Dr. CJ Rhodes
Liturgical is a word that you won’t hear much about in many Black Baptist churches, except for those churches that have a dance ministry. That is because ‘liturgical’ has come to be associated with Anglo-Catholic traditions such as vestments, rituals, and practices deemed extra-biblical or even anti-biblical by such congregations. To be sure, there have been and are now growing numbers of Black Baptist churches embracing preaching from the lectionary, applying ashes to foreheads for Ash Wednesday, and draping preachers and sacred furniture in cloths and colors appropriate to the times and seasons of the Christian calendar.
But one shouldn’t believe a Baptist church is non-liturgical because it’s not reciting the Apostles’ Creed or a collection of written prayers and supplications weekly. Etymologically, some argue, ‘liturgy’ comes to us from the Greek to basically mean “the work of/for the people.” Another way of understanding it is to say that it’s about service, service to God in public and collective ways. Most Baptist churches have some flow of service, whether they have a printed bulletin or program or not, and set liturgical practices that define how pastors and people worship the Lord together.
Baptists are particularly insistent on congregational participation in worship services. Black Baptists especially encourage congregational singing of hymns or devotional songs, and even desire a call-and-response dialog between the pulpit and pew during the sermon. Many Black Baptists, but certainly not all, like a participatory religious experience they can feel, experience, and respond to bodily in shouts, dance, tears, and hand claps.
Expression in worship isn’t the only place we see the work of the people. In churches where there are responsive readings of Scriptures, this act is led by deacons and deaconesses, or lay leaders. Prayers, announcements, and testimonies are often lifted up from the pew and from podiums not considered part of the pulpit. All this to say that even though pastors are important (or should be considered important) in the worship life of the congregation, it’s the participation of the people that make the service feel rich and whole. Many of us who have journeyed through the pandemic preaching in empty sanctuaries to cameras of smartphones know this to be true. We feel the weight of not having the lifted voices of the saints joining in with ours in celebration of our God and Savior.
As we gather in churches—be that virtually or in person—we should do so not only in awe of the One to whom worship is exclusively directed, but also with an appreciation of the work of all the people in sharing in the worship event. Our collective voices and bodies, infused with the joy of the Lord, should be heard and seen as important to the work of service. With all its horror, maybe a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has accentuated the power of the Psalmist’s words: Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together! (Psalm 34:3 ESV)