Liturgies are like excuses: Everybody’s got one. Simply put, liturgy is what people do when they worship. So no matter how much a church may insist that there is no liturgy, one will inevitably emerge. It has to be this way because, as James K.A. Smith has noted, we are liturgical animals. This is how God has wired us—for life and worship.
Equally important to recognize is that liturgies are shaped by a theological paradigm. What is it that shapes, most fundamentally and at the most basic level, our worship? The answer, it would seem is grace.
in worship God’s condescending grace is reenacted and freshly experienced
At the heart of God’s graciousness toward us is his voluntary condescension wherein he bridges the great gulf which exists between us and him. In other words, he comes to us as evidenced most clearly in the incarnation of our Savior. Christ descends in the condescension of grace; we do not ascend to him on the ladder of self-worth, good works or merits. Having come to us in Christ, however, we do respond. We respond in faith and repentance and obedience. This is the logic of the gospel.
It is this gospel logic that we put on display when we gather for corporate worship. It is this dialogue that is taking place when we assemble together.
The parts of worship are of two kinds: those which are performed on behalf of God, and those which are performed by the congregation. In the former the worshippers are receptive; in the latter they are active. It is reasonable that these two elements be made to alternate as far as possible (Directory for Worship of the OPC).
In other words, in worship God’s condescending grace is reenacted and freshly experienced. He comes to us and we respond to him.
Because of this back and forth in worship sometimes we speak of worship as a dialogue. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who does all the talking? No fun, right? Worse than that, if you’re like me, you never leave that conversation satisfied. And the reason is simple: we were made to engage —with God and other humans.
When we gather and enter into worship we enter a great dialogue wherein God speaks to us and reminds us that we are his and he is ours, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Consider our liturgy in this light. God begins by speaking and calling us out of the world into his presence in the Call to Worship. We respond in a song of praise and a prayer of Invocation, begging him to be with us and to bless us. God speaks again, this time in his holy law. We respond in confession. He assures us of our pardon. We sing a song of rejoicing and affirm the Gospel afresh and anew, confessing our faith. We give our gifts and offer our prayers, coming boldly into his presence as those welcomed and forgiven. God speaks to us in his Word and communes with us in the Supper. We bless him and respond to his good gifts in song and praise. He sends us forth in renewed obedience, placing his name upon us in the Benediction.
Worship is not a monologue. We do not do all the talking, nor does God. Here we both speak. We hear God’s good words of grace and mercy and we respond accordingly.