why corporate worship should be story-formed

In my experience, there are two ‘default options’ when it comes to doing corporate worship.

Either it’s all about one key element of the service — the sermon perhaps or the Lord’s Supper in another tradition.

In this case, anything else you might do when you gather is done apologetically. At best these other things are preparatory. At worst, they’re unnecessary distractions, things to get out of the way before you can get on with the important stuff.

Alternatively, each element of the gathering can be treated with equal importance.

So the announcements and offering (those two non-apostolic, non-negotiables) enjoy the same prominence as the prayers, the Bible readings, the sermon or the sacraments. But often no real attempt is made to relate the components of the service to each other.

The strength of the first approach is that it can reflect the priority the gospel, which we hear proclaimed and applied in the sermon or which we remember and enact together in the Supper.

The second approach rightly refuses to treat any aspect of what we do when gathered as less significant than any other (even at the cost of fragmentation).

But I wonder whether another approach might be more helpful. And that is a story-formed approach.

A story-formed approach involves treating the service like a story.

Like a story, it will have chapters — each of which is integral (you could conceivably leave out a chapter, although that would leave people guessing).

But the climax and denouement still happens in one a particular chapter, with the others feeding into it or unfolding its implications.

I feel this reflects the way God has acted and revealed himself in history (neither dropping out the sky at without prior warning or preparation nor presenting us with a parcel of discrete truths to be picked up and surveyed one after the other).

It’s also truer to the way we’ve been made as time-bound and story-formed creatures. But that’s for another post…

What do you think?

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8 comments

  1. I think it sounds very Vandersteltish, but I agree with you, at arkhouse church, where being ‘story-formed’ is part of our identity and rhythms, we’ve killed off the hymn sandwhich, we start with ‘stories of refuge and redemption’ where people share if they want to what God’s been up to in their lives that week, we then follow a ‘receive-respond’ format, Bible reading, sermon first followed by communion and worship in song. We don’t do an offering, that all happens online, and although the gathering leader prays throughout we only occasionally do corporate prayer or prayer for each individual because we put a high value on our monthly prayer meeting that happens at another time, this has led to a 80-90% attendance at our prayer meetings. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how the gathering can be more ‘story-formed’ through a chapter structure, but I think we’re already doing that intuitively, you’d be welcome to come visit any time if you want to have a look.

    1. Sounds really interesting, Dan! I’m all for giving what we do together a more intentionally theological ‘shape’ and taking people on a journey that reflects our understanding of God’s dealings with us in Jesus — like you’re doing with your ‘stories-receive-respond’ format.

      To be honest, I haven’t read/listened to any Vanderstelt. I was thinking more along the lines of a classic Anglican prayer-book shaped service — where thanksgivings, creeds and confessions, etc all play their part in the overall story/journey and don’t need to feel embarrassed about being there (because they might get in the way of the sermon, etc).

  2. Hey Chris

    Love this post. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard singing praise to God described as “time to get up and stretch your legs.” My only comfort in such a situation is that some of them may hopefully look back in later life with embarrassment and regret.

    Likewise, introducing the sermon in terms of “we’re now going to hear from God’s word,” is problematic unless this is the absolute first instance of the Bible being opened in the entire church service. Typically, however, the Bible has been read at least in the “call to worship” (even if it’s not called that) and in the Bible readings (if the reading of the Bible is not “hearing from God’s word,” nothing is!).

    At St David’s Presbyterian Church I think we have a reasonable balance:

    1. Announcements are usually given by an elder at the very beginning of the service. I would like to think this is done reverently and with regard to God’s work in our midst throughout the week. The elder usually ends the announcements by saying something like “let us now continue to worship God,” thus handing the leadership of the service over to the minister. I think this recognises that announcements are indeed worship, but also that they are ontologically different from the formal liturgy. They are often temporal and logistical in nature, and would perhaps distract from further worship if we were to jam them in between the 2nd reading and the sermon, for example.

    2. While we do want to make the act of financial giving a serious component of worship (it is done with the organ softly played in the background), it is done in the liturgical context of submitting not just our coin, but our lives to the triune God. When I’m leading worship I try and use that word often, so that folks know that it’s worship from start to finish, but there is also (I hope) a sense in which the means of grace (word, sacraments, prayer) are seen as the high points of the whole event.

    3. We don’t have all and sundry rostered on to read the Bible or to pray, but rather a group of men selected by the minister who are expected to have prepared well for their ministries. Perhaps that one of the reasons service leaders are almost “apologetic” about all the other components is because they are done so poorly!

    4. I think – and this relates to your main point – we have some kind of “story-formed approach.” I’m feeling uncomfortable about that term, but I think I like where you’re going. In our order of service, we have three headings: (1) God Meets With His People, (2) God Communes With His People, and (3) God Leads His People Forth. I don’t for a moment imagine that these headings are the be-all-and-end-all of a story-formed approach, but I certainly find it a helpful way of approaching worship, both as a leader and as a worshipper. Even with just three basic headings (and the individual components of the service below them), it is not difficult for even a visitor to see that there is order to what we are doing, and some kind of progression to our worship.

    5. I’m not really sure that this can be as effectively conveyed by way of slides projected onto a screen. My preference is to have an order of service in my hand that I can use as a guide, and that provides something of the worship service that i can take away with me to be reminded later of the Bible readings and the sermon that I heard, the songs I sung, the texts that called me to worship and sent me out, and the unfolding narrative of what has taken place.

    Apologies for the long comment! I look forward to hearing the thoughts and suggestions of you and others.

    1. Hi Chris. Thanks for taking the time to share.

      I love what you say in point 2 about ‘submitting not just our coin, but our lives to the triune God’. I think that can be a very helpful way to frame a moment of financial giving — especially because, for me at least, electronic giving is about the only thing that allows me to close the gap between generous intention and generous action (and so I very rarely put money in the bag/plate as it circulates).

  3. We started the series on Acts.

    We had an ‘early confession + early prayer’ service with no creed.

    Interviewed a mum about her 1st 11.5 months into motherhood. Struggles and joys and how God has worked in all that and still working.

    Andrew started his talk with his dad’s story and then said knowing your parents’ stories are important to know our story. Then he launched into Acts 1-2.

    The ‘application’ part of the sermon focused on the phrase ‘cut to the heart’.

    After ‘Come thou fount’ and ‘Let your kingdom come’ were sung, I went up and read a verse from Luke 24 and Acts 1:8 with “to Ashfield, Sydney, Australia” inserted before “to the ends of the earth”.

    Then the “our name… ” bit sent the people out.

    My aim is to smuggle in as much as I can phrases like “all nations”, “ends of the earth”, “tribes, languages, nations” in my sermons and leading the services. They didn’t call me internationals minister for nothing.

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