As a teenager, I was deeply impacted by a youth ministry that made a lot of hay out of throwing out traditional, churchy practices. We started a church service on couches and bean bags in the hall where we didn’t do anything like liturgy or set prayers.
I remain deeply grateful for this low-church experience, for I heard the gospel there with a freshness that was God’s gift. But in hindsight, I have mixed feelings about the excitement we felt at doing things differently. For while this stance did grab my attention, it also distanced me from good things. By defining itself in opposition to traditional church, it took me away from, and taught me a scepticism about, practices that I now believe are helpful and valuable. One of these is the liturgical practice of saying things together, like common prayer. We threw this out without knowing what we were doing, and without taking the time to try to appreciate its logic, and what it might be good for. It was a practice that felt too old fashioned, too lifeless. But it need not have done. What I needed was for someone to help me see what this practice was about, and how it was connected to the Christian life. The following is an attempt to say something about that, in the kind of short, sharp way that might have made sense to me.
In church, we often say things together: sentences from the Bible, psalms, creeds, and other prayers. Sometimes we do this in a call-and-response form, sometimes as one. Christians have done this for hundreds of years; and this tradition is a precious gift, because this practice teaches us and trains us in the Christian faith. How does it do this? In three ways, at least.
- First, speaking and praying together reminds us that we are members of a body. Churches are not just bunches of individuals, merely the sum of their parts. The church of Christ is a body, and particular churches are communities or fellowships, joined and knit together in a range of ways; wholes that are in a real sense more than the sum of their individual members. That is why churches can have a distinct identity or character, as we see, for example, in the letters to the angels of the seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation. Saying things together – common prayer – is one of the ways we express this. We pray as one, giving voice to the identity of this community.
- In the second place, this practice teaches us to pray. Sometimes people worry that set prayers are inauthentic, that they don’t express what’s in our hearts. This is a common objection to liturgy, that it feels somehow awkward. But this is actually part of the point! Being a Christian is about learning your way into a new kind of life, and learning your way out of the things that just come naturally to us. Putting off the old self and putting on the new, as Paul puts it (Col 3:9-10). We long to be better than the ways of life that come easily to us. We need to learn to pray in new ways, ways that don’t always feel comfortable at first, in the same way a new habit can feel awkward and difficult when we begin it. When we say things together, we are learning to pray in new ways. We are learning the habits of new hearts.
- Thirdly, this practice gives us words to live by. Many of the words Christians say together in church are words of the Bible, and the others are prayers shaped by the deep patterns of Holy Scripture. When we say them together, they sink into our consciousness and memory. It is a way of doing like the psalmist: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Psa 119:15). We say these words together because these are words to keep with us as our guide through our lives, and that will serve us well when we are old, when what will matter will be what has been most sustaining and familiar to us. (Those who have cared for and walked alongside people with dementia will know that familiar, precious words can be like an anchor, holding us in place even in the stormiest of seas.)
Finally, it’s also worth noting that the restriction on singing during the pandemic in 2020 has shown us another valuable thing about liturgy. It gives the congregation another kind of voice and adds diversity to services. Churches that say things together have had an interesting range of possibilities available to them in the time of livestreaming and social distancing that those without this practice do not have.