Almost every church has an order of service with a familiar pattern of doing things. No matter what your church background, certain things are expected each week. It could be a Eucharist celebration or an altar call, but there is not escaping some kind of pattern of elements. All of the elements together are what we call a “liturgy.”
Many of us might be uncomfortable with the word “liturgy” to describe our church services (especially if we think that means we need to use incense, as picture above!). James K. A. Smith notes:
Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin knew these problems existed in the Roman Catholic Church. But the problem, they knew, was not with having a liturgy (order of service) per se, but with disordered liturgies. The solution was to instead come up with better liturgies to create church services shaped by the gospel.
So every church has a “liturgy.” Liturgy is in some ways just a shorthand for the “way in which we do things.” At UCC, many of the things we do are so natural to the congregation that we cannot imagine not doing them: we sing worship songs, pray, read the Bible, listen to a sermon, and so on.
Other things we do less frequently, and depending on our backgrounds, may be less familiar or comfortable for us: reciting a creed, or singing the doxology. Some may have wondered: Why do we have these elements in a Sunday service? Why recite an historical creed, or read a corporate confession of sin? Are these elements biblical? Are they appropriate?
To answer these questions, we are going to publish a series of short blog posts explaining what elements we include and why we do them. We hope that by explaining these elements, we will better understand why we have them and so enrich our church’s worship.
But before we explain the specific elements of each church service, it will be helpful to give an overall picture of how we try to structure and shape UCC services.
The Gospel Pattern
At UCC, we intentionally try to shape our services with four movements: praise, renewal, proclamation, response.
This pattern comes from the Bible itself. The pattern characterizes the “covenant renewal ceremonies” in various divine encounters.
Kevin DeYoung explains: “In Isaiah 6, for example, Isaiah comes before God and praises him; then he confesses sin and seeks renewal; God then speaks his word to Isaiah; and finally Isaiah responds with commitment to God.”
As you may have noticed, this is also the the shape of the gospel itself. DeYoung says “we approach God in awe, we see our sin, we hear the good news, and we respond in faith and obedience.” Thus, on Sunday, we are not only explicitly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in a sentence or paragraph (or in the Lord's Supper), but the entire service itself is shaped so that we experience the gospel.
Though each of the four elements looks a bit different each week, maintaining this gospel pattern is an important way of letting the gospel form our identity. Through the shape of the service itself and all of its elements, we are weekly reminded that we are sinners with nothing to offer God, yet simultaneously completely accepted and loved in Christ. And we are then sent out anew each week as we again respond with commitment to live out in the world on mission.