The structure of worship


“Christian worship offers an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. This occurs through the reading of the Scriptures and preaching and through the Lord’s Supper. Accordingly “word” and “meal” form the core of Sunday worship in many churches, and the move from the former to the latter is the basic structure of worship.”


“WHY DO THE PYRAMIDS of Egypt look like that?” We often wonder why things look the way they do and usually there is some explanation if we dig deeper. Egypt’s religious history helps us to understand that the shape of the pyramids is not random; rather, it reflects ancient beliefs about the sun.

Digging deeper into the shape of Christian worship, we discover that its structure is related to its meaning and function.

As mentioned previously, Christian worship off ers an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. is occurs through the reading of the Scriptures and preaching and through the Lord’s Supper.

Accordingly “word” and “meal” form the core of Sunday worship in many churches, and the move from the former to the latter is the basic structure of worship.

This word-meal structure has deep roots in Christianity. In Luke 24:13- 35 Jesus interprets the Scriptures and then celebrates a meal in which he is recognised in the breaking of the bread.

The word-meal shape of this account is thought to refl ect the worship order of first-century churches.

In the middle of the second century, a Roman Christian named Justin (died ca. 165 AD) describes a Sunday service that begins with the reading of Hebrew and Christian sacred writings followed by a sermon. After intercessory prayers Justin’s community celebrates the Lord’s Supper. Word-meal was thus the structure also known by this early martyr and his church.

For many Christians today word and meal form the core of a four-fold service order (see United Methodist Hymnal, pp. 2-5). Since Christian worship is a communal activity, certain actions are needed to gather us into God’s presence, and then others to send us back into the world. So a “gathering” section precedes the word-meal core, and a “sending” concludes the service.

Let us now consider each of these in turn.

Typically, the gathering begins with prelude music that summons us into the worship space. A call to worship names the divine attributes that give rise to our worship, e.g. God’s holiness, power and mercy.

The greeting – really God’s greeting extended to us through the minister – welcomes us into God’s presence. We then join together in song to praise the name of the Lord.

The awareness of God’s holy presence evokes an awareness of our sin and finitude, which leads us to confess our sin. Then comes the assurance that God forgives all who truly repent.

Finally, an opening prayer asks God’s Spirit to lead us in sincere worship as we prepare to hear His Word.

The gathering is followed by the word. The number of biblical lessons may vary from one to three, and a hymn, psalm or choir anthem may be sung between the lessons to expound their meaning. The sermon shows the contemporary significance of the readings, rather than merely offering a Bible study or a morality lecture.

The word section includes actions that allow us to respond to God’s Word: a song, profession of a creed, prayers of intercession, the peace and an offering. With these actions we express our faith and desire to live in conformity to God’s Word.

The word prepares us for receiving the meal. In many churches the Holy Communion rite itself follows a four- fold structure that is derived from Jesus’ own actions of taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to His disciples. Similarly we prepare the bread and cup, offer a prayer of thanksgiving, break the bread, and then distribute it to the worshippers. ese actions are surrounded by songs that express our theology of the Lord’s Supper. A prayer concludes the meal.

Finally, the service sends us forth. A benediction announces God’s favour on us as we return to the world for serving both God and neighbour. We are dismissed with words such as “Go forth in peace. e Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” etc., to which we respond “Amen!” A final song expresses our joy at being blessed by word and meal.

Gathering-word-meal -sending is the shape of worship in many churches not merely for tradition’s sake but because its actions are bound up with the presence of Christ Himself. We use this structure because it offers the opportunity to meet Christ and enjoy fellowship with Him.

Could the meal precede the word? e relationship between the two suggests otherwise. e word announces Christ’s gifts of forgiveness, healing and salvation, and the meal offers us those gifts in tangible form. e word promises and the meal fulfils, and a promise must surely come before its fulfilment! Accordingly, we are well-advised to keep the traditional order.

May this structure foster a living encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ as we worship.

NEXT ISSUE: Ritual and Worship

The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.