Liturgy and Character Formation

Most of the conversation in the last 30 years or so has centered around the question: “How do we make our worship relevant to our culture?”

Douglas D. Webster says that the answer to the question is consistently answered in the wrong way:

Many respected church consultants are offering straightforward, unambiguous answers.  They are promoting strategies that encourage churches to establish a market niche, focus on a target audience, meet a wide range of felt needs, pursue corporate excellence, select a dynamic and personable leader and create a positive, upbeat, exciting atmosphere.”  (Douglas D. Webster, Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong With Marketing the Church, p. 20-21)

Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argue that “where religious affiliation is a matter of choice, religious organizations must compete for members…Religious economies are like commercial economies in that they consist of a market made up of a set of current and potential customers and a set of firms seeking to serve that market.” (Roger Finke, Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, p. 17)

The task of the Church is not to cater to consumers.  The task of the Church is to be relevant to our culture.  One of my greatest fears is of reaching an era when we no longer see the difference.  This line will always be blurry when we see the Church as a business – when marketing replaces mission, and youth culture is elevated to the status of golden calf (before you argue, do your homework…I even have a series on this starting here).

Mark Galli writes:

“[T]here’s a reason Jesus said ‘You shall be my witnesses,’ and not ‘You shall be my marketers’ . . .Should it surprise us that in this church-marketing era, members demand more and more from their churches, and if churches don’t deliver, they take their spiritual business elsewhere? Have we ever seen an age in which church transience was such an epidemic?” (Mark Galli, “Do I Have A Witness?: Why Jesus Didn’t Say, ‘You Shall Be My Marketers to the Ends of the Earth.’” Christianity Today, October 4, 2007).

The gospel doesn’t need to be “made” relevant.  The gospel is relevant.  The question is therefore: how does our worship unveil Christ’s relevance?


Historically, the Church has embraced the Latin phrase les orandi, lex credendi.  Literally, it means “the church believes as she prays/worships.”  More recent language has taught us that “what you win people with, you win them to.”  In other words, our worship not only reveals what we love, but can actually shape what we love.  Jamie Smith wrote an entire book called Desiring the Kingdom, in which he argues that our culture follows various secular “liturgies” that shape our character.  Think about it: if someone is glued to World of Warcraft all day, we conclude negative things about their character.  In other words, certain habits (such as the use of technology) shape our character.

Which means that the goal of the Church’s liturgy is worship that is both a response to God’s character, but also a response that shapes and forms our character.

Now, let’s be clear.  The Church is neither a building nor a service.  The Church is the body of Christ, made flesh in those who follow Him.  Therefore, a “worship service” is a gathering to celebrate the relationship between God and the new humanity found in His Church.    By definition, then, a worship service is primarily for believers.  It is not for the lost; it is for the found.  However, can the service be arranged in such a way that outsiders feel safe and welcome in the gathering?  Can it be arranged so that it also helps lead them further toward God’s character, and shapes their own?

I believe the answer is “yes,” and we have only to appeal to 2,000 years of church tradition to see such a pattern.  In Tim Keller’s words, the Church engages in two things: “come and see” and “go and share.”  On Sundays, we “come and see;” through the week we “go and share.”


All that leads us to the question of how: How can we avoid questions of preference in shaping our liturgy?  I borrow from the Bifrost Arts Music Liturgy and Space curriculum in suggesting that worship is (1) the expression of God’s love as well as (2) the formation of God’s love.  Let’s examine how this impacts believers and unbelievers:

  1. Believers
    Those who are “in Christ” enter a new relationship with Him.  By God’s saving grace we have fellowship with God and each other. Believers

The questions then are as follows:

1.1   How does our liturgy help us express our love for God?  Does it lead us to confess sin?  Does it lead us to express our thoughts and feelings to the full depth of God’s character?

1.2   How does our liturgy help form our love for God?  Does it lead to a change in our character?  Does it lead to repentance?  Does it lead us to treat others differently?

2. Unbelievers

This is a harder case.  Unbelievers have a relationship with God – they are His enemies (cf. Rom 5).  Our desire is to see that relationship reconciled.  Yet through God’s common grace, all men are aware of the presence of the God in whose image they were created (cf. Rom 1:18).  Which means they can appeal to such ideas as love, truth, beauty, and goodness even before they are led to the ultimate source.

Therefore the questions are the same, yet their applications a bit different:

2.1   How does our liturgy help unbelievers express a love for God?  Does it communicate God’s attributes (wrath, love, Holiness) in an understandable way?  Does it display the full richness of God’s kingdom?  Does it offer an invitation for unbelievers to respond to God – maybe even make a decision for Christ?

2.2   How does our liturgy help form a love for God in the life of an unbeliever?  Does our liturgy – both music and sermon – lead them to repentance?  Does it encourage a decision to follow Jesus?  Does it also give offer them a richer life in His Kingdom after they’ve made this decision?

The purpose of asking such questions is to redefine the strategy for planning our liturgy.  It’s no longer about appealing to consumerist preferences, but unveiling the gospel’s true relevance for our world today.

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