I’d like to share the way our congregation structures its worship service. I have nothing special to offer―only my own reflections on where our congregation is, and perhaps where we’ll go. What we do on Sunday mornings, and how we do it, is important. Perhaps my comments here will be useful.
The Missing Link
Many Christians don’t think critically about what happens on Sundays. This isn’t a rebuke, just an observation. Over 40 years ago, Robert G. Rayburn shared similar misgivings:
… having personally visited in a large number of churches in recent months and years, sometimes as a guest preacher, I have been amazed at the carelessness and insincerity that were evident in the services. The people were going through the motions of worship singing the words of the hymns and maintaining quiet when prayers were being uttered, but with no apparent sincere worship of God. The pastors who conducted the services were also careless in a number of services, for example there was nothing to remind the congregation that it is only the pure in heart who shall see God and it is only those whose lives have been cleansed from evil who are able to pray with the confidence that the Lord will hear them.1
How many of us plan worship services without much thought? By rote? We have a template, and we plug the components in. We have four songs to fill. Maybe we pick them ourselves, maybe we delegate. Maybe they follow a theme keyed to the sermon. Maybe they’re just random songs. Maybe the prayers are deliberate, or maybe they’re extemporaneous―with lots of “umm …” and “just ….”. Maybe we begin with announcements. Maybe we have a call to worship. Maybe we don’t know what a “call to worship” even is! Maybe we suspect it’s a Catholic thing … and we can’t have that, can we?
I say “we,” because that was me until a few years ago. I inherited a liturgy (sorry, an “order of service”), and I copied it. I only knew what I saw modeled. I didn’t think introspectively about what happens on a Sunday morning. I do remember an embarrassing moment during my ordination. I sat in Victory Baptist Church, in Pleasant Prairie, WI. The questioning had been going on for about two hours. Somebody, I forget who, asked “what are the components of a worship service?”
I muttered something like “preaching, singing, reading the scripture … and … umm …” I trailed off. My mind had blanked. Then, Marty Marriot, the President of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, rescued me. He stared at me until I “felt” his gaze, then he bowed his head and made an exaggerated steeple with his hands. “Prayer!” I shouted. The questioning moved on.
My point is that some of us don’t think very hard about why and how we do what we do on Sundays. For a long time, I didn’t. My focus was the sermon. The rest of the service was like previews at the movie theater. Sure, it was all important stuff. But, my focus was the sermon. I’m not alone.
Why do we only post the sermons on our websites? What about the rest of the service? Why is the barometer for a “healthy church” almost always the sermon? We all took several homiletics classes at seminary―how many on a theology of worship?
What We Do on Sundays
I’ve gotten older since then, and a tiny bit wiser. Here is what we do on Sunday mornings, along with some brief comments.
I really don’t like them, but I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried and failed. I have given up. But, when should we do them? I’ve seen some guys do them at the end, but that’s just weird, in my opinion. It’s a letdown. It ruins the whole impact of the service.
I do them at the beginning,2 because it’s the best bad option. I rationalize this by telling myself the service doesn’t really begin until the Call to Worship, which immediately follows.
1: Call to Worship
Many worship theologians remark that worship is a dialogue where God speaks, and we respond. The Call to Worship is a proclamation from God about what He has done, which provokes a response from us. It can be a scripture reading, a creed recitation, a song of praise―many things.3 But, it should actually call people to worship; it shouldn’t be a random verse that sounds nice.4 Yesterday, we used Isaiah 54:6-8.
1a: Gospel Connection
I stole this idea from my friend, Pastor Ted Clarke, at Radisson Road Baptist Church in Ham Lake, MN. I take two minutes and frame some Gospel remarks to accompany the Call to Worship text I just read. Sometimes it’s an explicit call for a decision, other times it’s more of a “look at God’s grace!” thing. This is what I said yesterday, keyed to Isaiah 54:6-8:
God meant for His people to find comfort in these words. The analogies of the grieving spouse. God as the loving, compassionate husband―our Lord, the Rescuer, who buys us back from the slave market. In the Christian story, this slave market is Satan’s orphanage.
Jesus’ death was the payoff to Satan that bought our freedom. His resurrection was the bait and switch where Jesus took that ransom back and defeated Satan by trickery.
That story of the strong man, from Mark 3, is when Jesus tells us He’s beaten Satan down, gone into his house and is plundering everything Satan has … and that’s us! Jesus rescues everyone who comes to Him.
When we worship, we give Him thanks, and encourage one another to pursue a total-life commitment to Him―to be living sacrifices!
In the event you raised your eyebrows when I presented the resurrection using the Christus Victor model, see my article on the subject. I believe both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid facets of the same diamond.
God has spoken to us, and now we respond to Him.
My public prayers are now very short.5 I’m convinced long prayers are a waste of time because people zone out and start thinking about lunch. I have been writing my prayers out beforehand for some time. But now, following Rayburn’s suggestion, I structure them as collects. This means they’re very short and follow a five-step pattern:
- Address: I address the Father to open.
- Acknowledgment. I mention an attribute that is keyed to the need I’m addressing.
- Petition. What I’m asking for, on behalf of the people.
- Aspiration. Why I’m asking―why the petition matters.
- Pleading. We only have access to pray because of Jesus.
The prayer to end the call to worship looked like this, yesterday:
God speaks to us again. We alternate between responsive and solo readings, and the content is either scripture or creeds and confessions. Yesterday we read a scripture selection from the hymnal about God’s comfort.
We praise God in response to His declaration from the reading. The songs are keyed to the sermon theme, as are the reading and the remaining prayers. Yesterday, in this set, we sang “Because He Lives” and “The Solid Rock.”
4: Prayer of Intercession
Here, we respond to God after praising Him in song. This is also known as the “pastoral prayer.” Again, the prayer is in the form of a collect. Yesterday, the sermon was on Acts 5:12-42 and the prayer was keyed to my exhortation from that text:
We do no prayer for the offering; the Prayer of Intercession swallows it up.
God now speaks to us. My sermon was on Acts 5:12-42. The focus was how Luke shows us a picture of a God-honoring Jesus community and a realistic idea about the reception we can expect from the world―a mixture of hatred and admiration, depending on the audience.
7a: Prayer for Illumination
This is otherwise known as “the prayer the pastor does after the sermon introduction.” I’m including these collects because I think they’re important:
7b: Prayer of Confession
I explicitly have a time to confess our sins, keyed to the exhortation from the sermon. I don’t yet have congregation participation, but I’ll likely tiptoe that way. This kind of prayer is a radical departure for many evangelical churches, and I’m treading carefully, here:
8: Charge and Blessing
The service should end with a charge and an assurance of God’s blessing. This isn’t a time to re-preach your sermon. It’s simply a very brief charge to do the thing the entire service was about. This can be done by a scripture reading, a song, or a responsive reading of some sort. Yesterday, we sang one stanza from “Because He Lives,” to center our perspective on God’s grace and our real mission as a congregation.
I’ve found these very helpful, and perhaps you will, too. There are other good helps, but these are my favorites:
- Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell. The best overview.
- O Come, Let us Worship, by Robert G. Rayburn. Penetrating analysis of worship and outstanding practical suggestions.
- Engaging with God, by David Peterson. Brilliant theology of worship that takes us beyond the tired regulative v. normative worship wars.
- The Worship Sourcebook (2nd), ed. Carrie Steenwyk and John Witvliet. The best sourcebook available. Period.
- Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth. A very valuable well of model prayers and orders of service for all occasions.
- Book of Common Prayer. Does anything need to be said?
- Book of Common Worship (PCA). A very valuable sourcebook.
- The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, Tom Fettke. An older hymnal (1986), but it has the best worship helps I’ve seen―especially the selection of scripture readings. I love this hymnal, and our church uses it.
- The Book of Psalms for Worship. Beautiful arrangement of hymns set to music.
1 Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 19.
2 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, p. 170.
3 Variety is important. There are many ways to invite people to worship God. Bryan Chapell has some excellent charts and resources about how to achieve a result by employing varying methods, week in and week out, so the liturgy doesn’t grow stale (Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) pp. 147f).
4 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 176-177.
5 See especially Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 197-203.