Worship—Taking a Closer Look

A Four-Week Teaching Series with Resources for Worship Planning and Sermon Discussion

Updated May, 2024

Sermons on praise in the narrow sense (Ps. 95) and on worship in all of life (Rom. 12) are immensely important to preach. But suppose that you want to preach about the worship service, the liturgy, the event of gathering in Jesus’ name (see the article "On Three Meanings of the Term Worship"). Perhaps worship has become a source of conflict in your congregation. Perhaps you want to deepen the congregation’s experience of common worship. To preach about worship, what text would you preach? Where in Scripture would you look?

One problem is that so few places in Scripture give us explicit instructions about Christian worship services. In contrast to all the detailed instructions given for worship in the Old Testament, we don’t have a liturgical manual anywhere in the New Testament (wouldn’t it be easier if we did!).

But we do have lots of passages that relate to our practice of worship. These include

  • Old Testament prescriptions of worship practices (for tabernacle and temple worship). Even if these worship practices don’t continue in the New Testament, these texts still have much to teach us about the relationship between God and God’s people. For example, they teach that holiness is a central divine attribute to which we also are called.
  • descriptions of various worship services, including Old Testament covenant renewal liturgies (Josh. 24), New Testament baptism celebrations (Acts 8; Acts 10), and New Testament preaching services (Acts 20:1-9).
  • sample liturgical texts, including Old Testament psalms, canticles, and prayers (1 Chron. 16; Neh. 9), and New Testament hymns and prayers (Luke 1; Phil. 2; Rev. 5, 7; Acts 4).
  • strong prophetic critiques against false worship (Isa.1). The prophets railed against superstition, idolatry, and hypocrisy, three sins that still plague the church.
  • a few specific New Testament guidelines for worship, such as the mandate that worship practices should build up or edify the body of Christ and that worship should be “in Spirit and in truth” (1 Cor. 14; John 4).

These are the most obvious passages that could be used to produce sermons on what happens in the worship service and why. The diversity and complexity of these texts makes me a bit fearful of setting up any kind of series on worship. We will leave so much out. We might wrongly imply that that is all there is!

So one key concern when teaching or preaching about worship is to explain how rich and deep the connections between biblical teaching and worship practices are. Our approach must not even imply that it can all be boiled down into a phrase, three alliterative words, or one five-step method. Worship is like a diamond. No one viewpoint gives us a complete picture of what it’s all about.

To say it another way, worship is so rich and deep because it is not an end in itself. We don’t gather for the sake of the event itself. We gather because this event expresses and deepens something more important, the relationship we have with God in Christ. Just as a wedding exists for the sake of the marriage that is being established, so too a worship service exists in order to express, deepen, and enrich the relationship that God has with us in Christ. Sermons about worship should focus less on liturgical techniques than on the God we worship. Or, to say it in a better way, sermons about worship should point out how particular liturgical techniques are fitting expressions of the kind of relationship we are privileged to have with God.

So what follows is not merely a sermon series on the worship service. It is a series about our relationship with God in Christ, of which worship is a natural outgrowth and expression.

Worship as Covenant Renewal

One central biblical image or metaphor for describing the relationship that God has established with us is the image of covenant. This pattern is as old as the oldest portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, and has been made new with the “new covenant” that God makes with us through Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8-9). This is a relationship that depends on promises: first God’s promise to us and then our promise to God.

A covenant relationship can be established and confirmed by a ritual, a gathering, an event. In the Old Testament, the people gathered when God established a covenant (Ex. 24), and they gathered again several times to renew or reaffirm that covenant (see Josh. 24; Neh. 8-10). So too, in the covenant of marriage, a bride and groom speak their covenant vows in a public ritual to establish their relationship. Sometimes they will reaffirm those promises in a public renewal of marriage vows.

Just as the people of Israel gathered together to renew their covenant with God (i.e., Joshua 24), so we gather to renew the new covenant God has made with us in Christ. Christian worship is like a covenant renewal service. It’s like reaffirming the marriage vows that we have with God in Christ. Think of all the places in which marriage is a metaphor or image to describe the church’s relationship with God (Isa. 62:5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 3:1; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9). In a liturgy, in a worship service, we renew the promises we make to God, and we hear again the promises God has made (and kept!) in Christ.

This four-part series on worship explores four dimensions of this covenant-renewal image. The primary focus will be on the new covenant relationship God makes with us in Christ. The secondary focus will be on the ways in which worship expresses, deepens, and shapes that relationship through the working of the Holy Spirit.

The first section includes various worship elements that could work for one or more of the weeks in the series. After that section there is a separates small group discussion guide for each week. Don't miss the final observations that follow week 4. 

We are grateful for the work that David Vroege did for this series in writing the discussion questions and preparing the song suggestions for each week. 

Worship Elements for Week 1-4

Calls to Worship Based on Psalm 89:1-4

Here are four examples of how a call to worship based on Psalm 89:1-4 might be adapted to suit your particular context and purposes. Using several of these approaches during the series is an excellent way to introduce some variety and yet remain closely linked with the overall theme of covenant renewal.

  1. Worship leader reads Psalm 89:1-4.
  2. Congregation reads Psalm 89:1-4 responsively, perhaps led by a child:

    Sing of the Lord’s great love forever!
    With our mouths we will make known his faithfulness to all.
    His love is firm forever!
    He established his faithfulness in heaven itself.
    God made a promise to David.
    A covenant which lasts till today.
    All: Praise the Lord!
  3. Two parts of the congregation read Psalm 89:1-4 responsively (as divided above).
  4. Psalm 89:1-4 is used as the basis for an opening prayer:

    O Lord, we will sing of your great love forever!
    With our mouths we will make your faithfulness known through all generations.
    We will declare that your love stands firm forever.
    In fact, you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
    Then already you made a covenant with your chosen one, David.
    You promised to continue it forever, for all generations, including our own.
    With heaven, we praise your wonders, O God!
    O Lord, we will sing of your great love forever!

Follow by singing “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord ForeverFillmore 

Confession and Assurance

A Prayer of Confession 

This prayer could be used for all four weeks.

Lord, you have called us to worship you. We gladly gather! As we praise you, though, our own inadequacy reminds us of how we have broken our relationship with you. Because we have sinned against you, even our worship fails to be what it could. We often treat it as a show. We simply go through the motions, failing to recognize that you want to engage us on a very deep level. Renew us, we pray, according to your steadfast love. Remind us of your covenant faithfulness and have mercy on us in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Confession and Assurance of Pardon

Child: Lord, you are a God who keeps promises. 
In our prayers and songs we say that we want to be Christians, 
but then we forget our promises.
Our actions do not match up with our words. 
We say mean things to other people, 
we hurt their feelings, 
we think of ourselves first, 
and, worst of all, we ignore you. 
Lord, forgive us and hear our prayer.

Children’s Choir: “Lord, Have Mercy upon UsKyrie eleison

Child: As a deer pants for water, 
so our souls long for you, Lord God.
We know that we need you. 
Our lives are like dry streams without you.
Please fill our lives with your love, 
like rain on dry land. 
Lord, hear our prayer.

Children’s Choir: “Lord, Have Mercy upon UsKyrie eleison

Child: Alleluia! Christ has died.
Alleluia! Christ has risen.
Alleluia! Christ will come again.
Alleluia! Amen!

Hymn of Joy: “¡Oh, qué bueno es Jesús/Oh, How Good Is Christ the LordPuerto Rican folk hymn
—Adapted from A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship, Choristers Guild, 1999, p. 85.
Other similar resources with language appropriate to young children are available in this sourcebook.

A Prayer of Lament and Fear

O God, your people have always had their fears.
And so we come to you in humility and with honesty, naming our own.
Lord, we fear the future. What is coming next?
“Will there be a place for me when I’m done with high school or college?” we young people ask.
“Will there be safe places for our children?” we parents ask.
“Will I die in peace and with dignity?” we seniors ask.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell 

Lord, we fear the pain that comes with illness and broken bones and aging.
Some of us wonder how we’re going to make it through more treatment and medication.
Some of us wonder how we can possibly face chronic illness.
Some of us wonder if prayers for healing even reach your throne.
Physical pain frightens us.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

Lord, as a church, we wonder about our ministries and programs.
What if they don’t “work”?
What if outreach and faith nurture don’t happen?
We fear the dependence we have to have on your Spirit
to be One to breathe life into Christians and non-Christians.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

Lord, we are afraid of people who are different than ourselves.
Those more powerful than us, 
those poorer than us, 
those of a different color or creed,
those smarter than us, 
those with different personalities.

How do we talk to these people, O God? 
How do we make peace with them?

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

Lord, we have acquaintances, friends, family members whom we deeply love,
but who do not know you.
We are afraid for their salvation.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

We admit, O God, that we’re fearful of stillness and quiet.
It seems as if the last thing we want to do
is slow down and be attentive to you.
Help us not to shy away from quiet times,
from the simplicity of prayer, Scripture, and your presence.
It seems, O God, that, in the busyness of countless invitations 
to parties and activities we are afraid to say no.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

And for all those fears for which we cannot name, 
we come to you, O God.
Those we cannot name because they’re either unknown or unspeakable,
receive them in our silence.

Refrain: "Don't Be Afraid" Bell

We are fearful so often, O Lord,
because, in encounters with sin and evil,
we find ourselves weak and poor.
We thank you so much then, Jesus,
for your actions and for your words—
for love and the promise of nearness,
which are our strength and our riches. 

Song of Gratitude: “Give ThanksSmith

Two Prayers For Illumination

1. God of mercy, you promised never to break your covenant with us.
Amid all the changing words of our generation, 
speak your eternal Word that does not change. 
Then may we respond to your gracious promises
with faithful and obedient lives; 
through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Book of Common Worship, p. 91

2. “Lord, to Whom Shall We Go”
—John 6:68

Eucharistic Prayer

If the Lord's Supper is not celebrated weekly in your congregation, the fourth Sunday would be a wonderful occasion to celebrate it! For this celebration, consider using the following Lord's Supper prayer:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right and fitting, our joy and salvation,
that we should at all times and in all places
give thanks to you, almighty, everlasting God,
through Christ our Lord.

You laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They shall perish, but you shall endure.
You are always the same and your years will never end.
You made us in your image
and called us to be your covenant people,
but we turned from you,
leaving sin and death to reign.
Still you loved us and sought us.
In Christ your grace defeated death
and opened the way to eternal life.

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the heavenly choirs
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

Sing: "Santo, Santo, Santo" Cuéllar

All holy God,
how wonderful is the work of your hands!
When sin had scarred the world,
you entered into covenant to renew the whole creation.

As a mother tenderly gathers her children,
as a father joyfully welcomes his own,
you embraced a people as your own
and filled them with longing
for a peace that would last
and for a justice that would never fail.
Countless generations have hungered for the bread of freedom.

From them you raised up Jesus, your Son, the living bread.
We give you thanks that our Lord Jesus,
on the night before he died, took bread,
and after giving thanks to you,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
"Take, eat. This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me."

In the same way he took the cup, saying:
"This cup is the New Covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me."

Your death, O Christ, we proclaim.
Your resurrection we declare.
Your coming we await.
Glory be to you, O Lord.

God of all power, send your Holy Spirit upon us,
that in sharing the bread we may share in the body of Christ,
and that in sharing the cup we may participate in the New Covenant.
Grant that being joined together in Christ Jesus,
we may become united in faith.
And now, with the confidence of the children of God, we pray:

Our Father in heaven...


This blessing could be used for all four weeks.

May the God of peace, 
who through the blood of the eternal covenant
brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, 
that great Shepherd of the sheep, 
equip you with everything good for doing his will, 
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, 
through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
—Hebrews 13:20-21


Week 1

Enacting and Expressing Our Covenantal Relationship

We gather in worship to communicate with God together. We listen together to God’s words to us. We speak together our response to God. The service is like interpersonal conversation, an exchange of promises. The amazing thing about this conversation is that it is not something we do by ourselves. It is something we do with other believers.

Central Idea: We are privileged to have an interpersonal, covenantal relationship with God because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Worship enacts or expresses that relationship.

Scripture Texts

Psalm 81

Consider using two readers, one for verses 1-5 (the call to worship), and one for verses 6-16 (the voice of the Lord).

Psalm 81 consists of two distinct sections: an imperative call to worship and a prophetic oracle. In the first part, the people are called to worship by divine imperative (“he established it as a statute,” v. 5). In the second, the people hear a sermon, with words attributed to God, that contains several distinct themes: remembrance of past deliverance (vv. 6-7), a present command that reiterates the first of the Ten Commandments (vv. 8-9), a remarkable promise (v. 10), a divine lament (vv. 11-12), and a further promise (vv. 13-16). One feature of this text, then, is its dialogic character. It conveys human-Godward movement (vv. 1-5), and God-humanward movement (vv. 6-16)—movements that only make sense in a religion that conceptualizes the divine-human relationship in personal terms. From the perspective of other religions, how odd and remarkable this is! Imagine this: a religion in which words volley back and forth freely between God and the gathered community! (For other texts with the same feature, see Psalms 12; 60; 89; 108; Isaiah 6; 45, and several other passages.)

Hebrews 8-10 (Especially 10:19-25 along with Jeremiah 31:31-34)

These chapters could all figure in the development of the sermon. For a manageable reading for worship, consider using two readers: one to read about worship in the Old Covenant (Heb. 9:1-10), and one to read about worship in the New Covenant (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-25).

Hebrews 8-10 describes and contrasts the Old and New Covenants and pays particular attention to the worship practices that are fitting to each. Hebrews 9:1-10 describes worship in the Old Covenant. Hebrews 10:19-25, the culmination of this section of the book, describes worship in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, worshipers are called to draw near to God, conscious that their worship is possible because of what Christ has done for us. Our praise, our confession, our petitions, our experience of God’s presence—the fact that any of these things actually “work” is a sheer gift made possible by the work of Christ. A main theme in the book of Hebrews is that Christ mediates both the God-humanward and the human-Godward movements of worship.

Key Related Themes

  • Our relationship with God is understood in personal terms.
  • Our relationship with God is not something we have on the strength of our own merits.
  • This relationship is possible because Christ bridges the gap, and the Spirit is at work in our hearts.
  • This relationship is lived out, enacted, “scripted,” expressed, and focused in worship.
  • If worship is like a promise-exchange, then one of the biggest liturgical sins is that of superstition—thinking that we can manipulate God by how we worship. We don’t come to church to make God love us more. We come to enjoy and express the beauty of a relationship made possible by Christ.

The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

The big question is whether most of us experience worship as a promise-exchange between ourselves and God, or whether we really experience it as a meeting of a religious social club, or an educational forum, or a form of entertainment. Because these other kinds of events are common in our culture, we are bound to take our expectations for them into worship with us. We need to be challenged to refrain from this. We need to be challenged to see worship as a deeply participational, relational activity, in which we are listeners, speakers, promise-receivers, and promise-givers.

Since the nature of an event is most often established by how it starts, the opening of worship must provide this challenge. Entertainment events begin with a presentational opening. A social event starts with a mixer. An educational forum or lecture starts with a spoken introduction or welcome. But a worship service helpfully starts by setting up the divine-human conversation.

The classic shape or order of Christian worship—which can be used in many styles and cultural contexts—begins with a scriptural call to worship and continues with a response by all God’s people. This sets the pattern for all that will follow. God speaks. We respond. There are other ways to start a service. But given the power and beauty of this covenantal image, why wouldn’t we want to make it clear that worship is a divine-human conversation right from the start?

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Song Suggestions for Week 1

God Is Here!Pratt Green 
Vivid language celebrating the nature and purpose of the worshiping church. For use at the opening of worship.

Let the Giving of ThanksIona
A setting of Psalm 50 that easily invites congregational participation through the refrain. An excellent gathering song.

All the Earth, Proclaim the LordDeiss 
A setting of Psalm 100 that recognizes that God’s covenant relationship with us is grounded in creation. For use at the beginning of worship.

In the Presence of Your PeopleChambers 
In the context of the covenant, this is a fitting vow to praise.

Gather Us InHaugen
The covenant relation is celebrated: “Call to us now and we shall awaken.”

Blest Be the God of IsraelPerry
Based on the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), this song shows how Jesus fulfills God’s covenant promises to Israel. For use in morning worship, particularly as a response to Words of Forgiveness.

You Are Our God; We Are Your PeopleHoekema
A text and tune that together marvelously roll through covenantal history. Can be used following Words of Forgiveness. By omitting stanza 4, it is suitable on many occasions!

I Am the Lord Your God Otte 
A setting of Jeremiah 31 that would be a fitting response to the sermon. In order to emphasize the dialogue inherent in the text, have a soloist or ensemble sing stanza 1, with the congregation joining on stanzas 2 and 3.

Come into the Holy of HoliesSellers 
Drawing on the language of Hebrews 10:19 as well as of the Old Testament, use this song during the distribution of the communion elements.

Forever I Will Sing of Your Great Love, O LordPsalter Hymnal, 1987
A versification of a strong covenant psalm. Stanzas 1 and 8 form an excellent doxology.

Also, see any covenant psalm of praise, such as 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 or Psalm 105. Consider writing a litany or responsive reading based on one of these texts or finding musical settings of them.

Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 1

1.    How would you define worship? Have your group come up with as many and varied definitions as possible. Having done that, compare your responses with the three meanings explained in the article,  "On Three Meanings of the Term Worship". Which of the three was easiest to emphasize? Which meaning is most easily neglected in your worshiping community?

2.    Having thought about what worship is, let’s think about what it’s for (its purpose). Witvliet argues that worship “is not an end in itself.” Rather, it “expresses and deepens something more important, the relationship we have with God in Christ.” Focus your discussion on the words "express" and "deepen". Also, compare this understanding with the relationship between a marriage and the wedding ceremony (see Isa.62:5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 3:1; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9).

3.    “One central biblical image or metaphor for describing the relationship that God has established with us is the image of covenant.” Explore this theme by looking at some of the Bible’s “covenant” passages: Genesis 9:8-17; 15; 17; Exodus 24; Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm 50; 105; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8-10. Next, discuss how Christian worship is like a “covenant renewal service” by examining Joshua 24; Nehemiah 8-10; Hebrews 10:19-25.

4.    “We don’t have a liturgical manual anywhere. . . . But we do have lots of passages that relate to our practice of worship.” Can you as a group identify some in both the Old and New Testaments?

5.    “The amazing thing about this [worship] conversation is that it is not something we do by ourselves on our own. It is something we do with other believers.” Do you agree? That is, could you possibly have a worship service with just you and God? Describe the difference between corporate worship and private devotion.

6.    Discuss how worship is different from other cultural events(e.g., club meetings, pep rallies, debates, concerts, sporting events). Even if worship is different from these other events, do you think some people experience them the same way? Or want to experience them the same way? If worship is “a deeply participational, relational event, in which we are active listeners, speakers, promise-receivers, and promise-givers,” how might we be challenged to rethink, reexperience, and redo worship?


Week 2

Honesty in Our Covenant Relationship

Relationships depend on honest communication. The key to any relationship, and especially a deep covenantal relationship like marriage, is honesty. Mistakes need to be admitted. Problem areas must be identified. Sin must be named and rooted out. The good news of our relationship with God is that there is room for that honesty in our worship. The psalms are a beautiful model of this.

Confession, lament, and intercession are all in different ways an acknowledgment that the kingdom of God has not fully come. We still long and hope for a world that isn’t here yet.

Intercession and lament, by themselves, aren’t sufficiently honest. They do acknowledge that the world isn’t all right, but they can be a way to avoid taking responsibility for it. That’s why we also need to confess our sins. There is something soberingly honest about confessing our sin before God. Without confession, we are kidding ourselves.

Worship does not, of course, exhaust our acts of confession. A lot of the work of confession is very personal, the kind of thing that is hard to deal with in the middle of a worship service. Still, our worship services set the pattern. They remind us of the importance of confession; they give us words and phrases and songs to help us.

Central Idea: A covenantal relationship demands honesty. Honesty demands that we confess our sin and acknowledge with pain the world’s brokenness. Without this, we quickly fall into hypocrisy, the sin where inward attitudes don’t match our outward actions. When we express our honest prayers before God, we do so in the context of our covenant relationship.

Scripture Texts

Psalm 89

Consider having one reader for each of the sections of the psalm (vv. 1-2, 3-4, 5-18, 19-37, 38-45, 46-48, 49-52). If you read less than the whole psalm, consider reading the first verses of each section of the psalm, so that the movement from praise to oracle (God’s voice) to lament to covenant prayer is clear (use vv. 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-16, 19-21, 30-33, 38-40, 46-48, 49-52). Perhaps a group of nine readers can be used, each reading one section of the psalm.

Psalm 89 is known as a covenant psalm. Like Psalm 81, it alternates between the human-Godward movement (vv. 1-2, 5-18), and God-humanward movement (vv. 3-4, 19-37). Remarkably, it begins in praise and ends in lament. The trust and faithfulness of God established in the covenant relationship creates the space for the psalmist to express bold lament (for another example, see Psalm 44). In moments of utter despair, the psalmist still clings to God’s covenant love as a source of hope.

Nehemiah 9

Consider using two readers for this passage, the first for the voice of the narrator (vv. 1-5), the second for the voice of Ezra (vv. 6 and following). The reading could include the entire chapter or verses 1-15 and 26-37.

In Nehemiah 9, notice how verses 5-31 are like a long history lesson contained right in the middle of a prayer. This recital of covenant history was a common way to express praise to God (see the many historical psalms for other examples). The logic here is straightforward: the people are praying that God will act toward them in mercy in the same way as in the past. (For other examples of prayers of confession, see Ezra 9; Daniel 9; Nehemiah 1:5-11; each of these prayers begins by reclaiming the covenant relationship with God).

Hebrews 4:14-16

Hebrews 4 teaches us about the logic of prayer in the New Covenant. We can pray with confidence “in our time of need” because of what Jesus has done for us. Whether we suffer from a cause outside of ourselves or are crushed by guilt because of something we have done, we can approach God on the power of Jesus’ priesthood.

Key Related Themes

  • We must not gloss over the barriers that keep us from complete transparency before God.
  • We have boldness to express our honest prayers because of Christ’s mediation of our prayers.
  • We offer our confession, lament, and intercession in the context of our thanksgiving for God’s past faithfulness.

The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

The classic shape or order for Christian worship features a prayer of confession as an essential element in the divine-human dialogue. Usually, the conversation is set up this way: words of Scripture (God’s word to us) are used to invite, challenge, and call us to covenantal honesty. A prayer of confession for both personal and corporate sin follows (our words to God). Then we hear God’s covenantal promises to us again, words of Scripture that assure us of pardon.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Stand Up and Bless the LordMontgomery
Based on Nehemiah 9:5, this song would work well as an opening encouragement to praise.

Let Heaven Your Wonders ProclaimBell
A setting of Psalm 89 proclaiming God’s covenant faithfulness. Suitable for the opening of worship.

Give Me a Clean HeartDouroux
A prayer of confession in African-American gospel style.

Change My Heart, O GodEspinosa
A sung prayer of confession.

To You, O Lord, I Lift My SoulHaugen
A responsorial setting of Psalm 25 for confession rooted in remembering God’s covenantal mercy and love of old.

I Will Bless the LordHernandez
Another setting of Nehemiah 9:5. A beautiful response (“acclamation”) to the reading of Scripture or to Words of Forgiveness.

In All Our GriefDunstan
Having a high priest who sympathizes with us, we may approach God’s throne with these bold words. Use as sung intercessory prayer, just prior to spoken intercessions.

My Song Forever Shall RecordPsalter 1912
A hymn of praise based on Psalm 89, for use before the dismissal.


Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 2

1.    Discuss the following statement from Witvliet’s final observations: “Praise is one (essential) form of covenant communication. But praise isn’t the main point of worship. The point is the relationship. In a full-orbed covenant relationship, praise is joined by confession, lament, intercession, and listening. In a marriage relationship, conversations marked by exclusive praise would feel like false flattery. They might start out fine, but soon they ring hollow.”

2.    “Relationships depend on honest communication.” In our covenant relationship, do we speak honestly with God? What things are hardest to say? To hear?

3.    “Confession, lament, and intercession are all in different ways an acknowledgement that the kingdom of God has not come yet.” What does confession do that lament and intercession do not? Are all three part of your church’s present worship practices? How so?

4.    Why confess when we know the outcome? In fact, why speak common words of confession when we know that not everyone present means what they say?

5.    How might our honest communication with God change in heaven? (This assumes honesty will still characterize the relationship!)


Week 3

Hearing God’s Promises with Anticipation

Worship must never be construed as a one-way conversation, a monologue where we sing and pray and praise and testify but never stop to listen. A healthy covenant relationship, especially when it is a relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth, will feature lots of listening.

Preaching is at the heart of worship in many traditions, including the Reformed tradition. However, it is easy for us sophisticated modern people to forget that a sermon is no ordinary speech. We need to listen to a sermon in very different ways than we do a political speech. We need to listen to this kind of speech attuned to the voice of the author and finisher of our faith.

Central Idea: Our covenantal relationship with God depends entirely on God’s Word to us. A central act in our relating to God is the act of active, expectant listening. And when the message is so good, so wise, so true, why would we want it any other way?

Scripture Texts

Joshua 24

This passage can be read dramatically using one reader for the narrator’s part, one for Joshua, and inviting the whole congregation to read the words of the people. Consider printing out the whole passage on a bulletin insert, with the people’s words in boldface type. This draws the congregation into the narrative and may help them sense the drama and gravity of the covenant promises made by the people of Israel.

Joshua 24 records one of the early liturgies of the people of Israel. In contrast to the more frequently practiced “liturgy of sacrifice” (described in Lev. 1, for example), this is a “liturgy of covenant renewal” (for another example, see Josh. 8:30-35). The purpose of this gathering was to reaffirm the covenant—like a ceremony for the renewal of marriage vows.

At the center of this covenant renewal service is Joshua’s extended speech, a sermon really. In it, Joshua recounts the history of God’s faithfulness to the people. Like many famous sermons (see Peter’s sermon in Acts 2), this sermon is a history lesson. In it God’s past faithfulness becomes the basis for Joshua’s call for renewal.

As the sermon progresses, you begin to wonder who is actually speaking, Joshua or God. Joshua starts by referring to God in the third person. But soon God is the first person singular: “Then I took your father Abraham.” This text portrays Joshua as a divine emissary or ambassador, a prophet sent to speak on God’s behalf.

1 Thessalonians 2:13

This same image or concept from Joshua 24 is at work in 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonian believers had heard Paul’s human voice, but they heard God’s message. Paul is grateful that they “accepted it not as [merely] a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word.”

1 John 4:1-6

But is every preacher really God’s messenger? Certainly not. John challenges us to discern the spirits, to distinguish true from false teaching. The standard for measuring is this: the preacher must confess and teach that Jesus Christ is from God. The preacher must preach the gospel of the New Covenant, and no other.

Key Related Themes

  • We come to church to submit ourselves to an authority greater than ourselves. We come to church precisely because we don’t have it all figured out.
  • This form of covenantal speech called a sermon is far more than teaching. We gain more than biblical literacy. In this kind of relational speaking, we are comforted, challenged, provoked, warned, and blessed. When we talk with a friend or spouse, we don’t want them to tell us merely how we could be a better friend or spouse; we want to hear the words of intimacy and promise that are at the core of that relationship.
  • We hear God’s Word in multiple forms in a worship service, through the words of greeting and Scripture readings, through Scripture-based preaching and blessings. Anytime God’s Word is read, we hear those words not simply as a conversation among people. We hear them as God’s Word to us.
  • When it is not tethered to Scripture, our worship can quickly portray an understanding of God and God’s actions that is incomplete. Or worse, we show up for a worship service and sing and pray to a god who barely resembles the God of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this god we are speaking to is more a figment of our imagination than the God who is described in Scripture. In this case, we slip into a form of idolatry. And that should terrify us.

The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

At the heart of the classic shape of Christian worship is the reading and preaching of Scripture. It is important that significant passages of Scripture be read. We want to convey the impression that the reading of Scripture is a significant act of covenantal listening in its own right, not simply a prelude to the sermon.

In many traditions, including the Reformed tradition, Scripture reading is preceded by a prayer that asks for God to send the Holy Spirit to work powerfully through the reading and preaching that day. This prayer is an overt acknowledgment that the power in preaching does not come from the creativity or rhetoric of the preacher but from God.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Gladly to God’s Holy TempleRoutley
One can almost hear the people of Israel singing this hymn! This text, well-suited to the opening of worship, remembers God’s deeds and indicates our eagerness to hear more.

Speak Forth Your Word, O FatherJeffries
This sparkling, contemporary text can be used to confess dependence upon God and his Word as well as our own meager efforts at proclamation.

Holy Spirit, Mighty GodSeerveld
A prayer for illumination acknowledging our deep dependence upon the God the Spirit.

Thy Word Is a LampGrant, Smith
Centering on Psalm 119:105, this song functions well as a prayer for illumination.

Lord, Speak to Me That I May SpeakHavergal
A response to the Word, this is a prayer of submission to God’s direction. It illustrates our role in the covenant relationship—one in which we have responsibility and yet are not left without help.

Lord, Let My Heart Be Good SoilHanson
A prayer before or after hearing the Word, or near the end of the service.

The Lord Is My Light and My SalvationICEL
A refrain for the responsorial reading or singing of Psalm 27.

Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 3

1. Worship must never be construed as a one-way conversation, a monologue, where we sing and pray and praise and testify, but never stop to listen. A healthy covenant relationship, especially when it is a relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth, will feature lots of listening." How often are you conscious of God speaking to us in the worship service? When does God speak? List the ways. How can we be especially attuned to God's voice in these worship elements?

2. "We come to church to submit ourselves to an authority greater than ourselves." Our Western culture has been described as "anti-authoritarian." How does this hinder our listening in worship?

3. "This form of covenantal speech called a sermon is far more than teaching." What is the difference between teaching and preaching?

4. "But is every preacher really God's messenger? Certainly not." How would we discern if a preacher is truly God's mouthpiece? See 1 John 4:1-6.

5. "It is important that significant passages of Scripture be read." Why? Unfortunately, reading long passages from Scripture has become tedious for many. What are some ways to help worshipers come alive to long texts?

6. In Week 1, we described worship as "participational." How might we reshape our understanding and enactment of some worship elements—such as the sermon—that seem especially passive?

Week 4

Sealing the Covenant Relationship

From the earliest days of the Old Testament until now, God’s people have sealed their relationship with God with a tangible, physical, material sign. Most deep relationships are marked by a sign. Marriages are marked by a ring. So too our covenant relationship with God is begun with a sign (baptism), and renewed time and time again with a tangible sign (Lord’s Supper). These actions teach us something about both the relationship itself and the signs.

These signs teach us that our relationship with God is tangible, down-to-earth, material, embodied. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky idea or spiritual concept. Just as wearing a marriage ring changes how people relate to us, so too participating in the sacraments is a tangible witness to the world of our love for God.

Central Idea: Our relationship with God is confirmed or sealed through specific,physical, material actions called sacraments. Sacraments gainsignificance only as an embodiment of this deeper relationship.

Scripture Texts

Exodus 24

Consider reading this dramatically, using one reader for the voice of Moses, one for the voice of the Lord, and the third for the part of the narrator.

The meal described in Exodus 24:9-11 has been interpreted as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper by many Christian scholars throughout the history of the church. It is similar to meals eaten after other covenant agreements between people (Gen. 26:30; 31:54).This meal is a sign of divine-human table fellowship.

1 Corinthians 11:17-33

In 1 Corinthians 11, notice that the cup is specifically called “the new covenant in my blood,” referring to the new and unconditional covenant described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and in Hebrews 8-9.

In 1 Corinthians 11, notice all of the ethical warnings given along with instructions about the Lord’s Supper. Just as faithless living can betray the promises made in a wedding, so too faithless living essentially denies the seal of the covenant relationship between God and us.

In 1 Corinthians 11, notice how many dimensions of the Lord’s Supper are packed into a few verses. The Lord’s Supper is a remembrance, a proclamation, an anticipation, a thanksgiving. It is a single, physical, material action that conveys several overlapping meanings, or several angles or dimensions of the single gospel of Christ.

Key Related Themes

  • Sacraments are a big deal. They are nothing less than an embodiment of this covenantal relationship. When we dismiss the sacraments as unimportant, we may be communicating our inability to seethe significance of expressing our love for God and for hearing God’s promises to us—like a stereotypical uncouth groom who thinks that the wedding service itself is no big deal and barely shows up in time, who is oblivious to the profundity of the vows he is about to make.
  • The sacraments are not ends in themselves. They gain significance as part of our covenantal relationship with God. When we celebrate the sacraments without placing them in their larger relational context, we risk a kind of hypocrisy; we risk failing to “discern the body.” Think of a bride and groom who spend enormous energy on their clothing, the flowers, the reception food, and all the other wedding details, while barely thinking about the profundity of the vows they will make.
  • Sacraments are an unapologetically material activity. We use tangible water, wine, and bread. Sacraments speak not despite these material things but because of them. The Holy Spirit uses these material actions to seal the covenantal relationship we have with Godin Christ. When we minimize the materiality of these signs, we may be signaling that our relationship with God is merely a spiritual reality that doesn’t enter into tangible, everyday affairs. The very materiality of these actions is a crucial part of their message.

The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

In the classic shape of Christian worship, the Lord’s Supper follows acts of praise, confession, and proclamation. It comes near the end of the service, just as an exchange of rings follows the marriage vows in a wedding. This is not an arbitrary placement. It is meant to ensure that we see the sacrament not as an end in itself but as a seal of something deeper, something prior. It confirms and seals the gospel that has been proclaimed, the relationship that has been enacted.

Also, in the classic shape of Christian worship, the Lord’s Supper includes an extensive and exuberant prayer of thanksgiving that traces the whole history of salvation (such as the example included on p. **).This way of praying (which essentially tells God what he already knows!) may seem strange to us. Yet it is an ancient, covenantal form of prayer (see Ps. 105 or 1 Chron.16). Most thanksgiving psalms in Scripture are like recitals of salvation history; they are prayers that contain a story. They give thanks for God’s steadfast, covenantal love at every step of the way. This covenantal mode of praying is not unlike what happens on a wedding anniversary when a couple recites the highlights of their life together.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Taste and SeeMoore
A communion song relating our approach to the table with God’s covenant pledges.

What Feast of LoveDufner  
A communion song celebrating the free gift of God’s salvation sealed in the Supper.

According to Thy Gracious WordMontgomery
A reflective communion hymn that evokes a covenantal theme in its “two-way remembering.”

Eat This BreadBatastini, Taizé
Using the stanzas (not found in most hymnals) enables God’s promises about and from Jesus to be heard. For use during communion.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord of Hosts Prince
A meditation song that leads well into the traditional “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to be sung during the Lord’s Supper.

Now the Solemn Feast Is DoneSeerveld
A celebrative post-communion hymn that links our feasting at the table with our service in the world.

Take, O Take Me as I AmBell
The salvation sealed to us in the sacraments goes into shaping our lives and service. A fitting response to a commissioning at the close of worship.

Go, My Children, with My BlessingVajda
Even as we leave worship, this closing benediction reminds us that we are God’s own.

Hallelujah, We Sing Your PraisesSouth African Traditional
A Joyful South African “sending out” song at the end of the Lord’s Supper service.

Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 4

1.    “From the earliest days of the Old Testament until now, God’s people have sealed their relationship with God with a tangible, physical, material sign.” Name some of these Old Testament signs.

2.    Today, the covenant relationship is sealed with the signs of baptism and Lord’s Supper, and “these actions teach us something about both the relationship itself and the signs.” What do the sacraments say about God’s entrance into tangible, everyday life? What does this then say about the worship event?

3.    “Sacraments are an unapologetically material activity. We use tangible water, wine, and bread. Sacraments speak not despite these material things, but because of them.” Does your church emphasize or minimize this materiality?

4.    “In the classic shape of Christian worship, the Lord’s Supper follows acts of praise, confession, and proclamation.” Consider the Supper’s purpose in order to explain this sequence.

5.    How much do you look forward to the concluding blessing or benediction? Read together Hebrews 13:20-21, not only as a prayer but as God’s promise and gift of blessing to you as individuals and as a congregation. Encourage your group to memorize this blessing.

6.    Conclude this series by reflecting on these comments from Witvliet’s final observations (below): “Notice how this (covenant) approach does not suggest that we, by ourselves, can make worship happen. This relationship with God is a gift! It is Christ’s work through the Spirit in our hearts and in the life of the congregation. No liturgical technique will make this relationship happen. The ultimate success of a worship service depends on something that worship leaders can’t engineer or produce, our (collective) personal relation with God in Christ.”

Final Observations

  • Praise is one (essential) form of covenant communication. But praise isn’t the main point of worship. The point is the relationship. Nor is praise the only form of covenant communication. In a full-orbed covenant relationship, praise is joined by confession, lament, intercession, and listening. In a marriage relationship, conversations marked by exclusive praise would feel like false flattery. They might start out fine, but soon they ring hollow.
  • Notice how this (covenant) approach does not suggest that we, by ourselves, can make worship happen. This relationship with God is a gift! It is Christ’s work through the Spirit in our hearts and in the life of the congregation. No liturgical technique will make this relationship happen. The ultimate success of a worship service depends on something that worship leaders can’t engineer or produce, our(collective) personal relationship with God in Christ.
  • Notice that this basic image provides a way of understanding many acts of worship, even if they aren’t covered directly in one of these sermons. For example, an offering is like a gift given in return for a prior gift. The benediction is like a divine covenantal smile on the gathered congregation. A testimony is a like a recital of God’s past covenant faithfulness. Each act of worship finds its place as part of the script of covenant renewal.
  • Notice how not a word in this series focused on the style of worship. The goal here is to get beyond style issues. But thinking along these lines may, in fact, help some congregations with style issues. A congregation should not choose a worship style on the basis of what style most people like. Rather, a congregation should choose a style on the basis of what will help them, as the gathered people of God, to renew their covenant in the most honest, relational, Christ-centered way. It is precisely when discussions about style become divorced from this deeper thinking about worship’s meaning and purpose that they become so divisive and problematic.
  • The idea of worship as covenant renewal is not the only biblical way of getting at worship’s meaning and purpose. I present it here because I believe that it is one faithful and fruitful way that has been recognized more or less explicitly by theologians and preachers for two thousand years. But because there is so much more we could say, I hope that we will not let ourselves think of this as the only way of approaching it!
  • We need a way to think about worship that is direct and simple enough to wrap our minds around, rich enough so that we will never exhaust it, tangible enough so that we can sense what difference it might make as we prepare for Sunday worship, and true enough that we would stake our lives on it. We need a biblical approach to worship that can be preached and lived today. The idea of worship as “new covenant renewal” is not the only valid approach. But its deep scriptural resonance and its power to evoke deep liturgical participation make it a beautiful place to begin. May this series be an instrument of God’s Spirit to deepen and nourish your congregation’s experience of worship.      

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 56 © June 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.