Have you ever been a part of a worship service where you suddenly found yourself wondering, “where is this service going?” In the last 30 years or so, many of our churches have departed from liturgical formats and embraced a more open and free “music and a message (and sometimes communion)” model. This has allowed our worship time to be more flexible and creative, unencumbered by elements that often seemed to interrupt flow.
The struggle in that transition has been to find an adequate framework to guide the development of a worship set. Many of us began with the rudimentary “fast songs to slow songs” model, or the similar “high-energy to preparation for the Word” structure. Other suggestions have included a format based on Old Testament temple architecture, and one that starts with communal “we” songs and moves to songs more focused on the individual’s relationship with God.
None of these approaches are wrong in and of themselves. However each of them is incomplete, because they are missing an intentional encounter with the gospel itself. They are often based in our own emotional experience, which can make for a very fickle foundation. Not that emotion in worship is a bad thing – it is an important aspect of the whole self that has often been neglected over the course of the history of Christian worship. But that expression needs to have some context; namely, the experience of God’s saving acts in history and in our lives.
I want to suggest that the most meaningful and biblical way to shape a worship set exists right under our noses. It’s in the liturgy we somewhat hastily departed from at the beginning of the modern worship movement. The more I examine traditional liturgies from across the denominational spectrum, the more I see a two-part movement: (1) We acknowledge our need for God, and (2) we celebrate Christ as the fulfillment of that need.
It happens in the traditional rite of Confession and Absolution (or forgiveness). It occurs in the traditional cry of kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”), followed by the gloria, or hymn of praise, which glorifies Christ. It happens again as we sing “Alleluia” before hearing the Gospel reading. And the movement is inherent in the act of coming to the Lord’s Table as a community.
I believe the intention of historical Christian liturgies was to give worshippers an experience of the gospel, before they ever hear a sermon. When our worship includes this same, simple two-part rhythm, we give worshippers an experience of God that becomes the basis for an emotional response. Then there is no need for artificial constructs to “prepare our hearts” to hear God’s word. We are ready to receive because we have already experienced the very gospel itself!
So how do you incorporate this two-part movement in your own worship? That’s where creativity comes in. It might happen over the course of a worship set. It could include two songs intentionally placed together. Perhaps it will involve a few spoken words between songs to make the implicit movement more explicit. What’s great is that it can fit into other models quite easily.
In my own planning, I usually try to include three elements in the worship that happens before the message: an intentional “gathering” song or call to worship, an acknowledgement of our need for God, and clear worship of Jesus as the fulfillment of that need. When this is done effectively, I can be confident my community is worshipping in spirit and truth, because they are experiencing the very heart of God’s message to us.
Matthew is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Victorville, CA. He maintains and writes for worshipindepth.com