Liturgy: The Work of the People

Or . . . why do we stand up and sit down so many times during worship?! Discover resources you've been missing out on, and how to craft a church service to bring creativity, invoke resilience, and bring glory to the Infinite One.

An Interview & Liturgy Resources for You to Consider

What is "liturgy" anyway?

Even for professionally-minded and theologically-trained church leaders, it's a question well worth asking. More importantly, everyone should know what liturgy means, because the root of the word specifically denies that it's solely for "churchy people" or clergy-types to begin with!

Liturgy is for everyone, because liturgy is by everyone.

I interviewed the Rev. Dr. Thomas Schattauer, the Professor for Liturgics and the Dean of the Chapel at Wartburg Theological Seminary, to dive deeper into the the roots of the meaning behind liturgy, and exactly what it means within a modern frame of reference.

Like any good theologian (and, especially, a graduate-level professor), he immediately dove into the history and etymology of the word liturgy itself.

"You first need to understand that liturgy is the Christian word for 'the people's work' and it also means worship, particularly Christian worship," he said, adding, "Liturgy is not just what we do—and certainly not whatever we choose to do—but the "public work" of God’s presence and purpose in the world, in which we are invited to participate."

In fact, that's what the Greek term (leitourgia)—broken down into its constituent parts—means.

λειτουργία = a public service or the people's work

Dr. Schattauer was quick to add that the word originally didn't have any particular connection to anything sacred.

"Liturgy was something that a private citizen or even a government could do for public benefit . . . sort of like the classical world's version of charitable giving."

Except back then you probably couldn't claim it as a deduction on your taxes!

What's fascinating is that, gradually, the word came to be connected with the church.

He pointed out, that, "As far as most scholars know, the early church saw the gathering of worship as something that everyone did. Over 2000 years, we've moved away from that and worship or the liturgy has become something done by professionals, while laity are less participants and more spectators."

Although the church gained a word all to itself, there was a sense of loss to what the word's original meaning was. This point proved to be eye-opening for me in that liturgy wasn't so much the "stuff that gets done" at a church worship service. Rather, the liturgy—the work of the people—is the worship itself.

It's an important distinction, and one that would inform the rest of the questions I had for Professor Schattauer. More importantly, the original meaning of liturgy matters today because of the implications it has to inform how we function within and outside of the church doors.

Our imaginations not only drive the means through which we communicate the liturgy, but also inform the means by which we, as God’s children gathered around holy scripture, act out our faith collectively as Christians.
— Rev. Dr. Thomas Schattauer

How is liturgy done right?

In my interview of Dr. Schattauer, he was insistent that the language of right or wrong aren't particularly helpful or constructive when looking at this topic.

"I think what most can agree on is that there is a set of givens or necessary elements within worship," he said.

Typically, every form of Christian worship will have these components:

  • gathering of people in song and prayer
  • public reading of scripture
  • interpretation & proclamation of the Good News
  • prayers and a collection for the needs of all
  • gathering around the sacraments–baptism and eucharist—enacted
  • sending forth and/or blessing

(*Note: Some might add musical instruments to this list, but strictly speaking, the expression of music is more an aspect of achieving or carrying out any of the items I've listed above.)

How this looks in your context of course depends on your tradition and the creativity of your congregation.

"You can do liturgy—in whatever form it takes with the necessary parts in place—in a wide variety of ways. Given the vast diversity of allegorical expressions we have at our disposal—both in the Bible as well as through the historical traditions and with the advent of the internet—leaders often overlook the virtually limitless resources to express and live out faith in the context of worship," he said.

He added, "In that respect, the liturgy is literally the work of the people and its expression should not be seen as something constraining, but rather as a freeing, liberating aspect of our life together."

Creativity and imagination play a big role in how liturgy is done well. And there are misconceptions about what liturgy or the term liturgical mean.

Liturgy isn't so much about the "stuff that gets done" at a church worship service. Rather, the liturgy—the work of the people as directed by God—is the worship itself.

A frequent phrase we hear is whether a church is liturgical or non-liturgical. But with the correct understanding underlying the true meaning of the word, it's nonsense to say that any form of Christian worship is non-liturgical

Sure, there are "high-church" and "low-church" ways of going about it. However, every action in worship people achieve together—in a complex mosaic of diversity—constitutes liturgy.

And then it really starts to get interesting and exciting!


Why do we stand up and sit down so often, anyway?

Good question! It's helpful to realize that in some traditions today such as the Eastern Orthodox, places to sit aren't even available. Historically, church pews or chairs didn't come into existence in the communal building until after the 14th or 15th century.

An interesting factor that comes into play is what pedagogical neurologists have to teach us about the effect standing has with attention.

Dr. Mark Benden, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, has been studying the effects of standing desks on children. He’s an ergonomic engineer and originally became interested in the desks as a means to reduce childhood obesity and reduce the stress put on the spine and back that can occur with traditional sitting desks.

“Considerable research indicates that academic behavioral engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement,” Benden said in a press release published by Texas A&M. “When kids sit at a desk all day, they don’t have to use any energy, which means they can just as easily fall asleep, daydream, or distract themselves by distracting others. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.”

Dr. Benden studied the engagement level of 282 students in the second, third, and fourth grades, who had the option to sit on a stool or stand. Benden brought in Texas A&M’s educational psychology department through a special grant to study the focus levels of the students while standing. The psychologists, sat in classrooms for 2 years measuring their focus levels by using a series of markers such as how many times students looked at the teacher, how often they wrote on their papers, and how often they were distracted by a neighbor.

The results were clear: students in the experimental group were between 12 and 25 percent more engaged than the control group.

So sitting and standing in worship might be more than just an exercise in futility—we all might benefit from the added attention!

Of course, the act of sitting and standing up for different parts of church service isn't really liturgy, per se, but it does play a role in the activity we do together, as the Body of Christ.

For those who are able, standing is a sign of active participation and engagement in a communal action in contrast to sitting as part of an audience to watch or to receive something done by others.

With these essential elements in place, you can craft liturgy in a wide variety of ways. Given the vast diversity of scriptural images at our disposal—images that have resonated in the historical tradition as well as in the experiences of an internet age—leaders often overlook the nearly limitless resources to express and live out faith in the context of worship.
— Rev. Dr. Thomas Schattauer

Is liturgy a practice-run or dress rehearsal for following Jesus in real life (IRL)?

In some ways, yes. Others, no. 

Professor Schattauer answered my rather snarky question thusly: "I don't think we can call it a dry-run or anything like that. But at the same time, the liturgy of any single church is a communal activity than spans both time and place to actualize, or live out, the reality of what it means to follow Jesus."

The different parts of worship are meant to add to the liturgy as a whole. That is to say, not all worship is necessarily liturgy, but all liturgy is worship.

It's less confusing than you might think!

During our discussion, I mentioned to Professor Schattauer something I heard from another professor, Dr. Craig Nessan, while I was in seminary from 1996-2000. Dr. Nessan had stated that worship was much like "pretending the Kingdom." Pretend doesn't mean fake or any less important; instead, much like a child plays, we, too, act out that which we believe. Play, or pretending, is no less real to a child than actually doing whatever it is she's making believe.

Professor Schattauer recalled Dr. Nessan's concept, but clarified that Dr. Nessan is now using the term imagination—"imagining the Reign of God."

It turned out to be relevant to the discussion. Liturgy requires imagination, and often an active and creative imagination is lacking in today's worship.

Professor Schattauer, agreeing with Dr. Nessan's concept, said, "One of the things too often missed in today’s liturgy is the kind of creative expression and imagination we see in popular culture. A rediscovery of the richness of own heritage ought to go hand-in-hand with a deep engagement with contemporary cultural experience. And I mean engagement with the culture, not captivity to it. There are places where this is happening, and it is amazing the ownership and participation in worship that can take place."

Where liturgy intersects real life is that liturgy is real life. It's as real as you can get, in fact.

The good professor was quick to add: “I think it’s important to say that it not about simple imitation of what’s happening in the culture, popular or otherwise. It’s about applying the processes of cultural creativity to the communal task of a liturgical imagination in the service of communicating the Gospel in our time."

For a good example, check out the video below what the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis is doing for their Good Friday service.

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Life Together"

What current trends do we see, and new boundaries are some Christian faith communities breaking in the field of liturgy?

"Trendiness" and "liturgy" aren't two words we often see put together. And, to be clear, I'm not lifting up a need to somehow reach people with gimmicks or technology. Nor am I somehow rebuking the use of projection screens or electric guitars in worship.

It's important to make the distinction between form and function.

Still, is there something we can learn from secular culture?

Professor Schattauer seems to think so. 

"I think that taking the 'givens' or necessary elements into consideration, the sky's the limit," he said.

"During Holy Week, I have had the opportunity to attend the Good Friday liturgy at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. One event comes to mind that always leaves me speechless—they pass around this huge cross, (body-surf it really!) around the congregation. Kids stand up on the pews to get a chance to touch the cross and pass it around. It's stunning. And it's really very simple what they're doing."

What's happening is they are taking a tradition and a theological concept that has been passed along to them and applied a new way for people to participate. And that's the core of what liturgy is all about.

Take a look for yourself in the video below.

Basilica of St. Mary cross veneration.

As I began to think more about what liturgy really is, and how people are meant to participate and not just sit as an audience, I started to understand that the examples could be limitless.

The point is that leaders need to look to the people for the resources they already have, both collectively and individually to make a difference.

"It's easy for people to feel that leaders are foisting their will on them with new ways to imagine liturgy," Prof. Schattauer said. "So, education is a part of the package, but listening is just as important too.

Feel free to visit the resources I've listed below to begin to re-envision how you might begin to imagine liturgy . . . the work of the people.

Resources & Liturgy Tools Available Online

I encourage you to use the liturgy tools already found within your faith tradition or denomination. Often people forget about the resources they might already have at hand, especially online. 

And remember that your own context and creativity matter—each congregation has its own set of resources I can't easily list here.

And, of course, this list would not be complete without a nod to our own worship planning resources we offer here on, including preaching or sermon series for topics and texts.


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Daniel D. Maurer, Freelance Writer

Daniel D. Maurer is a published author and a writer, editor, web designer and regular contributor for RCL Worship Resources, your premier source for worship planning materials. He was a former ELCA (Lutheran) pastor. He lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota.


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