“Liturgy” is a loaded word.
For some, liturgy drums up memories of musky pews and lifeless chapels. Many consider liturgy a formulaic and stifling approach to Sundays. Others look back with fondness on the rhythmic nature of liturgical churches. The predictability and repetition is familiar and feels like home.
In the last two decades, a variety of denominations and church tribes have actively abandoned what they would consider liturgy in an effort to modernize or mix things up. In the well intentioned fury of these Sunday makeovers, we may have lost something of immense value. With eyes forward, we have possibly unhitched ourselves from what lay behind us, namely a persevering attention to the shape of the Church’s gatherings.
A gospel liturgy is simply an intentional plan for your church gathered, informed by the good news narrative of scripture.
Historically speaking, God’s people have not just haphazardly joined each other to worship. The way and order in which we gather matters. Whether you mean to or not, your church has a liturgy. As my friend Mike Cosper quips, “your church’s liturgy may be to show up on Sunday, turn on the lights and see what happens, but you have a liturgy.” I want to propose that a gospel liturgy is an incredibly powerful tool, one with proven merit and modern potency. I want to highlight five (of many) benefits that a gospel liturgy brings to our gatherings together.
1. Liturgy forms us.
God’s people are, and always have been, a forgetful people. We gather for many reasons, but a primary purpose is surely to remind ourselves of what is true of you, me, Christ, and his kingdom. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the repetitive reminding that occurs in our gatherings. James Smith captures this sentiment in “You Are What You Love”:
“When our worship has a common form it reinforces our oneness and unity, which is especially important for the church’s witness in our post-Christian age. …When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us.”
If the driving purpose of our time together is a unifying and “reminding” adoration of God, then repetition is no longer a hindrance to perpetual newness but instead an asset in shaping us. Should we find fresh ways to tell the unchanging Gospel? Absolutely. I’ve given much of my own life to this cause. That said, the repetitions of a carefully crafted liturgy repeat the right things. The elements we choose to repeat on Sundays will surely shape our people in what they believe to be important and what they repeat throughout the week.
2. Liturgy equips the body for a life of worship.
Sundays are an essential rhythm and unique weekly moment for the local church. Corporate worship is a time to experience God uniquely as his gathered people, and provide space for responding together to the grace we’ve received. I love these aspects! But Sunday is also an opportunity to equip our churches for everyday worship.
“…the repetitions of a carefully crafted liturgy repeat the right things.”
Did you know that what you’re probably already doing on Sunday (with some intentionality and explanation) can inform what the rest of the week looks like for a believer? For example, when we incorporate confessions along with a statement of grace into most of our Sundays, this demonstrates that confession is a regular part of everyday Christian life and that God’s grace is always sufficient for our brokenness. If we take time to pray together (beyond the obligatory postage stamp that accompanies every sermon closing), we teach everyone that prayer is normative and necessary for the life of a believer.
3. Liturgy provides priority.
What is the main target downrange of your church? What are you wanting your body of believers to be aiming at in their discipleship? Liturgy will answer this question whether you mean to or not. Anyone who plans church gatherings knows that it can be hard to fit everything you want to in the time you have. Liturgy can help align your church’s highest values and greatest passions to what you celebrate and reenact every Sunday.
In reference to personal devotions, Augustine stated, “Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all.” I would argue we have a similar battle to fight in what the main thrust of our time together is. So then how do we ensure that Christ magnified is the top priority on each Sunday? Starting with a gospel liturgy certainly helps. Additionally, this kind of focus lessens the planning burden because you know what ingredients you are going to have before the recipe even starts.
4. Liturgy provides cohesion.
The shape of our Sundays can easily feel like an afterthought instead of a deliberate and thoughtful time together. I recall a Sunday years ago when a worship leader I was developing took the stage after a sermon they hadn’t listened to. Chipper and lively, the leader called the room to stand and start clapping, launching straight into an upbeat anthem of celebration. Had they been in the room, they would have heard the sermon end on a very intense and somber time of confession around sexual sin. The liturgy in that moment felt disconnected, disingenuine, and awkward to say the least. A thoughtful liturgy helps avoid these kind of disconnections and helps the whole gathering tell one uniform story. It points all the signposts of the gathering in the same direction.
5. Gospel liturgy tells the truest story.
A gospel liturgy helps us to rehearse and participate in the gospel story every single time we meet corporately. Every other culture tells us a partially corrupt story around our origin, what’s wrong with you and me, what will fix it, and what the “good life” is. Gospel liturgy seeks to tell the truest story.
This kind of intentionality, however so small, can yield massive benefits. The order of our gatherings, the elements we incorporate, and the time allotted for different elements…all tell our people a story of what we value. Our gatherings can readily tell false stories. A humbling exercise: ask those on the fringes of your church what the leadership cares most about based on what they see and hear in services. Some examples of false stories many liturgies reinforce:
-the pastor is the one closest to God and the only one with something to say
-music is the appetizer, and the sermon is the real meat
-men are qualified to lead on stage and women are not
-godliness comes primarily from knowing more about God
-Jesus dying on the cross is the only part of the gospel you need to pay attention to
If your Sundays tell a story, what story do you want to tell? Is there anything of more value than declaring who God is, what he has done, and who we are in him? Is there anything the people around you this Sunday need more than that?
How do you pull off a “Gospel Liturgy”?
Despite the current heavy proliferation and obsession with the word “gospel” in Christian culture, it is mysteriously absent from the shape of most of our gatherings. At my church, Sundays walk through what we call “a gospel arc” or four-part gospel narrative, an idea contributed to by Trevin Wax, Bruce Ashford and a host of others. We start with (a) creation, then (b) fall, then (c) redemption, and end with (d) restoration.
How do you tell the gospel with your liturgy? Over the rest of this blog series, I’ll walk through how we incorporate these categories into each of our gatherings, my hope is that this series would be helpful as you plan and participate in the worship gatherings of your local church.
I’m not contending that you should do Sundays exactly the way we do. I am convinced that the gospel should inform the nature and shape of the gathering as much as it does the last two minutes of the sermon or the content of our songs. The good news is that it’s not complicated to pull off, no matter the size or complexity of your Sundays. Perhaps you’ll consider reordering how you plan your Sundays.
How do you or don’t you see the gospel shaping your Sunday gathering?
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