As Central’s pastors have frequently said, we are a church that is reformed and always reforming according to the word of God. Starting on September 7, our fall sermon series will address God’s reforming work through a focus on spiritual renewal, and we will make a couple of changes to the order of the 8:30 and 9:45 services to reflect that focus more clearly in the structure of the service. During this sermon series, the offering and our intercessory prayers for the church and the world will occur after the sermon rather than before.
There are several reasons for this change.
1. Following biblical patterns
This order of service is grounded in biblical patterns of corporate worship in the Old Testament and the New. Over and over, God’s word is proclaimed to instruct and to call his people to fulfill his mission, and the people of God respond by offering themselves to God with expressions of renewed loyalty and prayers acknowledging dependence upon God’s grace and power. For example:
Exodus 24:7: At Mt. Sinai, Moses read God’s word, and then the people of God responded by offering themselves with a corporate oath of commitment to God’s word. This pattern became the regular pattern for Israel’s worship through the liturgy of sacrifices at the Tabernacle and Temple (see also a slightly fuller elaboration here).
Isaiah 6:1–8: Isaiah receives a revelation of God that calls him to serve God, and then he responds by offering himself to God’s mission: “Here am I. Send me.”
2 Chronicles 5–7: Solomon proclaims the works and promises of God. Then he prays to intercede for the people on the basis of God’s word, and the people present offerings to God.
Revelation: Four times in the book of Revelation God’s word is proclaimed from the heavenly throne of the Lamb, and then the corporate prayers of God’s people ascend to his throne in response.
Rev. 6:1–8:4 The seven seals proclaim the word of God
–> 7:9–8:4 reports the praises and prayers of the saints.
Rev. 8:6–11:18 The seven trumpets proclaim the word of God
–> 11:15–18 reports the prayers of the saints.
Rev. 12:1–15:4 The seven signs proclaim the word of God
–> 15:2–4 reports the song of Moses (the prayer of the saints)
Rev. 17:1–19:5 The seven bowls proclaim the word of God
–> 19:1–5 reports the praises of the saints for such a great salvation
2. Restoring the liturgical foundations of the Reformed tradition
The sermon has not always been the concluding climax of Christian worship. From the second to the sixteenth centuries, the universal template of corporate worship placed the sermon in the middle of the service. Several elements of worship followed the sermon to enable the church to respond to the ministry of God’s word in a corporate fashion: the profession of a creed (usually the Nicene Creed or, in some Reformed churches, the Apostles’ Creed), intercessory prayers for the church and the world, the offering, and the Lord’s Supper. The leaders and churches that laid the foundations of the Reformed tradition in the sixteenth century affirmed and adopted this ancient pattern in their liturgies for worship on the Lord’s Day. This includes the Reformed churches that had the most direct influence upon the Presbyterian churches of the English-speaking world.
The liturgy of Strasbourg under the leadership of Martin Bucer (here for the order; here for the text)
The liturgy of Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin
The liturgy of the Church of Scotland under the leadership of John Knox
3. Enacting the gospel of God’s covenant
The goal of a corporate worship service is not simply to receive the word of God but rather to be renewed by the word of God. God gathers us not simply to inform us but also to heal and to strengthen his relationship with us and to send us into the world to serve his mission. In order to fulfill this relational goal, God’s renewing word demands our response of renewed commitment and devotion. Therefore, it is wise for worship services to create ample space for that response.
In the dialogue of worship, the offering and the prayers of intercession for the church and the world are the two primary elements of worship by which the church expresses a renewed love for God and commitment to his mission. Therefore, the theological meaning and spiritual function of the offering and intercessory prayer are most clear and effective when they follow the sermon in order to enable the church to respond to God in a corporate way. Rearranging the order of service in this way enhances the impact of the reading and preaching of scripture by creating time for the congregation to process the renewing impact of the sermon with specific responses that begin to put the sermon into action.
In other words, ordering corporate worship in this way embodies the gospel of God’s covenant relationship with us. In the biblical pattern of God’s covenant, his word and his actions always precede and elicit ours. God instructs us in the way of wisdom and calls us to trust and to follow him. As God empowers us with the life of Christ through his Holy Spirit, we then respond with faith-filled, loving obedience. In the liturgy of corporate worship, this covenant pattern appears in the rhythm of God’s instruction and our response. God speaks through the reading and preaching of scripture, and we respond in Christ and by the Spirit by offering our whole lives to God and by praying for God to enable us to follow him and to accomplish his mission in the world.
In this order of worship, the structure of the liturgy teaches us first to listen to the word of God so that we can then offer our lives in new obedience and pray for the church and the world with a vision clearly informed by the gospel and motives clearly grounded in the gospel. This order of worship embodies the grace of the gospel because it leads us to acknowledge that God alone is the source of our life and of every good gift and that our obedience can only happen by his strength and not ours alone. Thus, the most ancient order of Christian worship not only proclaims the gospel in words but also trains us in the gospel through the actions of worship.