What's Your Skeleton for Corporate Worship?

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If you have been called out by your congregation to plan the Sunday service, you know that, sooner than later, you must decide on a skeleton or order for the liturgy. One option, perhaps the most popular, is to begin with last week’s liturgy. But, if you are prone to cooking from scratch, you may be interested in exploring some other options.

Minimally, every liturgy includes three parts: the gathering, the dismissal and everything in between. For some, that’s enough. They choose not to dissect their unique combination of liturgical actions any further. Michael Horton, among many others, opts for this approach. Following his conviction that worship is essentially a covenant renewal ceremony, Horton proposes that the order for worship follow that of the Old Testament covenant renewal services (A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship). Building on the “types and shadows of the Old Testament,” Horton opts to list the following as essential liturgical actions:

          The Invocation

          God’s Greeting

          The Law

          Confession and Absolution

          The Pastoral Prayer

          The Preached Word

          The Ministry of the Lord’s Supper

          Thanksgiving and Offerings

          The Benediction

There is some merit to Horton’s approach. When Christians divide the worship of God’s people into labeled sections, they blur reality. Labels, while convenient, seldom represent the whole truth. Worship, like love, can’t be sliced into neat discernable pieces. While recognizing their limitations, however, many Christian traditions have found that labels increase the increase the formative power of the liturgy in, at least, three ways. First, labels simplify that which might appear complex. By labeling the movements, worshipers receive assistance in connecting the purpose of the individual parts within the whole. This, in turn, minimizes the potential for participation without understanding or, what some call, “going through the motions.” Second, labels cultivate an understanding about the dramatic flow and purpose of the liturgy. By labeling the movements, we accent important theological truths about corporate worship including the teaching that the liturgy is not an end in itself. Third, labels help worship leaders plan the liturgy so that the end result is not a smorgasbord of liturgical elements without direction.

The late Robert Webber, who remains a leader in the study of Christian worship, believed that the liturgy includes four movements that together retell the “biblical story of God’s initiating a relationship with fallen humanity” (Worship Old & New). These four movements have shaped the worship of many Christians for centuries: (1) Assembling the People, (2) Listening and Responding to God’s Word, (3) Remembering and Giving Thanks, and (4) Going Forth to Love and Serve the Lord.

Many Reformed Christians believe that the fundamental purpose for the weekly gathering is to hear the Word of the Lord. (See, as one example, Edmund Clowney, “The Biblical Theology of the Church” in The Church in the Bible and the World.) Their liturgies, then, include three basic movements, often labeled as guilt, grace and gratitude, corresponding to the three movements of the Heidelberg Catechism: the Approach to God, the Word of God, and the Response to the Word.

The Church of Christ, and other “back to the Bible" groups, discover their order for worship in Acts 2:42 where they find the First Church of Jerusalem devoting itself “to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Once gathered, these Christians: fellowship by uniting their voices in song, receive am apostolic “lesson” or teaching from the preacher, receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and pray.

Many contemporary evangelical congregations follow a simple pattern, one espoused centuries ago by many Protestant Reformers: praise, prayer and proclamation. Once gathered, the saints praise the Lord with their songs for anywhere from ten to sixty minutes. They then offer their prayers for one another and the world, though the prayer of confession is often omitted. Finally, they receive God’s Word through the reading of Scripture, a sermon and, occasionally, through the Lord’s Supper.

For the past fifteen years or more, I have enjoyed working with a five-movement order for worship, labeled in the following manner:

                    God Calls us to Worship

                    We Praise the Lord

                    God Offers His Grace

                    We Witness our Faith

                    God Sends Us Out To Serve

I have discovered that this five-movement skeleton reminds worshipers that the weekly gathering involves a dialogue initiated by our Triune God, and that it is also a conversation with direction and flow, rather than a random collection of actions. Compared to the four movement liturgy, it makes an important distinction between our Triune God’s invitation to gather and our intentional acts of praise and adoration of that same God.

More importantly, the five-movement liturgy flows directly from our life as the people of God. As a congregation, we covenant through baptism and profession of faith to love as we have been loved. In fulfillment of that mission, we strive to reach five goals that correspond to the five movements of the liturgy:

1. When God calls us to worship, we hope to embrace and enjoy the communion of the Holy Spirit as a people of God (fellowship),

2. We praise the Lord (worship or adoration),

3. God offers his grace through the sermon, prayers and sacraments so that we may grow both individually as Christ-followers and corporately as the body of Christ (discipleship),

4. We testify to God’s grace (witness), and, then,

5. God sends us out into the world to serve both Him and our neighbor (service).

The correlation between the five movements of the liturgy and our life together as Christians is not accidental. It flows from the conviction that the liturgy of a particular congregation remembers and expresses its life in the Lord. Hence, this liturgy is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In this vein, some might refer to it as a “characterizing activity” that distinguishes one congregation from another. We might also refer to it as “paradigmatic” in that it offers a paradigm or framework in which to understand our life and ministry as a corporate body (See Craig R. Dykstra, Vision and Character).

But that’s me, what about you? When planning the weekly gathering, do you utilize a skeleton or framework? If so, what does it look like? Do you pattern your service after an Old Testament renewal service or after the pattern of the first church in Jerusalem?   

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