There are some Sundays when the worship service simply unfolds around me. With the rest of the congregation, I am moved from element to element, from songs, to Scripture, to sermon, to shaking hands. But there are other Sundays when I am very mindful of our church’s order of worship. On these Sundays, I maintain a sharp awareness of how the service has been planned and is now unfolding, which is to say, I maintain a sharp awareness of our liturgy. I can’t deny that I tend to prefer these services.
It struck me this past Sunday, that our most effective services are shaped like an hourglass. We begin “wide,” progress to “narrow,” and then return to “wide.” We begin distracted, burdened with the cares of the week that has gone by, deeply aware of the sins we have committed, perhaps scared or sorrowful or shaken. Then, through the course of the service, we slowly and deliberately narrow our focus for a time, before once again broadening it. Let me demonstrate how we do that.
We begin with a call to worship reminding us that what we are about to experience is special, different from everything else we will experience in the week ahead. It calls us away from the rest of our cares and responsibilities and calls us toward a special purpose. Then we begin to sing, to slowly raise our gaze away from ourselves and toward Jesus Christ. The time of confession and assurance of pardon begins to focus our gaze even more. Then we read Scripture, which in one way or another always points toward Jesus and to the work he has accomplished on our behalf. We pray, seeking God’s help and proclaiming our confidence and dependence upon him. Then we hear a sermon which leads inevitably to the cross, and to our response to Christ’s atoning work. On days we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, our focus is narrowed even more as we actually partake of bread and wine. Through all of this, we shift our focus from ourselves, our lives, and our cares, to the gospel. It is a beautiful and deliberate thing.
With all that accomplished, we begin to widen our gaze once more. We begin to look now to the week ahead, to living in, but not of, this world. We pray that God would help us live out the truth that we have heard. We sing songs of response that echo what we’ve heard from the Word of God. We receive a commission to leave our time of worship as Christians who will faithfully share the gospel and make disciples. The benediction is a final word of blessing spoken by a man but always communicating the words of God.
Do you see it? In the early part of the service, we try to focus our minds and quiet our hearts so we can focus on Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the Bible. Then, before we leave, we prepare ourselves to live another week as his servants in this difficult, beautiful world. As much as we can, we remove any element that will defeat or distract from this great purpose. We begin our service distracted, narrow our focus to Jesus Christ, then broaden our gaze to living in this world for God’s glory. We do it again the next week, and again the week after that.