If you look at any Roman Catholic cathedral, you will notice that the Mass shapes the architectural design, featuring the altar, bread, and wine. The pulpit is placed to the left, out of direct sight in the peripheral. Since the Reformation, most Protestant churches have placed the pulpit, the place for preaching God’s Word, at the center of the church and usually at the center of the stage.
Besides the preaching of God’s Word, however, there’s been much debate on what else we should do during our services. Some early Protestants argued that preserving some liturgical elements along with preaching looked too similar to Rome and distracted from God’s Word. Others disagreed and continued to use them to enrich devotion or for pedagogical reasons. Today, these debates continue in one form or another. Some use them, some decide not to.
For whatever reasons, the interest in the use of liturgical elements has increased in recent years. So I asked Scotty Smith, Mike Cosper, and Bob Kauflin, “To what extent does your church use liturgical elements such as responsive readings and creeds? Why?”
Scotty Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and TGC council member:
We in Christ Community Church (PCA) are increasingly enjoying the richness of responsive readings and creeds as we develop our liturgy week to week. In our first years we pretty much decried the use of such aids, but we now realize their doxological beauty and benefit. In fact, for many years, the word liturgy was almost a four-letter word in our reactionary infancy as a church family. We wanted to cultivate a free, Spirit-led worship culture, and wrongly assumed that creeds would lead to formalization and dead orthodoxy. In our current calendar year, we are praying our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. We also include prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, responsive readings from the Scriptures, and confession and professions from the pen and hearts of our leadership family. In recent years we have also celebrated the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed as a part of a gospel-driven liturgy. Let me be clear: we still want a “free and Spirit led worship culture,” but now we clearly see the place of responsive readings and creeds as a means of helping us offer our Triune God the worship he deserves and in which he delights.
Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky; regular contributor to TGC’s site on the gospel and the arts:
At Sojourn, we came to embrace a loosely liturgical model about seven years ago. The decision came not out of a desire to reform our worship services, but out of a broader desire to root everything we do in the gospel. As we dialogued about worship, we came to see that the historic rhythms of liturgical worship helped to reinforce and remember the rhythms of the gospel. Our gathering has four general movements: adoration (God is holy), confession and lament (we are sinners), assurance (Jesus saves us from our sin), sending (the Holy Spirit sends us on mission). Within these broad categories are weekly practices, including a call to worship, confession of sin, passing the peace, and so on. Each service comes to a climax at the communion table and ends with a sense of commitment and commission. It’s like “Gospel Practice”—a rehearsal of the rhythms of the gospel that not only mark conversion, but mark the everyday life of Christians.
The liturgy is a broad architecture upon which can hang any number of practices. We read a lot of Scripture together in our gatherings, and most of our transitions and calls to action (like a call to confess our sins) will be connected to a Scripture reading. But we also like to incorporate other kinds of content, like historic confessions and pastoral prayers. Here’s a few reasons why we find the liturgical structure helpful.
- Worship is a weekly spiritual discipline, and Sundays are like “practice” for the rest of the week. Rehearsing the gospel is like rehearsing a jump shot. When the clutch moments of life happen, what kind of praying, thinking, and singing will our people fall back on?
- Using historic resources like creeds, catechisms, and pastoral prayers demonstrate our connection with a church that is bigger than us. It helps to humble our own church’s view of itself and broaden our view of God’s work in history.
- No single song, sermon, or service can tell the whole story of the Bible, and we shouldn’t feel burdened to communicate the whole in each individual moment of the service. If we do, we end up with something that’s reductionistic (i.e., we only sing songs about atonement). The beauty of a gospel-shaped gathering is that it allows the church to fully enter into each movement—deeply confessing, deeply lamenting, or deeply hoping—without feeling the need in every other breath to relieve the tension. This works because the next movement of the service is just around the corner, and the service as a whole speaks a more holistic message than any individual component is capable.
No model for worship has a lock on the Spirit of God. The best way we can prepare for the Spirit to work is to center our gatherings on the things the Spirit gets excited about—namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ. A gathering centered on the story of the gospel and the person of Jesus doesn’t ensure revival but seems the wisest way to pursue an encounter with his Spirit.
Bob Kauflin, director of worship development, Sovereign Grace Ministries:
For years most of our singing came up front and lasted about 35 to 45 minutes. As we studied congregational worship throughout history, including in the Bible, we saw that every church has a liturgy. The question is whether or not that liturgy helps people focus on God’s glory in Jesus Christ. While prolonged singing has its advantages, one of the dangers is cultivating a perception that the Holy Spirit only shows up when music is playing, and usually for a long time. So we started occasionally using elements like responsive readings, pre-written prayers, public confession of sin, and creeds. These helped us accomplish a number of ends, all of which are helpful. Scriptural responsive readings root us directly in God’s Word, which fuels our response of singing. Pre-written prayers can bring clarity, specificity, and comprehensiveness to our prayers. Confessing our sinfulness together reminds us all that our need for a Savior didn’t stop when we were converted. Creeds connect us to a long history of saints who have confessed their common faith in an unchanging triune God who has redeemed a people for himself through Jesus Christ. All that to say, we’ve found it immensely helpful to benefit from practices of believers who have gone before us without feeling bound to one particular liturgy or way of doing things.