The shape of your Sunday service is forming the way people in your church relate to God ‐ not just in the moment, but through the week.
That puts real significance on how we plan and lead services – whether we're music leaders, service leaders or pastors. We're going to explore how to give our services a gospel shape, and how we can help people to see connections as we lead services ‐ for the spiritual formation of our churches.
We're good at making sure each individual element of a service (songs, prayers, liturgy etc.) is sound and true, but often we stop there. When the connections between elements are given little or no thought, it can communicate to the church that we're going-through-the-motions, and singing "because that's just what we do in church" ‐ with no reason to their rhyme. We can even lead people to make misleading connections (hence Calvin moved the offering as far away from the Lord's Supper as possible so no-one thought that we meet with God by giving money to church!)
Connecting elements with a theme is helpful in giving direction and cohesion to a service. However, issues arise when every song is trying to nail the main point of the sermon. If, in our recent sermon series through the book of Joel at Christ Church Mayfair, I'd only chosen elements on the theme of judgement, we would've run out of them very quickly, and had some very heavy services!
A gospel-shaped service combines elements in a theme then holds it all together in a way that walks us through a gospel shape as we progress through the service (e.g. God ‐ Man ‐ Christ ‐ Response). This is not a new idea: the church has been doing this since before the Reformation (see Brian Chapell's fantastic survey of gospel-shaped services in his book Christ-Centered Worship).
Here's a recent example from a service on Matthew 9:35-38: God: is our Provider, generously giving us what we need when we call on His name. (We read from Psalm 145, sang Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Come you sinners).
Man: We are self-reliant, not looking to God's provision and are left harassed and helpless. (We prayed a corporate confession of sin).
Christ: came from the Father in compassion and generously gave Himself for our salvation. (Assurance from Romans 8:31-32, then we sang His mercy is more. This led to our reading and sermon).
Response: We call on God our Father for help and seek to build His Kingdom. (After the sermon we prayed, sang Let your kingdom come and closed with Ephesians 3:20-21).
Gospel-shaped services have lots of advantages…
People learn a gospel rhythm that shapes their engagement with God ‐ a rhythm they can take into their everyday lives.
The gospel shape turns elements that might seem disconnected ‐ even arbitrary ‐ into a cohesive whole. It deeply immerses people in the Scripture that governs the whole service, whilst giving them a holistic view of the gospel.
So, when we reach the sermon, we've already had our hearts and minds arrested by God's character, humbled by a knowledge of our sin, and encouraged by Jesus our Saviour ‐ all according to the truth about to be preached.
All this is incredibly valuable for people's spiritual growth ‐ making the time it takes to craft services totally worth it.
We mustn't push this too far. The New Testament doesn't prescribe an exact sequence or methodology for church services. But there is much good that can be done by rehearsing the gospel in this way.
Now: as we come to lead the service ‐ from lectern, pulpit or guitar ‐ our job is to help people spot the gospel shape so they can learn and benefit from the gospel rhythm. (Good communication between the service planner, preacher and musicians is essential!) We teach people nearly as much through how we move from one thing to the next as we do through the elements we've chosen. So consider carefully how you introduce a song. "We're going to sing" ‐ great, but why this song here? How does it connect to what has gone before? How does it prepare us for what's coming next? Joining the dots in this way is part of our spiritual care of the congregation.
Shaping your service around the gospel ‐ and leading in a way that helps people see this gospel shape ‐ can bear much spiritual fruit in people's lives.
And, when you think about it, that's an enormous pastoral opportunity.
This article was originally published in Evangelicals Now in February 2020.