THERE are some churches or denominations that are known as liturgical churches because they follow a tradition in their order of service that has been developed through the centuries. The Roman Catholic Church has a well-developed liturgy in the mass. The Lutheran and the Anglican churches both have a liturgy that was derived and modified from features of the Roman Catholic service. There are other liturgical churches, and the history of the liturgy is a long and interesting one.
Denominations came into existence in a variety of ways, sometimes in protest against the parent organization. Some churches have been born through evangelism and through revivals, calling attention to certain neglected doctrines of the Bible. Of course, this explanation is an over simplification of church history.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church arose as an evangelical denomination, preaching a return to the fundamental teachings of the Bible, and to a renewed study of Bible prophecy. The church has no specified creed and no prescribed form of worship, but the emphasis is placed on the preaching of Bible truths, and the calling of men to repentance and preparation for the second advent of Christ. Evangelism and the gospel to all the world in this generation these are dominating features of the church.
Strong Trend Toward Liturgical Forms
In the ranks of Protestants today there is a strong trend toward the liturgical forms of worship. Some of the denominations that for years have been considered free churches are beginning to adopt the features of the liturgical churches, believing that this will improve the worship service and make it more appealing and beautiful and more satisfying to the worshiper.
For example, many churches are introducing various symbols, such as the cross, and even the crucifix, lighted candles on an altar, a divided chancel, robes for the ministry, the use of different colors for the different parts of the church year, and the adoption of the calendar for the church year Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, et cetera. The introduction of processional and recessional for the choir and ministers, the use of many sung responses, the use of Latin, and many other features of the service these, in a way, are borrowings from the older liturgical services. Now many of these things are not to be condemned as wrong, for many are beautiful in symbolism and meaningful in their use. Stained-glass windows are much more beautiful and significant than plain window glass. One might list each item and show how it has a definite meaning in the service of worship. The argument of some is very weak and futile when they say that because a certain liturgical church uses candles, therefore we should not. There is a more basic problem involved in this.
The Idea of the Altar
There is an entirely different basis for the liturgical church from that of the free church. The church that emphasizes an altar and a divided chancel is building its service around a sacrifice in one case, the "bloodless sacrifice of the mass." The idea of an altar means that some kind of sacrifice is to be offered on it, and the one ministering at the altar is a priest. This idea goes back to the services in the Jewish Temple when the system of sacrifices was being administered. It is carried over into the Christian Era by those churches which offer up the sacrifice of the mass.
This is abhorrent to many Protestants who base their services on the reading of the Scriptures, prayer, the singing of hymns, and the sermon, or the preaching of the Word. The Protestant denominations that have this philosophy of the service give emphasis to the preaching of the gospel of salvation. Emphasis is given to extending the invitation to sinners to come to Christ for pardon and salvation. Can it be that the church has lost its power to preach and therefore is trying to make the service attractive by other means? Is the Protestant church losing the real meaning of worship and substituting forms and ceremonies instead? These are valid questions.
Very little is said in the Bible about the form that worship should take. Jesus told the woman of Samaria: "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21-24).
The key to true worship is a personal relation between the worshiper and his God. It is not found in ceremonies or buildings or outward forms. This does not mean that we should neglect all things that have to do with a beautiful and meaningful service. Far from it.
It does suggest that we should return as much as possible to the simplicity of a service in which the reading of the Bible, prayer, the singing of hymns, and the preaching of the gospel have the prime emphasis.
For most services and most situations a choir processional is needless and tends more for display. If the choir room is near the choir loft there is little justification in taking the choir to the other end of the church so that it can enter as a processional.
In those churches where the pulpit is in the center there is no real reason for the choir to march in. On certain festive and special occasions a choir processional might be effective. Choir processionals are not wrong, but the church should carefully study whether or not it is necessary and whether it detracts from the simplicity of the service. In the liturgical service the very nature of the liturgy calls for a processional and a recessional. But in the free church there is nothing that demands a procession. Nor is there much justification and reason for many sung responses and other features that are not basic to Protestant worship.
Luther D. Reed, an authority on the Lutheran liturgy and worship, in his book Worship: a Study of Corporate Devotion, writes, "Upon festivals and other special occasions the choir may enter the church singing a processional hymn. On ordinary Sundays the choir should enter in quiet dignity without singing or looking about. After reaching its location, it should stand quietly in the stalls until the organist leads into the opening hymn, in which all join. After the service the choir should retire in the same manner. This procedure is more devotional and impressive for general use than the noisier, showier processional and recessional hymns, which may well be re served for festivals and special occasions." Page 370.
The great contribution of the Protestant church is the congregational singing of hymns, and too often this is not given the emphasis it should have. This has been recognized as such a good feature that the Roman Catholic Church is now encouraging its people to sing hymns in the vernacular. The listless and meaningless congregational singing in many Protestant churches seems to indicate a loss of the vitality of worship. Nothing is more powerful in the expression of corporate worship than the excellent singing of good hymns. Some hymns still in use are unworthy of the church, and some have such an emotional and sentimental effect that the congregation is lured away from the real meaning of great words.
A return to meaningful singing of great Protestant hymns is sadly neglected by too many churches. Excellent choirs and skilled vocal and instrumental soloists should never crowd out the best part of the music the congregational hymn singing.
The reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the Word these are what make a Protestant service unique. The old custom of bringing the Bible to church, and reading from it, should again be emphasized.
One writer says this concerning an order of worship: "The proper 'processional' in free church worship is the bringing-in of the Bible, around which worship centers, at the beginning of the service. The proper 'recessional' is the closing of the Bible and its removal from the pulpit by the deacon back into the life of the congregation and out into the world." ---JOHN E. SKOGLUND, Worship in the Free Churches, p. 83.
A Free Service
Instead of trying to improve our services by borrowing different items from the liturgical service, why can we not establish a meaningful free service, based upon our mission in the world? It would be a beautiful gesture if the pulpit Bible could be taken onto the platform and placed on the pulpit while the choir and ministers enter during the prelude. Then a call to worship could be read from the Bible after which a hymn of praise or adoration or thanksgiving is sung. After the sermon is an ideal spot for personal dedication and commitment. A closing hymn unites the congregation in song. After the benediction the Bible can then be taken from the pulpit to the pastor's study, and the congregation and choir can leave during the postlude.
Our church is a free church, founded upon evangelism. A return to this emphasis rather than the introduction of liturgical forms would mean that the church has not lost its vision of true worship.