What shape should our worship take?

Worship is the church's primary ministry

Through worship, the church prepares to participate with Christ in his mission to draw the world into worship.[1] Worship and mission are thus integrally connected. Knowing this leads us to ask: What shape should our worship take? The answer from Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience is that authentic Christian worship is Christ-centered and gospel-shaped.

This understanding has significant implications for how we approach liturgy (our form of worship). Though some Christians favor what is sometimes called "non-liturgical" or "free" worship, it can be argued on the basis of Scripture and Christian history that a liturgical form of worship (one that follows the annual pattern shown below) is a helpful, even essential tool for honoring God in worship while drawing the church together in unity of belief and practice, leading to the spiritual formation of its members, including their involvement in Christ's mission to the world.

A little history about Christian liturgy

The ancient, patristic church structured its liturgy in ways that intentionally highlighted the great events associated with Jesus and his gospel. The development of that liturgy began with a weekly Sunday celebration that focused, through Word and sacrament, on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. To that was added an annual celebration of the resurrection (called Easter or Pascha), then a celebration of Jesus’ birth (Christmas), then a celebration of Jesus’ sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

To these weekly/annual celebrations was added remembrances of Jesus’ passion (suffering) during Holy Week, then a season of preparation for Christmas (Advent) and a season of preparation for Easter (Lent). Other celebrations/commemorations were eventually added to fill out the annual  worship calendar that we see today, the calendar followed in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which is used by many churches throughout the world (with others using similar lectionaries).

Liturgy as Story

In the orthodox and historic liturgy, weekly (i.e. Sunday) and annual elements are carefully interwoven to create a cohesive whole that tells in dramatic fashion he Story of Jesus—the gospel. It’s a liturgical journey that involves movement along a certain path with steps and milestones along the way, headed for an ultimate destination. The liturgy helps us not only hear the Story cognitively, but inhabit it (journey together) experientially. To pick and choose among the elements of the liturgy yields an incomplete Story that compromises the power of the liturgy both in engaging with God and in bringing about the transformation of the worshippers in community and thus their involvement in Jesus' mission. 

Related quotes

Below are quotes from various books that address the topic of this post.

From Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship:
  • 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 (quoted from flyleaf). The Christian year entails a sequence of seven seasons built around the holy days that correspond to the major events in the life of Jesus. (p. 22) 
  • [The liturgy is] an ordered means of engaging with God, a graceful dance, if you will. (p. 19)
  • God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves. (p. 15)
  • It’s about sharing in the Story… participating in the life of Jesus so that we can be transformed. (p. 14)
  • [Through the liturgy] we identify with Jesus and vicariously participate in his life in a way that brings spiritual dividends to our own. (p. 30)
  • Liturgy gathers the holy community as it reads the Holy Scriptures into the sweeping tidal rhythms of the church year in which the story of Jesus and the Christian makes its rounds century after century, the large and easy interior rhythms of a year that moves from birth, life, death, resurrection, on to spirit, obedience, faith and blessing. (p. 319, from Eugene Peterson)
  • With each circuit through the sacred calendar, we enter more deeply into the drama of God’s redemption of the world and of us. The Christian year helps us to live inside the Story that grounds us in our truest identity and gives our lives their deepest meaning. We absorb its liberating truth, we embrace its transforming goodness and we revel in its luminous beauty. (p. 320)
From Beyond Smells and Bells, The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy by Mark Galli, Christianity Today editor:
  • [A] profoundly communitarian ethos is woven all through the liturgy because  the liturgy is profoundly Trinitarian. If we pray it often enough, it will begin to radically change our lives. We’ll start to discover that our primary duty in life is not to find ourselves, not to develop our gift, nor to make sense of life. Instead we’ll realize that we are called to love others. (p. 102)
  • The primary purpose of the Church’s liturgical worship is not to express our feelings toward God, but to express and impress the Personality of Christ upon us. And therefore the personality of the Trinity upon us…. Through the liturgy, the Holy Spirit brings us not only into communion with Christ, but forms us into a body with others…. Communion with the Holy Trinity and fraternal communion are inseparably the fruit of the Spirit in the liturgy. (p. 105)
From Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community by Simon Chan, professor at Trinity Theological College, Singapore:
  • The whole liturgy is a sacrament, that is, one transforming act and one ascending movement…. The whole liturgy is a celebration and an actualization of the gospel. (p. 145)
  • Between the ascension and the Parousia Christ is not physically present, but he is present eucharistically, through the presence of the Spirit. This is the unique ministry of the Spirit in the church age. The church at present is sustained by this eucharistic presence of Christ. This is why the Eucharist is so central to the liturgy of the church and the invocation of the Spirit is most particularly connected with the celebration of the Eucharist. (p. 37)
  • The church [being] distinct from Christ…needs to “feed on Christ” and be disciplined by Christ. And as Christ makes himself available to the church in the sacraments, the church in turn makes itself available to the world as the “embodied Christ.” One can see why mission sustains the closest relationship to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is mission. It is mission in that it is making the church, the embodied Christ, available to the world. In its eucharistic worship the church is reformed to “go forth into the world to love and serve the Lord.” …Thus to be the church is the greatest mission to the world. (p. 40)
  • Often the structure of worship is changed without much thought given to its theological consequence. (p. 41)
  • The church’s most basic identity is to be found in its act of worship…. The church’s defining characteristic is its worshipful response to the call of God to be his people. (pp. 42, 43)
  • What marks Christians as God’s people is that they have become a community that worships God in spirit and in truth. This is what the church must aim at in mission. Mission does not seek to turn sinners into saved individuals; it seeks, rather, to turn disparate individuals into a worshiping community. (p. 45)
  • The Church’s leitourgia… is the full and adequate “epiphany”---expression, manifestation, fulfillment of that in which the church believes, or what constitutes her faith…. Liturgy…by fulfilling and expressing faith “bears testimony” to faith and becomes thus its true and adequate expression of norm…. Right belief and right practice… can only come from right worship… and vice versa. (pp. 48, 52)
  • The Eucharist holds a special place as the “sacrament of sacraments.” It is from the Eucharist that we come to a better understanding of the church as essentially communion. The liturgy, then, has a eucharistic orientation. (p. 63)
  • Word and sacrament cannot be separated. The whole liturgy of Word and sacrament is both God’s Word and God’s action for the sake of the church. Worship becomes less that what it is when one is emphasized at the expense of the other… The Word prepares us for and leads to the culmination of worship in the Eucharist…. The Word proclaims, the sacrament accomplishes. It is in the Word proclaimed that faith is created, and it is in faith that the bread and wine are effectually received. The Word is completed in the Eucharist…. Word and sacrament are one whole. (pp. 66, 68)
  • The liturgy may be compared to a journey—a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to the world. In the language of liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: gathering and sending forth. (p. 83)
  • The church’s liturgy conveys a primary theology that gives the practice of the liturgy its inner coherence and shapes the church into a coherent community. It is from this coherent liturgy that other secondary practices derive their significance as Christian practices. (p. 87)
  • Where spiritual formation occurs, God’s grace and human actions are set in a dialectical relationship. This dialectic could perhaps be described as the practice of imbibing the spirit of the liturgy…. We do not grasp the mystery but are grasped by it…. Liturgical actions are transforming because it is the Spirit who gives life: the Spirit’s action is joined with and confirmed by our action. (pp. 97, 98)
  • A normative liturgy is large enough to incorporate the charismatic dimensions of worship. But if the normative liturgy is to have formative effect, it needs to be correctly understood, deeply appreciated and consistently practiced. (p. 127)
  • There is no Christian living apart from living out what is celebrated in the liturgy, since the liturgy is where the body of Christ is primarily manifested and actualized. (p. 148)
  • To participate actively in the liturgy is to become so involved that we are absorbed into its rhythm. (p. 159)

[1] Concerning the primacy of worship in the ministry of the church (including in mission), see Gary Deddo's essay, The Church and Its Ministry at https://www.gci.org/articles/the-church-and-its-ministry/.