Our task as churches is to make disciples, and this happens when we use the Word of God to shape the minds and hearts of believers in our congregations. This recognition highlights the significance of corporate worship as one of the primary means through which God forms us into mature disciple-worshipers.
Yet because modern Christianity has come to understand discipleship as merely a didactive endeavor and corporate worship as merely an expressive enterprise, modern Christianity has lost the biblical means of virtue formation through Scripture-informed liturgies and Scripture informed music. But as we have seen, the shape of Scripture, not only its truth claims, shapes Christian living, and thus the shape of Scripture must inform the shape of our liturgical acts, including music. In this post I’ll discuss Scripture-formed liturgy, and then next week I’ll address Scripture-formed music.
If the primary purpose of corporate worship is the edification of believers—God forming us into mature disciple-worshipers, then even the structure of our services should follow what God has given to us in Scripture. It’s not just any old liturgies, it’s Scripture-formed liturgies will have the kind of transforming power we’re after. God made clear this purpose when he instituted corporate worship assemblies in the OT, establishing a structural pattern that continues also into the NT. God often calls these assemblies of worship “memorials,” meaning more than just a passive remembrance of something, but actually a reenactment of God’s works in history for his people such that the worshipers are shaped over and over again by what God has done. Beginning at Mt. Sinai (Exod 19–24), God instituted a particular order of what the OT frequently calls the “solemn assemblies” of Israel. This order reflects what I like to call a “theo-logic” in which in the assembly, God’s people reenact through the order of what they do God’s atoning work on their behalf.
God reveals himself and calls his people to worship
God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness
God provides atonement
God speaks his Word
God’s people respond with commitment
God hosts a celebratory feast
This same theo-logic characterized the progression of sacrifices within the tabernacle assemblies and appears at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 15–17). In each case, the structure of the worship assemblies follows a theo-logical order in which the worshipers reenact the covenant relationship they have with God through the atonement he provided, culminating with a feast that celebrates the fellowship they enjoy with God because of what he has done for them.
While the particular rituals present in Hebrew worship pass away for the NT church, the book of Hebrews tells us that these OT rituals were “a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (8:5). Thus while the shadows fade away, the theo-logic of corporate worship remains the same: we are reenacting God’s atoning work on our behalf when we gather for corporate worship. Significantly, Hebrews teaches that when we gather for services of worship, through Christ we are actually joining with the real worship taking place in the heavenly temple of which those Old Testament rituals were a mere shadow.
And so it is important to recognize that the two records we have in Scripture of heavenly worship also follow the same theo-logic modeled in the OT. When Isaiah was given a vision of heavenly worship in Isaiah 6, the order of what happens mirrors the same theo-logic as that given to Israel for its worship. Likewise, when John is given a similar vision of heavenly worship, the order of what happens is the same. From creation to consummation, the corporate worship of God’s people is a memorial—a reenactment—of the “theo-logic” of true worship: God’s call for his people to commune with him through the sacrifice of atonement that he has provided, listening to his Word, responding with praise and obedience, and culminating with a beautiful picture of perfect communion with God in the form of a feast. This reenactment in a corporate worship service of God’s work for us is what will progressively edify us over time to live out our relationship with God through Christ as his mature disciple-worshipers.
There has been in recent years somewhat of a recovery of this emphasis of corporate worship as disciple-forming covenant renewal. Works like Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship, Robbie Castleman’s Story-Shaped Worship, Mike Cospers’s Rhythms of Grace, and Jamie Smith’s Cultural Liturgies Trilogy and the more recent You Are What You Love have all argued that the liturgical shape of corporate worship forms believers, and thus the liturgical shape should be structured based on the shape of Scripture broadly and the gospel specifically.