Recently at FBC we have been shaping our worship services around the story of the gospel, using a “Gospel Liturgy.” We are so thankful for how well these changes have been received by you as a congregation. We are seeing more participation and engagement than ever, and we have received much encouraging feedback. However, many of us at FBC are new to the idea of liturgy and gospel-shaped worship. And, some of us may have negative associations with the idea of liturgy based on previous experiences or perceptions. So, we thought we would try and answer some common questions that have come up concerning our new order of service.
The clearest definition of liturgy I have heard comes from Mike Cosper. In his book about gospel shaped worship, Rhythms of Grace, he defines it this way:
“The word liturgy can be confusing, often conjuring up images of ‘smells and bells’ vestment-wearing pastors and priests, burning incense, and ancient chants. The word itself comes from two Greek words meaning ‘public work,’ or (as it’s often described) ‘the work of the people.’ To talk about liturgy in its most basic sense is to talk about what the congregation is gathering to do. In this sense, every church has a liturgy; we all gather with work to do. At one end of the spectrum, that liturgy might be extremely loose - a general mood set through songs and pastoral leadership; the ‘work’ to be done is a powerful emotional experience. At the other end of the spectrum, the liturgy might be detailed in a word-for-word script that walks the congregation through a collection of prayers, songs, and Scripture readings.”
Every church has a liturgy. It’s “the work of the people.” It’s the plan for the gathering. It’s an order of service. So, when any church crafts their liturgy, they ought to ask this question: what are God’s people meant to do when they gather for worship?
We believe that Christian worship (to put it in a vacuum-packed, general way) is the expression and formation of our deepest loves. As we express our love for God, our love for God is formed. An example of this is Psalm 51:15 where David says, “Oh Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” In this passage, and many others, we see that the only way we will properly express our love for God is if He forms that love in us. We give glory to Christ, who perfects our worship and delivers it as a clean offering to the Father, and who has sent the Spirit to enable us to glorify Christ.
Applying these big picture ideas about worship to the gathering is tricky in today’s culture. Our modern worship vocabulary has done us a bit of a disservice with the terms “worship team” and “worship leader”. They are slightly deceiving titles. The people on stage singing and playing instruments by no means bear sole responsibility for leading us all in the worship of God, nor are they equipped to do so. Gathered worship in the Bible is a deeply participatory act, where the Spirit enables His people to join voices and lead each other in proclaiming the truth of God. Colossians 3:16 calls us to “let the gospel of Christ dwell in us richly” (formation) by “teaching and admonishing one another, singing psalms hymns and spiritual songs” (expression), not merely by watching a few musicians teach and admonish us. It’s easy to forget, but we must remember that we are all on the worship team.
This is where thinking “liturgically” and gospel-centered about worship is helpful. Gospel liturgy is a way to help the church meaningfully participate in the service, as well as curate and contextualize the trinitarian ideas of expression and formation within gathered worship.
Psalm 96:1-4 gives us this command: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods.”
We sing and worship because He is worthy to be praised and feared above all other gods, and the way we are commanded to worship Him is by declaring His glory and telling of His salvation from day to day. We have to proclaim it. Our liturgy is designed so that the proclamation of the gospel never gets missed. We want to be sure that when anyone walks through our doors and sits through our service, that they have heard the entirety of the gospel affirmed and celebrated by the body of Christ.
It’s our nature to turn away from Christ and back toward ourselves. We are amnesiacs to the gospel. We forget the story of God’s creation, the fall, the redemptive work of Christ and our hope for the restoration of all things by God almost as quickly as we hear it. Every week we tell the story of the gospel again with the goal that our worship service is habit-forming, aiming our thoughts and emotions toward what we need the most—Jesus Christ.
The gospel itself has a rhythm that needs repetition in our hearts. Its starts with adoration, recognizing Gods glory as the creator and sustainer of everything. In contrast to Gods glory, we see the gravity of our sin and our fallen state before him, to which we respond with confession and lament. But then we see Christ, who gives us salvation and hope for eternity, and we respond with thanksgiving and celebration.
The songs that we sing, the prayers and scriptures we read, and the structure of the service itself is meant to help us inhabit the story of the gospel. We want this story to be a reality that we live in, so that it’s truth may dwell richly in us.
“Indeed, the more I embrace and experience the gospel, the more I delight in the worship of God, the more expressive my joy in Him becomes, and the more I yearn to glorify Him in all that I say and do.” – Milton Vincent,
A Gospel Primer
We are called to teach and admonish one another with the gospel of Christ. We have one story to tell with endless implications. We use a gospel story structure so that we can all anticipate each moment of the story as we tell it together, while simultaneously learning new things about how the gospel applies to all of life.
There are some healthy tensions that come up when you begin to intentionally structure and craft a service. Too much service-scripting has the danger of becoming rote and lifeless if not lead well, whereas too much spontaneity either leads to an unhealthy dependence on emotion, or just poorly planned awkwardness.
The gospel is never stale, it’s only poor leadership that becomes stale. Having a gospel structure for our service can only benefit us as a body. But it is up to us as leaders to keep drawing out all of the beauties and nuances of the gospel from week to week, of which there are a life-time supply.
We may be used to having the lyrics we sing be written out for us, but probably not our prayers. We have become accustomed to prayer being mostly a private, spontaneous, introspective time; however, corporate prayer is all throughout the Bible. The people of God are meant to confess their faith, joy, fear and doubt together, as well as privately and spontaneously.
Scripted prayers give us language for living a gospel-centered life—they teach us how to pray. With that, they help us all join around one central theme, and participate in confessing the gospel to one another. For a while, reading prayers and scriptures together may feel odd for many of us. Yet, the opportunity to learn how to pray biblically, teach and admonish your church body, and build gospel-formed habits of prayer is worth it.
If you have any more questions concerning worship and liturgy, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we would love to answer them!