TGC Asks: How Do You Use Liturgical Elements in Your Church Worship?

If you look at any Roman Catholic cathedral, you will notice that the Mass shapes the architectural design, featuring the altar, bread, and wine. The pulpit is placed to the left, out of direct sight in the peripheral. Since the Reformation, most Protestant churches have placed the pulpit, the place for preaching God’s Word, at the center of the church and usually at the center of the stage.

Besides the preaching of God’s Word, however, there’s been much debate on what else we should do during our services. Some early Protestants argued that preserving some liturgical elements along with preaching looked too similar to Rome and distracted from God’s Word. Others disagreed and continued to use them to enrich devotion or for pedagogical reasons. Today, these debates continue in one form or another. Some use them, some decide not to.

For whatever reasons, the interest in the use of liturgical elements has increased in recent years. So I asked Scotty Smith, Mike Cosper, and Bob Kauflin, “To what extent does your church use liturgical elements such as responsive readings and creeds? Why?”

Scotty Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and TGC council member:

We in Christ Community Church (PCA) are increasingly enjoying the richness of responsive readings and creeds as we develop our liturgy week to week. In our first years we pretty much decried the use of such aids, but we now realize their doxological beauty and benefit. In fact, for many years, the word liturgy was almost a four-letter word in our reactionary infancy as a church family. We wanted to cultivate a free, Spirit-led worship culture, and wrongly assumed that creeds would lead to formalization and dead orthodoxy. In our current calendar year, we are praying our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. We also include prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, responsive readings from the Scriptures, and confession and professions from the pen and hearts of our leadership family. In recent years we have also celebrated the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed as a part of a gospel-driven liturgy. Let me be clear: we still want a “free and Spirit led worship culture,” but now we clearly see the place of responsive readings and creeds as a means of helping us offer our Triune God the worship he deserves and in which he delights.

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky; regular contributor to TGC’s site on the gospel and the arts:

At Sojourn, we came to embrace a loosely liturgical model about seven years ago. The decision came not out of a desire to reform our worship services, but out of a broader desire to root everything we do in the gospel. As we dialogued about worship, we came to see that the historic rhythms of liturgical worship helped to reinforce and remember the rhythms of the gospel. Our gathering has four general movements: adoration (God is holy), confession and lament (we are sinners), assurance (Jesus saves us from our sin), sending (the Holy Spirit sends us on mission). Within these broad categories are weekly practices, including a call to worship, confession of sin, passing the peace, and so on. Each service comes to a climax at the communion table and ends with a sense of commitment and commission. It’s like “Gospel Practice”—a rehearsal of the rhythms of the gospel that not only mark conversion, but mark the everyday life of Christians.

The liturgy is a broad architecture upon which can hang any number of practices. We read a lot of Scripture together in our gatherings, and most of our transitions and calls to action (like a call to confess our sins) will be connected to a Scripture reading. But we also like to incorporate other kinds of content, like historic confessions and pastoral prayers. Here’s a few reasons why we find the liturgical structure helpful.

  • Worship is a weekly spiritual discipline, and Sundays are like “practice” for the rest of the week. Rehearsing the gospel is like rehearsing a jump shot. When the clutch moments of life happen, what kind of praying, thinking, and singing will our people fall back on?
  • Using historic resources like creeds, catechisms, and pastoral prayers demonstrate our connection with a church that is bigger than us. It helps to humble our own church’s view of itself and broaden our view of God’s work in history.
  • No single song, sermon, or service can tell the whole story of the Bible, and we shouldn’t feel burdened to communicate the whole in each individual moment of the service. If we do, we end up with something that’s reductionistic (i.e., we only sing songs about atonement). The beauty of a gospel-shaped gathering is that it allows the church to fully enter into each movement—deeply confessing, deeply lamenting, or deeply hoping—without feeling the need in every other breath to relieve the tension. This works because the next movement of the service is just around the corner, and the service as a whole speaks a more holistic message than any individual component is capable.

No model for worship has a lock on the Spirit of God. The best way we can prepare for the Spirit to work is to center our gatherings on the things the Spirit gets excited about—namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ. A gathering centered on the story of the gospel and the person of Jesus doesn’t ensure revival but seems the wisest way to pursue an encounter with his Spirit.

Bob Kauflin, director of worship development, Sovereign Grace Ministries:

For years most of our singing came up front and lasted about 35 to 45 minutes. As we studied congregational worship throughout history, including in the Bible, we saw that every church has a liturgy. The question is whether or not that liturgy helps people focus on God’s glory in Jesus Christ. While prolonged singing has its advantages, one of the dangers is cultivating a perception that the Holy Spirit only shows up when music is playing, and usually for a long time. So we started occasionally using elements like responsive readings, pre-written prayers, public confession of sin, and creeds. These helped us accomplish a number of ends, all of which are helpful. Scriptural responsive readings root us directly in God’s Word, which fuels our response of singing. Pre-written prayers can bring clarity, specificity, and comprehensiveness to our prayers. Confessing our sinfulness together reminds us all that our need for a Savior didn’t stop when we were converted. Creeds connect us to a long history of saints who have confessed their common faith in an unchanging triune God who has redeemed a people for himself through Jesus Christ. All that to say, we’ve found it immensely helpful to benefit from practices of believers who have gone before us without feeling bound to one particular liturgy or way of doing things.

  • USA

    If the Eucharist is not a focal point and your pulpit is portable what liturgical element will take center-stage?

    • Ben

      It seems to me that it doesn’t matter exactly what “liturgical element” takes center stage, but rather that Jesus Christ takes center stage. This can happen with or without a pulpit in the preaching of God’s Word, and it can happen with or without a Eucharist table in the observance of the Lord’s supper. If the ligturgical element itself EVER takes center stage, we have a real problem.

  • myabnormallife.

    Thank you for this subject matter and allowing different perspectives on it. I believe there are mainly two extremes when it comes to our worship services. We are either very free and liberal in our worship services or we become legalistic when it comes to worship. I think we get caught up in our denominational “norms” and when we try to break out from those “norms”, people tend to push back because “why change what’s worked for 100 years?”. Its not always easy to find that happy medium when it comes to worship and too many times do people’s preferences get in the way. Denomination plays a big role in this too. I do believe there is a benefit to all the points made in this article. Thank you for the insights and helpful ideas to bringing new life to our worship.

  • Brian

    I find this pick-and-choose liturgical approach bothersome. More bothersome is the first respondents comment that “we still want a free and Spirit led worship culture”. I take that to mean “we still want to be able to make things up as we go along”.

    • Ian

      In some traditions, correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not a common belief that the liturgy is the work of God in the church? That is to say, Spirit-guided and inspired tradition?

    • Ben

      I don’t see why that would mean “we still want to be able to make things up as we go along”. I would take it rather to agree with Kauflin’s statement, “All that to say, we’ve found it immensely helpful to benefit from practices of believers who have gone before us without feeling bound to one particular liturgy or way of doing things.” It’s not about the liturgy, it’s about lifting high the Name of Jesus Christ. Liturgy can help that, but no one liturgy has ever proven infallible to help us do it because no one liturgy is prescribed in the scriptures. One can pick and choose liturgical elements in a planned and orderly way in an effort to stay in tune with the Holy Spirit’s direction for that particular church.

    • John Starke

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for the response. You have a point, but if I may speak on behalf of the contributors, the use of liturgy is understood as a tool – to point us to something greater. They are not ends, but means. Therefore, the use of liturgy should be used wisely by the leaders and shepherds, in order to promote the truth of God’s Word, his glory, and his gospel. They are not the rule or norm, but they compliment and explain God’s Word. So, the “pick-and-choose” approach, as you call it, is actually the use of wisdom to discern how the use of liturgy corresponds and promotes God’s Word. The only normative practice in Scripture is preaching; singing hymns, hymns and spiritual songs; reading Scripture; and praying.

      • Brian

        Hi John,

        I suspect we’re worlds apart on the use of Holy Scripture as it relates to informing our liturgical practice. I would take the received practice of the Church as being normative, of which the Holy Scripture gives a window view in it’s infancy.

        As a non-evangelical I’ll let you all discuss this. I probably chimed in prematurely.

  • Ian

    Really great views expressed, and I appreciated Scotty’s humility:

    “In fact, for many years, the word liturgy was almost a four-letter word in our reactionary infancy as a church family”

    Personally, I decry this absurd notion that the Holy Spirit is only present in the ‘moment’. One of my tutors at Bible College used to talk about the ‘key-change of the Holy Spirit’. In jest, of course.

    We believe that God’s Spirit was what guided the formation of our Scriptures, and the same Spirit helps us interpret it today? Right? And presumably we believe God guides our minds and our words when we plan sermons? Right? So why should not that same, Spirit-led preparation and care be applied to worship?

    Even a tight liturgy, like the Eucharist many Anglicans and Methodists use, is Spirit-led since to a large extent it is founded upon Scripture for the glory of God and the building of the Church.

    Surly we are all mature enough to know that feeling one thing or another, or the amount of spontaneous praying, or singing a lot is not a guarantee of the Spirit’s work.

    How do we know the Spirit’s presence? Surly by his fruit?

  • PQD

    Circle the answer corresponding to the chief liturgical element about which a modern church building should be designed:

    (A.) Pulpit.
    (B.) Choir/Band.
    (C.) Eucharist.
    (D.) Pastor/Congregation.

    • Ben

      What does the Word of God say it should be?

    • Laura

      PQD = USA, yes?

      In the venerable rabbinic style of answering a question with a question, try this one on for size:

      Circle the answer corresponding to the location where the first Christians met for worship:
      A) homes
      B) Jewish synagogues
      C) catacombs
      D) large, ornate, expensive buildings dedicated for the use of a congregation and designed around a particular liturgical element

      PQD/USA, at the risk of asking a ridiculous question, what are you getting at?

  • Mark

    church is also a group of people worshiping together. church history teaches us that we can’t force people to worship certain ways. Spirit-led for one isn’t the same as Spirit-led to another.

  • Jeremy Quillo

    “…every church has a liturgy. The question is whether or not that liturgy helps people focus on God’s glory in Jesus Christ.”

    This is such a great reminder; and church communities world-wide would do well to think about it in the context of their own gatherings. Thanks to all three of you for your insights.

  • Brandon Morgan

    from John Starke “The only normative practice in Scripture is preaching; singing hymns, hymns and spiritual songs; reading Scripture; and praying.”

    thats the key – what’s normative. Although perhaps by freudian slip, you left out the singing of psalms ;) I would be interested in a study as to why the more “liturgical” forms are seeing an increase in recent years

  • PQD


    1st Century Christians often met:
    A) & C).

    21st Century Western Christians most often meet in:
    A) homes
    B) Jewish synagogues
    C) catacombs
    D) large, ornate, expensive buildings dedicated for the use of a congregation and designed around a particular liturgical element.

    • Laura

      None of the above. Most 21st century Christians meet in purpose-built buildings that are not necessarily intentionally designed around any “liturgical element,” which is what I was driving at, I suppose. I don’t really understand what you’re getting at with all of this.

      • Brian

        First, let me say that I these little multi-option questions are silly and meant to drive home the questioners suppositions.

        That being said, most 21st century Christians *do* meet in “purpose-buily buildings” designed around “liturgical elements”. It’s really only evangelicals that meet in spaces that aren’t built around worship/eucharistic driven theology. And dare I say that evangelicals hardly make up most of 21st century Christians.

        Anyway, as an Orthodox Christian I find this idea of “liturgical elements”, as if these were just disconnected elements and that could subtracted from the whole, to be rather strange.

        • John Starke

          Since this is an evangelical/Protestant site, most articles and comments will be written with those assumptions. So, even though it may seem like we are glibly talking about the liturgical elements, there are theological convictions behind what we say. The Bible would be of more importance to us as to whether or not we are subtracting from the whole. We would use creeds, responsive readings, etc, in a way that would serve the preaching of God’s word, not as on par with it. I hope that clarifies our purpose in this article.

          But I’m thankful to have your contribution, Brian.

  • PQD

    Evangelical Architecture Quiz:

    Circle the answer corresponding to the biblical structure about which Evangelical Architecture is most closely associated:

    (1.) Upper Room.
    (2.) Synagogue.
    (3.) Temple.
    (4.) Tabernacle.
    (5.) None of the above.

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