What happens to a people when the gospel is removed? They quickly revert to paganism, and, like the possessed man of Matt. 12:45, the situation is often worse than before the gospel came.
Is that true with churches as well? What happens when the gospel is removed?
For as long as I can remember, when I would attend a church where the Word was not preached faithfully, I would console myself by saying, “Well, at least the liturgy proclaims the gospel!” After all, didn’t Jesus say that the very stones would cry out if His followers failed to preach Him? It’s true that the propers, anthems, and hymns still sung in many an apostate church “cry out” that Jesus is Lord.
But does anyone have ears to hear?
It seems to me that when the gospel is removed from a church, liturgy has a tendency to hang around and mask the gaping hole that’s left. Liturgy can make an entire congregation feel like it’s doing something, doing church, doing spirituality, doing justice, etc.
Consider this quote I read recently, “worship is an energy transfer — between divinity and humanity, humanity and itself, heart and head, bread and wine, body and blood: Christ’s and ours.”
Without assembling the covenant community by the preaching of the gospel, liturgy (no matter how casual) becomes formalism.
But can we rely on the liturgy to preach for us in times when biblical preaching is scarce?
My personal pastoral experience says no. I recently gave a class on what the Holy Communion service is, and how it differs from other services like Morning Prayer. A lifelong church-goer told me afterward that she would now take Communion knowing better what it was. The prayer-book’s thoroughly biblical liturgy hadn’t taught her, but an exposition of the types of sacrifices required by the old covenant (atonement, reparation, whole burnt, and love offering), connected to the first Passover, and consummated by the Cross of Christ, did.
Psalm 47:7 says, “sing ye praises with understanding.” I think that’s key to understanding the Evangelical Anglican approach to liturgy. We are not against liturgy. We want it appreciated and understood biblically.
The Rev. Jake Dell is the vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow, New York, and a member of the EFAC-USA board.