What is Liturgy — Part 1:Order of Service   1 comment

First Lessons in Liturgy From Baptists

My first lessons in liturgy came from the Baptists in the middle of the 20th Century.  But, before I explain how that happened, I need to make a few disclaimers, so no one misunderstands my attitude toward Baptists in this essay.

1. I came to saving faith in a Baptist context. It was the Baptists who taught me the simplest version of the gospel, who taught me who Jesus is, why he came into the world as a true human male, what he was doing on the cross, and how his sacrifice there atoned for my sins. They taught me how his work on the cross redeems me from all my sins, and that his resurrection is a pledge of the resurrection which awaits me at his return to the earth. They baptized me in water (by immersion, of course) in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In all of this, the Baptists were (and, for the most part, continue to be) good catholics, though most of them would cringe at hearing this said about them!  And while we’re on the topic of catholics, you must never overlook the capitalization or lack thereof when I use this word. I know what I’m writing, and I know how to write it. You should take care to note what you’re reading.

2. I kept my Baptist treasures, for they are (as far as they go) the treasures of catholic Christianity. When I departed Baptist ecclesiastical culture for other climes, I was not running away from something evil or perverse; and – this is very important to keep in mind as you read what follows – I took most anything of spiritual value with me when I departed. I needed and sought something that was not found among my Baptist ancestors; but, that says nothing about the good things found among them then (and now as well).

Are Baptists Liturgical?

So, how do I come to point to my Baptist beginnings as containing the earliest roots of sacramental spirituality and liturgical worship which now characterize my Christian faith? Aren’t the Baptists known for eschewing these things? For repudiating these things? Aren’t Baptists as liturgical as Communists are capitalist?

Well, yes and no.  It all depends on how you use that term “liturgy.”  And, liturgy is a term that is sort of fuzzy in its meaning.  In this blog, I am going to use the word liturgy in a sense more precise than what you will likely find in the dictionary.  So, first of all, let’s start with how the dictionary uses the term liturgy and begin to tweak that.

What is Liturgy?

The problem in understanding these things comes from a fuzziness in what we mean by liturgy. Dictionary.com gives the following definitions of the word:

  1. A prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship.
  2.  The sacrament of the Eucharist.

The second definition is pregnant with unmentioned details which could be elaborated – the kinds of things you’d see, hear, touch, smell, and taste if you participated in a routine Anglican, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Eucharistic celebration. And, none of this, certainly not in the forms you’d find in those communions, would ever appear in a standard Baptist worship service.

The first definition, however, “works” just as well for a high pontifical mass as it does for the closing service at a revival at First Baptist Church in Needles, California (where I saw a number of such services as a boy). In this sense, Baptists  have a liturgy.

Liturgy and Order of Service

All liturgies, from pontifical high masses to Baptist Sunday morning services, will have “a shape” – an overall order. Inside this order, there may be small variations depending on the season of the year, or some special event (e.g. a baptism, or a special civic holiday (such as Mother’s Day, when a rose might be handed out to every mother present). But, the “bones” of the service remain the same from Sunday to Sunday, throughout the year.

All bets are off, of course, if we’re speaking of so-called “contemporary worship.” Many of these will follow an order of service every bit as rigid as a high pontifical Mass at the Vatican on Christmas Eve! But, in other worship serivices – especially those heavily influenced by the American style of Pentecostalism – you will not have a clue as to what’s going to happen next. In these there will be no order at all. What happens next is totally unknown until it happens.

For the purposes of this discussion, therefore, we are going to distinguish between two things: order of service, on one hand, and liturgy on the other hand. These two are often considered to be synonymns of one another. But, it helps us to understand liturgy better if we distinguish order of service from liturgy, which we’ll define more narrowly in another blog.

To sum up for now: A worship service either (1) has a “shape,” by which we mean a general, over-all order of elements that is distinctive for Christian community that uses it, or (2) has no shape at all, by which we mean that every worship service in that Christian community is totally indeterminate as to what happens inside it on any given occasion.

When a Christian worship service has a shape, we call this an “order of service.” And here’s the key thing to remember at this point: a worship service that has an order may or may not contain liturgy, that is liturgy in the narrower sense we are going to mean when discussing liturgy later on down the road.

An Old Baptist Order of Worship

Here’s the order of service at First Baptist Church of Needles, California in the late 1950s, drawn from my boyhood memories:

  • Opening music, played on the piano, as people gathered in the pews
  • Song leader summons everyone to attention, while the pianist segues into a hymn, which the song leader bids us sing while we are standing, thus allowing late-comers to get into the pews.
  • Welcome to visitors, bidding them to fill out cards found in the pews.
  • The Sunday School Report (how many in SS, how many visitations the previous Wednesday evening, and sundry other attendance statistics for the week)
  • Another Hymn
  • Announcements, followed by Prayer before the Offering
  • Special Music (a vocal solo or duet) while offering is collected
  • Scripture Reading and Prayer (done by Chairman of Deacons, or Pastor)
  • Another Hymn
  • Pastor’s Sermon (always evangelistic in purpose, concluding with …)
  • The Invitation (an appeal from the Pastor to respond to the sermon, while everyone stands, singing an invitation hymn, cycling through the lyrics as often as the Pastor deems needful)
  • Another Hymn
  • Announcement of the Response to the Invitation (new members, those rededicating their lives, those professing faith in Christ for the first time)
  • Pastoral Prayer of Benediction
  • Final Hymn

Now, this order of service was invariable all throughout my boyhood in that town. Moreover, when I moved to Texas, I found that Baptist churches I attended almost always followed this very same order of service. The only Baptist Church I can remember that departed from this order was First Baptist Church of Amarillo, Texas, and in those days it was (I was later to learn) “going liberal,” by greatly shortening the invitation or, sometimes, eliminating it entirely.

For an example of an order of service from the early period of English Prayer Book Worship, see the following Order of Service for the Holy Eucharist.

If you want to see a really startling order of service, check out The Ordeal of Boiling Water from the 12th or 13th Century.

In modern terms, an order of service is a sort of program found in a church worship bulletin that someone would hand you when you show up at a church on a Sunday morning worship service. The list of things done in the order in which they are done is the Order of Service for that Sunday.

An order of service is not the same thing as a liturgy, at least not in this blog. By “liturgy” we are referring to something else. Check out additional blogs in this series to learn what we mean when we use the term liturgy.


One response to “What is Liturgy — Part 1:Order of Service

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  1. Hey Dad – Likewise, would you pretty please put a big link to What is Liturgy: Part II at the end of this post? It’d be a shame to lose momentum in cumbersome navigtion.

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