I go to visit an Ahlzeimer’s patient in the Nursing home. She doesn’t remember my name. She knows I’m a pastor but can’t quite figure out why I’m there. I ask if she wants to receive Communion. She says, “Yes.” After setting everything set up, I begin with the familiar liturgy: “The Lord be with you.” She responds: “And with thy spirit.” Together we recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and she joins in with me as I sing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth…” She mouths the words of Christ’s institution as I consecrate the bread and wine. She remembers. She receives the body and blood of the Lord, and when we are done, she thanks me. I ask her how her day has been, and she says, “Who are you?”
I often wonder to myself, what if this person had grown up from childhood in a church that did not have a set liturgy every Sunday? What if she had grown up in a church where the words and the format of the Service were different from week to week? When her senses and mind fail her, what will sustain her spirit?
It is often said, and rightly so, that “variety is the spice of life.” But it is equally true that “repetition is the mother of learning.” One of the benefits I have seen over and over again of having a standard form of liturgy in the Church is that it provides for Church members a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) to which they can return when they are in times of crisis, depression, or at death’s door.
There are benefits for children too. More than once during my years as a pastor, I have heard children that cannot otherwise read singing along heartily with the liturgy because they have heard those familiar words and melodies over and over again. What happens when we take this away from them?
Sometimes I fear that efforts to make worship more informal or spontaneous, though well meant, fail to take into account the entire lifespan of the believer. As a pastor, I am called to care for the souls entrusted to me—from cradle to grave. I try to take this into consideration when planning Services. One of the best ways that I have found to keep people rooted in God’s Word and connected to Christ, whether they are 5 or 95, is through the time-tested words and prayers of the liturgy.
Of course we do not want to hold onto traditions merely for the sake of tradition or out of some sense of nostalgia. Liturgical traditions ought to be kept because they serve to keep the Gospel front and center, and because they teach us about Christ. Rites and ceremonies certainly do not exist for their own sake, but because they help to provide a reverent and orderly format within which the gifts of Christ in Word and Sacrament are given and received. This is pleasing to God (1 Cor. 14:40; Heb. 12:28). They also preserve those assembled from the constantly changing whims and personalities of men.
St. Paul wrote that all things were lawful for him, but not all things were helpful (1 Cor. 6:12). This is helpful to keep in mind when speaking of worship. There is much freedom through Christ, even freedom in matters of public worship. Still, not everything is necessarily helpful or beneficial. As a 36 year old “Gen-X’er,” I can say that I am thankful to have been brought up in a church that taught me the words and forms of the traditional liturgy. With joy do I hand down these things to my children and to the sheep entrusted to me by Christ.