The First Steps To Gospel-Shaped Worship
Who is a worship service for?
I remember asking myself that question as a second-year seminary student. Clearly, the goal of worship is to glorify God, first and foremost. But which kinds of people are expected to be in a worship service?
Certainly, Christians are to gather for worship. But passages like 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul discusses how to welcome non-Christians or inquirers in our services, reminded me that those who don’t already identify as Christians will regularly attend and visit worship services, too.
But can a church effectively reach out to Christians and non-Christians in the same service?
Thanks to the help of some great resources and my experiences ministering in my church, I have come to see that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” — if the gospel shapes our worship.
Worship for Everyone
In his great article “The Singing Savior,” Edmund Clowney suggested that Christian worship is best understood as doxological evangelism. By doxology, Clowney means rejoicing in God and praising him for who he is. Doxology not only glorifies God, but edifies and strengthens existing Christians, as well. By evangelism, Clowney means the missionary task of the church: bearing witness to the wonderful works of God among non-Christians.
How might Clowney’s definition of worship shape the way pastors arrange a worship service? Consciously or not, many leaders arrange services that emphasize either doxology or evangelism. That emphasis is revealed as they imagine what they are trying to accomplish. Certainly, it must be affirmed that a worship service is about giving glory to God more than anything else (cf. Psalm 95:1–7). But do we aim to glorify God by edifying Christians or by communicating the gospel to non-Christians?
Thinking of worship as both doxology and evangelism means there’s actually no need to decide between edifying and evangelizing. We can — and should — be doing both at the same time, all the time.
There are practical steps worship leaders and pastors can take as they build these worship services (discussed in part two of this article). But none of those practical steps will matter much if the foundation of a church’s worship services is shaky. The only foundation that makes it possible is the gospel.
The Gospel Shaping Worship
The gospel is not just how someone becomes a Christian — it is how a Christian grows into the image of Christ more and more (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4–6). We never go beyond or grow out of the gospel. Every person needs the gospel every day.
These convictions about the centrality of the gospel ought to inform the shape of our church’s worship. In fact, what we believe about the gospel already shapes our worship. As Bryan Chappell says,
The order of worship conveys an understanding of the gospel. Whether one intends it or not, our worship patterns always communicate something… Liturgy tells a story. We tell the gospel by the way we worship.¹
As we look at the worship services of our churches, what story is being told about the gospel?
In the first church I attended as a new Christian, there were three kinds of services. The Sunday morning gathering mainly edified Christians. The weeknight service instructed Christians. Then, occasionally, an “evangelistic” service was aimed at non-Christians.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been churches that identify their Sunday worship gatherings as “seeker-sensitive.” In such contexts, the Sunday worship service is mainly for non-Christians. Those who are Christians are encouraged to find other spaces to grow in their faith, such as small groups, Sunday school classes, and discipleship experiences.
Certainly, there are strengths to be observed in each of these approaches. And yet, if the gospel is the heart and organizing principle of our worship, then it is possible to arrange our services in such a way that evangelism and edification are integrated throughout. Chappell again writes,
This gospel is not only directed toward evangelism or foreign missions. The message of God’s provision of grace is as vital for daily Christian living as it is for conversion… Unless we make the communication of the gospel the frame and focus of our worship, our ceremonies possess only a form of godliness without the power of God.²
Everyone Needs the Gospel
Many people’s earliest exploration of Christianity will include attending a church service. It’s crucial that those folks not only feel welcomed in the churches they visit, but that they experience the clear proclamation of the gospel while they’re there, as well. At the same time, Christians need the gospel, too. If living in this age means anything, it means that all people — even the most devout believers — will experience doubts about their faith. When they show up at church, they need the good news of the gospel, too.
The gospel is the heart of Christian life. Let’s allow the gospel to be the heart of our worship services as well. If it is, then our services can be doxological and evangelistic, glorifying God as we edify and evangelize at the same time.
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.