It is the most common critique of liturgy—it is dry…a high liturgy is empty, says the critic. Vain repetition (from Matthew 6) is the biblical term often used to denounce liturgical worship. This accusation is referring to babbling, or a meritorious type of prayer, a going through the motions with the expectation that something magical is going to come about. Of course, many modern worship songs would also fall into the category of vain repetition for the same reasons, “heaping up empty phrases”. This type of prayer in any circumstance is not ideal, however, repetition in and of itself is not wrong. Every liturgy (and every church has one) can become lifeless, we should express concern, and desire a more full expression of an enlivened faith.
What exactly is without life?
The liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer is almost completely scripture. Therefore, we should be careful when declaring the liturgy itself dead. These prayers are not themselves idle. Perhaps we should start by evaluating ourselves instead. Hebrews 4:12 reads, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Scripture is very much alive!
Even with the best of intentions it can occasionally feel as if we are going through the motions in worship. In this case, we ride upon the prayers of the faithful. When our prayers aren’t as heartfelt as we wish they would be, we depend on the prayers of those around us. The liturgy invites us to say the same prayers prayed by the faithful for generations, and these words are packed with faith. The beauty of the corporate nature of worship is that we join our voices with a much larger choir, one that extends to the far reaches of the earth, and even blends our voices with those of the celestial choir. It can be considered faith-full to continue lifting up these prayers even in our moment of emptiness, when they don’t seem to be penetrating the ceiling.
So, what do we do?
- Look for God in the Mundane: Consider our approach to God in the mundane reaches of the day, and how it relates to our corporate worship experience. Familiarize yourself with seeking God in the everyday, conditioning ourselves to live in anticipation, and attentiveness to the work of the Spirit.
- Pray: In his personal rule of life, E.B. Pusey says this regarding his participation in leading worship, “To pray God to enable me to pray…and then to try to throw my whole soul into the prayers.” Perhaps this should be the prayer of all worshipers, regardless of liturgical practice, that we should throw all that we are into our prayers, and to ask that God would enable us to pray.
- Misguided Desires: While we join in giving God praise in worship, something is also happening to us in worship. Many times worship becomes idle because we have become more in tune with the liturgies of the world—therefore, our expectations are misguided. Pray that God would remake our desires into His, and that this transformation would begin in worship.
- Imagination: A sacramental approach to life and worship means that we look for those places of earthly participation in the heavenly reality. Liturgical and sacramental worship should spark the imagination, and encourage us to recover a sense of mystery. Furthermore, God is at work in the sacraments. It is not up to us to fabricate a moment, or to drum up emotion. Rest, be faithful, and enjoy the presence of God. Pray for a revived sense of wonder!