Many Christian churches organize their worship services within a liturgy, which is a fancy way of saying a really organized and often ritualized way of worshipping God. Some churches have very formal liturgies (an order to worship) while other churches may have some and others… no formal liturgy at all.
Churches that follow a liturgy (and there are many, many styles and forms of liturgy) can seem rigid and almost mechanized to many but within the structure of a liturgy is a foundation of how God loves us, and how we react to this gift of grace.
We can think of liturgy on one level like we think of physics or other laws that we adhere to. Just like science, we learn and experience new things that change and shape our understanding the world around us and the same for worship. Liturgies often change over time especially in style. The building blocks of liturgy (like our understanding of quarks, neutrons and protons) doesn’t change that radically or quickly though.
Liturgy formalizes or organizes the way we receive God’s gifts.
Think of liturgy like building a story…
A story is often made up of about 5 different foundations that come together to make up one unified story:
Character (the who), setting (the where), plot (the what), conflict (the how) and theme (the why).
Or the building blocks of a song…
Many songs are built with: an introduction, a verse, a pre-chorus, chorus, a bridge, and a conclusion. Unless we have formally studied music, we don’t always know the formal parts and titles of a song but we can often times recognize that there are different sections of a song when we hear it.
In worship, liturgy helps tell the story of God and His love for us. The liturgy spells out our conflicts, our understandings, our hopes, our helps, our needs, our struggles, our decisions, and our hearts to God
So… what are these elements of liturgy? What are the parts of worship?
The following are the typical parts of a liturgy. Some churches may add more items to worship or even take some parts out. Often churches will add additional songs (or hymns) to one part of the service or another.
Prelude: Opening worship with praise. Often through prayer and/or music. It’s like a TA-DA!!! We are getting the party started!
Invocation: Inviting God’s presence. A formal “hello” to God. At a party you would, of course, formally introduce the guest of honor. At the invocation you take time to recognize the Creator as the reason we are gathered for.
Confession of sins: A time to reflect on how imperfect we are. We just recognized God who is perfect. It seems fair to realize and tell God that we are struggling and need help. “Thank you God for coming,” is our shout out in the invocation and at the confession we continue the respect by announcing why God is so great; because we are indeed selfish, weak and need help. Let’s admit it… we don’t like to admit our mistakes but when we get past our egos and can admit our faults out loud it feels pretty good.
Absolution: Big word and placed immediately after the confession where usually a pastor reminds us that although we are a bit selfish, mean, and unwise… God loves us no matter what and because we freely admit our mistakes, God forgives and forgets all our sins. This theme of forgiveness is repeated more than once in a liturgy.
Introit: Another fancy, churchy word. Uh, huh – you’re thinking Detroit right now or if you weren’t you are now. Sorry. Introit refers to verses from the book of Psalms and they are read and/or sung. Introit means “he enters into.” The introit should introduce the theme for the service much like the opening credits of a movie might give us clues and appreciation for the tone of the film.
Kyrie: This simply means a time in the service where we ask God for help and strength. Kyrie eleison means “God have mercy.” Kyrie eleison is also a popular song in the 1980s by the pop group Mr. Mister.
At this point you may be asking why do we need to say these things that are in the liturgy? Doesn’t God already know all these things? Yes. All these parts of the liturgy are ways to remind us of God’s strengths and our strengths and weaknesses. Throughout life we make reminders to ourselves to help keep our lives in check. The parts of the liturgy remind us each week of all these important parts of our relationship with God.
Hymn of Praise: Here everyone joins together to praise God and express joy that Jesus Christ is the Savior. Hymn, by the way, is usually a song.
Salutation: Umm, it is what it sounds like. It’s a hello! Yes, sounds like another invocation but this time we are recognizing each other. We introduce each other while acknowledging that it was God that brought all of us together.
Collect of the Day: Sounds formal? Kind of. The collect of the day is a time to summarize the main theme of the service in prayer.
First Lesson: This is where the Old Testament scripture is read. If a church is following a more formal liturgy, then the first lesson relates to the Gospel (a reading later from the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John).
The Gradual: This part can be compared to a song. Most popular songs have what is called a bridge. The bridge is when the song changes in some way from the previous part of a song and connects you to the last part. In worship the gradual is usually a sung or read scripture from the book of Psalms. Psalms is in fact a fancy way of saying “song”.
The Second Lesson: Like the first lesson, the second lesson is usually a verse read from the New Testament (but not one of the Gospel books). This may sometimes be printed as the epistle which means “letter” and refers to the New Testament books of the Bible that were written as letters to other believers.
The Alleluia: Usually a sung verse to prepare us in hearing the Good News. Gospel=Good News
The Gospel: At this point most churches ask everyone to stand as a show of honor to Christ. It is in the Gospels where we hear the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. The reading reflects Jesus Christ as the light of the world. The Gospel is typically read by a pastor and comes from the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
Ok, let’s address the standing and sitting, sitting and standing. Throw in a kneel and heads bowing for prayer and you have church exercises. Let’s admit it, it really doesn’t compare to much else in typical life. At a rock concert you may stand most of the time and sit some of the time. Most sporting events you sit unless the game play heats up and then you may stand, jump and shout. Every church has different traditions of sitting, standing, singing, praying, kneeling, waving, secret hand shakes and the like. What we should appreciate is that all these bodily interactions puts us into the story of worship. We hear and see, we taste (see Holy Communion later), we touch, we sometimes smell (burning of something called incense which is a fragrance). At a worship service nearly or all of our senses are a part of experience. Pretty, pretty, pretty cool (but it can seem odd at times).
Hymn of the Day: Typically a short song that we sing together to set the stage for the sermon. This song (or hymn) is usually picked to help inform us of the theme of the sermon.
The Sermon: For many of us, the word sermon can invoke boredom as we think of someone preaching AT us. In truth, the sermon is designed to be a time where a fellow human being (usually a pastor) gets to passionately share the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and HOW of God. The sermon is a retelling of scripture that helps us understand the past, the present and our future (with God). It often times helps us to understand the balance of LAW and GOSPEL. In other words, the rules and boundaries that exist in the world and the grace (the undeserved love and forgiveness) that God shows us. The pastor gives a sermon to help us understand and appreciate our relationship with God and each other. A really good sermon also helps us think about ways to live life more closely with God and each other.
The Creed: A creed is simply a statement of belief and there are many different creeds that churches use. We speak the words of a creed to remind us of what we believe about who God is. Most creeds are broken down in three parts that remind us to proclaim that we believe in one God in three parts. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You often will actually use the words “I believe” over and over. When we say a creed together we should be thinking, “do I believe this?” And know in our hearts, “Why yes, I do believe that this is true.”
The Prayers: A time where we formally ask God for help, tell God how awesome He is, thank Him for what He has done and/or admit our mistakes.
The Offering: Gifts that are given to God. We should think of this gift giving as giving directly to God, not the church that we are attending. Of course the church takes care of the gifts we give to God. The offering is a thank you to all that He does for us or for others. Gifts should be freely given – not out of obligation. The worship service itself is actually one big offering to God. If you come to worship because someone made you it’s hard to really worship. The reality is we often give or attend worship because we feel we “have to.” God accepts our presence and gifts no matter what. Obviously, the offering is almost always a gift of money but you may find times where a church asks us to consider giving something else like our time, food for those in need, or some other gift in honor of God.
Preface: Here we get ready for the meal. What meal? A meal of a different sort… the Lord’s Supper. A worship service may not always have Holy Communion (known also as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist).
The Sanctus: A really fancy way of saying “Holy.” We usually sing the sanctus as a way of anticipating Christ being truly present in the meal.
The Words of Institution: The bread and wine are set on the table (the altar) and we are reminded of the Last Supper when Jesus shared the bread (his body) and the wine (his blood). The bread and the wine are referred to as the elements and are set apart for God’s use.
The Lord’s Prayer: “Lord” here refers to Jesus. This is the prayer that Jesus taught the disciples and is often referred to as a model prayer as it covers all the things we need to ask God’s help in. Sometimes this comes before The Words of Institution but most of the time it comes right before Holy Communion is served.
The Peace: A greeting of peace before we approach the altar and take part in Holy Communion.
Agnus Dei: Latin words that means “Lamb of God.” This is often a song that is sung to remind us that Jesus sacrificed himself for us. This part is often a series of songs sung while we celebrate in Holy Communion together.
Administration of the Supper: We receive the wine (or juice) and bread (or wafer) and we hear the words, “body and blood of Christ given and shed for you.” How the wine and bread are served varies from church to church. Sometimes only a pastor serves while at other church pastors and other members of a church help serve the bread and the wine.
Post Communion Canticle: Canticle doesn’t sound fun, almost seems like it might be a medical problem. Again, fancy words that mean the song sung immediately after everyone is served Holy Communion. Often times this is a short song or perhaps just once verse of a song or hymn.
When the Holy Spirit gathers believers together into the Church, he also gathers them as the body of Christ in the outward activity we call worship. It is interesting that we often refer to the corporate worship of the Body as the “service.” But whose service? and for whom? Lutherans use the word “service” in English as a clipped form of the German Gottesdienst, “Divine Service.”
Prayers of Thanks: Yeah, prayers sung or spoken that share our thanks to God.
The Blessing: Words that are spoken or sung that remind us how much God loves us. It’s a promise that Christ will go with us and we say AMEN afterwards which means “we all agree.”
Closing Hymn: Many churches will close a worship service with one last song that should set the stage for us going out and sharing the love of God with others.
Do we need to know all this? Week to week probably not, but recognizing that a worship service is built intentionally is important for us to appreciate how we worship God together. When we take the time to pick out what instruments are playing in our favorite songs or when we bother to understand how something is built – we appreciate it more and we often become more interested. Next time you worship with a group of people take time to recognize, understand and appreciate the different parts of the experience. Every church follows some type of structure for worship!