James K.A. Smith has shown that there are even such things as secular liturgies (see Desiring the Kingdom).
But it’s also true that every church has a liturgy, even the ones that think they’re non-liturgical.
In Chapter 7 of Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel Mike Cosper gives an insightful historical overview of different church tradition’s approach to gathered, corporate worship. His treatment of the negative impact of Revivalism (think Charles Finney) on public worship was helpful:
Rather than worship being a formational process in the lives and hearts of believers over years of gathering and learning, it became an ecstatic experience driven by emotive preaching and decorated with music. The goal was a catalytic, life-changing moment.
He cites Kent Hughes who outlined the changes:
The structure of corporate worship became: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the sermon, and (3) the invitation…. Singing and musical selections were made in regard to their effect rather than their content. Gospel songs (celebrating experience) often supplanted hymns to God. Scripture reading was reduced so as not to prolong the ‘preliminaries.’ Prayers were shortened or even deleted for the same reason. As to the sermon, the careful interaction with the biblical text so treasured by the Puritans was in many instances replaced with a freewheeling extemporaneous discourse.
More recently according to Cosper,
Many have embraced what’s sometimes called the Temple Model (or the Wimber model, given its usual attribution to John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches). This model likens the journey of worship to a pilgrim’s journey to the temple in Jerusalem. As one worship leader [Vicky Beeching] describes it, ‘We see the “Temple journey” of worship from every day life, walking towards Jerusalem, into the Temple courts and finally into the deepest place of God’s presence.’
The journey begins in the ‘outer gates,’ where the crowd assembles rambunctiously, with celebrative and energetic music. As worship continues into the inner gates and into the temple, music becomes more intimate and the presence of God becomes more immanent. The goal of worship is to enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is most profoundly known and experienced. Once there, we sing only ballads and hymns, with tears streaming down our collective face.
Directly and indirectly, much of the church has embraced this model…. It’s… present in the way we talk about worship experiences, saying of worship leaders and teams, ‘They really led us to the throne room,’ or, ‘They ushered [us] into God’s presence.’
The problem with this model is twofold. First, it’s developed backwards. The theology of the Temple Model is a theological interpretation of an experience, and it is divorced from any kind of historical perspective on the gathered church. Second, it ignores most of what the New Testament teaches us about worship, the presence of God, and the temple. Instead of being led by Jesus through the inner curtain, we’re led there by a worship leader or a pastor – a pseudo-priest.
So it’s clear that every church is operating on some form of a liturgy. The question is, Which one is theologically correct and will make the healthiest disciples over time?