Sservice 12


Congregations that use the traditional service may find it useful at times to substitute a non-traditional service; in this chapter, that kind of service will be called a “free” service; it could also accurately be termed a “non-liturgical” service.  Such services help to solve one problem which traditional services must watch out for: the problem of mindless repetition which can occur after year upon year without variety; after the change of pace of a free service, the regular texts of the traditional service can be seen afresh.  Free services also provide an opportunity to use gifted people that might not find an outlet for their talents in the traditional service.  An example would be a soloist, for it is generally recognized that solo music does not fit in with the structure or rationale of the liturgical service.  There are certain kinds of music, such as gospel hymns or lengthy classical choral works, that are not easily added to the traditional service, but that a congregation might decide it wants to experience: these could be shared in the context of a free service.  In considering such services, we must be aware that there will be tension between those who believe that the traditional forms provide the only allowable parameters for worship, and those who treasure the freedom suggested by the fact that scriptures do not mandate any particular service order.

Since the traditional service is the service which includes holy communion, an easy time to use a free service would be on Sundays when there is not to be communion. Another reason for a free service might be when it is decided to present a differenttheme than that provided for in the published cycle of Bible readings, for example, at a church dedication or at a time of crisis.  Or it might be that there is a special presentation to be made, such as a film, which is too long to be added to thetraditional service.


Whatever the reason for having one, a free service must have. a structure.  The structure could be copied from one of the non-liturgical churches; for example, the “call-to-worship”, prayer, musical offering, and sermon pattern used by many Americanchurches. Some non-traditional “Services of the Word” are provided in Worship Supplement and LBW.

The structure could be suggested by the content: for example, a “hymn-sing”, whether of German chorales or scripture songs, could be given structure by placing the songs in a certain order and tying them together with explanations, prayers, and scripture verses.  The structure could suggest itself by the nature of the dominant element of the service: for example, a service including a major-length drama might need to add only elements of introduction and closing.

This chapter explores another possibility: how the structure of the traditional service itself can provide the pattern for a free service, and thereby contribute balance and completeness to it. The traditional service has two halves called “word” and “sacrament”.  If we look more closely, it is easy to distinguish five subdivisions:  The traditional service begins with praise, then continues with the proclamation of God’s word. Then there is a time for response to that word throughcreed and offering, then a time for engaging in the unique work of Christians called intercessory prayer, and finally sharing in the Lord’s Supper.  Those who construct a free service can consider the question: “How can each of these five sections be done creatively and meaningfully to fit the theme and purpose of a particular Sunday?”  The paragraphs that follow provide some ideas.


There are certain elements of worship that can be used in all five sections.  For example, singing is not limited to the praise portion; each of the portions could well include appropriate hymns, anthems, or solos.  The same is true for prayer, which is not limited only to the time of intercession. There is precedent in the traditional service for prayers in all five parts of the service: many of the psalms used to open the service are prayers of praise; the proper collect is a prayer associated with the reading of God’s word; we already use prayer to receive the offering, and there are many historical examples of prayers at communion.  And these prayers can be according to any of the well-known prayer forms, from spontaneous to written-out responsive prayer.  Likewise, God’s Word can be shared in all five portions.


Consider what can be done in the praise portion along with the singing, especially things which wouldn’t ordinarily be done in a liturgical service.  There is an opportunity for the leader to explain the significance of the music and to bringelements of the text to people’s attention.  Prayers of praise and sections of scripture can involve the people in worship.  Responsive readings of praise can be prepared.  And the praise time would be most appropriate time to include an element which is not a part of the traditional service: an offering of personal testimony.  Attesting to what God has done in one’s life is certainly both an offering of praise, and an invitation to others to engage in praise.


The first question to be faced in the portion centering on proclamation is whether to use the provided readings for the day or to select other readings according to the purpose of this particular service.  Then consider all the ways the readings can be highlighted so that the hearer gains the most possible from them: the way the readings themselves are presented, how they are introduced, and how they are commented upon.  This author knows •one church member whose particular gift is to construct short skits that present a problem, to which the reading provides the answer.  Many choir anthems and solos are based on scripture verses, and can be sung after those verses are read, giving the congregation an opportunity to meditate further upon the meaning of the words.  Many hymns are a devotional response to certain scriptures, and if they are sung right after these verses are read, they provide the vehicle for the congregation as a whole to ponder their significance.  The arias of Bach’s cantatas are a historical precedent for just this kind of pondering. Something has to give: if attention is paid to introducing and responding to scripture, there might only be time for one Bible reading.

A lot of things can be done to fill the function of the sermon.  It can be placed at various points in the proclamation portion, or it can be divided into smaller portions and alternated with prayer and music.


 The section I’ve called “response” includes the offering of money. Prayer, scripture, and songs can accompany this material response to God’s love.  The physical mode of taking the offering also can vary.  Besides  “passing the basket”, there are times when the  whole congregation might file to the front, or other times when  the offering would be placed in the back as people enter, and brought forward to be received.  Sometimes canned food to be given to the poor or Christmas baskets can be brought forward and thus the social works of the congregation can be acknowledged right in the worship service.

The use of Psalm 51 (Create in me a Clean heart…) at the time of the offering in the traditional service suggests that this portion can also be a time to consciously respond by offering one’s self to God.  Worship planners need to devise materials that allow the congregation together to make a profession of what it really means that Jesus is Lord in their lives, whether this be done by providing responsive readings, or prayers, or occasions for individuals to share what God’s Word has accomplished in their lives.  Many hymns, anthems, and solos which some deem inappropriate for the liturgical service because they are said to be “subjective” are in fact remarkably apt for inclusion during the “response” part of the service.  They are, in fact, individual “responses” to God’s work.

The possibilities suggested by a time of “response” need not be limited to the traditional creed, money offering, and offering of self. This time can also be used to reflect and respond to the particular theme of the service, or to the actual scriptures that were read, or to the sermon. Responsive readings, or a show of hands, or an opportunity to sign one’s name could all be carried on in response to a challenge presented in the sermon.


The previous chapter reviewed the may ways in which intercessory prayer might be done. Here it can be added that the intercessory prayer time in a free service might have appropriate songs and scripture verses of its own.


It is not hard to collect a wide variety of Holy Communion services. The second service in the Worship Supplement follows the four action pattern (taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing) which was popularized by the Roman Catholic scholar Gregory Dix. The are many facets to the Lord’s Supper: union with Christ, union with one another, strengthening of faith, and many others. By creating your own orders, you can emphasize a different facet every time.


It must be obvious that only a few of the possibilities described above could  be done on one given Sunday. The author hopes this encourages congregations to dare to have free services more often, and the author believes that as people get involved in such service planning, they will also become better at doing the traditional service with variety and meaning. But the variety suggested in this book cannot be possible without careful preparation, slow implementation, patient explanation, and in particular the ownership that comes from wide involvement in the planning process. One pastor could never have enough time to create varied services week after week. But there are gifted people in every congregation, and they can be brought together, trained, and challenged. There are those who are gifted at writing, who could be writing prayers and responses, and later hymns. There are musicians who are able to search out the appropriate pieces from the thousands of songs available. There are those gifted at speaking who can read scriptures and the parts of dramas and dramatic readings. And there are more and more pastors who are committed to involving laymen, without down-grading the uniqueness of the office of the public ministry. The first step can be to have the interested people read a book like this, then come together to discuss it. The next step is to look at the services for the coming month,, and see whether or not there is one thing that could be done to arrest attention and underscore meaning, in a way that enhances rather then creates distance from the basic structure and the day’s theme.

At first, perhaps only one item can be varied slightly in a given week; it may be only after a period of years that a relatively free service can be introduced.  For those churches that do not now have a traditional service, the process would be reversed.  Bringing the five-part structure of the traditional service into your current more free service can be a stepping stone to gradually introducing some of the traditional texts.  In either case, the goal is to avoid a service that is done “just because it is written in the book,” but rather, to achieve a service in which every element is precious, and presented that way.

 To Worship Book menu