In his very insightful book, Fire in the Fireplace, Charles E. Hummel in the title alone creates a very useful image of the Church. It needs to be both fire and fireplace. Hummel’s premise is a simple one. The church is a vessel for the message of the Gospel: a fireplace. The message of the Gospel is the fire of the Holy Spirit proclaiming the saving grace of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Without the fire of the spirit church becomes and empty cold hearth. Without a good structure the fire of emotionalism, and sensationalism can be mistaken for the real power of the Spirit.
When we speak of the vessel, the fireplace, we are speaking of the liturgy the church uses to conduct it’s worship. Strictly speaking the word liturgy means the work of the people. The work of the people is to worship God. Now some churches are known to be “liturgical.” By this they mean they have a set form of worship. They usually have a Prayer Book, missal, or some other source for their order of worship. They follow a set of prescribed lessons, they usually have ministers who wear special robes, etc.
There are other churches who think of themselves as “free church.” They think they are creating unique worship each Sunday without the aid of denominational or other guidelines. However, most of these churches, sooner or later, slip into a certain “traditional” order of worship. It might focus on the contemporary music. It might emphasize the preaching. It might always lead to an altar call. It will, in technical terms, have a liturgy.
From time to time each of these two approaches needs liturgical renewal. The Liturgical churches need to stop and evaluate. The temptation is to focus on the form of worship instead of letting the worship help us focus on God. The Free Church traditions need to stop and evaluate too. The weakness is to slip into areas of special interest or special weakness among the leadership.
There is an old joke that helps make the point and can give guidance too. When the Rabbi gets up to preach he says, “The Torah, the book says”. When the Roman Catholic priest gets up to preach he says, “The church, the Pope says.” When the protestant minister gets up to preach he says, “Well now it seems to me.”
Just as good preaching needs to be grounded in scripture, the tradition and history of the church, and the prayerful meditations of the preacher, so worship should also have a balance. Periodic liturgical renewal can help find and maintain this balance. There can be good fireplaces with warm fires.