Throughout much of church history, and still in the Catholic tradition, communion was the climax of the worship service. In fact, in the early church those who were new to the church community were dismissed before the sacrament. People were known throughout history to stand at the doors or look in the windows just to catch a glimpse of the sacred bread.
The early church generally followed a very simple outline for worship. They gathered in someone’s home, greeted each other, and ate a meal. Sometimes later in the meal or after the meal, an elder in the community would tell a story of Jesus or from the scriptures and give insights into the passage or event for the community. There was a collection for the poor—at first for Jerusalem but later for their individual communities. Then the sacred meal was taken before they left.
This general shape of worship is still used today. The primary change came during the Reformation. The Reformers wanted people to have access to the scriptures and understand them for themselves. In some cases, like that of Martin Luther, they labored to give the scriptures in the common language. At the same time, the Reformers reevaluated the theology of the Eucharist. Their argument was that there was no need for another sacrifice since Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. They did not all agree on what communion represents. Perspectives ranged from something mystical, to ritualistic reenactment, to nothing more than a symbol.
Though they did not agree on what the sacrament was, they did all agree that the proclamation of the Word should eclipse the sacrament as the center of the worship service. The emphasis moved from the sacrament of communion to the proclamation of the Word. Even the church architecture captures this change. Instead of the communion table being the center of the worship space, now large pulpits dominated the front of the sanctuary.
I find the Presbyterian way of talking about this order particularly helpful. Worship happens in five stages. We “gather around the Word” as we have a prelude, call to worship, and opening hymn. Here we are also preparing for the Word by confessing our sin and being assured of our pardon. We “proclaim the Word.” This normally involves reading a scripture and interpreting it in a sermon, though a skit or musical cantata can also play that part. We “respond to the Word” often through an offering. We “seal the Word” with the sacraments, for it is in the practice of communion that the Word proclaimed becomes ours in a special way. Finally, we have a benediction as we “bear and follow the Word into the world.” I especially love that final phrase, because it implies that the process of worship on Sunday morning continues throughout the week.
The question in many churches about this order tends to be about where to put the offering. Some pastors don’t like the offering after the sermon because they feel like they are preaching for a bigger offering. Some churches feel the sermon is a high point or crescendo that makes for a better ending to the service. I see both of these cases, and I tend to move the offering around a bit depending on what else is happening in the service. Wherever you put it, be intentional about where it fits in the story.
Maybe you don’t think of the order of worship as a story, but it most certainly is one. The Reformed order matches the larger story of the Bible. There is the coming together of the community at the beginning of worship. Every week a new body is created. Then there is a confession. The Fall is remembered. The proclamation of the Word should always include proclaiming the central act of Redemption by the Word made flesh. We remember that Redemption in the Sacraments. The move into the world is act of Restoration as we go out into the world to work for God’s purposes.
Many people do not understand this, but this order of worship also has a parallel in a biblical story. Do you remember the story of Jesus talking to two people on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24? Here is basically how the story goes. A disciple named Cleopas is walking with an unknown person (perhaps his wife) on the road to Emmaus. A stranger starts to walk with them and asks them some questions about what is going on. Cleopas tells him the story in brief form. Jesus says they are foolish and slow of heart to believe. The Christ had to suffer. And then verse 27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” They get to the village and it looks like Jesus is going to keep walking. They ask him to stay with them, and they sit down at the table. He broke the bread and blessed it, and their eyes were opened in that moment. Then Jesus vanished. They were so excited they immediately got up and went back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had seen.
This is the basic story of worship. We are living our lives, and Jesus comes up and is present with us as we are present with each other. We are foolish and slow to believe, and we are forced in confession to acknowledge that reality. The scriptures are opened, and we see how they all have something to say about Jesus. After the Word is opened, we make an offering, the way Cleopas offers hospitality. Then we go to the table, and our eyes are opened to Christ in a special way in the breaking of bread. We recognize who he is there in a way we have not seen before. From there, we depart out into the world with the good news of our experience of Jesus.
I don’t think the Reformed style of worship is the only way to do worship. I am not sure there is a right or wrong. I personally move the service around quite a bit. Sometimes my sermon is from the communion table. Sometimes the confession needs to be in response to the sermon. I find that to be especially true when I preach from the Minor Prophets. The point is not right or wrong. The point is to think through the story of worship. What story are people experiencing in this service?
This is a critical question, because form communicates as much as content. You can talk about your service being meant to have people participate in an experience with Christ. But if your service feels like a concert, people will come to it with the expectation that they are supposed to be passive. If you just randomize hymns or service elements, then don’t expect your services to tell a coherent story.