Why Sunday Morning Worship Needs the Saturday Afternoon Playbook

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Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your liturgy  (i.e. your spiritual act of worship. Romans 12:1

This weekend the best liturgy you can find will likely not be in church. Throngs of worshippers will make pilgrimage from all across the land to massive outdoor sanctuaries where they will sing anthems, pray prayers and chant chants. They will shout for joy in response to spectacular processions and respond in almost pentecostal fashion to what is happening among them. They will dress in liturgical colors, some of them will even wear vestments of sorts. A few will actually paint their bodies. It will be the most intergenerational gathering of the week.

Arriving early for a time of tribal feasting the scene will resemble Jesus feeding the multitudes on the hillside. The event will last three to four hours and no one will even think of looking at their watch the whole time. In fact, if the service runs past the normal service length the people will be even more excited. No one will complain. Complete strangers will even embrace at points in the service.

They will be led by worship leaders to make loud cries in unison and it will happen without a single PowerPoint slide. This liturgy approaches the level of heart language. The whole event will bring people together into a deeply shared tradition, a story that produces a type of missional unity. In fact, the event will not be some kind of preparation for the battle or a refueling for the week ahead. It will be the battle itself. The people will go away witnessing about it to everyone they meet for weeks on end.

By now you realize I’m not talking about a Christian worship service. I’m talking about a Division 1 college football game. In case you missed it, go back and read the paragraph above again and make the connections. Yes, this will be the most exuberant liturgical event to be found this weekend.

So why has liturgy has become a dirty word in the church? Its assigned meaning resembles something like dead, formal, meaningless words, usually written in the bulletin, most often routinely recited by the congregation and offered under the auspices of worship.

This word, liturgy, literally means “the work of the people.”  Far beyond an agenda to kill worship services, liturgy designs to call people beyond themselves, (i.e. preferences and experiences) and join them into a unified mission. Think back on the football analogy again.

No one leaves a football game complaining about the band or the cheers or talking about how that experience “just didn’t do it for them.” No one complains that we sing the same songs and shout the same cheers without variance every single week of the season. The liturgy never changes and no one cares. Why? Because it’s not about the liturgy but the game. The liturgy simply brings the people into deep missional alignment so they can focus entirely on the game (or the God) to the point of completely losing track of themselves and being caught up in a dynamically corporate encounter. The people literally “offer their bodies” such that they are one dynamically moving “living sacrifice.”

Maybe we’ve forgotten that worship is fundamentally about making a public corporate offering, not having a private individual experience. We come to worship to give something not to get something. It’s funny how when we focus on what we are giving rather than on what we are receiving that we always wind up receiving a lot more than we felt like we gave.

Liturgy designs to gather a dislocated collection of individuals into a corporately embodied unity in the presence of God to work.  Worship is the most important work in all the world. What does this work look like? In worship we rehearse the gospel, declaring the glories of God while gathering up the whole creation as an offering and making intercession for the nations.  In worship we confess our sins, both personal and corporate, drink from the cup of forgiveness and feast on the bread of life.  Our worship work does not prepare for service in God’s Kingdom, it declares and demonstrates the Kingdom itself.

In worship the people of God publicly declare this story to the world, in the hearing of the principalities and powers and in the face of our vanquished foe. The lost are found in this glorious work, the broken made whole, the prisoners set free and the poor hear good news. And the best part is the big difference between Divine liturgy and the liturgy of division 1 football: the people are not spectators in the stands, but players on the field.

So how do we get our people to understand that Sunday morning worship is a lot more like Saturday afternoon football than they realize? (And as an aside, how might our “potlucks” take on the quality of true tailgating?)

Robert Jenson, in his illuminating essay, How the World Lost its Story, captures it with this word, “In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant,’ here is the first step:  it must recover the classic liturgy of the church in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life.  In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.”

College football is great; a healthy distraction from the warp and woof of daily life. Corporate worship is glorious; a holy occupation consuming and enlivening the whole of our existence. We long for the day when the great shout, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come Lord Jesus!” or “He is risen indeed!” will come with such force that football fans will scratch their heads and wonder why “Roll Tide!” or “War Eagle!” or “Go Gators Go!” pales in comparison.

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your liturgy  (i.e. your spiritual act of worship. Romans 12:1

See you next Sunday. I mean Saturday.

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