In examining traditional liturgy, I have tried to detect the intention behind each part – that is, how does this particular piece of the liturgy move worship forward? What does it communicate? What purpose does it serve, that we might be able to apply even to the most simplified of modern formats?
Exploring the historic liturgies of several denominations, I began to notice a collection of common themes. I have distilled them here in their most typical order, presented as seven “movements” (a very convenient number!). The elements of a traditional liturgy are in italics under each movement (for a brief explanation of each traditional liturgical element, see this document).
1) We Gather Intentionally calls the assembly to worship.
2) We Express Our Need for God Includes a prayer for God’s presence and/or confession of sin.
3) We Sing Christ’s Praises For God’s glory revealed in Jesus, the fulfillment of our need.
Canticle of Praise
4) We Hear God’s Word Through hearing the Gospel, our faith is nourished.
5) We Respond to God’s Word We proclaim/respond to God’s Word as an assembly; offer ourselves in response.
Hymn of the Day
Prayers of Intercession
6) We Receive Christ’s Presence Through eating and drinking, God’s grace works in us.
7) We Are Sent We go to participate in God’s mission in the world.
In beginning to explore how these movements might be used in a contemporary format, I want to especially focus on the first section, the worship that happens before the sermon.
The main point I want to make is this: you can use a simplified music/message/communion model, and still have your worship include these movements! In other words, you don’t have to stop singing in order to incorporate these elements. And if your worship is informed by these movements, I would argue that it will be more meaningful and more grounded in Scripture than any other way you can put together a worship set.
As an example, let’s say you typically have 4-5 songs (or 18-20 minutes) before the message. Here’s one way you might plan that section:
1. Gathering Song(s): Typically the first song energetically gathers the assembly for worship, reminding us who we are worshipping and why. “Our God Saves” by Paul Baloche is a great example of a song that does this, even including a trinitarian invocation.
2. A second song might extend the gathering function. Using language of a Psalm or other Scripture, it gathers us around the Word, or helps to introduce the day’s theme.
3. Express Need: The next movement in our worship is to express our need for God. One way to do this is to confess our sin and need for a Savior. “Lord, Have Mercy,” written by Steve Merkel and made popular by Michael W. Smith, does this well.
4. Praise Christ: If the previous song was particularly confessional in nature, this might be preceded by word of forgiveness spoken by a pastor or worship leader, or even read by the assembly together. Then we praise Jesus, the fulfillment of our need! This is the core of Christian worship that communicates the Gospel, even before we hear a sermon. This song doesn’t need to raise the tempo back up to where we started with the Gathering Song, but hopefully it allows for appropriate expression of emotion from the hearts of the forgiven. “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle is one example of a song that works great here.
5. Prepare to Hear God’s Word: Having already experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we prepare our hearts and minds to hear the Word proclaimed. I see this as an optional element. One song that works is “Speak, O Lord” by Getty and Townend.
So there you have it! To simplify all this, include three intentional movements in your opening worship set: we gather to worship, we express our need, we praise Jesus as the fulfillment of our need. An opening worship set with these movements is guaranteed to have theological depth, because the Gospel is communicated and God is worshipped as the author of salvation. And yet it still allows for plenty of flexibility to fit the day, season, and mood of your congregation.
Thoughts? How does this compare to what you are doing now?