The Pattern of a Worship Service (Bible Study)

We do not find that the Bible prescribes a specific liturgy for worship, we do find that our understanding of the Scriptures and the guidelines that it provides will be very helpful in discerning the pattern of worship and understanding the freedom for variation and flexibility in our worship life.

Lesson 4                            See all lessons
Scripture: Psalm 95; Acts 2:42-47

Introduction

In the last lesson of this Bible study, we said that the uniqueness of Reformed worship is that we perceive worship as a group conversation with God. When two people meet and converse, they each participate in the conversation at various times. When we meet with God for a "worship conversation" both we and God speak and listen at various times. To be sure, worshipers enjoy fellowship and speak with each other, but such horizontal actions are clearly secondary to the action on the vertical plane between the worshiper and God.

It is helpful, therefore, for worship planners and worship leaders to be able to identify who is speaking in each item in the order of worship—God or us?

Such a definition of worship raises further questions. Is there a specific pattern or order of worship that the Bible prescribes? If so, where can it be found? And if not, are there guidelines and indicators that will help us develop our own? Should that pattern always be the same?

Though we do not find that the Bible prescribes a specific liturgy for worship, we do find that our understanding of the Scriptures and the guidelines that it provides will be very helpful in discerning the pattern of worship and understanding the freedom for variation and flexibility in our worship life.

Several Models
In surveying a variety of churches we discovered that generally there are three models of worship that churches practice.

1. "Two-task Model." There are two tasks in worship. One is ours and the other is God's. We give praise to God, and God teaches us. So the worship liturgy will be of two parts: praise and teaching.

2. "Processional Model." Patterned after the worship in Israel at the tabernacle and temple, this pattern of worship approaches the house of God in the same spirit as the "Songs of Ascent" in the Old Testament.   Worshipers process through the courts with songs of praise and adoration until they are directly in the holy presence of God. Then God speaks to them.

3. "Conversation Model." If worship is a group conversation with God (see the definition above and in the previous lesson) then the worship liturgy should be patterned after a conversation or dialogue in which both God and the people speak and listen at alternate times.

Most Protestants have historically been more comfortable with the third model because they find it more consistent with the pattern of worship that we see a glimpse of in the Scriptures. We suggest you read Psalms 95, 96, and 98 and observe the conversation that is happening. Acts 2 gives us only the briefest glimpse into the worship of the early church, but we can sense the same kind of conversational pattern.

A Suggested Pattern

Below we have included a chart about "The Pattern of a Reformed Worship Service" that we hope will aid you in understanding the conversational model of worship. This is intended to be not an "order of worship" but rather a tool to help you gain a bird's-eye view of the worship event. In this model of worship three criteria are important: (1) in some of the actions God speaks to his people and they listen; (2) in other actions God's people speak to God and he listens; and (3) the conversation between God and his people has movement, flow, and progression, as all conversations do.

The first column of the charts lists the elements of a worship service. Notice the flow of the conversation as you move from gathering to dismissal. The second column contains a brief statement about the purpose and function of each part of the service. In the third column, you will find a variety of possible worship actions to include in each part of the service. Perhaps there are others you would add. Certainly, you will not want to include all of them, and perhaps your congregation is not comfortable with some. Consider this a menu to be used when you are planning worship.

ELEMENT OF WORSHIP

PURPOSE

POSSIBLE INCLUSIONS

The Gathering

The corporate conversation between God and his children begins.

Prelude
Processional
The Call to Worship
Opening Litany/Sentences
Declaration of Trust
God's Greeting
Songs
Introits
Anthems
Passing the Peace
Liturgical Dance

The Renewal

As worshipers come into the presence of a holy God they acknowledge their sinfulness and seek forgiveness and renewal in God's grace.

The Call to Confession
The Prayer of Confession
The Assurance of Pardon
Response of Gratitude
Reading God's Will
Sacrament of Baptism
Remembering our Baptism
Passing the Peace

The Word

God's Word is proclaimed so that his voice is heard and his people can be instructed, strengthened, and directed.

The Children's Moment
The Reading of Scripture
The Prayer for Illumination
Song of Preparation
The Sermon
The Prayer of Application
Anthem
Scripture Drama

The Response to God's Word

God's Word always calls for a response on the part of those who hear it.

Songs
Anthems
Prayers
Offerings
Expression of Commitment
Profession of the Creed
Affirmations of Faith
Liturgical Dance
Drama

The Lord's Supper

The major response of God's people to his Word is remembering the body and blood of the Lord for us.

Songs
Words of Welcome
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
Eating the Bread
Drinking the Cup
Profession of Faith

The Dismissal

The corporate conversation between God and his people comes to an end and we take leave of each other.

Songs
Liturgical Dance
Anthem
Words of Exhortation
The Benediction
Passing the Peace
The Postlude

Tips for the Discussion Leader

This lesson could lead you into some very substantial discussions about the different patterns of worship. Your meeting time probably doesn't allow for that, so it would be good to keep the group centered on the most meaningful questions for your congregation. You likely will not have time for all the questions below, so select those in which your group has the greatest interest.

There are two extremes to avoid in this discussion: (1) believing that the Bible tells us exactly how we must worship and wanting to look for an "order of service" on its pages somewhere, and (2) believing that if the Bible doesn't give a specific "order of service" then it doesn't matter how we worship.

In preparation for this discussion take along copies of the worship sheet of the last couple of weeks. Try to draw everyone into the discussion. Try to avoid having any one person dominate the discussion. Try to avoid making any one worship planner feel attacked by others.

Discussion Starters

1. Which of the three models described above does your congregation generally follow?

2. What information about the conversation with God does Psalm 95 provide? What information does Acts 2:42-47 provide? What other passages have you found that give helpful insight for the pattern of a worship service?

3. Look at a couple of your recent worship services in the light of this lesson. What pattern do you observe in those services? Is there flow and progression? Is it clear when God speaks and when we speak?

4. Do you provide titles or descriptive phrases for the main elements of the service when your worship sheet is printed? If you have titles, are they helpful and accurate? Do they remain the same each week or do they vary? If you do not have titles, would it be helpful to do so?

5. What proportion of time is usually given to each section of your service? Are you comfortable with the way things are?

Further Reading
Signs of Wonder: The Phenomenon of Convergence in Modern Liturgical and Charismatic Churches by R. Webber (Nashville: Abbott-Martyn Press, 1992), esp. pp. 145-156.

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