Liturgy and the Hope Venue
For many, the word 'liturgy' conjures up images of rigid, formulaic worship. But as this post seeks to explain, structuring worship in accordance with a Christ-centered and gospel-shaped liturgy is a powerful and dynamic way to facilitate the conversion of one's worldview to Christ.Though it's not my purpose to lobby for a particular liturgy, I want to urge pastors, worship leaders and others involved in planning worship to think through answers to three questions:
Some say that liturgy is not biblical because the word does not appear in Scripture. Note, however, that the New Testament uses the verb leitourgia to speak of service (ministry-worship) within the church (2 Cor. 9:12) and the noun leitourgos to speak of those who provide this service ( Rom. 15:16), including Jesus who is identified as the supreme leitourgos (Heb. 8:2).
- Is your congregation’s liturgy (your order of service each week, and the way you structure worship throughout the year) fully Christ-centered?
- Is that centering on Christ abundantly clear to all the worshipers?
- Does this centering involve all aspects of all of your worship services?
Reenacting/inhabiting the gospel storyI urge you to approach the liturgy you use in your congregation as not merely an “order of services” (with certain elements to be checked off a list), but as the script for a life-transforming dramatic reenactment of the gospel—the story of Jesus. Effective liturgy helps worshipers to not merely hear this story, but inhabit the story in ways that Jesus’ story becomes their own. As that happens, by the power of the Spirit, their whole being—heart, mind and body (including their worldview)—is converted more and more to Jesus Christ.
Liturgy as gospel reenactment is not about a single Sunday worship service in isolation from the others. Instead, through a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy, the gospel story (Jesus' story) is retold as a drama that spans the course of the full year—what we call the liturgical year (or Christian year). With this integrated approach, the liturgy followed each Sunday will be located within the flow of the full gospel story, unfolding over the course of the entire year.
In the Western Christian tradition (and as shown in the GCI Worship Calendar, below) the liturgical (worship) year begins in late November or early December with Advent season; then proceeds to Christmas season; followed by the season of Epiphany; then the season of Lent (called Easter Preparation in the GCI Worship Calendar) a span of 40 days that includes Holy Week; then Easter season, which stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The season that follows Pentecost is called Ordinary Time, not because it is unimportant, but because it addresses our day-in-and-day-out responses to the great gospel events celebrated throughout the other seasons. Those responses involve our participation in Jesus’ life-transforming, disciple-making mission. Because this participation is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the long stretch of ordinary time that follows Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called the season after Pentecost (or Pentecost Season).
The liturgy places our individual lives and particular stories in the context of God’s overall, history-long story of redemption. The flyleaf of Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, has this to say concerning the power of liturgy to help people inhabit God’s story:
Remembering God’s work, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Spirit’s coming will change you, drawing you into deeper intimacy with God and pointing your attention to the work of the Father, Son and Spirit right now, in and around you. You’ll be reminded daily that your life is bigger than just you, that you are part of God’s huge plan that started before time and will continue into eternity. Keeping liturgical time, making it sacred, opens us further to this power as, year after year, we rehearse the Story of God—remembering with gratitude, anticipating with hope—and over time live more deeply the Story of our lives.
Creating theA Christ-centered, gospel-shaped liturgy helps turn the worship service into what GCI calls the Hope Venue (or Hope Avenue) -- a ministry environment that engenders hope, thus enhancing the conversion toward Christ of the worshiper’s worldview and the transformation of their sense of identity along with the patterns of their living in the world.
As a transformative environment, the Hope Venue is enhanced when the liturgy being used to shape worship is multi-sensory—engaging all five senses. This helps worshipers inhabit the story of God in deep, transforming ways as they transition from being spectators to active participants (actors) in the divine drama. Here are examples of ways to engage all five senses in worship:
- Burn candles or have ways to set the mood through other uses of lighting.
- While the service is being conducted, in full view of the congregation, have a gifted artist in your congregation paint or draw a picture that illustrates the gospel-shaped theme of that service.
- Utilize dance and drama to reenact aspects of the gospel story being addressed in the readings and sermon.
- As the worshipers enter, provide music that sets a worshipful mood/tone, thus inclining their hearts toward God.
- Have the worshipers sing together (which means selecting music that they know and can easily sing, adjusting the volume of accompaniment so the worshipers can hear themselves and others).
- Have the worshipers recite one of the ancient creeds (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed).
- Have the worshipers recite together the Lord’s Prayer.
- Have the worshipers pray for each other (some churches call this the “prayers of the people”).
- Engage the congregation in the sermon by having them respond verbally, perhaps by answering questions posed by the preacher.
- Have a time in which the worshipers get up and greet one another, offering a word of blessing (some churches call this “passing the peace”).
- Have the worshipers come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper—some congregations provide a place to kneel while the elements are received.
- For bread at the Lord’s Supper, use a freshly baked loaf, still warm, which when broken provides a wonderful smell throughout the sanctuary.
- Burn incense or scented candles—doing so may help eliminate unpleasant odors in the meeting hall (caution: some members may be allergic to certain smells).
- The Lord’s Supper offers this in a powerful way, particularly when the bread is served along with a good-quality wine and/or grape juice.
ConclusionI encourage all of us to think of our worship service as a play with multiple scenes, or a symphony with multiple movements. Let's think in terms of choreographing the liturgy accordingly—with movement, pace, building to a crescendo, then ending with a benediction/dismissal (click here for a sample order of services from GCI). All parts of the liturgy would then interrelate in telling the gospel story in the most memorable way possible, thus engaging the worshipers in the drama. It is through this engagement—this participation in the drama—that the worshipers’ worldviews (and thus their personal identities and patterns of living ) are more and more converted to Christ.
Note: This post is excerpted from an article by Ted Johnston in the October 2018 GCI Equipper. Ted's Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary explores liturgy and the various elements of worship in detail. Click here to access the course syllabus.