Structure as formation: why our worship services need more thought

Several floorplans of Gothic cathedrals show how the architecture of churches were expected to communicate the centrality of the cross in Christian worship. Protestant reformers often left the basic structure of Roman Catholic cathedrals unaltered.

“I have my people for one hour a week. Fox News has them the rest of the time.”

It was a slightly despairing comment made by a pastor to a friend. How could he compete with such an unrelenting force for the hearts and minds of his congregation? Of course, he could have replaced Fox News with Netflix, YouTube, or a number of other entertainment/news sources that Americans spend hours upon hours each week absorbing. How could an hour or two on Sunday mornings compare to that?

It’s a serious question, and demands a thoughtful response. But as valid as the question is, the assumption that a weekly church service can’t even have the potential for intellectual and spiritual renewal is unfounded. One service can make a huge difference in someone’s week.

Here’s why.

A church service has things that say things, technically speaking. The sermon says something. The prayers say something. The songs say something (although some songs say one thing 36 times). No dispute there. But even though all the sentences may be grammatically coherent, the paragraph created by their combination is essentially gobbledygook. When the parts of the church service are seen as a whole, either the whole thing is like a novel where all the chapters got rearranged, or often it subconsciously follows what’s called the Temple Model.

Attributed to the Jesus Movement of the 1960s, the “Temple Model” of worship is based on pilgrimage to the holy temple in Jerusalem. At first, there’s loud cheering and singing as the worshippers approach the city (fast song), then as they enter the temple grounds they begin to mellow out (medium song), and finally, as the devout enter the “Holy of Holies” — things get euphoric, grandiose, but with a slower beat (power ballads, anyone?). And optionally, as they leave, they can finish off their trip with some more up-tempo singing.

This has been the normative and largely unquestioned practice for countless contemporary evangelical churches since it began to go mainstream in the early 1980s.

There are actually a lot of good things to commend in this development. For example, the worship style that the Temple Model was reacting against often portrayed God as “Other” – transcendent and separate, yet at the cost of his presence and immanence. This traditional style (often associated with an organ and piano) was portrayed as the established way to worship God. So the praise and worship movement brought some legitimate critiques to the worship norms of its day.

But some have since argued this worship trend overcorrected. God now is portrayed as love, whole love, and nothing but love, so help me, John Mark McMillan. Awe-filled dread? Unassailable mystery? A catchy bridge about Jesus returning to cut down his enemies? Alas, those worship songs are hard to find on Christian radio. And subconsciously, when Christians come across such hard sayings in their Bibles, they’ve been trained to think: “How well does this line up with these songs I love to sing on Sundays?” Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Or its study Bibles.

The Temple Model, aside from exulting God’s presence at the cost of his transcendence, has a critical flaw: the guiding light for each stage is emotionalism. Judson Cornwall, an advocate of the model, described the transition from the “Inner Courts” stage to the “Holy of Holies” stage in purely emotive categories: “the emotional clapping will likely be replaced with devotional responses of upturned faces, raised hands, tears, and even a subtle change in the timbre of the voices.”

Emotions are important, and great truth should touch our emotions greatly. But designing a worship service around a nexus of emotions will ultimately communicate that Christianity is primarily an emotional experience. It’s not.

The alternative, of course, is not to make a worship service purely cerebral, where the congregation recites facts and creeds, takes down notes during the lecture-sermon, and adopts other nerdy classroom practices. Nor should churches embrace the tradition-for-tradition’s-sake approach: just because your church’s tradition originated from a fad in the 1660s and not the 1960s doesn’t mean it wasn’t also adopted for its trendiness (as Martin Luther once protested, “The organ in worship is the insignia of Baal,”) any more than contemporary “praise and worship” churches are now very much the new traditionalists.

No, the alternative includes a combination of all three: reason, tradition, and experience. It’s likely that most readers will balk at at least one of these three: “Hasn’t __________ done more damage than good to the faith?” The more pressing question, in my opinion, is if I’m grammatically justified in writing “at at” in a sentence. I think so.

But a blended service featuring hymns, praise songs, and creed recitals is not enough, since they could still be orchestrated around various emotional stages or some other inadequate hub. Instead, the overarching structure of a worship service should be orchestrated around a story. I’m sorry, I meant the Story. The Gospel.

Every worship service says something about Christianity, about how to connect with God. Not just the individual components (songs, prayers, sermons), but also the order of those components. At a deep level, the Temple Model says you can connect with God by having the right emotions. The (more) traditional models say it’s by having the right practices. The classroom model says it’s by having all the right theology. In contrast, the Gospel model relocates the criteria for access to God from the people to God himself. We love, obey, and learn, not to earn God’s presence, but because God already brought us in, at the cost of his Son’s life on the cross.

How does that impact a church’s service order?

The Gospel model begins with a response of praise, worshipping God just for who he is, apart from any benefit granted to us by him (reading a psalm at the beginning of the service is a good option). And it is a response, for God always initiates the conversation. God speaks, we respond. Then, seeing the goodness, truth, and beauty of God, we come to realize that we live contrary to his ways, and in agreement with God, we confess such. In Act Three, the healing balm of gospel assurance is proclaimed, reminding us that God himself in Christ has stood under judgment and guilt for our sins, and we are redeemed, and we give thanks. Being saved by grace, we now want to grow in grace (enter sermon here), and do so in the community of grace (via baptisms and communion). Finally, the service is concluded with announcements (service opportunities) and a benediction as the church steps out to respond to God’s prompt: “Whom shall I send?”

In the course of an hour (or two), the Gospel Model has reenacted the Christian story, profoundly shaping the hearts of all who have participated to the biblical storyline. This structure should still include expressions that are culturally appropriate, tasteful, and intelligible; don’t use a puppet show to lead the congregation in corporate confession, for example. As for organs, I side with Hans Zimmer.

Neither is this model just a new trend soon to go out of style (although it has been getting a lot of press in recent years). Back when the Protestant reformers of the 14th and 15th centuries were altering and replacing countless Roman Catholic practices and traditions, its surprising to note that they left the Catholic order of service relatively intact. What model was that service order based on? That’s right, the Gospel Model. Praise, confession, gospel assurance, thanksgiving, instruction, and so on — it’s all there, with a few minor tweaks. The major point of departure the reformers introduced was allowing the congregation to fully participate in the service, rather than merely observe it.

My last caveat: using the Gospel Model is necessary but not sufficient. You can do it badly. I’ve been to churches in the Valley that (by tradition) still follow this format. In one sense, it’s beautiful, because even if the church has departed from proclaiming the Gospel, their service order still preaches it, regardless if the sermon says a different story. People are still getting saved because these churches (by tradition) read through large passages of Scripture, do the Scripture-based confessions each week, and so on. It’s incredible. But on average, the hearts putting on the whole thing are lifeless and rote, and the Gospel structure is tainted by pagan joylessness.

But such “dead orthodoxy” doesn’t mean that the structure itself is the cause. If the vine isn’t growing, it’s not necessarily because the trellis is broken. Nor can we embrace the non sequitur that since we once saw dead vine on a sturdy trellis, healthy vines therefore must require no trellis at all. Every church has a structure, a trellis, a liturgy, but only some stop to think about the message that structure is telling, and the shape and direction the vine is encouraged to grow toward.