Some time ago, I was preparing materials about Christian worship for a class, and I had a brainstorm. I would get the liturgies of several churches, and make a chart to show where they differ and where they are the same. So I gathered Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal service books, historic liturgies from the Catholic Church and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, and I got out my reference books with copies of ancient liturgies from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Cappadocia.
Well, I made the chart, but it wouldn’t have made a good handout for the class, because the basic structure is the same for everyone.
The Generic Christian Church
My purpose here is to explain the basic structure of Christian worship, and I think the best way to do that is to posit a Generic Christian church—something on the order of an Orthodox Catholic Anglican Protestant church—that is ecumenically broad enough to be in Communion with all contemporary mainline church organizations, yet historically deep enough to be true to our common Christian heritage: In other words, if time-traveling fourth-century Christians were to visit this church, they’d feel at home.
There is no denomination called the Generic Christian Church and there are no Genericans; it’s just a thought experiment.
The Service of the Word
At the Generic Christian Church, the Service of the Word is about 45-50 minutes long.
Genericans call the first part of the service the Service of the Word because its main features are Scripture readings and the sermon. It follows the plan of Jewish synagogue liturgy, which in turn follows Nehemiah 8. If the Service of Communion immediately follows the Service of the Word, which is normally the case, it has the following order of worship:
- Greeting (clergy)
- Opening Prayer (clergy)
- First Reading (lay person)
- Psalm (lay person)
- Epistle Reading (lay person)
- Gospel Reading (clergy)
- Sermon (clergy)
- Creed (all)
- Pastoral Prayer (clergy) or Prayers of the People (lay person)
- Offertory (clergy)
I have put “lay person” or “clergy” to show what is most common. There may be an occasion when visiting clergy perform roles labeled for lay people, or a lay person might preach the sermon if the pastor is home sick.
Now that is how the Generic Christian Church does it; your church might have some variation of this structure. For example, there might be a congregational prayer of confession right after the opening prayer, or the pastoral prayer might be later, in the middle of the Service of Communion.
What About Hymns? You Forgot the Hymns!
I didn’t insert hymns in this structure, because different churches do it differently, and that’s okay. You can put any appropriate hymn in any appropriate place. In some churches, it is customary to sing the Doxology right after the Psalm. We’re all familiar with opening hymns, sermon hymns, hymns of invitation, and so on, but wait! There’s more! There are short anthems and fractional hymns that are sung at particular times. Collectively, they are called service music, and about three or four lines long. Most of these come from the hymns during the Communion service in Revelation 4.
In many churches, the only service music is the Doxology and the Gloria.
The Calendar and the Lectionary
The Generic Christian Church uses the Christian calendar for the theme of worship and the Revised Common Lectionary for the Scripture readings. This centers worship on Jesus Christ. The Christian calendar reenacts the life and ministry of Christ over the course of the year, and the lectionary takes the preacher through all the preachable texts in the Bible over the course of three years. The lectionary assures that the readings carry the biblical theme of the season.
The Service of the Word in Detail
The service begins either with a call to worship or a set of responses, taken from Scripture.
Genericans call it the opening prayer, not the invocation. The word invocation implies that God is not present and needs an invitation to join the service, which they certainly hope is not the case.
The first reading comes from the Old Testament, except during the Season of Easter, when it comes from Acts. The first reading is thematically related to the Gospel and epistle readings, except during the time between Pentecost and Advent, when the first reading can follow a separate and continuous story line.
The first reading is followed by a psalm, which the congregation can sing, chant, or read responsively.
The epistle reading comes from one of the epistles, Acts, or Revelation.
A member of the clergy reads the Gospel, most often the one who is preaching. The congregation stands during the reading, as a sort of corporate memory of the time when there were no pews.
A member of the clergy delivers the sermon.
The congregation recites the Nicene Creed after the sermon. Anglican churches use the Apostles Creed if there is no Eucharist or if the service includes a baptism—the Apostles Creed was originally a baptismal liturgy. In some churches, it is possible to substitute the Apostles Creed for the Nicene Creed at any time. In Methodist churches, the Apostles Creed is the norm.
Pastoral Prayer or Prayers of the People
Most churches generally call the prayer the pastoral prayer if the pastor prays one big prayer, or the prayers of the people if there are a series of short prayers with congregational responses. Genericans prefer the second option. The prayers are in a different place in the service in different churches, but Genericans like to put them between the scripture readings. The pastor collects prayer requests from the congregation and incorporates them into a series of short prayers with congregational responses. (Genericans think it is odd to ask for prayer requests and then not pray about them.) Because there are congregational responses, the congregation is praying, not daydreaming.
In the Generic Christian Church, the offertory is the time when lay people present the clergy with bread and wine for use in the Eucharist. The offertory includes various prayers and blessings. At the same time, there is a collection of donations, so the money is presented also. If there is only a collection of donations, it is a collection, not an offertory.
In some churches, someone lifts up the offering plates as the congregation sings the Gloria. Since this parallels the practice of elevating the Communion elements, it looks like the adoration of the money. So Genericans keep the offering plates at waist level to avoid this effect.
The Peace comes between the Service of the Word and the Service of Communion. To an outsider, it looks like a sort of intermission, with people greeting each other with the words “peace be with you.” The Peace is really a last-minute opportunity to reconcile yourself with others in preparation for the Service of Communion.
Then we continue with the Service of Communion.
If Communion Does Not Follow the Service of the Word…
If there is no Communion for some reason, the Service of the Word is the entire service. The Generic Christian Church uses the same order of worship; they just move the collection before the sermon, insert the Lord’s Prayer after the Prayers of the People, and put a benediction at the end:
- Opening Prayer
- First Reading
- Epistle Reading
- Gospel Reading
- Pastoral Prayer or Prayers of the People
- The Lord’s Prayer
The collection can occur anywhere in the prayer service, but it is usually before the sermon, and since the sermon immediately follows the Gospel reading, it comes before that. Since there is no Communion in this case, we call it a collection rather than an offertory because there is no offering of bread and wine.
Sometimes Genericans put a call to Christian service (that is, an altar call) after the sermon.
Continue reading: Historic Christian Worship Today, Part 2: The Service of Communion.
Republished from kencollins.com with minor edits. Used with permission.