How to Begin Thinking About Your Church's Liturgy1
I grew up in the Northeast around a lot of Roman Catholics. I saw the formality and structure of their religious gatherings as a sign of their deadness. To me, the word "liturgy" seemed pretentious at best and lifeless at worst, like a verbal Heisman stiff-arm, something designed to keep us formally distant from God, and certainly not near him.
To me, nearness came with authentic friendship, the very essence of friendship which is casualness. Therefore, if I have an overly structured time with God, then it feels more like a business transaction than an intimate friendship.
I imported those same biases to the evangelical worship gatherings that I was in charge of planning. It wasn't until late in my time at seminary that I began to see the benefit that a structured story of the gospel could have in our worship gatherings.
The progression of my realization went something like this: I see my daily need to think about and rehearse the truth of the gospel news. When we gather for corporate worship we desire to do on a large scale what is hopefully happening in our individual times with God each day. Therefore, our corporate gatherings should tell the story of the gospel. We should structure our time together so that we're able to relish in the news that has the power to save us, and keep us, and grow us.
"The mere fact that God tells me to stay inside the gospel at all times must mean that he intends to supply all of my needs as long as I am abiding in that glorious location." -- Milton Vincent
More specifically, I began to realize some of the major categories of the gospel story that should fill our worship gatherings:
- God is the one who graciously initiates any relationship that we might have with Him.
- Once we see and know God, we are aware of our own sinfulness.
- God dealt with our sin problem by sending Jesus to die the death we deserve in our place.
- Those who are saved from their sin love to respond in thanksgiving.
- And finally, we grow in grace through Biblical instruction, and an opportunity to respond to that Word of instruction.
Through the years I've had different iteration of implementing these categories. At one time in my planning, I tried to move from one category to the next in a very deliberate, linear way. More recently I've started to see these categories like tubes that I get to fill up with a certain amount of water. All the tubes get some water, but some weeks I choose to fill up one more than the other. Some of them get filled up to the brim. But I have felt the freedom to hit one area of our liturgy lightly one week, so that I could more deeply emphasize something like confession of sin and assurance of mercy. And then maybe the next week, I might spend a lot more time on another aspect of the gospel story. I don't evaluate the balance over the course of a few weeks, but over the course of several weeks or months.
So if you're reading this and you currently have little to no discernible gospel liturgy in place, I'd like to offer three thoughts and one exhortation that I hope are helpful in your worship planning.
Thought #1: Evaluate your current gathering
One of the best things you can do as you begin to analyze your worship gatherings is to ask evaluative questions. Here's a good one to start with: Is the story of the gospel plain and understandable in our worship gatherings? Is it clear, not just in the preaching, but in the songs, in the exhortations, in the prayers, and even in the structure of your gathering?
Another important question to ask is: Over a one- to two-month period, what aspects of the gospel are not shining out enough in our gatherings? Maybe it's confession of sin. Maybe it's our assurance that only Jesus in our sin substitute. Maybe it's the resurrection.
Answering these questions will help you know what aspects need more emphasis.
Thought #2: Build consensus for the need
After you've spent time asking questions about the current state of your gathering, you'll probably be motivated to run full steam ahead towards your new goals. I get that impulse, but I think it might be wise to first spend some time building consensus towards your new liturgy. Help the leaders around you see the need for gospel-clarity in your gatherings.
The reason for this kind of consensus-building will be a larger army of people who both see the need and want a solution. You'll probably also find that you're not the only one trying to make it better in the future. Once people on your team see a need for something like this, they'll have a longing for clarity and they'll keep working on improving it.
Thought #3: Plan and lead in ways that are appropriate and life-giving to your congregation
Once you begin to put together a plan for what your liturgy should look like, you might start by looking at what other churches are doing. There are a ton of great churches to learn from, past and present. But be wise about how much you let them impact your decisions about your worship planning.
I think one of the reasons the Bible is so curiously quiet about the specifics of a worship gathering is that God empowers biblically-wise people from every place and time to implement things appropriately to their own context.
The main thought here is this: don't plan a gathering in a way that will impress people who follow you on Twitter. Plan your gathering in a way that will help YOUR people in YOUR city.
Exhortation: Don't just read, lead
One last thought: poor leadership can give gospel liturgy a black eye. I can remember sitting through a worship gathering in Boston a few years ago where the worship leader walked us through how to get our hearts ready to read a responsive reading. As he lead us, I felt such a soaring desire to read the words on our worship folder with enthusiasm and faith. Why was that? Because I'd been shown how to engage with the liturgy. When he led, he expected that there would be a battle for our hearts that day. He was not passive or methodical. He fought with and for our wandering hearts.
Oh, friends, when it comes time for you to lead your worship gatherings, by the Spirit's strength, help the gospel-story-liturgy come to life. Help your people fight the anti-gospel that the world tells them every day. Help them long for the Word of God that will make them wise unto salvation. Lead them with earnest enthusiasm. Don't just read your way through the gathering. Lead them!
Daniel Renstrom (@danielrenstrom) is the worship pastor at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, AL. He attended Liberty University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has recorded three independent albums. Daniel and his wife Danielle have been married for 14 years and have three beautiful daughters, Bennett, Eden, and Mercy.