An insightful excerpt from Matt Merker’s new book, Corporate Worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People, 9Marks, Building Healthy Churches series (Crossway, 2021).

What Is Liturgy?

Many theologians have called the order of service a “liturgy.” The Greek term leitourgia referred to work done for the good of the public. When used in the context of a church gathering, “liturgy” refers to the “work” or ministry of exaltation and edification for which God gathers his people—or better, that God himself performs in and through his people.

Let me disclose that I’m ambivalent about the word “liturgy.” It’s become trendy, and I’m not sure if writers who use it always mean the same thing. I usually prefer to speak of the “order of service.” But for the sake of joining and hopefully contributing to the conversation, I’ll use “liturgy” in this chapter. For me, liturgy refers to the order of the worship service, particularly how it reveals and reinforces the nature of the service itself.

To be sure, some may associate the idea of liturgy with high-church formalism and rote tradition. But in reality, every church has a liturgy. No matter how simple or complex, how short or long, each church’s order of service expresses a set of theological values. And in turn, the liturgy gradually inculcates those same values in the church’s members.

Liturgy as Corporate Discipleship

We should see the church’s worship service—the whole thing, not just the sermon—as a mass discipling activity. Mike Cosper says it well: “The gathering isn’t simply a single spiritual discipline; it’s a host of them. It’s a way of taking the experiences of prayer and worship, which we so often compartmentalize and individualize, and unifying them in the life of the congregation.”

Since the gathering is such a powerful corporate discipling tool, we should treat liturgy with care. Here’s how Bryan Chapell puts it:

Whether one intends it or not, our worship patterns always communicate something. Even if one simply goes along with what is either historically accepted or currently preferred, an understanding of the gospel inevitably unfolds. If a leader sets aside time for Confession of Sin (whether by prayer, or by song, or by scripture reading), then something about the gospel gets communicated. If there is no Confession in the course of the service, then something else is communicated—even though the message conveyed may have not been intended.

Imagine a diamond ring. The order of a worship service acts like the prongs that hold up the gleaming jewel of the gospel. Our liturgy should support and undergird the message of God’s grace in Christ that we proclaim. Ideally, like the best prongs, the liturgy is unobtrusive—it gets out of the way so that the gospel shines bright and unhindered. Conversely, a poor liturgy is like a set of prongs that overshadow the diamond. The gem may still be present, but it’s obscured. If a church isn’t careful, its order of service can muddle rather than illuminate the good news.

Two Examples

To see how this works in practice, imagine two different church gatherings. Each congregation is the same size. They use the same musical instruments: keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. More importantly, they affirm the same basic theological beliefs. But their liturgies differ in consequential ways.

The first was typical at the church I served at in my early twenties. It’s a common evangelical liturgy. It begins with an energetic gathering song. Next, a pastor welcomes the church and invites everyone to greet those sitting nearby. He then offers a brief prayer asking God to bless the meeting. After that, the band leads a “set” of three praise songs, often in a sequence moving from an upbeat song about God, to a medium-tempo song reflecting on what God has done, and concluding with a slow song of adoration to God. The worship leader closes the set in prayer, echoing the words of the previous song. A video clip introduces the theme of the sermon. The pastor then steps up to a bar table, reads a text of Scripture, delivers his message, and prays. He invites the congregation to sing a closing song, after which he gives a benediction. The band launches into the chorus of the final song as folks get up and leave their seats.

The second gathering is a service at Igreja Presbiteriana Barra Funda (Barra Funda Presbyterian Church) in São Paulo, Brazil. An elder begins the service by reading a call to worship from 1 Peter 2:9-10. He then offers an opening prayer. The congregation sings the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” in Portuguese. Next comes a scripture reading from Leviticus 26:1-13. The congregation sings a song entitled “Your People,” and then a member leads a prayer of praise. Another song, “Across the Lands,” follows. Then the pastor preaches from Acts 2:42-47. On this particular Sunday, the congregation reads their membership covenant aloud and sings the hymn “Wine and Bread” to prepare for the Lord’s Supper. A pastor leads in a prayer of confession, then the church celebrates communion. Finally, the pastor offers an intercessory prayer before concluding the service with a benediction.

What do these different liturgies communicate? What values do they reveal?

Let’s start with the second one. At Igreja Presbiteriana Barra Funda, the order of service intersperses Scripture readings, prayers, and songs, which allows these various elements to interpret and shed light on one another. Notice how the readings from 1 Peter 2 and Leviticus 26 focus on the people of God. The titles of the songs show the same theme. These hymns and texts were chosen to set up the sermon text from Acts 2, which describes the fellowship of the Jerusalem church. We can see from the different prayers that various parts of the service center on praise, or confession, or petition. In sum, this liturgy deliberately guides the church through an engagement with God centered on his Word. God speaks to begin the gathering; his people respond in prayer and song. God speaks in other Scripture readings and in the sermon, and his people respond by celebrating the Lord’s Supper and bringing their intercessions to him in another prayer.

Contrast the gathering at Barra Funda with the first order of service I mentioned. That liturgy isn’t sinful or wrong per se. But I wouldn’t classify it as wise, healthy, or commendable. It has at least four weaknesses.

First, this service—presumably unintentionally—divides worship through song and worship through sermon. In fact, folks who attend services like this all too often describe the singing as the worship, as if the other parts of the service aren’t also part of how we glorify God. The structure reinforces this misunderstanding. There’s a staging change (from music stands to bar stool and table) and a video clip as a sort of liturgical buffer between the singing section and the sermon section, making them feel separate and disconnected.

Second, this liturgy begins with us speaking to God in song followed by him speaking to us. That order is confusing. God first reveals himself to us by his Word. As we saw earlier, God works in and through us in corporate worship. He empowers our response to him. So, although this service may be designed to appear casual and approachable, it ironically asks too much of congregants. It expects them to be ready to jump into energetic songs of praise without hearing a reminder of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.

Third, this order of service leaves two of the most essential elements of corporate worship out to dry: prayer and Scripture reading. There is no other Scripture reading in the service, aside from what the pastor might read in his sermon. And the prayers serve as transitions, not as substantive elements of worship in their own right.

Fourth, aside from within the set of songs, the service doesn’t develop any broader narrative or theme. There’s no sense of movement from considering God’s character to praise, or from hearing God’s law to confession, or from meditating on the gospel to thanksgiving. The best meals come in multiple courses that build upon each other in succession. This meal, however, lacks such a deliberate progression. It feels like the burger and fries from a drive-thru.

Look at the structure of your church’s most recent gathering. What is the “story” that it tells through the arrangement of the various elements? Is it a story worth instilling in your congregation, week after week?

If the liturgy emphasizes God speaking in his Word and his people listening, it fosters a congregational attitude of submitting to Scripture. If the service includes substantive prayers of praise, confession, petition, and thanksgiving, it will both teach folks to pray and reinforce the church’s identity as a people of prayer. If the liturgy regularly underscores the depths of our sin before exulting in the heights of God’s love in Christ, it trains the congregation to value Jesus’ sacrifice. If the liturgy makes the sermon central, it teaches the church to esteem preaching as vital to its life and health.

A Word of Caution

At this juncture, though, I need to add a warning. Some theologians and leaders seem to talk about liturgy as if it is the primary tool that will bring greater health to Christian churches. They treat liturgical reform as The Answer to any number of problems in evangelicalism today. The argument goes something like this: since the order of our worship shapes our desires, then getting liturgy right is the key for Christian formation and growth. Are believers materialistic? The pattern of the liturgy will train their hearts to desire God’s kingdom more than this world. Are believers individualistic? Liturgy shapes their identity as part of the community of faith. Are believers unconcerned with justice? The right order of service will awaken in them a passion for equity and righteousness. And so on.

I agree that liturgy is a powerful force to shape our hearts. That’s why I’ve spent this whole chapter encouraging you to be as thoughtful as possible about the order of your church service. Liturgy provides a skeleton, and it matters to have a skeleton as strong and well connected as possible. But you need more than a skeleton to have a living, breathing body. The actual content of each element of the service matters more than the order in which they are arranged.

Recall the excellent order of service from Igreja Presbiteriana Barra Funda we surveyed earlier. What if the hymns were changed to songs that lack key truths about God’s grace for us in Christ? What if the prayers and the sermon no longer had a distinctive evangelical message but instead obscured or even conflicted with the gospel? You’d still have the Scripture readings, yes. But other than those, the service would be devoid of truth. The Word of God might be read, but the gospel would never be preached. What I’ve just described is the case in many mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches today. They serve a meal that may be artfully arranged, but the food on most of the plates is rotten.

To switch analogies, a liturgy is like a pipe through which the water of the gospel flows. Pipes matter. Indeed, although it’s sometimes barely perceptible, the material of the pipe adds its own flavor to the water. But water quenches thirst. Water gives life. Better to have leaky pipes flowing with pure water than amazing pipes hooked up to an empty well. If we care more about the order of service than the content of each element of the service, we may ironically end up neglecting the proclamation of the gospel.

We should strive to fill our services with the life-giving water of the Word of God. The Word, rightly proclaimed—through Scripture and sermon, through song and prayer, illustrated through baptism and the Supper—is what gives life to the church (see Rom. 10:17, Col. 1:5–6, James 1:18). Scripture insists that God gives life to the dead through the declaration of a verbal pronouncement—so much so that he called Ezekiel to preach to a valley of dry, dead bones (Ezekiel 37). Our liturgy will flavor how we understand the message, but ultimately it’s the message itself that God uses to save and transform his people.