The advantages and disadvantages of liturgical worship

Like any other Baptist minister, until I retired worship was always within a non-liturgical setting. Nonconformists do not have a prayer book to follow. We create our own worship services. Since I have retired and started to worship in an Anglican church, I find myself in a setting where almost all of the prayers are from Common Worship.

The reality is that there is no one ‘right’ way to worship God. Although in my personal devotions my prayers are always spontaneous, I do not appreciate the unthought through nature of much non-liturgical public worship. Charismatic worship in a Baptist setting for instance can be a disaster. Often the leading of worship is delegated to an enthusiastic ‘worship group’ who are essentially musicians, but normally the members of these groups have little grasp of the nature of worship. When they lead in prayer, they normally have not thought through what they are going to say, with the result that they blurt out whatever words come to mind, and as a result their prayers tend to be a series of well-worn religious clichés. For me at least there is nothing inspiring or beautiful about such worship. Extempore worship is ‘off the cuff worship’ where frankly anything goes. Unlike David who said that he would not “offer to the Lord my God that which cost me nothing” (2 Sam 2.24) they are not giving their best to God. Charismatics sometimes use the words of Paul in 2 Cor 3.17 as a proof text for free prayer: viz. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. However, the freedom here relates to salvation and not to worship.

At the very least non-liturgical worship needs to be thought through. Jesus calls us, in the words of the Shema, to love the Lord our God “with all our mind” as well as “with all our heart and with all our soul” (Matt 22.27) – and that should be also true of our public praying. The English Nonconformist minister Isaac Watts, for instance, in his Guide to Prayer published in 1714, wrote of ‘conceived’ prayer “done by some work of meditation before we begin to speak in prayer”, as distinct from extempore prayer “when we without any reflection or meditation beforehand address ourselves to God and speak the thoughts of our hearts as fast as we can conceive them”. As a minister leading public worship I always engaged in ‘conceived’ prayer. Indeed, toward the end of my ministry I almost always wrote out my prayers. It was not that I could not extemporize in prayer – far from it, I can ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ when it comes to public prayer as well as anyone, but that is not God-honouring. Indeed, I would argue that my prepared prayers were probably more truly Spirit-led.

Notice too ‘preconceived’ or ‘prepared’ prayers are still forms of free prayer. They are not set prayers, which although they may have beauty, inevitably lack particularity. No set prayer can ever be perfectly suited to every occasion – there is always a certain generality of expression. Nor is it true that read prayers lack warmth and become more artificial in feeling – as I read my prayers I was still pouring out my heart and soul to God. Nor is there no room for the spontaneous when prayers have been prepared – there was nothing to stop me breaking away from my text if God suddenly laid something on my heart. I discovered that the more I prepared my prayers, the more people were likely to thank me for my praying.

If I had to choose between liturgical worship which I have experienced in Chelmsford Cathedral and the unthought through which tends to be the staple diet of most British Baptist churches today I would opt for the liturgical worship. The structure of the Sunday morning service is not ideal. Ideally I would order things differently. I would do away with some of the responses and would prefer a shorter build-up to the Lord’s Supper, but frankly these preferences are as nothing compared to my disappointment with much Baptist worship today.

Over the years I have written a good deal about worship, where I have made clear that the ordained minsters of God’s church need to be responsible for the worship of the church. This does not mean that others should not be involved.  However, it does mean that those taking part in the services should prepare with due thought and care. God deserves our very best. Sadly much Baptist worship is not in that category!


  1. O that they were musicians,
    O that they were musicians,
    O that they were musicians,
    O that they were musicians,
    Etc etc…
    Have you ever read Nick Page’s ‘Now for a time of nonsense’ ?
    Both hilarious and sad.
    Best wishes, Robert

  2. I think I agree! A new experience for me is the idea of intentions which is how the set prayer time is expressed in the Catholic strand of the church. It is often thoughtful and well expressed topics but leaves a lot to the individual and no time to think. When I asked I was advised that the idea is that we take away the intentions and pray through them in the week. I wonder how many people do. I find I really miss free worship in which you can go in and out of prayer whilst the music plays and gives space to absorb yourself in the presence of God in the way he is particularly present during a coming together of the people of God. I guess you can’t have it all!

  3. You give us much to think about, Paul. Recently retired and relocated away from the churches we once led, my wife and I now have a choice of wall-to-wall liturgy in one place or careless informality in the other. Prayer at the first feels raced-through tick-box, and at the latter off-the-cuff as-it-comes. Which is so sad, as we know from past experience (I’m speaking here from the pew, not the pulpit) that, properly done, both patterns can be endued with deep thought and passion, respect and reverence. It’s not the form that matters, but the heart that expresses.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with you , Paul. Prayers must be prayed and meditated upon seriously by those who compose them if they are to affect the worshippers.

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