Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a great Danish theologian, used the image of a play to describe what he believed should happen in worship and said that the congregation performs the play with God as the audience. In many places, however, the congregation has become the audience and looks at the choir, the preacher, and others "on the platform" as the actors. Kierkegaard saw this as a great problem and felt that it was essential for the Church to begin to rediscover the role of each individual Christian in the liturgy.
The word "liturgy" is used to identify pieces of a worship service. Its original meaning was "the work of the laity." Even today, you will find that there are several parts of the service that are reserved to be whole congregation responses. We usually have both a minister of word and sacrament and a lay person lead the responses and read scripture to remind ourselves that worship is not to be dominated by any one type of person. We do not gather to listen to only one person pray but to pray together. In our tradition, we greatly value private devotions, but we also greatly value what happens when we pray, sing, and learn together.
The Form of Worship
In the Reformed tradition, our worship usually follows a four-point form.
We assemble in God's name: We gather in the name of the Lord, offer praise in the words of Scripture, prayer and song, acknowledge our sinfulness, and receive God's forgiveness.
We proclaim God's Word: We read and proclaim Scripture, sing Psalms, hymns, spirituals, or anthems, respond to the proclamation of God's Word with acts of commitment and faith, offer prayers of concern for local and worldwide needs, and give our tithes and offerings
We give thanks to God: We praise God for creation and providence, give thanks for Christ's work of redemption, and invoke the Holy Spirit upon the church. This is also where the Service of the Lord's Table is celebrated.
We go in God's name: We are sent forth with God's blessing to serve.
We do not believe that worship must follow this form, but we have developed this form for Sunday morning worship as a way of protecting us from patterns that can become unbalanced. We do recognize for instance that an evangelistic service or a prayer meeting might take a different form. But we want to always remember that we assemble in God's name, that we proclaim the good news, that we give thanks, and that we go with the commission to do the individual ministries God has given us.
We Assemble in God's Name
One or more of the musicians in the congregation performs a musical prelude appropriate to the season to help people gather their thoughts and enter into a state of worship. Members who have been visiting or doing other tasks around the church building settle down, collect themselves, and prepare to worship God.
One or more of the following is also used to help persons further collect themselves for worship: a prayer appropriate to the day, gathering song, or a call to worship.
A Hymn is sung.
A confession of sins and a reminder of God's forgiveness is used to help those who have unresolved guilt that keeps them from being fully present with God. Choir anthems or solo music expressing sorrow or asking forgiveness will be included at this time. We may also use traditional prayers or musical responses like the Kyrie as part of our confession and the Gloria Patri or other song of praise as part of our resulting celebration of God's forgiveness.
We Proclaim God's Word
A prayer for illumination requesting the work of the Holy Spirit to help us understand what will be proclaimed in the reading and explanation of Scripture is offered.
Scripture is read, usually from both the Old and New Testaments.
Hymns are sung.
The sermon is presented.
A creed or affirmation is read.
A baptism, confirmation, commissioning or other ordinance may be performed here.
Musical anthems or solos which proclaim God's Word may be presented during this time.
We Give Thanks to God
The prayer requests and announcements of the events of our life together are shared at this time.
The pastoral prayer which collects the praise specific to the proclamation just before, the thanksgivings of the assembly and the intercessions of the congregation is offered concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
We give back a portion of what God has given us in the offering.
We may at this time share the service of the Lord's Table. for a discussion of how we celebrate the service of the Lord's Table go here.
We Go in God's Name
A hymn is sung.
The congregation is given a commission to take into the world.
The congregation is reminded of the blessing they have received.
They go forth into the world.
Other Forms of Worship
Other patterns of worship are common in other churches and are occasionally used in Presbyterian churches. For instance in many churches the prayer of confession follows the sermon because the sermon is designed to remind the congregation of their need for confession and forgiveness. Or in a prayer service there might be no sermon but merely a reading of scripture to invite the congregation to share their concerns.
Probably the most common order of worship in the western world is the Tridentine order for the Mass used in Roman Catholic Churches. It divides the service into two parts: the first was traditionally to include those who were not yet baptized but were being educated to become members of the church this is called the mass of the catechumens. The second part, which includes the communion, is called the mass of the faithful. The students of worship who developed the order we use in Presbyterian Churches used the Tridentine order as their starting point.
The term "Mass" refers to the practice of dismissing the catechumens after they had heard the sermon and recited the Creed but before the communion of the faithful. The word "Mass" and the English word, "dismiss" are both derived from the Latin word "mittere" which means "to send away."
Today it is rare for persons to leave the service merely because they have not yet received baptism. It is correct, however, for unbaptized persons to remain in their seats at the time the communion is distributed.
Mass of the Catechumens
The priest and server recite part of Psalm 42.
The priest and people confess their sinfulness and ask God for forgiveness.
The priest reads a few verses usually taken from a Psalm. This prayer is called the Introit or entrance.
The priest leads the congregation in the Kyrie: "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy."
The priest leads the Gloria which is sung by the choir.
The priest reads the collect, a petition made in the name of all the people "collected" together or of all the prayers for that day "collected" together.
The priest reads a passage from the Bible, called the Epistle, because it is usually taken from one of the letters of the Apostles.
The priest reads verses, usually from a Psalm. These verses are called the Gradual (from the Latin word gradus, a step), because they used to be sung while standing on the steps of the pulpit or altar.
The deacon reads a passage from one of the gospels.
The priest delivers the sermon.
The congregation recites the Nicene Creed.
Mass of the Faithful
The Offering: The priest leads the congregation in offertory prayers including the Dominus Vobiscum and the Sursum Corda.
The Consecration: The priest reads a preface appropriate to the day recalling the history of salvation and leads the congregation in the Sanctus and in prayers of intercession. Then the priest consecrates the elements and offers them to God and offers prayers for the dead.
The Communion: The congregation prays the Lord's Prayer. The priest breaks the bread. The congregation sings the Agnus Dei. The communion is distributed. The priest prays a post-communion prayer.