In Part 1 of this post, I suggested that when a worship service is shaped by the gospel, a church doesn’t need to decide between edifying existing Christians and evangelizing to non-Christians. Gospel-shaped worship means a church can do both at the same time, all the time.
While that article laid the foundation for the importance of gospel-shaped worship, it wasn’t very practical. It didn’t address how a church can lead worship services shaped by the gospel. What follows is an attempt to do just that.
Here are three principles for arranging gospel-shaped worship services in your church:
1. Look at Your Liturgy
There’s no such thing as a church that doesn’t have liturgy. A liturgy is simply an order for worship that describes what happens when a church gathers together for praise, preaching, prayers, and fellowship. Some churches have formal and structured liturgies, while others are informal and fluid.
Regardless of how structured or fluid your liturgy is, the question to ask is this: does it tell the story of the gospel?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to what a gospel-shaped liturgy must look like. There have been many good examples throughout the history of the church. But a survey of those examples shows that there are four common elements repeated in every liturgy that attempts to be gospel-shaped.
Interestingly enough, God’s encounter with Isaiah serves as a helpful illustration of these principles.
- Praise: In Isaiah 6:1–8, Isaiah comes into the temple and witnesses a vision of the glory and majesty of God: angels singing “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty.” That phrase is always where gospel-shaped worship begins—the gospel is good news about what God has done. Gospel-shaped worship begins by looking Godward, rejoicing in who God is and what he’s accomplished. The elements of a worship service that fit here are calls to worship, songs of musical praise, prayers of adoration, and times of thanksgiving.
- Confession: The glory of God immediately leads Isaiah to a confession of his own sinfulness: “Woe to me! I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips.” Beholding God’s goodness inevitably leads to a recognition of our sinfulness and need for grace. Gospel-shaped worship, therefore, provides space for confession. It might be a corporate prayer of confession spoken together, or it might be giving people space to privately come before God with their confession. These words of confession are to be followed with words of assurance, since God is faithful in forgiving sin when we confess it to him (1 John 1:9–10).
- Renewal: No sooner does Isaiah confess his sinfulness than God meets him with grace: “Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” God does not leave us wallowing in our sin—he meets us in the promise of his grace, renewing and building his people back up. This happens in our worship services chiefly through preaching and participation in the sacraments, but can also happen through testimonies of changed lives and prayers of intercession.
- Commission: Once God’s grace meets Isaiah and brings renewal, God asks: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me.” As God’s forgiven and renewed people, the church is mobilized for mission and sent out to love and serve the world. In worship, this happens through intercessory prayer, a time of offering, testimonies of how God is working in the world, and a benediction. Even the seemingly most mundane part of worship — announcements — can be a genuine part of worship that invites people to participate in serving the church as that church serves its community and world.
If any of these four elements are regularly missing from your church’s worship service, it might be worth reflecting on how introducing that element would make your worship more consistently gospel-shaped.
2. Preach the Gospel Every Time
There are many great resources today that talk about the importance of Christ-centered preaching and how the gospel should be presented clearly in every sermon. Since the biggest part of the worship service is the sermon (for most Protestant churches), a worship service won’t truly be gospel-shaped if the sermon does not preach Christ.
3. Worship in the Vernacular
While it’s essential to get the structure of services right, another important factor to consider is the language it uses. To make our worship’s language accessible is to help people encounter the gospel and all of its inevitable offensiveness.
One of the Protestant Reformation’s most important contributions to worship was emphasizing that worship should be conducted in the vernacular—the common language of the people. The Reformers insisted that God’s people must understand to be able to participate in worship, and so the language used in services went from archaic Latin to French or German or English. What’s the value of a gospel-shaped worship service if everything happens in a language that no one but the minister understands?
But here’s what different for ministers today. Even though the Reformers had to change the language of services, they could still assume that everyone would have a broad familiarity with the message of Christianity. That assumption can no longer be safely made today.
Today, speaking in the vernacular does not simply mean speaking the common language of the context, but speaking it in ways that people who live in your neighborhood but don’t attend your church will understand.
That doesn’t mean shying away from using rich biblical and theological words and ideas. We should use them—we just shouldn’t assume that everyone in our services understands what they mean. And when we do share these words and ideas, we should take an extra moment to explain them.
“Today, speaking in the vernacular does not simply mean speaking the common language of the context, but speaking it in ways that people who…don’t attend your church will understand.”
We should also be on the lookout for Christian jargon. Some of the language that fills services is not theologically rich and biblically important, but rather the vocabulary of a Christian subculture that’s been developed over time. Praying for safe travels is easier on the ears of a newcomer than praying for a “hedge of protection.”
By thoughtfully constructing our liturgy, maintaining a focus on Jesus in our sermons, and making sure our language is understandable and accessible, we can begin to create gospel-centered worship. When we allow God to shape our services, the story of Christ proves useful and inspiring for all to hear.
About the Author
Bijan Mirtolooi is an assistant pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church West Side. He holds degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a doctor of ministry candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife, Michelle, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.