Good liturgy is theology in action
Last year, I was having a conversation about our service with a member, and I realized the two of us were talking past each other. It began to dawn on me when the terms “singing service” and “preaching service” entered the discussion: the disconnect was an effect of twentieth century revivalism.
Big tent revivals of the early and mid 1900s shaped American Christianity, particularly in its understanding of church liturgy. Even today, services at some of the most on-trend church plants are near replicas of the camp meetings their grandparents frequented in the mid-century—albeit with more flannel, facial hair, and flange pedals. They boil down to two very distinct, disparate parts: music and preaching.
Even in many reformed congregations these two parts aren’t intentionally connected. The songs are put together by a worship leader, and the sermon–expository though it may be—is written by a pastor. However, little effort is made to bring any cohesion to the overarching service. Each leader has no idea what the other has planned. It really is like two separate services smashed back to back: a singing service and a preaching service.
Sunday worship is theology practice
In a recent article, Southern Alum Patrick Schreiner called for more theology from the pulpit. I want to push even further and call for more theology from the service in general. In fact, I believe that the singing/preaching diptych we have adapted from the revival era is robbing us of a grand opportunity to practice theology each Sunday together as we meet. After all, good liturgy is kinetic theology—theology in action.
Liturgy sounds formal, but it is merely a word describing the way a worship service is constructed. “Singing then preaching” is liturgy, though a bit lacking in intentionality, creativity, and purposeful theology. Depending on the denomination and tradition, typical services can have a myriad of liturgical elements: prayers, Scripture readings, hymns, confession, offering, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, etc. The real trick is to knit these elements together in a purposeful way. Good liturgy is going to give members the opportunity to put theology into worshipful practice.
A framework for reflective worship
If a church is going to fall into a good rhythm of worship and begin to excel in kinetic theology, there needs to be an overarching framework that remains constant from week to week. For instance, our church uses the framework of salvation history—creation, fall, redemption, re-creation. We worship God in his holiness, recognize the fallen condition of man and confess sin, celebrate the redemption of Jesus, and receive the Spirit-inspired Word which brings new life. Mike Cosper’s book Rhythms of Grace is a great resource if you are interested in this framework.
With a consistent framework in place, this provides immense creativity from week to week. Taking cues from the sermon text’s general theme, intentional worship leaders can trace this theme throughout the framework of the service. For instance, say the sermon is focused on Acts 2:1-13 and the coming of the Holy Spirit. A good liturgy could help worshippers trace the development of the Spirit’s work and presence throughout salvation history. Each song, Scripture reading, prayer, and element of the service would then further the theme of the Spirit.
God-glorifying exploration of the gospel
Sundays then become a weekly opportunity for worshippers to enter into a retelling of the gospel while also developing one particular theological aspect of it. By participating in the elements of the service, whether spontaneous or scripted, the congregation gets to worship together with theological focus.
Weaving the themes we glean from God’s Word into our prayers and songs, we trace the beautiful threads of salvation in its elaborate details. We will never exhaust the many facets of the gospel. Using the overarching framework for worship, worshippers find a real space to explore the beauty of God in new and glorious ways each week—if leaders will take them there.
Liturgy should help our tongues, ears, and eyes experience the theology firmly held in our hearts and minds. The doctrine of the Trinity is not something we merely believe; it becomes something we sing using a hymn like “God, Our Father, We Adore Thee.” The coming of the Holy Spirit is not merely an event in history, it is a promise we receive by faith when we hear Ezekiel 36 read in our midst. The sacrifice of Jesus is not a matter of mental assent but of participation through touch and taste and sight at the Lord’s Supper.
The theological convictions we believe from Scripture become the substance and fuel for our worship when our services have intentionality and focus. Ultimately, what I am arguing for is a unified service.
May worship leaders and pastors begin to tear down the music/preaching divide and begin to work together to help worshippers and congregants to do kinetic theology together week after week. For Baptists, this is certainly going to mean greater emphasis on the ordinances of the Lord’s table and (ironically) baptism. It will take intentionality. But by turning the focus of the whole service onto God and what he has done, it opens up an inexhaustible space for active, head-and-heart engaged worship of our Lord.
Chad Ashby serves as pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He is a graduate of SBTS, where he completed a master of divinity in biblical and theological studies. Chad blogs at After Math. You can follow him on Twitter.