Every church has a liturgy. Traditional congregations have a general order to worship. So do contemporary congregations. So do funky, artistic ones. Church leaders do not have time to reinvent their services every week. Congregations are not capable of learning new forms, new songs, and following a new order every week. Even the most spontaneous and creative church will flounder without some predictability and commonality from week to week. Even the most conscientious pastor or worship leader will eventually settle into a basic template for worship. Every church has a liturgy.

But not every liturgy is as good, or strong, or deep, or biblical, or gospel-centered as every other.

If I’m not mistaken, there is a New Evangelical Liturgy which is increasingly common in our churches. You find it in Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, free churches, and non-denominational churches. It’s familiar in rural churches and city churches. It can be found in tiny churches and megachurches. No one has written it down in a service book. No council or denomination is demanding that it be done. No pastor is taught this liturgy in seminary (um, probably not). But it has become the default liturgy nonetheless. It looks like this:

Casual welcome and announcements
Stand up for 4-5 songs
During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
Sermon
Closing song
Dismissal

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the basic liturgy from which most evangelical churches operate. To be sure, there are slight variations. The announcement may go after the praise set. There may be an offering in there somewhere, possibly with a special music number. The service may be tweaked a bit when there is communion or a baptism. But overall, if I were to visit 50 different evangelical churches over the next year, this is what I expect to find most of the time.

The simple question I want to ask is this: Is this New Evangelical Liturgy really an improvement?

Please hear me. I’m not talking about instrumentation or worship style (though form is not irrelevant). And I’m not suggesting God doesn’t take pleasure when his people worship him in Spirit and in truth from all sorts of templates. I’m not saying people won’t be saved or edified in churches that use the New Evangelical Liturgy. I’m certainly not saying they won’t like it. What I am suggesting is that by no biblical or historical consideration can we conclude that the New Evangelical Liturgy is an improvement on the old liturgy.

What do I mean by the “old liturgy”? I mean the traditional Protestant order of worship that stretches back to Luther and Calvin (despite their important differences), runs through Westminster, and used to be what churches did when they didn’t know what else to do. Was it rote at times? Sure. Did some churches use it too rigidly? No doubt. But it was also a better default.

I’m talking about an order of service that included a call to worship, multiple Scripture readings, Psalm singing (along with old hymns and new songs), a Scriptural benediction, historic rubrics like the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, and many kinds of prayers (e.g., invocation, prayer of adoration, prayer of confession, prayer of intercession, prayer for illumination). I’m talking about what Mike Horton calls “the drama of Christ-centered worship” or what Bryan Chapell calls “gospel ‘re-representation'”–a carefully constructed, though flexible, liturgy which progresses with a distinct gospel logic: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing. The traditional Protestant liturgy has an Isaiah 6 movement to it where the gospel is not just preached in the sermon or even sung in the songs, but embodied in the entire order of the service.

For whatever appeal the New Evangelical Liturgy may have in American culture, and for whatever abuses or doldrums may be associated with a more traditional liturgy, I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more prayer? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which ones anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?

I’m not sure where the New Evangelical Liturgy came from. Maybe its origins are in revivalist camp meetings. Maybe it goes back to the seeker movement. Maybe it’s a reflection of the juvenilization of American Christianity. Maybe pastors have taken the basis pattern of Christian conferences and assumed it was meant to be the order for weekly worship. Wherever it came from, I encourage pastors, worship leaders, and churches to consider whether this New Evangelical Liturgy is the best we can do. It may be familiar. It may be simple. It may even be popular. And it may still not be an improvement.

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Comments:


78 thoughts on “Is the New Evangelical Liturgy Really an Improvement?”

  1. Patrick McGee says:

    Amen and Amen.

  2. The use of the word “new” is relative. This form of liturgy has been in place since the 1940s or possibly earlier. Admittedly the “stand for 5 songs” came about in the mid 1970s. Most Evangelical liturgy before 1970s was like this:
    Scriptural Greeting/Call to Worship
    Opening Prayer
    Song
    Scripture
    Song
    Pastoral/Congregational Prayer
    Song
    Announcements & Offering
    Song
    Sermon
    Application Prayer
    Song
    Benediction

  3. Riley says:

    In what sense are “long communion exhortations” unhelpful today? This would seem to imply that people in churches today have a better, grasp of the meaning and significant of the sacrament than our forefathers. Is that really true?

  4. Cyndy Warnier says:

    We sang “Manifesto” on Sunday; in our church of many new believers I wonder if they realize part of this is from the Apostles’ Creed? Of course not, no one uses it anymore; we sang a horrible rock-tempo song of the Lord’s Prayer which opened with a repeat-3 time-of Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name and did nothing else with the prayer–it bordered on disrespect to this mighty prayer where Manifesto raises the creed and the prayer with power and respect. What am I saying here – we’re playing games at the foot of the cross, trying to “sound” relevant (instead of “be”) to today’s world and it doesn’t work. The church stands today because of a solid foundation; I am afraid we are eroding that as we removed any historical content in our worship today! It’s always interesting to me to sing a group of contemporary songs–which I admit I love–and then put in Amazing Grace (with My Chains Are Gone) and what do we hear–the singing doubles–hmmm-what are we missing?

  5. Bob Bauer says:

    Certainly prayer deserves more of a focus than is usually found in evangelical churches. I believe we pre-program and pre-plan our worship away from the Holy Spirit in order to accommodate our own arrogance. A return to a former liturgy would be wise for those congregations lost in the contemporary venues.

    .

  6. Joan says:

    I didn’t know worship was a competition.

  7. Charles Wolff says:

    One of the things we’re doing a bit differently is that we have our announcements at the very END of the service – especially those announcements that have to do with signing up for things or talking to people in the narthex after the service. Our church has a lot of mission projects, community service things, group activities, and the like going on – so instead of announcing them at the start of the service when people will forget… we do those sorts of announcements at the end, so people will remember to talk to somebody on the way out if they can help…

  8. Thomas says:

    When you speak of the old liturgy, you are speaking of the practice or tradition borne out of the theology called “The Regulative Principle.” Essentially, this is the idea that in order for something to be included as part of worship, there must be a specific and direct command to do so. If it is not commanded directly, it is not to be included. Whether you agree with this thinking or not, it is clear that our forefathers were quite a bit more thoughtful and sober-minded when it came to worshiping a holy God. They would err on the side of caution vs. risking offending Him. I think we are much too casual in our approach to worship and really need to (re)think things through.

  9. Kristen says:

    THANK YOU!!! You have expressed this very well. I love the beauty and rhythm of a traditional liturgy (and there are so many to choose from.) And I also find great freedom within the liturgy we use to incorporate all styles of music (we even do bluegrass hymns!), multimedia, art forms, videos, candles, banners, drama, choral readings, multisensory aspects, personal testimonies, altar calls, etc. etc. etc. The ancient and modern meet very well when using a time-honored liturgy. I love the Isaiah 6 model as well, thanks for mentioning that!

  10. George Westerlund says:

    We meet on Sunday (The Sabbath Day) for the worship of our Lord.

    It is not a time for self centered words, self centered music, self centered musical accompaniment, bouncy music, or other forms of expression not centered on the worship of our Lord.

    “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
    Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength,’
    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name,
    Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” Psalm 29:1,2
    a Psalm of David

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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