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How Worship Service Structure Reveals Theology

The way you structure a worship service is important, in large part, because the structure reveals your theology. This is true whether or not you’ve thought about your worship’s theological revelations.

The way you structure a worship service is important, in large part, because the structure reveals your theology. This is true whether or not you’ve thought about your worship’s theological revelations.

“Some worship doesn’t involve any actual conversation between God and God’s people. Sometimes the songs selected—that is, the bulk of the ‘worship’ time—are all in the first person singular. They’re not directed to God as prayer, but to each other, encouraging each other to worship God. Such services resemble more a pep rally than a worship service,” says Ron Rienstra, who authored both volumes of Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship.

General examples

In a language of worship class he co-taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, Rienstra asked students to visit different churches to identify the worship service’s dramatic high point, the element toward which other actions point. In Rienstra’s words, here’s what’s theologically most important:

  • The Eucharist is the dramatic apex of Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic worship.
  • In a Reformed service, the sermon “is the very words of Christ.”
  • In many Congregational churches, the prayers of the people form worshipers’ most intense engagement with God and each other.
  • In an evangelistic service, it’s the moment at the conclusion of the sermon where members of the congregation or audience are called to make a commitment to Christ.
  • In a charismatic service, it’s the ‘ministry time’ following the sermon.
  • In some Vineyard churches, it’s the intimate musical time just before the pastor’s time of teaching.

Worship structure influences life

Guy Higashi, now a doctoral student and continuing education program manager at Fuller Theological Seminary, has served as associate pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honululu and in the young adult/postmodern ministry of Eagle Rock Christian Assembly in metro Los Angeles.

He says that in a typical 75-minute weekend worship service at New Hope, 45 minutes are set aside for “the preached Word. Worship songs, video clips, dancing, and drama would ‘set up’ the Word. We’d take it to the one-yard line, and the pastor would take it into the end zone.” Every service leads up to an invitation or altar call.

Incidentally, although missionaries banned hula from worship, New Hope sees the Hawaiian culture’s love of song and dance as a legitimate worship expression. “Everything in the service says or shows the same simple gospel message in a way common folks will understand,” Higashi explains.

Donnalei Gaison, New Hope dance director, says that “the list just goes on” for songs that can be done with hula. Using hula in worship, sometimes with songs such as “Lord, I Give You My Heart” or “Shout to the Lord,” helps people walk out of services saying, “I get it!”

Higashi says New Hope emphasizes that worship is not just the weekend service but “how you live your life. If we’re taking seriously what we believe, then we will live the Word of God in the way we work and the way we treat our family.”

Leaders encourage everyone who helps with worship, including those who set up chairs and sound systems, to pray that God will use the equipment and bless the people who will sit in the chairs and hear the service.

Making time and space for God

Tommy Walker, a gifted songwriter and recording artist, leads worship at Christian Assembly. ‘Taste and see that God is good’ would be his theology of worship. Therefore, worship singing lasts 30 to 45 minutes,” Higashi says.

Christian Assembly musicians rehearse the songs that will be used, including optional ones that Walker will call for if the Holy Spirit leads him to. Higashi says Walker uses “hymns and lyrics of traditional songs, wrapped in the rhythms and movement of contemporary culture. Tommy is a trans-generational worship leader.”

Christian Assembly uses media, paintings, drama, and other arts but keeps the focus on enjoying God and spending time with him, primarily through song.

The congregation’s Fusion ministry for postmodern young adults structures services to create space for conversation. Higashi explains that this structure took many forms during worship. Before and after the service, there was a coffee bar to encourage people connections.

Couches in the sanctuary help attendees feel like they’re in a living room with friends. “We inserted discussion questions into the message times so there was ‘space’ to talk about what you heard with the people around you,” Higashi recalls.

He’s also helped plan chapels at Fuller Theological Seminary. “The Eucharist was the central theological element of chapel worship. Everything—greeting, songs, video, dance, word—was built around Communion. That structure let us plan ‘on purpose.’ This was probably one of my most significant worship times of engaging with God,” he says.

Holistic Worship Includes Lament and Confession

For many Christians, praise and worship are synonyms. For others, praise is part—but not the totality—of worship.

If you want to plan worship that reflects all of God’s inspired Word, then you can’t ignore the psalms of lament, struggle, and despair. Neither can you skip all the biblical passages about God’s commandments and our difficulty keeping them.

That’s why Ron Rienstra insists in both volumes of his Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship, that holistic is an essential characteristic of good contemporary worship (or any worship). He describes holistic worship as bringing “ all of ourselves to worship: old and young, body and soul, brain and heart, doubt and belief, lament and joy.” And true lament often leads to true confession.

Michael Card on lament

Throughout the Christian contemporary music and worship world, leaders are realizing that praise is a necessary but not sufficient part of worship.

Christian singer-songwriter Michael Card is known for his soothing lullabies on Sleep Sound in Jesus and rollicking songs like “Celebrate the Child,” “Come to the Table,” and “Jubilee,” all on his CD Joy in the Journey.

But in his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament and his CD The Hidden Face of God, he looks at how the Psalmist, Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus struggle with God. All their angst, Card says, boils down to two fundamental questions of biblical lament: “God, where are you?” and “God, if you love me, then why?”

When Card spoke about lament at the 2006 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, he talked about how God wants something besides our offerings of praise. God also wants us to be honest enough to offer our other emotions in worship, including lament and confession.

At times we offer our laments to God to express our helplessness. Often the best response to this type of lament is to affirm God’s sovereignty.

Ron Rienstra on confession

At other times the best response to lament—especially when we’re sad or angry about situations we’ve had a part in making—is confession.

Yet many contemporary worship services never include confession. Why not?

“A not particularly charitable interpretation may suggest that, in eagerness to be accommodating to seekers and visitors, we’re uncomfortable talking about sin. So we excise that part. Sin is a downer, and we want worship to be up,” Rienstra says.

He’s also noticed a logistical reason why some contemporary worship services don’t include confession. “If you have a moment of confession, it nearly begs for a moment of reconciliation and declaration of pardon. The pastor is specifically charged with that task.

“But if the band is in the center of the chancel and the pastor or ordained person isn’t up there yet, does he or she walk up, motion the band to sit down, pronounce the pardon, then go back to his or her seat so the band can play more songs?” Rienstra asks.

He’s noticed that lay worship leaders feel reluctant to declare God’s pardon. Yet he suggests it’s often the best solution.

The key is for the lay leader to make clear that the words come from God, as in “Hear now these words of God from Psalm 103:12. ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ ” Rienstra stresses that with the pardon or declaration of assurance “it’s not okay to extemporize.”

Using the Law comprehensively

Throughout church history, Rienstra explains, worship leaders have used the Law in several key liturgical spots. That’s because God’s Law has three main uses:

  • Political, as a goad to civil righteousness
  • Theological, to convict us of sin and bring us to Christ
  • Didactic, as a guide for grateful living

Many worship services use the law in its second sense. There will be a statement of the Law or Ten Commandments, followed by a confession. The confession could be a congregational response, prayer, or song. Or, in a contemporary service, the worship leader might offer an extemporaneous prayer of confession, after which the congregation sings a song of confession.

Rienstra notes that in the Reformed tradition, it’s common to place the Law after the confession. This section of worship proceeds as

  • The call to confession
  • Congregational prayer of confession
  • Declaration of pardon, spoken by a human voice but with God’s words
  • Congregational response of thanks, perhaps the Gloria Patri
  • Summary of Law or responsive litany

Several Bible passages offer resources for responsive readings of the Law. The liturgical forms and resource section of the Psalter Hymnal (of the Christian Reformed Church in North America) includes versions using words

  • of Jesus from the gospel
  • from Matthew
  • from the Epistles
  • from the Psalms
  • focusing on the Law as a teacher of sin
  • explaining the Law as a rule of gratitude that God has given to show us how to live.

The Worship Sourcebook devotes nearly 60 pages to the section of the worship service dealing with confession, assurance, and the Law. This section draws on Bible versions, denominational prayer books, and other resources from many countries and Christian traditions.