Where is the drama of worship?

As I worship in different congregations, I find that I most appreciate those with a dramatic flow in worship. “Traditional” Reformed worship has a flow, even if it is not always perceived by worshippers. It follows the pattern of Isaiah’s encounter with God in the temple in Isaiah 6. Isaiah is encountered by God in his sovereignty and splendor and hears the praise of God’s holiness. In the opening of worship, we are greeted by God and respond with praise. Then Isaiah confesses his unworthiness, and God offers an act of purification. This is the service of confession and reconciliation. Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord, the message. He responds in faith and willingness to serve. We respond with profession of faith or a song. Isaiah is then sent out as the Lord’s servant, the charge to service.

This model does not cover everything. Even “traditional” worship varies in where to have the congregational (“long”) prayer and the offering. There are other good structures for worship. The Roman Catholic Mass has a wonderful flow culminating in the Eucharist. The Orthodox service, called the Divine Liturgy, is based on Revelation 4-5. I advocate for worship having dramatic flow, so we move through a service with purpose.

‘Contemporary’ worship
Some of the “contemporary” worship I have experienced lacks a logical flow. It opens with singing, which I enjoy, but often I cannot figure out why songs are chosen. The songs might be more about “me” than about God or “us.” Often there is no opening word nor greeting from God. I wonder if some songs are picked by musicians more for their musicality or newness than lyrics and fit. After a set of songs, there might be a prayer, followed by the message and then a song or two. Often there is a simple weekly participation in Communion with little explanation. Then the service ends with a brief goodbye because it’s running long. Contemporary worship may have a hard time fitting in an offering as an act of worship.

This type of worship is often simpler and perhaps more welcoming to new worshippers. Is there a danger, however, that worshippers become audience or, with the growing tendency of long teaching messages, students – rather than believers experiencing worship more fully?

Dramatic worship
Dramatic structure can be brought into both traditional and contemporary worship to enhance the worship experience. In the 1800s Gustav Freytag deduced a model for understanding narrative plot structure. This is still often taught in school as Freytag’s Pyramid. Since Freytag studied tragedy, his names for the movements reflect this.

Worship is comedic. It is good news that moves us through sin to salvation and service. Maybe we should invert and rename some steps of the pyramid.

If we apply this model to worship, it gives a dramatic flow and experience. The opening song(s) and welcome are the exposition, setting the stage for worship by establishing the characters and the tone. Services should have different thematic purposes that determine what songs should be used to lead the worshipper into worship. The greeting from God is the exciting force that begins the action. God initiates worship. God encounters us, and we respond. The falling action is an acknowledgement of our need, pain and sin through confession or lament. The chief scene of the falling action is a proclamation of forgiveness.

In the Protestant service, the turning point is the proclamation of the Word. The end of the message should be comedic, Gospel-focused and include a prayer for God’s empowering. The Lord’s Supper then fits wonderfully as the rising action. If Communion is not celebrated weekly, the rising action can be the congregational prayer. The offering also fits well in the rising action. The final suspense returns to the world’s need with an emphasis on our mission in such a world. The blessing empowers us to go out to serve, and the charge with doxology sends us out.

Each part of this structure can be modified or filled to develop a specific theme for the service, just as all stories give different expression to this basic narrative structure. The structure gives a flow and a purpose to the parts. Worship can be dramatic, an experience of God interacting meaningfully with his people.

Author

  • Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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