Wheaton magazine

Volume 23, Issue 2
Wheaton magazine // Spring 2020
Illustration by Mayuko Fujino

The Power of Liturgy

I stand frozen between my two Wheaton peers as they cross themselves—an act I am honestly uncertain how to perform—fingers to the forehead and across the chest.

I have worshipped next to the same people in different places and positions: arms raised at All School Communion in Edman Chapel; eyes glued to glowing PowerPoint lyrics at my nondenominational home church; smiling over hymnals at the elderly choir in my friend’s Baptist church. Surely, joining a community of diverse believers was bound to be filled with moments that surprised and confused me, simply because I was unfamiliar with them—theologically or experientially.

At this moment, though, amid the congregation of a local Anglican church, I am reminded that these experiences in an Anglican worship setting have been the strangest to me. Under the glow of dim lighting, a perfectly scripted service of repeated words and methodical actions unfolds, each step directed by a thick paper booklet, priests, and deacons—all of which make the liturgical tradition feel oddly foreign to me.

Yet this is not the case for the multitude of Wheaton students, professors, and alumni who fill liturgical church congregations each Sunday. Many of these people, like me, do not come from liturgical backgrounds. They seem to be seeking something different, something outside the distractions of the current trends in an attempt to discover what constitutes a full and God-honoring worship experience.


This movement to recover resources of ancient Christian traditions was advanced by Dr. Robert Webber, a professor at Wheaton in the 1970s. Webber’s journey led him to spearhead a push back toward the liturgical tradition. His book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, published 35 years ago, caused a number of evangelicals to shift toward liturgical practices, sparking controversy among other evangelicals who were concerned that such a tradition might be too similar to Catholicism. Webber believed, however, that though the evangelical theology of grace was vital, perhaps essential values and attitudes had been lost during the Reformation. Ritual, it would seem, could be a vessel for grace.

The Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver ’01, assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, teaches a class on ritual studies and talks about ritual in a way that is much more accessible for modern-day evangelicals. In his words, “Ritual is intrinsic to what it means to be human.”

Dr. Olver often uses the example of marriage to explain this claim. “The oneness of a husband and wife, while something that God effects, can nonetheless only be known ritually or symbolically. It isn’t the big things a husband and wife do for each other that cultivate love and 'oneness,' but rather the ritual stuff, such as putting the dishes away or giving a kiss on the cheek. Similarly, actively engaging in the liturgy—especially the Eucharist— can be a consistent act of drawing near to God by giving of yourself.”

Dr. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament and a recent addition to Wheaton’s School of Biblical and Theological Studies, uses a similar analogy. He, however, describes the flipside of it: God’s role in ritual. In the liturgical tradition, there is a framework in place that allows for God to show himself in unique ways. “The church can sometimes be too apt to think about innovation as this central element of what it means to encounter God,” he says. “But sometimes we encounter God precisely in things that are predictable. It’s in the routine that God can manifest himself.”

Dr. McCaulley, raised Baptist, discovered the power of the liturgy through the church calendar when he joined the Anglican church. From Advent to Lent to Easter, the liturgy of the church suggests ways to think about each season of life in holistic and human ways. “The liturgy gave me a way of orienting my entire life—my days, weeks, months, and years toward God,” he says.

For Dr. Amy Peeler, associate professor of New Testament, the power of repetition drew her both physically and spiritually. After she and her husband began to feel that God seemed too comfortable in their previous worship services, they made their first visit to an Episcopalian church. Upon entering this service, they immediately noticed that there was “a holiness and a reverence here that we hadn’t experienced at other places.”

If the holiness of God requires a physical reaction, the liturgy provides a structure. 

“God is enthroned, and God is sovereign, and I’m so grateful for all that God has given me, I just want to fall down and bow…but in the Holy Spirit, you’re also able to stand, and that act happens for me in the liturgy,” Dr. Peeler says.

"God is holy. And then God reaches out to us."

The combination of bowing and standing tall in the same service is powerful as participants embody two meaningful responses toward a God who is both transcendent and immanent.

“God is holy. And then God reaches out to us,” she says, her eyes bright with awe.


Initially instituted by the canon law of the Roman Catholic church to guide both services and days, the liturgy focused on the Eucharist. After the Reformation, it began to adapt as other styles of worship developed. The practice of repeated actions and words provided a biblically shaped form for worship that guided believers through the seasons of the church calendar. Though the meaning of the Eucharist has been debated among Christians, the liturgy's primary goal was always to remain centered on Christ.

The centuries-old liturgical tradition still draws in the community of Wheaton today. As young evangelicals searching for what Dr. Peeler labels a “denominational home,” many Wheaton students are thrilled to be included in Christianity’s historical roots. For example, this summer, Wheaton in England students—myself included—began a literary pilgrimage in Canterbury, physically carrying out Robert Webber’s vision.

After receiving the Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral, I remember filing back to my seat and wondering why some of my peers were so emotional. Ripples of awe made their way through our two rows when someone whispered that we had just taken the Eucharist from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At the time, it was difficult for me to grasp the full weight of worshipping in the birthplace of the Anglican church. When I came home, even though I continued to wrestle with the crutch that tradition could become, I found myself searching for the significance of those experiences from cathedral to cathedral. My peer, Lucy Bruno ’21, explained it as “stepping into Christianity instead of trying to curtail Christianity to a specific group of people.”

Professor of Evangelism and Leadership Rick Richardson believes that liturgy can provide cultivation of the whole person in worship. Liturgy, through the incorporation of symbolism and imagery in the context of the church year, is “stimulating to the imagination.” The liturgy has helped him depend on “the intuition” as “a way of knowing God and getting out of our heads into wonder and awe and worship.” In a sense, Dr. Richardson, Dr. McCaulley, and Dr. Peeler are all advocating for liturgy’s place in discipleship, as it consistently calls believers to respond in thought and action to the holiness of God.

While liturgy can play a role in discipleship, some questions remain. For example, where does the Holy Spirit fit in during a service?


Though raised “anti-traditional” in the charismatic church, Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought Dr. Timothy Larsen ’89, M.A. ’90, a former student of Webber’s, offers a balanced position. He attends a local charismatic church that also employs a form of liturgy during the service. Dr. Larsen explains that this model of “blended church” is what Webber was championing.

“The fact that today we have churches that are liturgical and evangelical and charismatic is really a blending of things people thought could not go together in the past,” Dr. Larsen says.

There is space now to explore various methods of church practice and to find compatibility where previously concepts like liturgy and the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit were perhaps cordoned off in separate sanctuaries. Dr. Larsen sees the blended church as an opportunity to embrace the movement of the Spirit while still maintaining the “steady continuity of Christian life and growth” implemented by liturgy.

“What Robert Webber was saying we needed to bring back in was rhythms of ordinary spiritual growth,” he says. Webber was calling his brothers and sisters in Christ to be open to re-thinking church practice for maximum spiritual growth, and not necessarily to a particular denomination. 

Perhaps these increasingly “convergent” models of church are what cause professors such as Dr. Larsen and Dr. Peeler to exhibit caution over prescribing one denominational practice for others.

“Probably like my own journey, I think for some in the Wheaton community longing to find historical connection or beauty or reverence they haven’t seen before … it [liturgy] is a wonderful thing. I tend to think about denominations a bit like the parts of the body rather than like factions,” Dr. Peeler says. “We all capture a different part of the essence of God, and that’s a good thing.”


Why have some made a denominational transfer, then? Many find themselves in an emotional rut at some point in their faith, particularly related to worship. A shift in worship experience might allow for refreshment in the face of exhaustion. Spiritual exhaustion is an easy pitfall for Wheaton students, even if the Christian community and education are a privilege of this unique college experience.

Feeling exhausted during a typical nondenominational worship service is the reason why you might now spot Dr. Emily McGowin, associate lecturer of theology, celebrating the Eucharist at a local Anglican church. 

Icons, a plethora of Harry Potter posters, and children’s art scatter the turquoise walls in her office. Though rich in color, the dimly lit room is cozy, not unlike that of the smaller Anglican churches in the area. Here, she seems both comfortable and confident enough to be honest about the role depression played in her movement toward the liturgical tradition.

“I knew intellectually that I was saved by grace through faith as a good evangelical Protestant,” she says. “But experientially, when it came to the worship of the church, it really felt like when I came to worship, it was my responsibility to prove that I was saved, week in, week out.”

Amid painful emotional turmoil, Dr. McGowin found herself unable to muster up the energy to “produce the right kind of emotion.” She was unable to carry herself through the faith. But a visit to a friend’s Anglican church with her husband changed her stance in worship. 

“You physically walk up with your hands out empty. And Jesus literally gives himself to you. And all you can do is receive it. I was able to experience with my body and my emotions and my mind what I knew theologically was true,” she says. Liturgy removed her from the center: “It carries you.”


During Chapel, Chaplain Timothy Blackmon hopes to offer Wheaton students the same relief experienced by Dr. McGowin. “I don’t want there to be this pressure on Wheaton students to have these phenomenal spiritual highs that they have to conjure up week after week,” Blackmon says.

A more liturgical structure for chapel services could perhaps protect against such pressure.

“God’s going to be worshipped whether or not it is giving me 'the feels’ right now,” Blackmon says, settling back in his leather chair. “I think there’s something actually really calming about that.”

This understanding of worship resonates with student Megan Kim ’21. With no previous liturgical background, she began attending an Anglican church and discovered that it “combatted those individualist messages I grew up with that placed the burden of unique sensational or emotional encounter on me as a measure of spiritual ‘wellness.’” For Kim, the liturgical service gave her “a broader understanding of what it is to listen to God.” This was something I also desired, but I was not certain that the liturgy could be more than legalistic or rote for me.

If worship teaches us what we should desire, then it is important to consider how a particular form of worship might be shaping our desires in specific ways. Put simply, “Worship educates,” says Dr. McGowin.

Blackmon is therefore concerned about how some churches attempt to attract believers today. “If the church is drawing people in with a massive spectacle, with a huge show, with lights and smoke machines and drama, that’s actually also what you’re drawing them to,” he says. "What you win them with is what you win them to."

Though God may speak through such spectacle, the question remains: How can churches draw its members closer to Christ, more directly to God? Rather than keeping us entertained as consumers, true worship should refresh, rejuvenate, and carry us toward Christ when our abilities fall short, as they inevitably will. Liturgy, then, could be an option.


For the Rev. Dr. Joel Scandrett ’84, M.A. ’88, director of the Robert E. Webber Center at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, his move toward the Anglican church speaks not to the power of one denominational practice over another, but rather to the fundamental need we all have when we come to worship. “For me, it was really all about Jesus—it wasn’t primarily about the liturgy, except insofar as the liturgy is a gigantic pointer to the person of Jesus Christ.”

Through the liturgy, human actions and words can combine with the power of the Spirit to create a true encounter with God that re-centers our lives around Christ. “It’s really about union with Christ. That’s the theological center of it,” Dr. Scandrett says. “My life is not just my own solitary life, but it is a life that is now re-grounded, re-rooted in God through Jesus Christ.”

"My life is not just my own solitary life, but it is a life that is now re-grounded, re-rooted in God through Jesus Christ."

Despite my previous unfamiliarity, even discomfiture with the liturgical tradition, I recognize the search for a worship experience rooted in Christ as my own. Beyond a culture of consumption, in the midst of theological debates and uncertainties, and despite worship fatigue, the seeking, longing, and need for Christ remain. Webber writes: “Although all of life is sacred, there is something in life that has the specific function of taking us to Christ, and that is his church.”

Believers are seeking a place where Jesus Christ is present alongside them, but still holy; where each stage of their lives is both significant and insignificant in his all-encompassing presence; a place for unity in the face of paradox. Whether or not the liturgical tradition serves that function for others or myself, we all need a constant re-centering on Christ. If our search in church practice is a search for Christ, renewal in worship will follow.