This is the second in a three-part series, How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering? Read Part 1: “A Theological Framework.”
We’re using the metaphor of church architecture as a way of thinking about the design of our Lord’s Day services. We rightly put care into how we design a church facility. In fact, at Heritage we’re entering a master planning process for our own building. We’re talking about the parts and the flow of our building. We’re talking about the shape of the auditorium for sight lines, for singing, and interaction. Plenty of care will go into all of this. But that’s for another post on another day.
More important than the design of our meeting space is the design of our meeting. A master planning process gives us a drawing with the shape of our building and where things go. But what’s the shape of our meeting? What are the parts and how do they flow from one to another? That’s the question we will consider in this post.
Another way to put this is to ask, what is our liturgy? Liturgy is a Latin word that means work on behalf of the people. We typically call it our “order of worship” or “service design,” but you’ll hear the language of liturgy from time to time as well. Your pastors care deeply about this because we care deeply about about you. As with every routine in our lives, the pattern of our weekly meeting shapes us as a people.
The Pattern of Our Gathering
Remember, we want our gathering to be formed and filled by the Word of God. This post is about the “formed” part of that commitment. As we’ve said, Word-formed worship trusts God’s means for God’s work as we give ourselves to the ordinary elements of praying, singing, reading, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word preached.
But there’s more. As our elders put it:
We also weave these things together to tell the story of the gospel. We typically do this with a progression, however subtle, from a call to worship and joyful praise, to confession and assurance, to prayer for the Word, preaching, and conclude with thankful response and a benediction. While the story of the world pulls us away from God and his grace, we want the story of our meetings to unfold and enfold us in God’s gospel and grace.
Let’s expand on this.
There are levels of detail in drawings for a building. Same here. For our purposes we’ll keep it to five movements: a movement together in the gospel with our welcome and our call to worship; a movement through the gospel with readings, prayers, and song; a movement under the Word as the gospel is proclaimed; a movement around the table where the gospel is pictured in the ordinances; and a movement out with the gospel.
Welcome and Call to Worship
This is our first movement, a movement together. In our opening comments we take our cue from how the Apostles greeted the churches. We greet you on Sunday with a reminder of our fellowship in the glorious saving work of our Triune Lord. At their best, a few brief “announcements” remind us that we are not here as individuals but as family.
What churches have long called a “Call to Worship” marks the more formal start to our service. Who initiated this meeting? Who are these people we’re in the room with? What are we doing here exactly? What do we expect to happen? The Call to Worship answers these questions from God’s Word. It reminds us that our gathering is a response to his greatness and grace. He called us into salvation and he calls this meeting. By the Word God speaks to us—even as we speak the Word to one another—with declarations, exhortations, invitations, and reasons to worship him.
For a short example, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 145:3). Here we have an exhortation from the Lord and a reason for it. Or, from the lips of Jesus, an invitation with a promise, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Or, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pet. 2:9). These are the kinds of things we need to hear before we do anything else. He speaks and we respond.
At a practical level, the call to worship gathers our attention from whatever just happened in the car now to a set of themes for the service—one focused on what God has revealedabout himself and one focusing our response. Wrapped in a few choice comments, this encounter with Scripture constitutes the opening of our service.
The body of our service leading up to the preaching follows a general pattern that moves us through the truth of the gospel: God, sin, Christ, response. Put differently with an emphasis on the form of our meeting, we follow a pattern of praise, confession, assurance, and thanksgiving.
This flow reflects the pattern of Scripture. The Bible’s larger story begins with God, proceedes to our failure in the garden, advances to a story of God’s gracious salvation, and on the basis of that work the Bible calls us to repent and believe. When the Apostles penned their letters to churches they likewise worked from God and his glorious grace (Eph. 1–3) to our humble human response (Eph. 4–6).
We move through this gospel story with songs, prayers, Scripture readings, and more historic readings. There are smaller cycles through this gospel story within the larger movement of our services. Many songs cover the gamut of Christ’s work. So, transitional comments help to move our attention to a particular emphasis in a given song.
Prayer for Illumination and Preaching
How the Apostle Paul spoke to Timothy and his church about preaching tells us something: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Tim. 4:1, 2). In preaching we come under the Word together; that is, under its authority and rule and blessing. The preaching of the Word of God is the centerpiece of our gathering.
Speaking and hearing the Word is a spiritual act. For that reason, we pray. Before the Word is preached, we ask God for help to illuminate the Word to us, to open the eyes of our hearts to see and receive God’s Word as true (Eph. 1:15–23). Typically, this prayer takes the form of a song with comments from our service leader to highlight this transition in the service. Minimally, it involves the preacher’s own prayer before he opens the Word.
Our service themes key off of the sermon, with everything else flowing to and from the preached Word. We work through books of the Bible with sermons whose shape and aim are the shape and aim of the text and whose divisions follow the natural divisions of a book. All of this ensures that the arguments, exhortations, comforts, and emphases of the Word shape our church more than any one preacher’s interests or strengths.
Baptism and the Lord’s Table
The covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Table are symbolic in that they visually represent invisible spiritual realities. That’s one reason the ordinances follow the preaching of the Word. Apart from the Word preached these little pictures are unintelligible. Yet combined with the proclamation of the Word, these symbols nurture our faith.
These are individual acts but also corporate acts done together as a congregation. They are also deeply personal: by the first sign we enter and welcome others into the family; by the second sign we come together around the table in order to feast with our Lord.
Response and Benediction
For this concluding moment together, we search for just the right song to carry the most fitting response to the sermon we just heard. This may involve one or a combination of thanksgiving, consecration, commission, or praise.
After that, we go out with a benediction. Strung through our Bibles are a number of beautiful benedictions, blessings on God’s people. These are a natural way to part for us as well. For this parting and sending moment, we draw from several kinds of passages in the Bible: benedictions, of course, but hen several other types of texts: doxologies, charges, and other passages that fit the occasion.
We do other things too, though not weekly, including professions of faith, prayers of intercession for our church and for the nations, testimonies of God’s Word at work, and that awkward-for-some time when we invite you to greet your neighbor.
The Setting and The Diamond
By now you’ve probably picked up on a few features of our liturgy at Heritage. I’ll make a few things explicit here at the end.
First, we mean for our services to be predictable week to week. It’s the nature of a liturgy that we are able to settle into a rhythm, a spiritual habit as a church. Predictability doesn’t have to mean monotony. Nearly every sitcom writer, podcaster, or YouTuber uses a template. For decades now late shows have begun with a monologue and ended with a band. What changes is the content you fill it with.
Second, we do want to be flexible. The Welcome will always come at the front, but we might move some of the other parts around here and there. We might begin a service with a confession and a time of silence and then move to praise. We will confess our sins, but we may do that in any number of ways and with variation in emphasis or form. Sometimes a pastor may lead in an element and sometimes a muscian. In all of this, what is crucial is that we put off presumption and cry out to God, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and then sing with full heart of his lovely face, his sovereign grace, and the blood-washed robes that enable us see and sing at all.
Finally, it’s our approach to be liturgically subtle. Churches do this differently. For our part, we have a definite structure to our services, but we don’t generally let the bones of either our themes or elements show too much. We call this an under-exposed liturgy. We won’t typically say, “this is our time of confession,” but we do speak and even print some of these sign posts in our Order of Worship.
A taco needs a shell, a building needs a set of plans, and a diamond needs a setting. That’s how a liturgy works to give shape to our Sunday gatherings. It’s a real good holder. It’s a form for filling appropriate to the contents we’re dealing with here: the Word of the gospel. It is profoundly important. But now that you know it’s there, thank God for it and then don’t think about it a whole lot. The danger in a post like this is that we become a church that nerds out on its particular way of doing a service. We don’t want to be liturgical elitists, unable to rejoice in the gospel at a church whose liturgy goes something like “fast songs, slow song, preaching, last song.” Those songs and that preaching are probably about the same saving grace of God we’re all about here. And plenty of churches have lost the saving gospel while carrying on with an elegant liturgy.
So, let’s honor the liturgy by talking about the diamond. That’s where we’re going in our third and final post.
Grace and peace be with you.