Shakespearean Worship

Some churches thrive on a big personality, a trendsetter who draws crowds by sheer magnetic personality. The worship in most churches, however, is led by ordinary people from whose lips profound theology does not spontaneously fall. Is it possible to have a powerful worship experience that is not dependent upon big personality-trendsetting-celebrities? Can we have worship services that are powerfully moving times when the Lord’s presence is real and people’s lives are changed without extremely talented people?

One way for worship leaders to compensate for a lack of talent, style, and pizzazz would be for them to rely on something other than their own ingenuity to make worship meaningful. Worship leaders could tap into the beauties of liturgy. Thomas Cranmer shaped the liturgy of the Anglican church, and Diarmaid MacCulloch has this to say of his efforts: “Cranmer’s prose shows a tremendous sense of how language can work to produce a play: a play performed countless times over centuries by millions on millions of people day by day, week by week, year by year. This is a play which has outperformed every drama by Shakespeare, Marlow, Ben Johnson, any playwright in the English language.”

It seems to me that a lot of contemporary worship services are trying to entertain, like a television program. Many of these churches are trying very hard to be hip, and many have the same feel—like they’re a half step behind the culture minus all the racy stuff. The exceptional churches that pull this off usually have extraordinary people leading them. One big problem with the TV model of church is that if you don’t have a trendsetter you have a flop. The church will be uninspiring, and because it is trying to be like a sitcom, it usually does not give itself to teaching theology and Bible. And it dare not suggest that there is a holy, sovereign God before whom we live.

Some cultural forms elevate our capacities, others drag us down. Some things make us smarter—like reading Shakespeare—and others make us dumber—like watching television. MacCulloch writes of Cranmer, “How fortunate that Cranmer did not seek to scintillate. Liturgy does not demand jokes or punchlines: purple passages which sound exciting once and then become embarrassing. The need is for words which can be polished as smooth as a pebble on a beach by repetition, to become part of the fabric of individual people in the middle of a communal act.”

Liturgy is a prescribed form or set of forms for public worship, and the reality is that even informal churches have an unwritten liturgy. These informal liturgies are not only like sitcoms in their banality, they also, like sitcoms, generally proceed with a minimum of audience participation. Some churches even have the equivalent of a laugh track in the way they pump the praise team’s vocals through the speakers so that one cannot hear oneself or the congregation sing.
Even more problematic is the lack of biblical and theological content in the TV liturgy. It is sometimes said that we must “leave room for the Spirit to move.” There’s nothing wrong with leaving room for the Spirit; the problem is that we have abandoned carefully prepared, theologically full statements for whatever comes to mind at the moment. Expecting the Spirit to move in a biblical and theological vacuum is like expecting a fish to swim where there is no water. If the truths of the Gospel and the words of the Lord are not being announced, will the Spirit move? Sometimes the claim that we are “leaving room for the Spirit” sounds like an excuse for the contemporary allergy toward anything formal. Our unplanned informality fails to produce meaningful worship because for the most part we are theologically and biblically illiterate. There are some among us who know Bible and theology, but even they often fail to come up with something profound to say on the spur of the moment. Thus, so many worship services are bland pap.

Rather than being spontaneously dull week after week, why not draw from the vast body of profound statements that have been prepared for use in the worship of the Triune God? Here’s what I mean by Shakespearean church: establish an intentional pattern that the service of worship will follow, and prune from that pattern anything that distracts the congregation’s attention from the God whom we are responding to in worship. Do the announcements before the service starts so that they don’t interrupt later. Plan the service so that there is a natural flow from song to Scripture reading to song to confessional statement to song to Scripture to sermon. After the Scripture is read, train those who read to say, “The Word of the Lord,” and train the congregation to respond, “Thanks be to God!” Incorporate some kind of congregational affirmation of the faith (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Develop a rhythm that sweeps from a call to worship to a confession of sin to the celebration of forgiveness through the blood of Christ. Train the pianist or organist (or guitarist!) to begin the first note of the next song as soon as the last word of the reading or confession has been spoken. But most importantly, relentlessly direct the congregation’s attention to the exalted Christ, the image of the Father, whom the Spirit will glorify as the Word is read and the truth of the Gospel is spoken. This pattern, or liturgy, can serve the church the way that the sonnet form and iambic pentameter served Shakespeare.

Some might fear that these forms could stifle creativity. On the contrary, the form is the dress that clothes creativity with significance. It is true that forms can be lamed by uninspiring statements, which raises the question of where we get the content that will make the forms fly. Perhaps responsive readings could be taken from the great confessions and catechisms of the past, or from a resource like The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennet. Cranmer’s work in the Book of Common Prayer is readily available, and profound quotes from theologians of the church are at our fingertips thanks to Google searches. Why not seek creative ways to incorporate the high theology of theologians past? The Spirit can move through the reading of a prepared quotation, and the Spirit might be more likely to move through a rich theological utterance than through the flippant comments made in so many worship services.

While the TV worship style may be engaging, rarely does it teach theology or cultivate reverent worship. One way to stave off the monotony that does plague liturgical worship is for those leading the congregation to do so with enthusiasm. Paul does speak of exulting in God, and the free tradition is right to cultivate a celebratory atmosphere in worship.

At first read, Shakespeare looks difficult. But the more you read the easier it gets, and the happy things he does to the mind are worth learning 16th century English to experience. The old hymns are also worth learning because they teach sound doctrine and express what we would say if we could put it so well.

Let us pursue a contemporary—stylish but not faddish, historical—orthodox but not dank, theological—deepening but not boring, and, most importantly, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated way of doing worship. Cranmer’s liturgy can help us in this task, and if we are successful it won’t be because we’re brilliant or because of our celebrity persona. Rather, the moving worship will come because we tapped into something bigger than ourselves—centuries of truth about Almighty God—and he visited us in power, inhabiting the praises of his people and honoring the exposition of his word.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hello Jim!
    I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time now. I’ve linked to it on my blog. This is a very thoughtful post–even daring for a good ol’ Southern Baptist. I’ve long enjoyed liturgically rich worship. I have even made a little start at Beaver Baptist Church by reciting the Nicene Creed on the first Sunday of the month.
    I have been thinking about celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly. What do you think about that?

    Les Bollinger

    PS: my weblog is I recently started a blog—just the world needs another blog, right? Anyway, I’ve linked to your blog, and invite you check mine out and link to it if you feel it has any merit. The link is:
    Please check it out, and if you think it has merit, link to it.

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