This article from Ted Johnston looks at the transformative power that a gospel-shaped liturgy has in converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Though, in the minds of many, the word liturgy conjures up images of rigid, formulaic worship, when rightly shaped and followed, liturgy is a powerful tool for converting a person’s worldview to Christ.
Liturgy is a biblical word. The New Testament uses the verb leitourgia to speak of service (ministry-worship) within the church. It then uses the noun leitourgos to speak of those who lead worship, with Jesus being the supreme leitourgos. From these Greek words comes the English word liturgy, which means “the service (work) of the people” with the word used informally to refer to the order of service by which the people of God structure worship. Given this informal definition, all churches (whether they know it or not) have a liturgy. In some cases, it’s formal and highly structured (typically referred to as “high church liturgy”), in others it’s less structured (called “low church liturgy”), and in still others it’s so informal that these churches are said to be “non-liturgical.”
Use a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy
Though it is not my purpose in this article to lobby for any one form of liturgy, I do want to urge our pastors and others who plan worship in GCI congregations to think through answers to three related questions:
- Is your congregation’s liturgy (your order of service each week, and the way you structure your worship throughout the year) fully Christ-centered?
- Is that centering on Christ abundantly clear to all the worshippers?
- Does this centering involve all aspects of all of your worship services?
If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, it is likely that your liturgy is effective in discipling your members in the way of Jesus, which includes leading them to embrace a fully Christ-centered worldview.
In the Practice of Ministry course I teach at Grace Communion Seminary, I urge my students to make their congregation’s liturgy both Christ-centered and gospel-shaped. The two go together because the gospel is Christ’s “story.” Why then mention both? Because a life-transforming liturgy points to and exalts Jesus by re-telling (re-presenting) the gospel, which as the apostle Paul notes, is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes….” (Rom. 1:16). Following a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy week-to-week is a powerful way to help people think more like Jesus and so, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, become more like Jesus.
Reenacting/inhabiting the gospel story
I urge you to approach the liturgy you use in your congregation as not merely an “order of services” (with certain elements to be checked off a list), but as the script for a life-transforming dramatic reenactment of the gospel—Jesus’ story. Effective liturgy helps worshipers to not merely hear the story, but inhabit the story in a way that Jesus’ story becomes their own. As that happens, by the power of the Spirit, their whole being—heart, mind and body (including their worldview)—is converted more and more to Jesus Christ.
Liturgy as gospel reenactment is not about a single Sunday worship service in isolation from the others. Instead, through a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy, the gospel story is retold as a drama that spans the course of the full year—what we call the liturgical year (or Christian year). With this integrated approach, the liturgy followed each Sunday will be located within the flow of the full gospel story, unfolding over the course of the entire year.
In the Western Christian tradition, the liturgical (worship) year begins in late November or early December with Advent Season, then proceeds to Christmas Season, followed by Epiphany Season, the Season of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Season, which stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The season that follows is called Ordinary Time, not because it’s unimportant, but because it addresses our day-in-and-day-out responses to the great gospel events celebrated throughout the other seasons. Those responses involve our participation in Jesus’ life-transforming, disciple-making mission. Because this participation is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the long stretch of ordinary time that follows Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called the season after Pentecost (or the Pentecost Season).
When this year-long liturgy is followed, each worship service is deeply connected to Jesus through the retelling/reenacting of his story (the gospel). Optimizing that connection takes planning, creativity and time—but it’s energy and time well-spent because an effective, creative liturgy engages the worshipper at multiple levels: heart, head and hands, helping them to be active participants rather than merely passive spectators. The liturgy places our individual lives and particular stories in the context of God’s overall, history-long story of redemption. The flyleaf of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, has this to say concerning the power of liturgy to help people inhabit God’s story:
Remembering God’s work, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Spirit’s coming will change you, drawing you into deeper intimacy with God and pointing your attention to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit right now, in and around you. You’ll be reminded daily that your life is bigger than just you, that you are part of God’s huge plan that started before time and will continue into eternity. Keeping liturgical time, making it sacred, opens us further to this power as, year after year, we rehearse the Story of God—remembering with gratitude, anticipating with hope—and over time live more deeply the Story of our lives.
Creating the Hope Venue
A Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy helps turn the worship service into what we in GCI call the Hope Venue—a ministry environment that engenders hope, thus enhancing the conversion toward Christ of the worshipper’s worldview and the transformation of their sense of identity along with the patterns of their living in the world.
As a transformative environment, the Hope Venue is enhanced when the worship liturgy used is multi-sensory—designed to engage all five senses. This helps worshippers inhabit the story of God in deep, transforming ways as they transition from being spectators to active participants (actors) in the divine drama. Here are examples of ways to engage all five senses (and I encourage you to think of other creative ways to do so):
- Post banners, pictures, etc. in the worship space that point to/illustrate key gospel messages/events.
- Burn candles or have ways to set the mood through other uses of lighting.
- While the service is being conducted, in full view of the congregation, have a gifted artist in your congregation paint or draw a picture that illustrates the gospel-shaped theme of that service.
- Utilize dance and drama to reenact aspects of the gospel story being addressed in the readings and sermon.
- As the worshippers enter, provide music that sets a worshipful mood/tone, thus inclining their hearts toward God.
- Have the worshippers sing together (which means selecting music that they know and can easily sing, adjusting the volume of accompaniment so the worshippers can hear themselves and others).
- Have the worshippers recite one of the ancient creeds (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed).
- Have the worshippers recite together the Lord’s Prayer.
- Have the worshippers pray for each other (some churches call this the “prayers of the people”).
- Engage the congregation in the sermon by having them respond verbally, perhaps by answering questions posed by the preacher.
- Have a time in which the worshippers get up and greet one another, offering a word of blessing (some churches call this “passing the peace”).
- Have the worshippers come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper—some congregations provide a place to kneel while the elements are received (see more about the Lord’s Supper below).
- For bread at the Lord’s Supper, use a freshly baked loaf, still warm, which when broken provides a wonderful smell throughout the sanctuary.
- Burn incense or scented candles—doing so may help eliminate unpleasant odors in the meeting hall (caution: some members may be allergic to certain smells).
- The Lord’s Supper offers this in a powerful way (which is one reason I recommend serving warm, leavened bread and good-quality wine and/or grape juice).
In evaluating which of these elements of worship to use and how to do so, remember that the overall goal is to create a transformative, hope-engendering environment (what we refer to in GCI as the Hope Venue). In that regard, remember that Jesus is both the source and object of our hope, not someone or something else. The purpose of these elements is thus always to facilitate the reenating-dramatizing of Jesus’ story, the gospel, not some other story.
I encourage you to think of the worship service as a play with multiple scenes, or a symphony with multiple movements. Think in terms of choreographing the liturgy accordingly—with movement, pace, building to a crescendo, then benediction/dismissal. All parts of the liturgy should interrelate in telling the gospel story in the most memorable way possible, thus engaging the worshippers in the drama. It is through this engagement—their participation in the drama—that the worshippers’ worldviews (and thus their personal identities) are more and more converted to Christ.
A word of caution: worldview and identity conversion often occur rather slowly (more slow-cooker than microwave stuff). However, there are times when sudden and significant leaps occur. Ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the converting, but as his servants we are participants in his often-mysterious converting/transforming work. Let us participate well!
Concerning the sermon
In GCI, we strongly recommend that our congregations use a liturgy that syncs with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). A primary aspect of the RCL is its weekly Scripture readings (called “lections” or “lessons”) that track with the order/themes of the liturgical year (the Christian calendar). The RCL arranges these readings so that if all four passages are read each week (as recommended), over a three-year period the congregation will hear the entire biblical story: creation, fall, Israel’s exodus, captivity and return, the promise and advent of the Messiah, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of the coming kingdom. Each week, one (and sometimes more) of the lections will be addressed in the sermon, and, where possible, the songs and hymns and even the prayers and announcements (in other words, all elements in the service), will reinforce and expound this single theme. In that way the service will be fully Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, and so contribute to the formation of an atmosphere of hope. The result? Transformed lives.
Concerning the Lord’s Supper
Though it’s common for many churches to view the sermon as the high point of the liturgy, historically (and in many churches today) the high point, or call it the focus of the service, is Communion (the Lord’s Supper). Some congregations follow this emphasis by serving Communion weekly. They also portray this focus visually by placing the Communion table front and center in the worship space. Though GCI does not require its congregations to serve Communion weekly, many congregations are finding that doing so is a great blessing.
Some worry that if they serve Communion weekly, it will become too common, or that it will take too much time away from the sermon or other worship elements. While these concerns are understandable, consider what Thomas F. Torrance in Gospel, Church and Ministry says concerning how Holy Communion proclaims the gospel in unparalleled ways:
It is at Holy Communion above all that we see Christ face to face and handle things unseen and feed upon his body and blood by faith. It is there in the real presence of Christ that we grasp something of the wonder of the Savior’s love and redeeming sacrifice, and understand that it is not our faith in Christ that counts but his vicarious life and sacrifice, his redeeming life and death that count. It is at Holy Communion when the bread and wine are put into our hands, that we know it is not our believing that counts but he in whom we believe, not what we do but what the Savior has done for us and what he means to us. It is at Holy Communion, in short, that we really understand best the gospel of salvation by grace alone. Thus it was at Holy Communion that [as a pastor] I found it easiest to proclaim and make clear to people what the unconditional grace of God’s saving love really is….
I have found in my own ministry that it is easiest to preach the unconditional nature of grace, and the vicarious humanity and substitutionary role of Christ in faith, at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the call for repentance and faith is followed by Communion in the body and blood of Christ in which we stretch out empty hands to receive the bread and wine: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.” There at the Holy Table or the altar I know that I cannot rely on my own faith but only on the vicarious faith of the Lord Jesus in total substitution of his atoning sacrifice on the Cross….
That is what the covenant in his body and blood, which the Savior has forged for us, actually, practically, and really means. It is the very essence of the gospel that salvation and justification are by the grace of Christ alone, in which he takes our place, that you may take his place. (pp. 47, 88, 251-252)
Some congregations put a lot of emphasis on music. Worship music (when rightly presented) is a powerful tool for conveying the gospel message in a highly participatory way. However, music can also be a distraction when used to merely entertain rather than to engage the congregation in the worship of our triune God. When we sing, let us sing the liturgy, not merely “sing at” the liturgy. In that regard, the words to worship songs are of particular importance.
Concerning church service liturgy
In the historic liturgy of the church (still used by many churches today, including many GCI congregations), the liturgy first proclaims Christ in spoken word (through Scripture readings, recitations, hymns and sermon), then in enacted word (through Communion). In that way, what is spoken in addressing the gospel and in praise of the Lord, leads the worshippers to the Lord’s Table where the gospel is enacted and the Lord is encountered in a unique, powerful way. Preceding the Lord’s Supper there typically will be a prayer of confession—not to “earn” or somehow “qualify” for the blessing that comes with Communion—but to acknowledge the need we all have for the grace that Communion represents to people who have placed their trust in Christ.
To assist congregations in following the annual worship calendar of the Western church, GCI (here in Equipper) provides sermons synced with The Revised Common Lectionary. GCI then provides a recommended order of service adapted from The Book of Common Prayer. For additional related information and resources, click here.
In offering these resources, we’re not saying that it is a GCI requirement to follow this order of service. However, we are suggesting that, rightly used, this liturgy is highly effective in giving prominence to the proclamation of Christ in Word (readings and sermon) and Sacrament (Communion). This order of service is strongly Christ-centered and gospel-shaped, where the response of the congregation at each point flows from a presentation of Christ and his gracious benefits.
If you are a pastor, I highly recommend that you try this liturgy in your congregation if you’re not using it already. Note, however, that any significant changes in liturgy must be handled with utmost care. Some members, having grown up in churches that use a liturgy similar to the one GCI recommends, may have negative perceptions about the liturgy. Thus you’d need to carefully explain the liturgy (including the meaning of its flow and each of its elements) and the benefits it offers in worshipping the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I recommend the following:
- Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross
- Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year by Robert E. Webber
- Evangelical versus Liturgical: Defying a Dichotomy by Melanie C. Ross
- Liturgy as Life-Journey by William B. Oden
- For a series of studies about worship (good for a worship team to review together) click here
- For a series of videos from Fuller Studio that provide meditations on various liturgical themes, click here