“Liturgy. That’s a High Church thing, right?”
“It was an Old School way of having a lot of ceremonial stuff in worship services.”
“No, I think it’s just like a Greek Orthodox thing. Or Catholic? Something the priest does?”
In recent years elements of contemporary evangelical Christianity have begun to study the purpose of liturgy in corporate worship — often for the first time. Many others still don’t know what it means or how it would be relevant in modern worship, but are pretty sure that they serve in a non-liturgical church.
In the truest sense though, any church that has an order of presentation and a way for the congregation to participate can be said to have a liturgy. For instance, Church A might conduct services like this:
- Greetings, announcements, song of praise
- prayer for the service, continued songs of praise and adoration
- welcome each other, then pray for the sermon
- song of invitation, altar call
- final prayer, dismissal
This, then, is the liturgy. It has a standard order, and ways in which the congregation talks to God, listens to God’s Word, instructs and encourages each other, and announces the gospel call to repentance and new life in Christ.
Liturgy: The Work of the People
The literal definition for “liturgy” is “the work of the people.” It come from the Greek Leitourgia. In Ancient Greece, before Jesus came, this word referred to work done by citizens of a community, for the community. When we assemble together as a community of faith, our “liturgy” is the work we do together. The reason it’s helpful to think of our worship service in this way and to instruct our congregations is that it helps us all to remember that corporate worship is not a concert or a spectator sport.
At Sojourn, Worship Arts Pastor Mike Cosper, along with other pastors and worship leaders, has worked hard to develop a liturgy that emphasizes the story of the gospel each week when we gather. The liturgy is simple and is similar to liturgies in many churches and traditions. You might do things a little differently in your local context, but, like reading another church’s music set list, analyzing this liturgical pattern can help you to answer questions like:
How are we presenting the gospel in our weekly gatherings?
How many different songs do we have that would fit within these elements?
We like a liturgical template that helps us meditate on the heart of gospel: God is holy. I am sinful. Jesus is my savior. God reveals himself to us, and we respond. When we see who God is and what He has done, we are reminded of who we are and what we’ve done, and of the grace and mercy only available through the cross. We celebrate Christ’s victory and the payment for our sin-debt on the cross, and leave rejoicing, ready to carry this message in our daily lives through the power of the Spirit.
Here are the elements of that structure and what they mean:
Call to worship – We always begin by focusing on God, remembering that He has called us to be His children. We then call one another to praise Him for His attributes and work in history. We often recite words of Scripture that call us to Him, and follow with songs like Matt Redman’s “Gifted Response” and our own “Come and Sing” (by Jeremy Quillo).
Expressions of sorrow and repentance – In a worship service, as in our personal lives, a true revelation of the goodness of God brings a realization of our own wretchedness. We realize that nothing we could do would make us “good enough” for God. Again, prayers and songs of confession give voice to our sinfulness and need for a savior.
Celebration of assurance – Because of Christ’s sacrificial death for us, and God’s promises to make us new and dwell in us through his Holy Spirit, we can find rest and assurance in God’s faithfulness to forgive our sins and make us like Jesus. One strength of contemporary worship music is that the Church has many songs and choruses of assurance. Of course there are many hymns in this category as well.
Extending of the peace – Many churches have some variant of this element — a time to turn around, shake hands with those near by, greet those whom you don’t know. It’s important though, to teach why we do this. As one of our worship leaders, Lorie King, wrote in some training we provided to our songwriters: “Christ has made peace between God and man, and has broken down every barrier between humans through his death. We celebrate our unity as the family of God and welcome one another in this same spirit of peace.”
Preaching of the Word – God has revealed Himself to us through his Son, but also through His written Word. The Early Church placed great importance on the reading of the Word and the exposition of it through preaching, as have faithful churches ever since. The prayer at the beginning (or before) a sermon is known in some traditions as the “Prayer for Illumination.” We pray that God will open our minds and hearts to receive and understand the truth contained in the Bible and in the person of Jesus Christ.
Communion – We’ve chosen to take the Lord’s Supper every week at Sojourn. Whether you do so or not, this powerful symbol that Christ gave us is an effective part of Christian liturgy. His sacrificial death and victory over the grave displays the very power that is at work in us. We celebrate and look forward to Christ’s return, as He promised on the night He was betrayed.
Giving – We emphasize giving out of grace, not out of duty. The offering is a part of worship. It’s not a chore or an embarrassing appeal that we make so we can keep the lights on. It’s a way in which God lets us participate in Kingdom building, even though He doesn’t need us. This should make us feel grateful, and all the more eager to praise Him.
Confession of Faith – The church of Christ does not exist in a vacuum, but rather shares a rich heritage and tradition with followers of Christ throughout the ages and the world. As a part of the body of Christ, we occasionally recite creeds or sections from historic confessions about the truths of Scripture. We don’t treat them as equal to Scripture, and in fact we recite Scripture together more often than statements of faith. Still, we look at these statements as being analogous to classic hymns.
Benediction – Simply a “fancy” word for “blessing for the road.” Before leaving the church building, we acknowledge that we go on the mission of gospel transformation, carrying the “ministry of reconciliation” to our homes, jobs, neighborhoods and city around us.
What is the structure of your worship service? Has it changed over the years?