Preaching to Israel in Deuteronomy 4 (see especially Deuteronomy 4:15), Moses’s chief aim was simple. He urges God’s people not to immediately abandon God and start worshipping idols, after entering the Promised Land. Moses anticipates two potential sources of idolatry: fear and forgetfulness. Israel had to resist the fear that God can’t do what he’s promised. And they had to fight against forgetfulness, instead remembering all that God had done in the past. These two sources of idolatry are no different today. When we forget how God has acted mightily to save in the past, we fear he can’t act to save in the future. In our fear, we cling to other things—to idols—that promise to deliver us.

Gospel-shaped liturgies stifle fear, resist forgetfulness, and fight idolatry.

God’s antidote to Israel’s fear and forgetfulness was, of course, to proclaim truth. However, that wasn’t all. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy God establishes formative rituals, performed in community. In this article I’m going to suggest that the church today learn from this, especially as it pertains to how we can structure Sunday worship. I’m referring to what the church has historically called liturgy.

Similarly to Israel’s corporate rituals, a gospel-shaped liturgy reminds us who we are and what God has done for us. It stifles fear, resists forgetfulness, and fights idolatry. The festivals and rituals we read about in Deuteronomy were ways to reenact the story of redemption. And so is liturgy. By it we inhabit the gospel story. Just like Israel we’re prone to forgetfulness and fearful idolatry. Thus we need constant reminders of the gospel story. One of the most effective ways for that is gospel-shaped liturgy in our corporate gatherings.

Firstly, Worship is Communal

The above is about as good an argument as I can imagine for being part of a worshipping community. All of us are prone to fear and forgetfulness. The antidote is not trying harder to conjure more personal faith. The antidote is being part of a worshipping community that reminds us what God has done already so we can be confident he will do it again. However, being part of a worshipping community isn’t enough. That community or church must be intentional in its worship. With hearts that are prone to wonder, we need worship that draws us back to the gospel story.

As with all of God’s gifts, there is a danger of abusing and misunderstanding liturgy.

Having said that, as with all of God’s gifts, there is a danger of abusing and misunderstanding liturgy. We mustn’t get caught up in the liturgy as some kind of end in itself. Salvation is still based on sheer grace. Just as the law of Moses was an expression of God’s grace towards Israel, liturgy functions similarly. God gave Israel the law after he’d rescued them. Why? To powerfully remind them of what he’d done and who he is. We must understand liturgy in the same light. It is a means of God’s grace, which sweeps us away by the beauty of our union with Jesus.

Do We Really Need Liturgy?

In many circles, the word “liturgy” has bad connotations. It conjures images of cold formality. Rote worship. But “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which simply means ‘service.’ Taken literally, the word means ‘work’ (ergon) of the ‘people’ (laos). For the purposes of this article, we’re using the word “liturgy” to refer to the repeated, corporate practices of a group of people. To talk about liturgy in its most basic sense is to talk about what the gathered congregation does in worship. In this sense, every church has a liturgy.

Liturgies form us over time.

The apprehension with regards to liturgy for many Christians is that they fear it is just “going through the motions.” Sure, worship that has been scripted ahead of time can feel artificial. But all the liturgies and routines in our lives are powerful and effectual, even when we are not paying attention. Liturgies form us over time.

The power of liturgy also points us to the hope of liturgy. If we are humble enough to accept that all of our lives involve liturgies, realistic enough to embrace that our worship is liturgical by nature, and courageous enough to believe that God is at work in our lives, then we can begin to see the hope we have in the power of our liturgical practices; that if we are obedient in our practices of prayer and scripture in worship, the Holy Spirit promises to be at work in those routines and practices. He is not just at work in spontaneous moments, but also in liturgical ones.

What is Forming and Shaping You?

Along these lines, Paul makes a very strong appeal to the Christians in Rome. He exhorts them not to be conformed to the way of this world, but to be transformed or formed by the renewal of their minds. He writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).

A gospel-infused liturgy shapes us more fully into a gospel-centred people.

By using liturgy in worship, we are seeking to reform and reshape people, according to the gospel. Rather than being defined by the world, we want them to take on the values of the kingdom of God. Christians never outgrow or move beyond the gospel (Colossians 1:6, Romans 1:16). Instead, we continually need to have our hearts shaped more and more by the reality of that good news. In Christian liturgy and worship we celebrate the gospel story. We are reminding ourselves of the truth of who we are and whose we are. A gospel-infused liturgy shapes us more fully into a gospel-centred people.

Theological convictions aren’t only formed through teaching and study. But through singing, confession, creeds, and catechisms. A church’s theology can be “felt” in how it prays and how it sings. How it views the Lord’s Supper. If we believe that worship is at the heart of discipleship, we will seek to be intentional about the flow of our worship gatherings. We’ll be committed to better liturgy.