This article discusses various matters pertaining to the worship service. It explains that such a service falls within God's covenant and is a celebration of it. It goes into some detail on what the liturgy is, as well as the origins of the Reformed liturgy. Finally, it describes the so-called liturgical movement, a phenomenon in the 1800s.

7 pages.

Appearing in God's Presence: Liturgy and the Worship Service I

A.  Introduction🔗

1.  The importance of this subject🔗

Twice every Sunday, the congregation of Christ gathers together for worship. The nature of the worship service is governed by established forms and structures. Members who regularly attend church know what to expect, since regular customs and routines are followed. This can be dangerous. When one knows what will happen - since the liturgical actions are predictable - this can lead to passivity and apathy in the worship service. The glow of the events can eventually lose their lustre. Worship can become a less engaging activity. One’s involvement in the worship service can falter.  The joy of faith can be negatively influenced.

It is, therefore, necessary to question the importance of the liturgy and all liturgical proceedings. We may ask:

  • Why does the congregation meet?  What is a worship service?
  • What is liturgy? Is it only a question of how the worship service is organized, or do certain proceedings also have a Biblical background?
  • How did the Reformed liturgy come into being?
  • How is Reformed liturgy different from that of other churches?
  • Is it really necessary to use standard forms and patterns, or does the minister have a measure of freedom in their use?

The discussion of such questions will stimulate a necessary reflection on what we are doing in church. The festive character of the worship service will then continue or return “in joyful assembly” (Hebrews 12:22). If the congregation desires to “worship the LORD with gladness” (Psalms 100:2), it must be wary of routine and boredom in the worship service.

2.  The order of discussion🔗

Liturgy and the worship service are broad topics. The Book of Praise contains orders of worship, forms for the sacraments, forms for discipline, forms for the installation of office bearers, and a form for the solemnization of marriage. These forms are not confessions, nor are they ‘forms of unity’. Rather, the churches have formulated these Biblically based forms to support the specific liturgical elements.

In addition, the Book of Praise contains prayers and the Church Order. In this Outline, the discussion will be limited to the meaning of the worship service and the liturgy. The following Outline will address the order of the worship service, the liturgical forms, and the prayers. An Outline will also be devoted to the Church Order even though it is not part of the liturgy.

B.  The difference between liturgy and the worship service🔗

It is useful to consider the terms liturgy and worship service at the same time, since they are closely connected. This is not to say that they are synonymous. The difference between liturgy and the worship service can be illustrated in the following way:

  • The worship service is about the meeting of God and his congregation as such. These two meet because they belong together and want to have communion with each other.
  • Liturgy concerns the manner in which this meeting is manifested.

In short, the worship service demonstrates that God and his congregation meet; the liturgy shows how they meet.

C.  The worship service🔗

It is impossible to imagine the life of God’s people without a worship service in which they may communicate with God. A marriage in which the spouses live silently alongside each other will eventually break down. A people that may call themselves God’s people cannot live without communication with God.

In fact, the entire life of God’s children - which is a sanctified life - is called a “spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). We use the term “worship service” for the gathering together of the congregation. The congregation meets on various occasions, thus demonstrating that it is a community.

Moreover, the congregation is regularly called together in the worship service. In the worship service, the members of the congregation meet, not only with one another, but together with their God.  This is paramount: God comes to his people. He has formed a covenant with these people and therefore wants them to meet regularly with him.

1.  The worship service within God’s covenant🔗

The fact that the worship service is a meeting within the covenant of God is reason for celebration. Beautiful things can be expressed about the covenant, as has been done in a considerable body of Scripturally based literature. In this book, the covenant will not be discussed at length. Yet, it is useful to point out a few of its features, for a good understanding of the covenant.

  1. God took the initiative in making a covenant with his people.
    A well-known way of describing the covenant is: “The covenant is one-sided in its origin and two-sided in its continued existence”, which reflects that God took the initiative in making his covenant with his people. This implies that the two parties are not equal. The covenant did not come into existence through a mutual arrangement. In his sovereign good will, God chose to make a covenant with his people, thus granting his favour and his love. Texts that illustrate this theme throughout the Bible include:
  • Genesis 1:28; 6:8; 12:1-3; 15:1; 17:1ff; Exodus 20:1: The Lord takes the initiative and gives rich promises to his nation.
  • Isaiah 43:1; 44:7; 45:3; Acts 2:39; Romans 8:30; 9:11; 9:24; 2 Corinthians 1:9; Ephesians 4:1:  God is the God who calls, in whom the church has her origin and unity.

    Accordingly, God has the first word, the last word, and the dominating word in the worship service.

  1. God treats his people as people who carry their own responsibility in the covenant.
    The listed texts clearly illustrate this principle. Even so, God and his people will never become two equal parties. We can speak of mutual communication in the covenant, which is also expressed in the worship service. But the congregation remains dependent upon God’s initiative at all times. It exists only because of his good pleasure. The dialogue in the worship service should reflect this.
  2. Living in the covenant is living under the grace of God.
    Not one pagan religion recognizes a covenant of grace between a divine being and human beings. Every idol worshipper has the impossible duty of attempting to save himself and make himself acceptable before the gods. Other religions do not know about the word grace in this context.  Living in the covenant with the one true God is thus characterized by peace and joy (see Acts 2:46; 8:39; Romans 14:17; Philippians 4:4; Revelation 19:7). This should also be evident in the worship service.

2.  Celebrating God’s covenant together🔗

It is clear, then, that God calls his people to a festive gathering in the worship service. The covenant relationship finds its highest expression in the worship service. In the Old Testament, we can read about such festive gatherings before the Lord, which often took place on the Sabbath day (cf. Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23). The Psalms refer to the Sabbath observance (see Psalms 26:12; 116:18-19).

The New Testament also speaks of meetings of the congregation, but then Sunday was considered to be the day of the Lord (cf. John 20:19, 26; Acts 20:7).

The “meeting together” of Hebrews 10:25 refers to the worship service. In Hebrews 12:23, the gathering of the New Testament congregation is even more festive, because the history of God’s covenant has advanced still further. On the first day of the week the congregation celebrates the resurrection of Christ from the dead; a more fitting day for the meeting in the covenant is inconceivable.

It should also be noted that the church confesses that obedience to the fourth commandment of God’s law is evidenced by the meeting of the congregation on Sundays (HC, Q&A 103).

In Genesis 4:26, we read that the holy lineage “began to call on the name of the LORD”. This expression refers to the public worship of God and thus typifies the worship service. In       opposition to the seed of the serpent (Cain and his seed), who assumed selfish and threatening power, the children of God sought salvation in their God, through the public worship of his name. They began to praise him, witnessing to his power and justice. This expression appears in the Bible more often, in both the Old and New Testaments (see Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalm 145:18; Joel 2:3; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:12-14; 1 Peter 1:17).

D.  The liturgy🔗

Liturgy concerns the manner in which the worship service, as a meeting in the covenant, takes place.  The order of worship contains various patterns and forms which determine the liturgy. The minister is encouraged to follow this order when he prepares the worship service.1 In every church service the minister conducts, he gives form to the order of worship, asking himself: Which text do I choose for the sermon?  Which songs are to be sung with it?  What must I, on behalf of the congregation, bring before the Lord in prayer?

The liturgy is the congregation’s liturgy, not that of the local minister. An established form and order will ensure that the worship services have a peaceful and orderly character.

1.  Biblical background🔗

In the Old Testament, God gave laws for the liturgy, e.g. for the sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7) and for feast days (Leviticus 23). These laws were to be strictly obeyed. In Leviticus 9, which recounts the ordination of the priests, everything was carried out according to the commandments of the Lord as made known to Moses. However, when Nadab and Abihu presented an offering by “unauthorized fire” (Leviticus 10) to the Lord, in a manner not commanded by God, they were killed.

The congregation of the New Testament, as a responsive congregation, has received the freedom to develop liturgical forms that do justice to the character of the worship service.  The church may not deal with this matter in a careless way.  God’s Spirit wants to activate the church into producing the most beautiful order that is in keeping with the covenantal meeting.

2.  Meaning of the word “liturgy”🔗

Liturgy means service, in the sense of serving.  Originally it referred to public service on behalf of the people, as in the military service where a soldier fulfills a public duty for his nation and country.

In the Bible, the term liturgy appears to have this same meaning.  The well-known Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, uses “liturgy”, or leitourgia, for the Hebrew expression that refers to what the priest did for the people. Some examples are:

  • Old Testament:
    The priest performs services for God, for the sanctification of the people, in his holy vestments (Exodus 28:35, 43), in bringing sacrifices (Exodus 30:20), and in tending to the candlesticks (Numbers 18:7), the altar of incense, and the table of showbread (2 Chronicles 13:10ff).  This service is a gift from God (Numbers 18:7).
  • New Testament: 
    The entire service in the tabernacle is called “worship” (Hebrews 9:21). The priest stood before God daily, on behalf of the people (Hebrews 10:11).

3.  Our high priest (liturgist) is in heaven🔗

The Bible teaches us that Christ is our true high priest and our minister “in the sanctuary” (Hebrews 8:2), our liturgist.  For the congregation of the new dispensation, the actual service (leitourgia) is conducted in heaven, and is therefore a more exalted service than that which took place in the tabernacle or earthly temple (Hebrews 8:6).  Christ took over the earthly priestly duties and now performs this service in heaven. For this reason, altars and offerings of atonement are no longer necessary and should not be included in the worship service.  Today’s worship service serves and celebrates everything accomplished by Christ. The liturgy in our earthly church service is the fruit and result of Christ’s priestly liturgy in heaven.

4.  What are the origins of our liturgy?🔗

The Reformed liturgy has been strongly influenced by the Reformation of the 16th century. The return to God’s Word had an impact on the liturgy, through which the church gives expression to her faith. The church service became a dialogue once again. The congregation became vocal and active. A brief sketch of the history of our liturgy follows.

It is difficult to research how the worship service was conducted in the early Christian church of the New Testament.  The New Testament does name several liturgical elements, such as the preaching, the thank offering, the holy supper, and prayer (Acts 2:42), the singing of psalms and songs of praise (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), and the reading of Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27).  However, we do not find a detailed account of the order of worship in the New Testament.

In the first three centuries, the worship service had a rather plain character. There was Bible reading, preaching, prayer, singing, administration of baptism, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

In the fourth century, the liturgy shifted to the wrong direction. The aspect of dialogue slowly disappeared and the bishop received a dominant place. The holy supper was highlighted at the expense of the preaching, taking on a whole new meaning. It became an offering.  The bishop was seen as a priest while the bread and wine became sacrificial gifts towards reconciliation with God. The idea that Christ’s redeeming sacrifice had to be repeated gained wider acceptance. The congregation was taught that the priest, together with Christ, had to present an offering to God upon the altar in church. As a consequence a new doctrine developed, that of the bread and wine changing into the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation).   The ritual of offering monopolized the worship service. The altar replaced the pulpit. The congregation was only permitted to observe and partake of the host (consecrated wafer).  In many cases even the singing was withheld and left up to the choir. The Roman Catholic Church is still unyielding in its conviction regarding these matters as was evident in the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council of 1964.

The Reformation of the 16th century brought back Scriptural liturgy. The Reformers restored the character of the liturgy, with an emphasis on its plain, austere character. This is understandable, considering the strong aversion Reformed people had to senseless, unscriptural rituals. Once again, the preaching was restored to its place of honour and the holy supper received its rightful position as a sacrament (HC, Q&A 65, 66, 75-80). Although some differences have been brought about in the last centuries, the current order of worship in the Reformed Churches exhibits the same basic structure as that of the liturgy used at the time of the Reformation.

E.  The liturgical movement🔗

In the 1800s, a new vision of liturgy developed in Germany and England. In the Netherlands, this view was accepted in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk.  Prof. Dr. G. van der Leeuw was a strong proponent of this liturgy. This was the beginning of the liturgical movement.

What was it all about?  It was believed that the worship service was to be a sacramental event. As a sacrament, the Lord’s Supper was the centre of the worship service and therefore had to be celebrated in every service. In the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christ was believed to be present, and God came to the congregation with his salvation in Christ. Behind this doctrine lies the idea that the relationship between God and his people takes place especially in the element of the “Word-becoming-flesh” (incarnation), and not in the preaching. The incarnation was seen as the fundamental embodiment of all communion    between God and the congregation.  In the Lord’s Supper, the incarnation was consummated repeatedly. The climax of the service was when the ‘Word that became flesh’ was exhibited in the Lord’s Supper.  Salvation was made present and tangible, and was distributed at this point.  The entire liturgy, including the sermon, was focussed on that central point.

This view clearly shows similarities with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass. The liturgical movement has many extensive orders of worship, as a protest against the sober order of liturgy introduced in the Reformation. The movement shows a desire for a return to the rich and wide-ranging liturgy of the time prior to the 16th century.             

One can be appreciative of the attempt to enrich the liturgy. Too much austerity can reduce the festive character of the liturgy and shortchange the congregation in its communication with God. Even the Lord’s Supper can receive a secondary position, if one looks only at the outward symbols without celebrating and experiencing it as a feast. However, the doctrines of the liturgical movement remain unacceptable.

F.  Conclusion🔗

Reformed liturgy is certainly worth studying and discussing. It will only help to increase our awareness of the worship service as a distinctive and festive occasion.

G.  Tips for the introduction🔗

  1. The remarks under C.2. regarding Genesis 4:26 and the other mentioned texts are a suitable starting point for an introduction. Discuss these in conjunction with the meaning of the covenant.
  2. The church service is a worship service we cannot afford to do without in our relationship with God. Using Scriptural data, try to establish what it means to ‘honour God’.
  3. Compare the Old and New Testament passages about the worship services.

H.  For discussion🔗

  1. If the worship service is a dialogue in the covenant, is it correct to put all the emphasis on the sermon, e.g. as we would do with a portrait, considering the rest of the liturgy to be the frame?
  2. The worship service is a dialogue. How can the congregation become more involved in each part of the liturgy?
  3. Do the detailed laws which God gave for the Old Testament worship service give any indication about how today’s congregation must take care to have a good liturgy? Should we be paying more attention to the liturgy?
  4. How must we use the Sunday worship service in the service of the Lord during the week?  (See HC, Q&A 103b.)
  5. Why is it appropriate and necessary to have two worship services every Sunday?
  6. The basis of the liturgical movement as well as that of the Roman Catholic doctrine is incorrect. However, is the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed worship service not somewhat underrated?  Should it receive more emphasis?


  1. ^ In Article 52 of the Canadian Reformed Church Order, the churches have agreed that the “consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day.” This section also encompasses the subject of liturgy, which is the responsibility of the local church (see W.W.J. VanOene, With Common Consent, pp. 247- 248).

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