Posted by Glenn Packiam on 17 June 2016

Do we really need any more snarky blogs about smoke machines and skinny jeans, or sideways comments about ‘dead religion’ and ‘empty rituals’? Are you a bit tired of the so-called ‘worship wars’?

I am.

We can all get a little too obsessed with the style of worship. But I do think it’s important for us to reflect on the way we worship. We can’t just put our heads down and carry on, shutting out any voice of critique or any call for reflection.

So instead of the style, I want to talk about the shape of our worship.

Consider what happens at your church. Is it a series of segments strung together, or is there a narrative to the service? Do you have individual pieces—a ‘worship set’ followed by an offering and a sermon—or is there an inner logic, an ‘invisible structure’ (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson) giving shape to the elements?

Early Christian communities shaped their worship around the life of Christ. In fact, many liturgical scholars believe that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) narrate the story of Jesus in a way that mirrors the shape of early Christian worship services. The story of Jesus roughly moves from baptism to teaching to prayer to Passover (which, of course, includes the death and resurrection). A quick glance at traditional liturgical services—which have preserved the shaped of worship in early Christian communities—place baptisms at the beginning, then move on to the reading (and teaching) of the Word, followed by prayer, and then Eucharist.

By contrast, many of our services are shaped—whether we realize it or not—by the frontier revivals. Their pattern – warm-up music, passionate preaching, conversion call – is familiar to our service flow of worship, preaching, altar call.

I think we can learn from the practice of early Christian communities by asking why they shaped worship the way they did.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, we might say they did this to make Jesus the center and the Gospel the story.

Christian worship is not a string of stand-alone elements. It is a story—a story that centers on Jesus, that reminds us of our need for Him. It gathers us, proclaims the Word to us, calls us to Jesus’ table where His grace abounds to us, and then sends us back into the world to bear witness to the risen Christ. The Gathering. The Word. The Table. And the Sending. This is the longest standing shape of Christian worship.

And we can benefit from reflecting on it for our services today.

Every time we gather, we are have the mandate to carry on the mission, to continue the story. Each Sunday, we take our place in the drama of redemption and re-enact it in our context. The songs will different, as will the musical styles they reflect. In one place, prayers may be reverently read, while in other places prayers will flow fervently from the lips of earnest Christians. Some may sing three songs in a bunch, others might prefer to weave songs in and out of the entire service. Some may preach for half an hour, others offer a brief thought after the public reading of the Word. But in all places, Christian worship ought be shaped by Christ in the center and the Gospel as the story.

Discussion Questions:

1. Is there a shape, an inner logic, to the order of service at your church?

2. How might the service elements be arranged in away that re-enacts the Gospel?

3. How can all the elements of the service—the verbal and the visual, the layout of the room, and the order of the service—make Jesus the center and the Gospel the story?

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