Although there is no prescribed liturgy1 in Scripture, we do have clear commands that our corporate worship be “decent and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). Furthermore, since we are shaped by doing things over and over, our weekly corporate gatherings for worship are formative in shaping the worship in the rest of our lives, and so how we order our worship matters. Corporate worship is not really primarily about “authentic worship expression“; rather, it is the time in which our daily worship is cultivated, prepared, and shaped. I’ve addressed these ideas many times on this site, but that’s not the main point of this post.
This post is an example of practically applying these ideas. I’ve actually been asked several times in the past couple weeks about how I order worship in my church, so I thought I’d simply give a brief description here.
Since worship itself is drawing near to communion with God through Christ by faith, the order of corporate worship should reflect this. Corporate worship that is shaped by the gospel reminds us weekly of how and why we can draw near in communion with God despite our sin, and it shapes us to live our lives in light of these truths.
Therefore the order of corporate worship should follow the flow of the gospel. This is how Christians have structured their worship for hundreds of years, and I believe that we should continue this practice today. I also believe the structure should reflect worship in “spirit and truth,” that is, corporate worship should be a dialogue in which God speaks to us, and then we speak back to him. Finally, worship is “the people’s work,” that is, the structure of worship should allow for regular, active participation of the congregation rather than a divide between “performer” and “spectators.”
These are the governing principles that determine how I order worship services. Each week the hymns are different, the Scripture readings vary, and the sermon progresses expositionally through books of the Bible, but the “skeleton” of the service always remains the same.
The basic structure of the service is the shape of the gospel:
- Revelation: God reveals himself and calls us to worship.
- Adoration: We recognize the greatness of God and praise him for it.
- Confession: When we acknowledge the holiness of God, we also recognize our unworthiness to draw near to him because of our sin.
- Assurance of Pardon: As Christians, we are assured of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ, which makes worship possible.
- Proclamation: The Word of God is taught.
- Dedication: We respond to the Word of God with consecration.
- Supplication: We bring our requests before the Lord.
- Communion: Celebration of free access to God because of Christ’s death on our behalf.
- Commission: God sends us into the world to serve him.
- Benediction: Just as the service began with God’s word, it ends with a word of blessing from him.
The service opens with a historic Christian greeting (also known as the “Salutation”) that sets apart this as a gathering of Christians.
The service actually begins, however, with God speaking to us. We do not come to worship of our own initiative, and we are not (contrary to pagan worship and some evangelical emphases as well) somehow “calling God down” or inviting him to join us. Rather, it is God who calls us to draw near to him, and thus the service begins with a scriptural call to worship.
When God reveals himself to us, two responses are inevitable. First, we respond with adoration and praise. This usually takes the form of a hymn, a prayer of praise, and a doxology.
Then, we recognize our sin and unworthiness, and so we confess our sins to God. We responded this way when we first believed, and we should continue to do so daily. Thus through a Scripture reading, a hymn, silent repentance, and a corporate prayer of confession, the congregation acknowledges our sin together before God.
As Christians, we find forgiveness and pardon in Christ, and so the service continues with celebrating that forgiveness. Through a Scripture affirmation and a hymn of praise for Christ’s sacrifice, we both rejoice in the gospel and proclaim it to any unbelievers who may be attending.
Next, we are ready to hear God’s instructions through the preaching of his Word. Our response is one of consecration and dedication. We then bring our requests for ourselves, our church, and the world to God in corporate prayer.
The climax of the service is Communion. Worship is drawing near to God in communion through Christ, and this is what the whole service has been progressing towards. Eating at God’s Table means that we are welcome and that we have open access to him, despite our sin. This is possible only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is beautifully pictured in the Communion elements. Communion with God is the purpose of the gospel, and thus Communion is the climax of a worship service. I actually advocate weekly Communion, although our church does not at this time.
The service concludes with a word from God in which he sends us into the world to obey him and share the gospel to unbelievers, along with a word of blessing.
The particular hymns, Scripture passages and other elements of the service that I choose are determined by their fit in three categories:
First, I consider the church year. Our church follows the general Protestant church calendar including Advent, Epiphany, Lent2, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, and Trinity Sunday. I use the Revised Common Lectionary as a starting point here, but I don’t always follow it strictly if the assigned passages don’t fit other objectives I have for the service.
Second, I consider the function of the hymn or Scripture passage within the liturgy. I pay careful attention to choosing elements that fit the structure of Revelation, Adoration, Confession, Expiation, Proclamation, Dedication, Supplication, Communion, and Commission, and that also facilitate the dialogue between God and us in the service.
Third, I consider the sermon passage and theme for the day.
Usually, I am able to create a service that connects all three of these categories. This takes a lot of work and a good bit of time, but it is always very rewarding when it all comes together.
UPDATE: Here is a video that explains how I do this practically:
So here is an example of a typical service in our church, this one from Ascension Sunday:
Revelation: God Making Himself Known to Us
Silent Prayer and Meditation
Leader: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Scripture Reading: Luke 24:44-53
Reader: The Word of the Lord.
People: Thanks be to God.
Adoration: Exalting Our Glorious God
Hymn 259: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing, stanzas 1-3
Prayer of Praise
Doxology: Hymn 259, stanza 4
Confession: Lifting Contrite Hearts up to the Lord
Scripture Reading: Acts 1:1-11
Hymn 815: Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord
Silent Prayers of Repentance
Corporate Prayer of Confession
you have raised Jesus from death to life
and crowned him Lord of all.
We confess that often we have not bowed before him
or acknowledged his rule in our lives.
We confess the incongruity between our faith and practice.
While we seek to celebrate the ascension of our Lord,
the way we live displays a lack of faith in his power
to deal with the world.
We have gone along with the ways of the world
and failed to give him glory.
Forgive us and raise us from sin,
that we may be your faithful people,
obeying the commands of our Lord,
who rules the world
and is head of the Church, his Body.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Expiation: Declaring God’s Forgiveness
Declaration of the Good News: Ephesians 2:4-7
Leader: In Christ your sins are forgiven you!
People: The Lord be praised!
Hymn 268: The Head that Once Was Crowned
Proclamation: God Speaking through His Word
Scripture Reading: Luke 12:22-34
Sermon: “Do Not Be Anxious”
Dedication: Responding to the Word of God
Hymn: Be Still, My Heart (Tune 213)
Be still, my heart! these anxious cares
To thee are burdens, thorns, and snares,
They cast dishonor on thy Lord,
And contradict His gracious word.
Brought safely by His hand thus far,
Why wilt thou now give place to fear?
How canst thou want if He provide,
Or lose thy way with such a guide?
Did ever trouble yet befall,
And He refuse to hear thy call?
And has He not His promise past,
That thou shalt overcome at last?
He who has helped me hitherto
Will help me all my journey through,
And give me daily cause to raise
New trophies to His endless praise.
Communion: Feasting with the Master
Declaration of Faith: Nicene Creed (Hymnal, 15)
Introduction and Welcome
Words of Institution / Prayer of Thanksgiving
The Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation
Leader: Great is the mystery of our faith!
People: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! Hallelujah!
Hymn 809: Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow
Commission: God Sending Us Forth to Serve Him
Pastoral Welcome & Announcements
Hymn 92: Crown Him with Many Crowns
Pastoral Charge and Benediction