without knowing anything about it, but it also can be completely disconnected to us. Understanding the underlying story and structure helps us enjoy the meaning behind it. Likewise, becoming so familiar with a piece we do understand can lead to us listening through it without giving it any thought. It becomes rote, routine. As a musician, you can practice something so many times that it simply becomes muscle memory. Constantly reminding ourselves of the meaning behind each note helps us keep the significance of it fresh.
Pentecostals can be weary of formal liturgy because it is too orchestrated and can so easily become rote and meaningless. It can become cold and lifeless. But that’s the same with any liturgy. Whatever our liturgy is, we need to be aware of the meaning and significance behind it. We also need to constantly remind ourselves of the deeper meaning. We need to remind ourselves of the theological significance of greeting time in order for it to be a vital part of our services and not just a helpful transition time. We need to remind people of the theological significance of each aspect of our service order so that participation in our gatherings does not simply become muscle memory. We need to breathe life into them each week.
Pentecostals can also be weary of spontaneity because it is chaotic and can so easily be misunderstood or bring about confusion. For someone who is new to our church or visiting, they may have a difficult time understanding what is going on. They may not come back. Whatever our level of improvisation in our services, we need to have a deep knowledge and practice of the necessary structures and techniques. We need a thorough knowledge of our theology in order to move freely while also bringing understanding to the people in our services. We need to be so practiced in prayer and spiritual conversation that our public prayers and exhortations are rich and significant and not flakey or theologically borderline. We need to breathe meaning into them each week.
I am convinced that we need classical jazz. We need the strengths of both in our gathered worship. We may think of them as opposite extremes that we must hold in tension, but I think there is a lot more commonality than we first suspect. Both options require knowledge and understanding. Both options require intentionality in order to breathe life into them. If we want good liturgy in our services, and we need good liturgy, it requires giving thought to our practices and practicing out our thoughts. It requires classical jazz.