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Worshipful worship

November 2013 | by Paul Wells

Discussions about the form of worship are often polarised into opposition between services dominated by music on the one hand and the fear of formalism on the other. The word liturgy makes most evangelicals shudder as it suggests deadness and smacks of Anglicanism. Saying ‘our church has no liturgy’ hides the fact that we do have one, made up of ‘slots’, often led by solo performers: prayer – hymn – prayer – reading – children’s talk – hymn – message and so on. It’s a predictable mix, sometimes laced with unsingable songs, and we may legitimately wonder if this is what worship should be.

Come Sunday

Divine worship is a joyful, new covenant, public meeting with the risen Lord. It is the Lord himself who calls us into his presence and whose blessing we receive at the end; what takes place between these two moments is worship as a covenantal activity. The form it takes ought to express the basic structures and order of the relationship between God and his people.

      In a reformed context the form of public worship aims at repeating the story of redemption and reflecting the order of salvation. Any meeting with God calls for repentance and forgiveness because we are sinners, even if we are God’s people. A ‘liturgy’ worth its salt follows a dynamic movement from God’s lordship to the recognition of our sin, the provision made for our salvation in Christ, and praise. All this leads up to a communal confession of faith that prepares us to receive God’s word preached.

God invites, we reply

Since the time of Enoch, people began to call on the name of the Lord or worship him (Genesis 4.26) and Christians call on the name of Jesus who stands among them (Matthew 18.20, 28.20). This means publicly recognising God’s presence and worshipping him because of his grace. God gives his name and identifies himself as the Lord and we reply to his overtures. Invitation and response are two complementary aspects of worship and express the divine and the human meeting in covenantal fellowship.

      Those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost became a community founded on the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread and prayers (Ac 2.42, 20.7). The Lord regularly calls his people together to renew covenant with him. Worship therefore has a double aspect: it is sacramental (God proclaims the divine mystery of salvation) and sacrificial (our counterpart in offering obedient service to the Lord). From these two aspects of the covenant the form of a Christian worship service can be worked out. But how? What elements enter into this encounter with God and express the relationship involved?

Sacramental and sacrificial

There is no set form of public worship in the New Testament. The order of worship itself is sacrificial and can vary according to different times, seasons and cultural situations. From start to finish worship should be a lively dialogue between God’s word and our response. When Calvin elaborated the Geneva liturgy in 1542 he tried to do justice to both hearing God and responding to him.

1) In the sacramental aspects of worship we hear what God has done for our salvation. They include the following biblical features which model worship:

  • entering God’s presence, recognising that he is our God and we are his people. God meeting with us is the condition of worship – so we begin by acknowledging this with a Psalm (100, 121, 122 etc), a text like 1 Timothy 1.2, or one of Christ’s  ‘I am’ sayings that invite us to worship;
  • hearing God’s law from the Old or the New Testament (we enter God’s presence each week as sinners in need of forgiveness. This is not legalism; it is in line with Calvin’s ‘third use of the law’ in Christian life);
  • God speaks through the word read from both testaments and preached;
  • the singing of Psalms and the Lord’s prayer (divinely inspired texts used in worship);
  • the ‘living words’ of the Lord’s Supper and baptism;
  • the benediction (the Aaronic blessing, or another) ends worship. We leave the presence of God renewed to face the world.


2) The sacrificial aspects of worship are woven into the fabric provided by its sacramental aspects and they include the following biblical elements:

  • communal confession of sin in response to God’s law (using 1 John 1. 5-10 for example);
  • prayers for forgiveness as well as general intercession and praise;
  • the confession of faith of the church (the Apostles, Nicean and Athanasian creeds, a biblical confession such as Philippians 2, a question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism or a confession of faith);
  • offerings on the first day of the week.

3) The elders, acting as God’s servants, lead in the first aspects of worship; the congregation replies collectively as a body in the second. The order is open to many variations.

In practice

Worship in evangelical churches often neglects congregational response, which may be one of the reasons for the rise of music-dominated performances. Neglect of responsive psalm singing, the Lord’s prayer, saying the confession of faith together, the reading of both testaments and the absence of God’s law have impoverished our encounters with the living God. How many evangelicals would be hard pushed to repeat the creed, the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s prayer, to say nothing of the Te Deum? This is a sad loss of the faith-markers that bind us to the Lord of the covenant.

      How is an order of service created? By organising both aspects of worship to bring the gospel to the fore. All of the elements can be directly based on Scripture, found in the classic texts of the Church or within the Reformed tradition. Calvin’s liturgy, the Westminster divines’ Directory of Public Worship or even the Book of Common Prayer might help us reflect on what is appropriate to the form of service.

      If worship is Bible-centred and Christ-oriented, the presence of the Holy Spirit of the Father can be sought to animate the rest.

Paul Wells

Emeritus professor of the Faculté Jean Calvin (Aix-en-Provence) and author of Taking the Bible at its word (Christian Focus)