By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent
LAUREL, Md.—Nationally recognized songwriter and worship leader Matt Maher, who wrote the song, “Your Grace is Enough,” believes that liturgical and non-liturgical churches can learn a lot from each other.
At a Mar. 20 Worship Together Live conference held at First Church, Laurel, Maher shared that leading modern worship does not mean one has to forsake the rich liturgy of the church.
Having personally embraced both worship styles, he shared the beauty behind several liturgical elements normally found in liturgical churches, including story, call and response, and silence.
He also shared the things he has learned from serving in modern worship settings that would enhance the liturgical worship experience.
Defining liturgy as a “public work done for the service of others,” Maher, who became a Christian at a Catholic mega-church while in college, shared that the Bible is the best story ever written.
“There is more drama, tension, resolution, lust, romance, betrayal, intrigue, mystery, danger and victory in the biblical story,” he said, “and we’re a part of it!”
Yet, Maher said, today’s communicators try to get their messages out in the shortest way possible, even trying to fit everything into 146 characters—the length of a Twitter post.
“But, every Sunday, we are supposed to be come together to remember the whole story,” he urged, noting his worry that too many preachers have shrunk the biblical story to just its apex—the cross.
“When we take the cross out of the larger story, it loses its power,” Maher said, explaining why liturgical services contain readings from the Old Testament, a New Testament Epistle, a Psalm and one of the Gospels, in a systematic reading through the Bible.
He explained that this liturgy is the straight story, and the prayers are based on the total scriptures.
“If people less and less associate themselves with Christianity, it is probably because they haven’t heard the whole story,” he said.
“Maybe people aren’t understanding because they’re having problems identifying themselves as those in the story.”
When people encounter the humanity found in the Scriptures, in people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the talking donkey, Peter and Pontius Pilate, Maher said people may feel a bigger connection to the story. “If God can use Mary, then He can encounter me in my story. If He can use the disciples, then He can use me,” he suggested.
Maher also explained that as human beings, people have been made to communicate in very special ways.
“We’re made with eyes to see, and we have the ability to make gestures; we’re literally made to make connections,” he said, explaining the very basic nature of communication as input and output, and as call and response.
“We’re meant to speak and to listen,” he shared, pointing to the angels in heaven who respond to God’s worthy through declarations of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and other affirmations.
“Worship is a response to the revelation of who God is and what He did for you,” Maher affirmed. “What if your worship services offered something for people to respond to?”
Explaining the basis of the Call and Response found in liturgical church services, Maher suggested that modern worship services could harness the power of response by offering responsive scripture reading “as a method of learning and receiving scripture” in the participants’ hearts.
Pointing to the element of silence, Maher shared, “In a world of increasing technological communication, wouldn’t it be ironic if our churches offered silence” as a precious commodity?
Maher cautioned that unless there are intentional moments of scripted silence to take everything all in and to hear God’s voice, “people will only hear other people’s thoughts without formulating their own.”
Maher also acknowledged that contemporary liturgical churches have learned to move away from so much rigidity and have moved times of silence to more appropriate times in the service. Instead of people coming from a noisy world into strict silence, churches are becoming more hospitable and are providing transitional times.
Secondly, contemporary churches have taught them to be intentional in teaching why they do the forms of liturgy, allowing people to see the poetry and the meaning behind it so that it doesn’t become mindless. They also intentionally pause after readings and seek to apply the scripture to the listeners’ daily lives so that it remains relevant to them.
There is also a sense of more freedom to allow the Holy Spirit to move, Maher added. Like more contemporary churches, liturgical churches are intentionally creating spaces for spontaneous continuation of worship songs and/or prayers.
Likewise, liturgical churches are seeking to use today’s technology to orient every person to God, which is reminiscent of “those who have gone before us” and built stained glass windows to tell the biblical stories, and who incrementally introduced instruments such as the organ, the piano, the guitar and drums into the services.
“We’ve created a whole new set of forms, but essentially we have kept the rituals,” Maher offered, noting that many contemporary churches offer a formula-based service which contains a certain number of songs, a message, a time of offering, and announcements.
“Maybe as Christians and as people, we are inherently ritualistic, and we want to live life in a certain order,” he said. “Maybe that’s because God made us and He wants us to find Him in the order.”
He concluded, “Look across the denominational walls to see what we have lost and what we can get back and what we can learn from each other. Then we can all speak the same language and the world will see.”