Liturgical Theology

Having entered the season of Advent, a new year in the Christian worship (liturgical) calendar has begun. For some Christians, the liturgical calendar is of only mild interest, for others it's of no interest at all. But when viewed theologically, the calendar takes on great meaning. That meaning is explored by Simon Chan in Liturgical Theology, the Church as Worshiping Community. This post takes a look at the book, excerpting some key points.

Chan's purpose in writing Liturgical Theology is to make a reasoned plea to Christians (Evangelicals, in particular) to recapture in their worship (both weekly and annually) a focus on the central truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern is that many churches tend in their worship to focus instead on peripheral issues. In doing so, they experience what Chan calls "theological vacuity" (p 11). And so Chan's desire is for worship renewal through recovering a clear focus on truth, not in the sense of abstract ideas and propositions, but "the truth of God's action in history, carried in the gospel concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ" (p 11).

Chan's assertion (with which I heartily agree) is that a principal way to advance this renewal/recovery is by adopting a form of worship (a worship liturgy) that is much more clearly gospel-shaped and thus Christ-centered. Such worship reform means far more than a mere tweaking of the shape of the church's liturgy. It means, instead, placing the church's worship liturgy on a solid theological foundation that is then expressed in the order of worship both in its weekly and annual expressions. This reformed worship, according to Chan, then serves as a basis for all other practices of the church, including such things as Christian education, outreach, etc.

Chan is thus calling the church back to Christ clothed in his gospel as the foundation of all that the church is and does (i.e. all aspects of ecclesiology). He writes, "We need to see ecclesiology as an intrinsic part of the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not an administrative arrangement for the sake of securing practical results" (p. 36). Thus Chan points out that the mission of the church is grounded in worship. In that regard, he notes that
mission sustains the closest relationship to the Eucharist: the Eucharist is mission. It is mission in that it is making the church, the embodied Christ, available to the world. In its eucharistic worship the church is reformed to "go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord." The world does not know of any other Christ except the Christ that is embodied in the church. Thus to be the church is the greatest mission to the world. (p 40)

For Chan, being the church, and thus participants in the mission of God, has a great deal to do with the Eucharist being front and center in the church's worship. Sadly, many churches have structured their worship (often with the goal of being "relevant" to modern cultural concerns) without much thought given to this essential theological foundation and focus. In calling churches to liturgical reformation, Chan does so knowing that liturgy is "the work of the people" -- the people's "common response" to the word of God, which "constitutes" the church as "the covenant people" (p.41). Said another way, "the church is to be the worshiping community making a normative response to the revelation of the triune God" (p. 42). Worship, according to Chan, is what distinguishes the church as the church.

Chan also notes that worship of the triune God is "the defining characteristic of the church.... the hallmark of the people of God" with the Eucharist being the "definitive and culminating act of worship" (pp. 43, 44). That the church is defined by its worship is evidenced by Scriptures that treat various activities of the church largely as liturgical acts. Note, for example, Romans 15:16 where proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers (Gentiles) is called a "priestly duty" (for other examples, see 1 Cor. 10:31 and Hebrews 13:15-16). We are thus challenged to reframe our view of mission/evangelism as primarily a Godward act of worship. Chan comments:

What marks Christians as God's people is that they have become a community that worships God in spirit and in truth. This is what the church must aim at in mission. Mission does not seek to turn sinners into saved individuals; it seeks, rather, to turn disparate individuals into a worshiping community. (p 45)

Chan also notes that worship not only distinguishes the church as church, "it also makes or realizes the church" (p 46). Chan comments further:
In the liturgical tradition, what is realized in worship is the church as an ontological rather than a sociological reality.... Worship is the function of the church, and its purpose is to express, form, or realize the Church -- to be the source of that grace which always makes the church the church, the people of God, the body of Christ, "a chosen race and a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). Worship is church manifesting, creating and fulfilling herself as the body of Christ. (p 46)

Lastly, Chan notes that "worship is God's action in the church" (p. 47). By that he is indicating that worship is Christ's action within the church. Our response of worship can occur only because of the work of Christ, our worship leader, within the church. We worship by joining with Jesus, by the Spirt, in his worship of the Father. This means that our worship is a participation in the love and life of God. That is what is meant by placing worship on its theological foundation and some liturgies do that more directly (and thus helpfully) than others, particularly in the way that liturgy shapes doctrine. 

So much of what we know and experience of God results from what we are gleaning from the corporate worship of the church. A liturgy that is fully and consistently Christ-centered and gospel-shaped teaches us. In such worship we are, in effect, "gospelized" -- discipled, formed in Christ. A Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy actualizes an incarnational Trinitarian theology -- not only teaching the theology in words, but providing opportunity to experience the theology. This is nowhere more evident than in the Eucharist itself. 

So what sort of liturgy is fully Christ-Centered and gospel-shaped? There are various options that have arisen within various traditions. In Grace Communion International (sponsor with Grace Communion Seminary of this blog), we have adopted the liturgy defined in its annual (seasonal) expression by the worship calendar shown below (which correlates with the Revised Common Lectionary as it courses through the seasons shaped around the life of Christ and the worship response of the church).

For GCI's standard order (liturgy) for weekly worship services, click here. Note that GCI encourages its congregations to offer the Eucharist in each weekly worship service. For additional information from GCI on the topic of liturgy, click on the links below.