Is Liturgy Enough?

By Cindy Koch

What if liturgy isn’t enough? I know that’s the argument that well-meaning, smart theologians will give you. You know how it goes: If the preaching is bad or if the particular pastor’s teaching is less Christ-centered than you’ve understood the Bible to teach, if you at least have the liturgy, you’re safe. If the church is a mess and the people are all over the place with understandings, if you at least have the liturgy, you’ll be OK. The liturgy, a weekly confession of the true faith, built on and sustained by the faithful church for generations upon generations of Christians. A liturgy that preserves the pattern of right confession and pure Gospel proclamation, all bound up in a handy-dandy book, literally at your fingertips every Sunday.
A liturgy that has understood the ancient heresies and a liturgy that connects us to a faith that has lived longer on this earth than we ever will hope to. The words in the liturgy have been tried and tested by many a Christian. They have been savored on the dying lips of those who cling to Christ and His work alone in their last minutes under this sun. The liturgy, a beautiful, incredible pattern of worship for our children to grow into, nestled in the eternal confidence of the whole Christian Church.

Make no mistake—I love the liturgy of our church. I proudly teach it to my children and sing it loud every single Sunday. I am thankfully a part of a very traditional church who cherishes the liturgy as well (maybe too much…). But I think it’s worth asking the question. Is this it? Are those excellent ancient words what makes this church a place of faithful teaching, preaching, and administration of the Sacrament? Is the liturgy enough to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

In theory, it is enough. Ideally, it is enough. The words of the liturgy are true and right and walk us through good worship practice for our benefit.  So for a pastor or theologian who already understands the heights and depths of Law and Gospel, it may be enough. For the ones who already appreciate confession as the starting point for a terrified sinner, the ones who already have been freely absolved by the freedom given in Christ’s words to you, the ones who see themselves grafted into the precious family tree of Israel, the ones who bask in the benediction, words from the lips of ancient fathers of the faith right into our modern-day ears, for all of these the liturgy just may be enough. But for some of us, it is missing a little piece of the puzzle.

We haven’t been taught. I hear the words but can’t really hear what you are saying. Maybe I hear “sinner,” but if your sermon challenges us to keep our hands from sinning, you have taught me another kind of gospel. Maybe I hear “forgiven,” but then you speak conditionally, listing out a checklist of proper repentance; you have taught me forgiveness isn’t really free. Maybe I hear “love,” but if your finger is directed towards my heart, you have pointed me away from the Love that passes all understanding. Sure, the liturgy is enough, unless it’s not doing what it says.

The liturgy is enough only when the people understand it to proclaim the Gospel to sinners. That sin is a constant, deadly problem that haunts you every minute of the day. That God does not bend his righteousness, not even for you. That Jesus Christ was punished until dead on the cross for your sin. That completely outside of your own effort and merit, Jesus rose from the dead for you. That he freely gave his eternal life to you, a poor, miserable sinner. But if the pure Gospel is not preached, proclaimed, or taught, then the liturgy is understood differently. It is not enough, because then the liturgy is no longer about Christ.