Understanding and Embracing Good Worship Patterns

More Worship Words to Wrestle With

Understanding and Embracing Good Worship Patterns

In public worship, the topic of patterns is unavoidable. Once a family of believers takes to heart the exhortation let us not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), there will eventually emerge a regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done.1

How should we deal with these inevitable patterns? Some may view them as a necessary evil. Whether from a desire for creativity or from wariness of getting stuck in a rut, planners may feel compelled to vary the path of worship wherever possible to keep people awake, on their toes, and, presumably, more engaged.

In this article we’ll explore the topic from a different angle. We’ll consider some reasons to embrace the patterns of worship, and we’ll talk about the beneficial effect good patterns can have on the various people who gather in God’s house. The goal? That we worshipers may be even more poised to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2).

An aside: this is not specifically a conversation about ritual and ceremony, though what we say here may also apply there. Here we’re looking through a broader lens. We’re viewing the whole service, the context of that service in a year and even in the life of a congregation.

In an oft-quoted passage from his Letters to Malcom, C.S. Lewis writes:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.

The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping.

Lewis is not suggesting that each service must replicate the one that preceded it. He does not renounce creative use of art, poetry, and music. Rather, he points out that a good path for worship is one that doesn’t call attention to itself. He encourages us not to be afraid to let that path be a repeating pattern from week to week.

Of course, no pattern for worship can by itself stop us by-nature-sinful worshipers from being distracted. We have Old Testament apostate Israel as an example of that, and their worship patterns were divinely ordained. We have the same flesh they had. The spiritual OCD we’ve inherited can lead us to focus on getting things done right and in the right order, while the message about Christ dwells richly somewhere else. Ex opere operato is alive and well in the flesh of even the staunchest Lutheran.

The problem of going through the motions is a problem that can’t be solved either by a pattern or the absence of one.

The problem of going through the motions is a problem that can’t be solved either by a pattern or the absence of one. Only a trip to the cross can do it. Only through Spirit-worked contrition and repentance can we be freed, whether from an unhealthy obsession with novelty or from the grip of spiritual OCD. Only then can we be renewed in our desire to worship our Savior God. Then, as Lewis might say, when we are eager to dance, we’ll be grateful not to have to think about the steps.

A Good Worship Pattern

So then, what constitutes a good worship pattern? If the goal is to enable worshipers to fix their eyes on Jesus, it may be helpful if the pattern itself is Christocentric. And if the goal is to avoid patterns familiar only in one congregation, it may help to choose an order for worship that is already in broad use in other places. And it’s worth noting that some repeating patterns may not be optimal for Lutheran worship if they represent a significant departure from what Lutheran worshipers typically do.

Believers who are interested in Christ-centered worship week after week, year after year, don’t need to shy away from using the patterned environment of the liturgy. It’s a weekly pattern that rehearses and reinforces the daily devotional rhythm of a healthy Christian soul: contrition, repentance, means of grace, prayer, praise. The liturgy’s key repeating elements from week to week are the canticles of the ordinary, each of which engages hearts and voices with the saving work of Jesus. The liturgy also offers an annual pattern of holidays and seasons. Together, we celebrate the key events in the life of our Savior. Together, we consider various applications for our Christian life. And since the liturgy is already in broad use, any beneficial improvements tend to happen slowly and with careful consideration by the church at large, just what the doctor ordered for anyone looking to embrace a consistently good pattern for worship.

This is not to say the liturgy is the only worship pattern that can benefit worshipers. But since it is so familiar to us and so commonly used in our circles, and especially since it offers the saving gospel of our crucified and risen Savior in rich supply, the liturgy can serve well for the purpose of this present discussion. Whether the liturgy’s texts are of themselves beneficial in worship is not in question. We are trying to determine to what degree we might want to embrace worship patterns, and the liturgy is a good example of a good pattern.

It may be helpful if the pattern is Christocentric and already in broad use.

For children

Consider how this pattern called liturgy may benefit children. It’s no secret that children thrive in a patterned environment. Do you want your child to have healthy sleep habits? Establish a nightly routine with them, and see how they start yawning and settling in even before the routine is finished. It’s not a stretch to suggest that a good worship routine can help children to find their rest in Jesus.

Children thrive in a patterned environment.

At bedtime, children say: “‘Tell me again,’ … as we repeat a familiar story for the hundredth time. ‘Tell me again!’ Some stories they know so well that they can say them right along with us. Changing even a word or two brings the instant response, ‘That’s not how it goes.’”2 So also in worship we tell them “the most important story they will ever hear or learn. And we tell it in the same way—again, and again, and again.”3

We might think children won’t be interested in a liturgical pattern that seems designed for adults, but:

Young children like to pretend they are adults. When they think no one is watching, girls dress up in their mother’s grown-up clothes… Boys like to hop into the driver’s seat of the family car, grab the steering wheel, and pretend to drive. Children are eager to show they are growing up and can do grown-up things…

More congregations are helping children to participate [in worship] by teaching them the simple melodies of the liturgy, helping them to learn the songs of God’s family in which they, too, can participate.4

When a congregation embraces this pattern, children can learn to worship in much the same way that they learned how to understand language, from simple words to complex sentences, by watching and listening to the adults around them. So also in worship. Early on they can grasp: Lord, have mercy. Give it time and they can learn to know: incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Without the pattern, they struggle to participate. Without the challenges, there’s little encouragement to grow. Add some worship education along the way, and the liturgy can help children grow into a pattern that will continue to serve them well for years into the future and in places far away from the place where they grew up.

(For more perspectives, see the Children in Worship series of this newsletter, authored by Phil Huebner: worship.welsrc.net/archived-resources/#worship-the-lord/36.)

For guests

But what about our guests? Won’t the liturgy seem strange to someone who has never experienced it? The goal of Christian worship is to fix worshipers’ eyes on Jesus. Won’t our patterns distract them? To use Lewis’s illustration, how can someone dance when they have to focus on the steps?

Of course, there’s no avoiding this hurdle. Where any group of worshipers has been regularly meeting, patterns of worship are indeed unavoidable, and those patterns will always seem strange to a first-time visitor. But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness. The symbol in the front of church represents a barbaric form of torture from two millennia ago. We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

So we welcome a first-time guest with open arms and genuine hospitality. We can’t expect him to feel welcomed by a message he doesn’t yet believe or to appreciate a path of worship he can’t yet understand. What we can do is let him know that we care about him. We can welcome him, tell him we’re glad he stopped in. We can offer further conversation about the Savior we proclaim. As the gospel is proclaimed, we can trust the Spirit to work the miracle of faith when and where he chooses.

It is becoming less and less common for a guest to walk into a place of worship all on his own, without an invitation from a family member or friend. When it happens, he may well expect to find the unexpected when he arrives. Indeed, for him to find no surprises would seem incongruous. But while he may not understand everything he experiences, he may find our engagement in worship to be compelling. Clearly what’s happening is important to us. Especially when we invite him to attend again, he may decide to take us up on it.

The first-time visitor may well expect to find the unexpected.

It is for the second-time visitor that we begin to see the value of a good pattern of worship. Now he’s beginning to resemble a young man visiting his fiancée’s parents. He’s looking for patterns, something to help him get to know this unfamiliar family, something he can do with us, something that gives him a sense of belonging. It will be of great benefit if his second experience in worship isn’t completely different from his first. He’s learning to dance, and repetition is the mother of learning. And when the worship pattern he experiences proclaims Christ throughout, it won’t take long for him to know that the cross in the center of our building is also the central message of worship.

(For more perspectives on guests in worship, see Christian Worship Foundations, chapter 19 (NPH 2023), “Worship and Outreach,” authored by Jon Bauer.)

For longtime members

We can see how good worship patterns can benefit those who are new to worship, our children and our guests. They need consistency and growth. Can the same be said of lifelong members? What happens when the weekly and annual patterns of the liturgy are stretched out over a lifetime? Is there value in embracing a good worship pattern from cradle to grave?

It’s not children or guests but rather long-time members who most often feel the need to break the worship patterns and change things up. They’ve had more time to sin by going through the motions, and it may seem as though our worship patterns are to blame. They may also point to worship patterns as the reason why they’ve seen young people drift away from church. To give up the worship patterns they’ve used their whole life feels like sacrificial love.

The problem was never with the patterns of worship.

But the problem was never with the patterns of worship. Just the opposite, those patterns have been a great blessing for God’s people. We’ve all witnessed or heard stories of the grandfather who can’t remember what happened the day previous but still prays the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Of wayward teens who came back to church again because it felt like home. Of married couples, newly reconciled, who have renewed their vows before the Lord. Spread out over a lifetime, good patterns in worship have a way of shaping and molding us in our habits and our focus, keeping our eyes on Christ.

Rather than setting aside those familiar patterns, longtime members are better served by leaning in and learning more.

Understanding why we worship helps worshipers review the enduring necessity of the gospel for faith, causes them to appreciate the gospel message communicated to head and heart, leads them to gospel gems they may not have noticed before, and enables them to present a clearer gospel witness to those worshiping with them. When they understand worship’s primary purpose, believers arrive at church with intention: they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and thus the church is edified and God is adored.5

In times of trouble

The better we know and understand the liturgy, the more readily we can use it in times of trouble. In her book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren references a dark time in her life when she suffered a miscarriage. During those difficult days when she struggled to find words for her own prayers, she found herself turning again and again to the patterns handed down to us in the liturgy, which she calls “other people’s prayers.”

Over a lifetime the ardor of our belief will wax and wane. This is a normal part of the Christian life. Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.6

When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church—the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office—we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves. “Other people’s prayers” discipled me; they taught me how to believe again… When my strength waned and my words ran dry, I needed to fall into a way of belief that carried me. I needed other people’s prayers.7

When gathered in church

Christian Worship Hymnal (2021) encourages the use of the liturgy in public worship. There are three musical settings for this good pattern for worship (and even more in Service Builder), and while there is some minor textual variation between each setting, the flow of each service, its pattern, is the same. If the creed follows the sermon in Setting 1, the same is true in other settings.8 The idea was to establish a rhythm that worshipers will recognize from week to week. The goal is that they not get caught up in the services themselves. The hope is that their focus may be on the key focal point of all true worship, Christ crucified.

One more encouragement toward embracing good patterns: In WELS Congregational Services’ online resource The Foundation9, worship planners are invited to choose a musical setting for three or more weeks in a row, to provide space for worshipers to embrace that musical pattern before moving to the next one.

There are all kinds of ways to engage people, to keep them awake and interested. It’s wise for us to continue examining our practices. We need to keep asking ourselves: Is what I’m doing in worship from week to week drawing attention to worship itself, or to me, the presider/preacher10, in a way that lessens the attention that might be fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith? By God’s grace—whatever we may in freedom decide to do—let us resolve both in our preaching and in our worship to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

By Jon Zabell

Pastor Zabell chaired the executive committee of the WELS Hymnal Project and served as managing editor for Christian Worship: Foundations. From 2011–2023 he chaired the WELS Commission on Worship. He serves as pastor at St. Paul, Green Bay, Wis., and as first vice president of the Northern Wisconsin District.

1 Brittanica, “Pattern, noun, 2a”, www.britannica.com/dictionary/pattern
2 Carl Schalk, First Person Singular: Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children (St. Louis: MorningStar, 1998), 13.
3 ibid, 14.
4 ibid, 45.
5 James Tiefel, The Purpose of Christian Worship in Christian Worship Foundations (NPH, 2023), 10-11.
6 Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 16.
7 ibid, 17
8 See history and rationale for a consistent pattern in Christian Worship Foundations, 118ff.
9 welscongregationalservices.net
10 See the discussion of the presider’s demeanor in Christian Worship Foundations, 228ff.



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