5 Reasons To Use Liturgical Music In Your Contemporary Service


Republished with permission from Alex Mejias. Originally published at HighStreetHymns.com.

As a person who grew up in the age of CCM and “contemporary” worship, I had little exposure to traditional liturgies and “liturgical music.” I think the closest we came to using anything liturgical was when sang the Doxology (the “Old Hundredth”) as traveling music for the ushers after the offering. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that was the original intention of Thomas Ken, who penned those words back in the late 17th Century.

It wasn’t until after college that I had my first really full experience of traditional liturgy in spoken word and song. I had always had this image of stuffy Catholic services where people were being brainwashed to mindlessly repeat prayers and creeds. I never imagined that what I would find would be this giant collection of the most thoughtful and beautiful expressions of faith I’d ever encountered. I had been missing so much. Now I want to help churches find what I found and see meaningful ways to incorporate these prayers and songs into their worship.

A few definitions and qualifications: 

– By “contemporary” worship service, I mean one that does not utilize one of the traditional liturgical texts and outline as found in Catholic services, the Book of Common Prayer and other historic sources. 

– Every church has a “liturgy”, which is simply the structure of a church’s worship service. For the purposes of these posts when I say “liturgical music” I’m referring to specific Catholic, Anglican, etc liturgical pieces that have been used in corporate worship since the formation of Christian worship structures. For example, the Gloria, Kyrie Eleison, Sanctus and others. 

– This list is not exhaustive and I’ve just written a few words about each. The points below need much more explanation than afforded here, so if you’re interested in learning more I’ve included some good sources below.

1. Liturgical music is Biblical. The Bible is full of liturgical songs – “benedictions, prayers, creeds, eulogies, responses and doxologies” (Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music) to name a few. And the use of ceremonial music goes back to early Jewish worship in the original Temple. Jones writes, “the five divisions of the book of Psalms each conclude with doxological passages, and Psalm 150 in its entirety serves as a doxology to close the Psalter.” Though these songs have long been associated with Catholic mass and other formal liturgies, they are first and foremost Biblical expressions of praise and prayer.

2. Liturgical music helps us re-tell the Gospel story. In Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chapell writes that, “Christian worship is a re-presentation of the gospel.” The original purpose of the traditional liturgical music  was to help the church re-tell the Gospel story in a consistent manner.

Much in the way church architecture was designed, these elements often correspond to specific aspects of the Gospel story. As part of a contemporary service, these pieces might allow deeper reflection and focus on the Gospel narrative. On a larger level, many liturgical pieces link up with the liturgical calendar, which walks through the Gospel story over the course of the year. The rhythms of the Christian calendar draw us into the Gospel story and can serve as a way of dwelling in it.

A few examples — grasping the depth of our sin during lent, lamenting the brokenness of the world and crying out for a savior in advent, and rejoicing in the incarnation at Christmas. Taking advantage of these long-standing structures helps us go deeper in worship.

3. Liturgical music connects us to the Historic Church. Leslie Newbegin writes, “the thing given for our acceptance in faith is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear.”

We are a part of God’s story in the world, a story that began in a specific time and place. As the church has become more and more fractured, we’ve lost that direct connection with the ones who’ve gone before us in once united Church of Christ. When we sing songs from the earliest days of the church, we join the worship of the Church across the ages. It’s a way of remembering that we are part of a story that began long ago, one that we carry on today.

4. Liturgical music connects us to the Global Church. Growing up I heard little of the Eastern Orthodox Church. But as it turns out, there’s this huge other branch of Christianity that is not Protestant or Catholic.

Here’s the crazy-simple story. A thousand years ago, Christians were all in (not so perfect) communion. A dispute arose about leadership between the East and West (roughly based on which side of the Mediterranean they were on). The result of that dispute was a major split in the church spawning the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

What’s the point of all this? Well, while that split caused changes in worship practices, the common liturgy of the early church remained partially in tact. One of commonalities is in the liturgical songs. Thus when we sing those ancient songs we also united with our brothers and sisters from all over the world. We also stand in protest of the divisions that have alienated Christians from each other for hundreds of years. We also proclaim that one day there will no longer be denominations and divisions, only one body of Christ.

5. Liturgical songs complement contemporary worship songs. In many ways the move to “contemporary worship” threw the baby out with the bath water – starting completely from scratch in song and structure. Yet, hymns and liturgical elements still have much to teach us and enhance worship greatly.

Incorporating a traditional piece or two can really add some theological depth to contemporary worship (and vice versa). And these elements may actually help refresh contemporary worship. Most contemporary services began in reaction to the monotony of traditional worship. Yet, these new and exciting services have become woefully formulaic — usually a chunk of worship songs followed by a long sermon ending with another song (with prayers, announcements and an offering thrown in somewhere).

For contemporary services, traditional liturgical elements may actually help break us out of the patterns we’ve fallen into, giving your congregation a new way to participate in worship. When done with sincerity and understanding, liturgical songs are just as spirit-filled and edifying as the best of what we have today, so why not strive for the best of both worlds?

References and Further Reading:

Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell

Singing and Making Music by Paul S. Jones

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

Alex Mejias is a singer-songwriter, worship leader and the founder of High Street Hymns, a non-profit ministry dedicated to reclaiming Christian hymnody and liturgical music.