A Pattern for Planning Worship

Years ago at a denominational meeting, two old seminary friends ran into each other. It had been twenty years since they last met. One served as a pastor, the other as a minister of music. The pastor asked the music minister, “What have you been doing these past twenty years?” He answered, “The same as you, getting ready for Sunday!”

I’ve spend almost thirty years of my life getting ready for Sunday. One of the things that most helps me prepare for Sunday is having a dependable yet flexible pattern for worship services. I’d like to tell you about that worship pattern in this month’s column.

Although this article advocates a specific pattern of worship, let me clearly say at the onset: no one right way to worship exists. Through the centuries, the church has worshipped God in many diverse ways. For example, many evangelical churches practice what liturgical scholars call the frontier model of worship. Frontier worship developed during the evangelistic camp meetings of the early 1800s in the American West. The basic pattern for frontier worship orders worship services into three basic parts:

  • a time of praise and prayer, with great emphasis on music
  • a sermon, usually evangelistic in nature
  • a public invitation challenging people to respond to the gospel

While there is nothing particularly wrong with this worship pattern, it differs significantly from the 1,800 years of biblical and historical worship that preceded it. Early on in the life of the church, a basic order of worship emerged. We can call this the biblical-historical pattern of worship. This pattern has endured centuries of Christian history and is still followed today in most Christian communities. Today’s worship leaders, regardless of denominational affiliation, should be aware of this ancient order of worship.

Early Christian worship emerged from two primary roots: the synagogue worship of ancient Judaism, and the Lord’s Supper experience of the Upper Room. The early church fused together what happened in the synagogue—singing, prayer, scripture, sermon—and what happened in the Upper Room—the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, from its earliest days, the church practiced a two part order of worship:

  • the service of the word
  • the service of the table

Both these expressions of worship are found in the New Testament. For example, Acts 2:42 records, “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching,” (the service of the word), “and to the breaking of bread” (the service of the table). Acts 20:7-11 also records a Sunday worship pattern of Word and Table. We also see images of Word and Table in Luke’s account of the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35).

This basic pattern of word and table was firmly established by the second century. For example, in his First Apology, written around 150 AD, Justin Martyr describes services of word and table as the normative experience of Christian worship. The church later added two additions to this basic order of worship: a gathering and a dismissal. Therefore, the early church practiced a four-fold order of worship:

  • the gathering
  • the service of the word
  • the service of the table
  • the dismissal

However, the service of the word clearly had two parts: the word itself—scripture readings and sermon—and a response—affirmation of faith, prayer, and offering. Therefore, in practicality, the basic worship pattern involved five movements:

  • gathering
  • service of the word
  • response
  • service of the table
  • dismissal

This five-fold order of worship has been the mainstay of Christian worship for most of its history. This long standing pattern offers worship leaders the wonderful gift of guided freedom. The ancient five-fold pattern serves as our basic guide for planning and leading worship at my congregation. However, within each of the five movements, we are free to incorporate historic, traditional, and contemporary expressions of worship—what many people call “blended” worship and what I like to call “ancient-modern” worship. The end result is worship which takes seriously our biblical and historical heritage, but also allows full usage of historic, traditional and contemporary styles of worship.

If we put this ancient pattern of worship together, and translate it into a modern worship outline, it would look something like this:

We Gather to Worship God
We Listen to the Word of God
We Respond to the Call of God
We Celebrate at the Table of God
We Depart to Serve God

Notice six strengths of this worship pattern.

  1. It is true to biblical and historical foundations of worship.
  2. It provides a holistic and balanced worship experience.
  3. It moves and flows—it has meaningful progression.
  4. It is focused on God.
  5. It is highly participatory—the congregation is actively engaged.
  6. It is flexible—diversity and creativity can be implemented within each movement.

For further information about this pattern of worship, see my free article, “Sunday Morning at First Church—A Story About Blended Worship.”Sunday Morning at First Church: A Story About Blended Worship under the article section. This “ancient-modern” pattern of worship has served me and my congregation well for many years. I highly recommend it to you and your church as you get ready for Sunday.