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On Liturgy: Seeing Life through the Eyes of Liturgy

Derrick McQueen

Derrick McQueen is the pastor of the historic St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, New York, and holds an M.Div. in Worship and the Arts and a Ph.D. in Homiletics and New Testament.

Professor, in my church, we don’t use liturgy. We start the service and just let the Holy Spirit lead the way. ~Anonymous

One of my favorite things to hear as we walked out of my African American Baptist church in North Jersey as a child was, “Yes, yes, we had ‘chuch’ today!” The mothers of the church would intentionally leave out the “r” to emphasize the power of the service and its hoped-for residual spiritual effects on their lives, their families, the community, and maybe, just maybe, the world. I would want to run down the church stairs to get to the car and then home for Sunday dinner, but I was compelled to slow down and walk behind those church mothers. I wanted to hear exactly what made this time so effective. 

There was the testimony and witness of how faith had brought them through the week. There was the choir’s fervent singing of hymns, spirituals, and gospel music, often leading to the community’s accompaniment of claps, tambourines, and dancing in the Spirit. There was the prayer that usually went too long but in the end had more than half the folks crying a cleansing cry. There was the sermon that, like a roller coaster, rose and fell, twisted and turned, ending in an improvised chordal trio with the Hammond B3 organ, the piano, and the preacher’s singsong poetic conclusion. And the time would come when we would all wait with one eye open to see who would walk down the aisle in tears as they felt called when the preacher said, “The doors of the church are open.” We would then sing a song that might just start the whole praise moment all over again! Little did I know then that this was my first notion of appreciating what I would come to know as liturgy.

When I heard a student in one of my classes speak that anonymous declaration above, I smiled, knowing it could just as easily have been me. In fact, it was me. Before I would come to understand the power and possibility of liturgy, I would pull an all-nighter in college to write a twenty-three-page paper in sociology class outlining the effects of my worship experience that seemed to be common to our community, moment by moment. I wrote how the familiarity allowed members to enter into a hoped-for cathartic ritual that would both help release grief, pain, sorrow, joy, and love and to do so safely with folks who knew what we were up against in the world.

Years later, I would encounter “liturgy” in a Presbyterian church and see it as a bulletin that offered a staid order of service to get us through the experience in such a way that all who participated knew that we had gone through an ordered worship. One day, I turned to the back of the bulletin and read the mission statement, which in part read, “to create a worship experience that will allow everyone to have an authentic encounter with Christ.” And that’s when I realized that liturgy was to create a space in which communities would find the opportunity to hear, feel, see, and experience something even when they weren’t sure what they were seeking. They would only know they had experienced it after the final “Amen” while on the way to coffee hour.

I’ve come to view the actual elements of any liturgy as building blocks to the ritual of worship. However, it is also a deeper opportunity to create an arc of ritual1 in which people may find an entryway to an authentic encounter with the Divine. The arc of ritual is based on Aristotle’s five parts of the dramatic structure of tragedy,2 designed to help the audience achieve a catharsis. Divine encounter in the world may be a part of Tom Driver’s point when he wrote of “the three great gifts that rituals make to social life”: establishing order, deepening communal life, and, most important, assisting “the dynamic of social change through ritual processes of transformation.”3

Outside of the walls of the sanctuary, the liturgy then becomes the creative outline into which one pours intent of transformative connection to the mystery of the Spirit, the Divine, or the personal activation and connection to a catharsis of a ritual. “Doing” liturgy then becomes a matter of understanding or shaping the action of it and its overall purpose and allowing space for the specific and varied needs it fulfills for the individuals involved. In the planning of community memorial moments, people gather, remember, name, share the pain of loss, and leave with a sense of at least knowing that time has stood still long enough to feel. It happens at every commemoration of 9/11 at Ground Zero. It happens with every graduation ceremony when the flood of memories of what it took to get to that moment culminates with a loved one receiving public recognition of accomplishment. It happens at birthday parties where the awaited moment arrives, and we sing, blow out candles, and make wishes. Each of these events has a liturgical outline that makes up this arc of ritual to mark moments of life’s transformations.

Liturgy is the order of moments in a ritual that strives to change hearts and minds around us. I posit that liturgy and ritual have always happened outside the sanctuary walls, and it is a vibrant and creative liturgy that orders the rites and passages in our lives. By noting the intention, purpose, and power of life transformations, big and small, we are encouraged to celebrate their vitality as we practice how to effect soul change in the sanctuary. This is how we do “chuch” in the four walls of the church and without.


1. “Arc of Ritual Worship”©, a term I coined for teaching to shift the focus from building “a” ritual in worship to an expanded notion of understanding the entire worship event—its planning, creation, and focus—as “the” ritual. 

2. While many interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics describe these five parts, here I am speaking of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

3. Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), 165.

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