If you’ve been to Gateway Church, you may have taken notice of the particular structure of our worship service. We’re a church in the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), but though this designates a particular tradition that is important to who we are, we are also a church made up of people who come to us from a very wide range of traditions. We by no means want to imply that our style and structure are better, or more godly, than another. But having a deeper understanding of each element of our worship will better prepare you for the formation that happens when God’s people join in worship. Thus, we thought it might be helpful to offer some explanation of why we worship the way we do.
The service follows a particular liturgy, or deliberate design that guides our worship. Though churches vary in how structured their liturgies are, just about every church has some kind of liturgy. Ours is intentionally designed to form us in particular ways as we worship. Let’s walk through the service, discussing each element of our liturgy.
Call to Worship
Here’s what happens in my life each Sunday morning, from my perspective. My alarm sounds, and after a few (or more) snoozes, I reluctantly clamber out of bed, hop in the shower, drink my coffee, eat my breakfast, and then go to church. I worship God with my church family out of my own choice.
From God’s perspective, here’s what happens. All night long, while I’ve been asleep, God has been at work, holding the universe together. His grace has been active in my life, even as I snore away. When I wake up, I get out of bed using the strength he has given me and enjoy the gifts of hot water, delicious caffeinated beverage, and sustenance. And then, having been called by God to worship, in his written Word and by the pull of his Spirit on my heart, I join with the people of God.
The difference between these two perspectives is where the action begins. From my perspective, worship begins with my choices. In reality, it is God’s work that propels and calls out our worship. The call to worship reminds us that we are part of a narrative much bigger than what we see, and our worship is simply our response to the One who calls us, acknowledging who he is and what he has done.
Every Christian has a unique story of how God has worked in their life and how they came to faith. What every Christian has in common, however, is repentance. We cannot accept the salvation offered in Christ without recognizing our need to be saved. We cannot become “dead to sin” (Romans 6:11) without confessing our sins to God and accepting forgiveness. But once we turn to Christ in repentance, our salvation is “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:12); we need not worry about the status of our salvation, or lie awake at night frantically asking Jesus into our heart over and over, as some of us did as children. Why, then, do we continue to confess our sins week after week?
We practice confession because we recognize that sin, in all of its ugliness, though defeated by Christ, has not yet been extinguished. God reigns! And yet, until That Great Day when Christ returns to make all things new and complete his Kingdom, sin continues to have a hold in our world, in our communities, and in our hearts. We see it around us, and in our moments of honesty, we see it within us. So we confess. We confess not just the “juicy” sins that make it into a game of “Never Have I Ever,” but also the subtle sins that we conveniently overlook or shrug off. We ask God to show us where sin lies in our hearts in places we aren’t even conscious of. One confession in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer leads us to “confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
Confession is not beating ourselves up or forgetting what Christ has done (as we’ll see in the next part of the liturgy), but living into the Gospel reality that we are sinners saved by grace. How much more meaningful is the gift of life when we take the time to dwell on the parts of us that wait in death? In the words of James K.A. Smith, “Our confession echoes the groaning of creation itself, which longs for redemption (Romans 8:22), looking forward to the full reality of what Christ has accomplished: reconciliation of all things to himself, ‘whether on earth or in heaven’ (Colossians 1:20).”1
Assurance of Pardon
We confess. But we are Gospel people; therefore, we never ever ever dwell on the reality of sin without immediately dwelling on our assurance that in Christ, we have been pardoned. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). We have been redeemed and we share in Christ’s resurrection. This is the Good News!
Without confession, the Gospel is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Christianity isn’t a self-help message. God didn’t overlook our sin and just decide to call it even. He paid for it. But without an assurance of pardon, we remain stuck in the grave. The stone has been rolled away—“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). I once was lost, but now I’m found! Death once reigned, but no more! In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! Hallelujah, amen!
And as we hear these words, and repeat them to ourselves and each other, we turn our eyes to the day when sin will be no more, all will be the way it was always supposed to be, and “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Lord as waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
Prayers of the People
These Gospel truths—the effects of sin and the transformation that comes with redemption—are not simply abstract principles, but concrete realities. And we sit in the part of God’s story we call the “already/not yet”: in Christ, salvation has come already, but God’s restoration of all things has not yet come. The not yet is no secret to anyone. We see it in those who fight illness and disease, in wars and violence, in hatred and bitterness, and in systems and institutions that harm people. So we sit in the not yet, lamenting what is wrong, and pleading with God to make it right—and to show us how, as his people, to be part of that right-making mission.
We think of the ways sin and its brokenness harm our own congregation, and we look out at the ways it harms our wider communities and our world. Again quoting James K.A. Smith, “We pray for precisely the things that are continued evidence of the curse, of the way things are not supposed to be, and that thus makes us hunger after the kingdom.”2
We might look at the benediction as a churchy version of the end of each episode of Looney Tunes, when Porky Pig jumps onto the screen, shouting, “That’s all, folks!” But in Christian liturgy, the benediction is far more than the assertion that it’s time to go home. It is a final reminder of the Gospel, that God’s love and grace shines on us and calls us to walk in his ways, even as we depart from the assembled company of God’s people. You’ll always hear Chris follow the benediction with the call to “continue in worship as we go now to love and serve the Lord.” Just as our worship didn’t begin when we walked into the room, it doesn’t end when we leave. It simply changes shape as we go about our week, seeking to be faithful to the various callings God has given us, offering our life as worship.
This is our worship liturgy. As you’ve seen, it’s more than a plan for a service. These are the rhythms of Gospel-centered people, practiced week in and week out as we are shaped and formed into the image and likeness of Christ. These are the disciplines of people who are sent into the world to love God and love our neighbor, to seek God’s Kingdom first, and to witness to the now-and-coming reality that God is King, and we are his people.
1 Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) 179.
2 Ibid. 194.
—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.