Elements of worship

Renaming and refreshing the order of service

by Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Jason Schiller is looking at worship in new ways. Courtesy of Community Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Jason Schiller has a lot of explaining to do. Some time ago, he asked youngsters during the children’s sermon what the word Presbyterian means. They didn’t know. Neither did many of the adults, even those who had grown up in the church.

“We assume that people in the pews have more knowledge than they do,” said Schiller. That assumption got him thinking of the language used in church, especially the words that appear weekly in the worship bulletin, and has spurred him to de-jargon the vocabulary of worship for Community Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “How does someone unchurched grasp the meaning and reason for the order and elements of worship in our liturgy?” he asked.

Even among members, once confirmation is over, rarely is the fundamental meaning of worship and the sacraments discussed. So, Schiller has taken the time to parse out, and break open, the significance of worship as the benchmark of the Christian faith, as the witness of God’s grace, and the wonder of God’s involvement with human affairs.

And he is doing all this by gradually renaming parts of the worship bulletin. For example, the “Prayer of Confession” is now the “Laying Down Our Burdens Before Christ.”

“All these changes are fluid and constantly being reexamined. I am always looking for the best way to explain the elements of the worship service,” he said, adding that “worship has to stop being a spectator sport.”

“It’s an action, not something one consumes. Worship is a time set aside for questions and doubts, listening and sharing experiences of faith and life, and the deepening of relationships,” said Schiller. “In it, we work to make room for everyone’s experiences because everyone belongs here. We wrestle with questions together inside the church rather than outside. I invite their questions at any time during the service.”

The pandemic has been a catalyst for the church to engage the congregation and the wider world in new and different ways in keeping with the Reformed tradition of “reformed and always reforming” — wrestling with the issues of its day and discerning God’s will. “There is no time like the present for change,” said Schiller.

“God uses what happens in our lives to show us things, to open our minds to what it means to be the church and to worship, to move outside our sanctuaries and to stay connected,” he said.

Through social media, such as livestreaming, the church goes where the people are, expanding in unexpected ways. Currently, Schiller is working to develop a QR code — a barcode that stores information that can be read by a digital device. This barcode will be in the worship bulletin and those who access it will be taken to a form where they can ask him anything. With livestreaming now an integral part of worship, he’s looking at ways to make an interactive digital bulletin and exploring sharing prayer concerns through text, allowing those online to contribute.

Our worshiping ways

Perhaps the most foundational question about worship is, why do Presbyterians worship the way they do, in the order they do?

By renaming some items in the worship bulletin, Schiller is seeking to answer the question, “Why do we do the things we do in worship?” Jason Schiller

According to the Book of Order, we worship to know God and enjoy God’s presence: “In worship, the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed. In worship, the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world.”

The late Presbyterian minister, author and theologian Eugene Peterson once observed that “every call to worship is a call into the real world.” This element of worship marks and sets apart a time that is different than other time. It calls the “real world” to focus on and pay attention to one’s relationship with God.

“What’s important,” said the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, “is that we understand it is God who invites us to worship. Everything begins with God’s initiative; it isn’t us who calls. God comes to us in the world, in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.”

Gambrell, associate for worship with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Theology, Formation & Evangelism team, said that the order of worship is modeled after Scripture itself.

“Scripture is our authority in the Reformed tradition and guides what we do and what we do not do in worship. Sunday’s worship is modeled after the Gospel of Luke’s account of the resurrection,” he said, noting that in Luke 24, Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus and teaches them about what the Scriptures say about himself, and then he breaks bread with them.

Gambrell noted, though, that “one of the gifts of the Reformed tradition is the tension between form and freedom, spontaneity and structure.”

Pastors like Schiller are embracing that tension, “refreshing” worship by mixing it up — sometimes with a silent call to worship, or a written time of confession. He’s had his congregants write their confessions on a piece of self-dissolving paper that was then collected and placed in a punch bowl of water. The congregation watched as their sins were washed away.

“There is a gracious and generous perimeter around worship if the Word is being preached and the sacraments celebrated,” said Gambrell.

During the long haul of the pandemic, Schiller decided it was a good time to play with worship language and to especially remind those gathered in the sanctuary and at home that the Prayer of Confession — always a part of worship that gets folks shifting in their seats — was not about drudging up guilt or shame, but a time to lay down one’s burdens at the foot of the cross.

“We recall and let go of the ways we’ve been hurt and the ways we’ve hurt others. It’s how we enter the rest Jesus promised us. It’s an invitation to grace, to let nothing get in the way of forgiveness and joy,” he said.

In other words, we empty ourselves so that we can be filled. We take ownership and personal responsibility for wrongs committed with the intention of reconciliation.

“One of the gifts of having the Prayer of Confession upfront is so that we can move beyond the things that prevent us from engaging in a loving and real relationship with Christ, so we can receive God’s grace anew and hear God’s Word and receive the message,” said Gambrell, adding that the Prayer of Confession is “like taking off your coat when you go into the house.”

Music is not to entertain

Phillip Morgan, director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville,  says music itself is a proclamation of the Word of God.

“The Word is proclaimed most powerfully through music for me. Music doesn’t exist for its own sake,” he says. “The prelude, as people prepare for worship, has the power to still us. Both the prelude and the postlude, or whatever music you choose, is not for entertainment, but is a functional part of worship.”

Explaining that the prelude is not simply background music as people gather for worship is one of the goals of Schiller’s de-jargoned worship bulletin. The pastor recently added this statement underneath the word “prelude”: As we prepare to worship God, we are invited to a time of music and quiet meditation to bring ourselves into the space, remove the distractions in our minds, and encounter our Creator.

True to Reformed theology, church music is reforming as it creates a new music repertoire that addresses culture and context and social justice concerns such as racism and poverty. “We have used secular music as well in worship that doesn’t mention God by name but speaks to our spiritual poverty and neglect of others,” said Morgan.

By mixing the secular with the sacred, people can live the worship experience long after the benediction. “Worship is an act of loving God, but also each other. In the space we carve out to be still and know God, as the psalmist wrote centuries earlier,” he said, “we also turn toward one another and live out what that means.”

For the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long, editor of the quarterly journal Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching and the Arts, hymns and songs, traditional and contemporary, and different genres of music connect us to the ancestors of our faith and to various Christian communities around the globe.

“Our music reflects the times we live in and our locations, and it helps us to recognize and remember those siblings in Christ who sacrifice so much to join together in worship from other parts of the world,” said Long. And while singing is “the most profound form of prayer for me,” Long acknowledges that silence, too, is its “own kind of music.”

“It deepens worship as it offers a space for reflection and listening together while meditating on the presence of God,” she said, adding, “Practicing and cultivating silence, we embody what is beyond words, beyond sound.”

The last word

The end of the worship time has come and in paper bulletins or projections on computer screens, the faithful will see either the “benediction” or “blessing.” Sometimes in the order of worship there might even be “charge and benediction.” While the benediction or blessing have the same purpose — to “express the grace and favor of God to the people of God, often using words from 2 Corinthians 13:13 or Numbers 6:24–26,” said Gambrell — the “charge” is very different. “The charge is a call to go forth in God’s service in the world,” he said.

Many Presbyterians are familiar with hearing the charge and then the blessing, meaning the service ends with words of comfort. However, the latest edition of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship reverses the order, in keeping with other Christian traditions, placing the blessing before the charge. This means the service ends with a challenge or commission: “to be the church in the world,” Gambrell said.

“The hope in putting the blessing before the charge was that this would encourage a more missional orientation for the church,” he said. “After all, as our Directory for Worship says, echoing God’s words to Abram and Sarai, ‘We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others’ (Book of Order, W-3.0502).”

Sherry Blackman is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the recently published book “Tales from the Trail, Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail.


Renaming the Elements of Worship

Here are some ways the Rev. Jason Schiller is renaming the elements of worship for congregants at Community Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Minnesota:

Before: Prayer of Confession
After: Laying Down Our Burdens Before Christ

Before: Assurance of Pardon
After: Assurance of God’s Love and Forgiveness

Before: Prayer for Illumination
After: Prayer for God’s Wisdom and Understanding

Before: Sermon
After: Message


Let’s Keep the Conversation Going

Presbyterians Today wants to continue the elements of worship discussion. What do you think? How would you rename the things we do in worship? Offering? Confession? Children’s sermons? Send your thoughts and ideas to Donna Frischknecht Jackson at donna.jackson@pcusa.org and they will be posted on Presbyterians Today’s social media.

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