Protestants don’t typically like the biblical word “liturgy” (yep, it’s a biblical word. Keep reading!) because it is so often used as a synonym for dead religious rituals.
That’s a mistake.
In reality, it is a wonderful word that captures the Church’s work of worship (service to God) and mission (service to humanity and God’s creation).
To the scriptures…
Acts 13:1-3 (ESV) 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
The scene in Acts 13 is a clue to the two-fold emphasis of liturgy. Here a group of prophets and teachers are said to be “worshipping the Lord and fasting” (ESV). But then what happens? Read on!
Some nerdy Greek stuff…
In the Greek text, we’re told that these men were leitourgountōn tō kuriō. You don’t even have to study Greek to know what that word first is. It can be translated “while they were doing liturgy (to the Lord).”
Allow me to geek out just a little bit more on the Greek word here. The word leitourgountōn is a present active plural participle, which means it is an “ing” word that involves everyone present. It has as its roots two words: λήϊτος (leitos) which basically means “concerning the people or national community” and the root ἐργ (erg from ergon) which is often translated “work” or “works” (when plural). That’s why sometimes people translate liturgy as “the work of the people.” That’s a great way to translate the word! But what is the work of the people? Back to Acts 13…
Liturgy: Worship and Mission
It is in this setting of liturgy (worship to the Lord) that the Holy Spirit speaks to them about the second aspect of liturgy (mission and service toward humanity and the rest of creation).
Somehow, this worshipping cohort of believers, prophets, and teacher knows together that God wants two of them to be particularly set apart for something special. In their place of worship, they are particularly positioned to hear a word about mission. In response, they all participate in sending the two Spirit-Appointed delegates into the work that God is calling them to do.
The point: Liturgy part A (service to God) results in Liturgy part B (service in God’s mission to the world). The work of the people is both toward God and toward the world that God has made in which we are called to be his imagers.
There’s another text in the New Testament where liturgy is used in reference to serving God by serving the needs of people.
Rom 15:26-27 (ESV) 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service (leitourgēisai) to them in material blessings.
The Jerusalem church had been instrumental in getting the message of Jesus out to the rest of the world. The response of believers in communities impacted by this aspect of ministry was liturgy (in the form of material support for their poor)!
A Final Word…
To illustrate a bit more as a final word of encouragement and reflection, this week I read a facebook post by Brad Brisco that captures the tension between these two ideas well. It was a challenge that read…
At the risk of sounding critical, I want to offer a gentle critique. If you are a pastor or church planter who loves sharing pics on FB and twitter of your Sunday worship service; please consider sharing pictures of the church’s weekly service outside the sanctuary.
For some reason, we like to post photos of people on the ministry platform in our worship gatherings, or photos of people responding in enraptured worship to those doing the ministry on the platform. Brad’s challenge was really about the second part of liturgy; The MISSION part! It’s a needed challenge. We can all afford to do a little introspection here in honor of the brothers “doing liturgy” in Antioch.
By way of a final question for reflection —
When we last did our liturgy to the Lord, what impulse, direction, impetus, or release did we collectively hear from the Holy Spirit about what he wanted us to work on outside of the gathering?
That’s the second aspect of the work of the people, right?