Grassroots Church's Experience in Rebuilding Worship Liturgy for Enhanced Sacredness

Choir members were singing a hymn during the Palm Sunday service conducted at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai on March 24, 2024.
Choir members were singing a hymn during the Palm Sunday service conducted at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai on March 24, 2024. (photo: Nino Zhao )
By Kristina RanJune 25th, 2024

Churches often display or post the rules for Sunday services, such as you can’t arrive late or leave early, wander in or out, whisper or speak loudly, as well as bring snacks. You should also not engage in casual conversations, critique the sermon, doze off, wear bizarre outfits, short skirts, or slippers, as well as spit on the ground or litter with fruit peels.

The existence of these written rules indicates that the behaviors described above were, and perhaps still are, quite prevalent. During visits, I come to know that some pastors, who graduated from seminaries and serve in local churches, hope to restore certain denominational traditions, especially worship liturgy. One reason is that they recognize this can help improve the worship posture of believers, restoring the sense of worship and sacredness in Sunday services.

Pastor T, who serves at a central county church in central China, also shares this vision. In 2020, he reformed the worship procedures in his church, significantly improving the worship atmosphere. This method is set to be trialed in other churches throughout the county. Recently, Pastor T shared his pastoral thoughts and practical experiences with the Gospel Times, an online Chinese Christian newspaper.

The urgent need to improve worship order and the historical causes of disorder

After observing many church services, Pastor T mentioned the “absence of a sense of the sacred.” Compared to worshiping God, believers seem more like they are enjoying a performance, seeking emotional release and comfort from praise and sermons. Consequently, they feel no responsibility during Sunday worship, whispering, dozing off, or answering phones.

Pastor T analyzed the historical reasons for this situation. When Christianity was reintroduced to China in modern times, many Protestant missionary societies established churches and nurtured believers according to their denominational traditions. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Church in China adopted the principles of “self-governance, self-support and self-propagation,” gradually entering a post-denominational era. During the Cultural Revolution, public worship was prohibited, with only family gatherings at most, where striving for rituals were out of the question. When worship resumed in the 1980s, denominational worship rituals had all but disappeared. Many spontaneous new churches emerged in rural areas, deciding their worship rituals based on newly formed local practices or fragmented memories of traditions. Many of these church leaders became decision-makers simply because of their enthusiasm for the Lord, willingness to serve, and ability to share sermons, without theological training or systematic understanding of Sunday worship. As a result, Sunday worship procedures across different places became diverse and chaotic.

Meanwhile, Pastor T noticed that many believers, including leaders, have a stereotypical misunderstanding of sacraments. They simplistically categorize the Catholic Church as a liturgical church and Protestantism as a Word-based church, emphasizing preaching in Protestant services. In some places, such as Henan and Anhui, a sermon must last over an hour in a service. They believe a good service should highlight the importance of preaching while downplaying rituals.

In response, Pastor T hopes believers understand that both Word and Sacrament are ways God reveals Himself to people.

Four basic components of traditional church worship liturgy

Pastor T said that Sunday service generally includes worship, praise, prayer, choir singing, preaching, announcements, and blessings. While specific procedures can vary, it typically includes four basic components: the entrance rite, the liturgy of the word, the communion service, and the commission ceremony.

Regarding the entrance rite, Pastor T observed that many churches simplify or omit the core act of confession, simply replacing it with a hymn. In his church's new Sunday service program, Pastor T arranged for the congregants to stand after the entrance hymn and greeting, proclaiming, "You have one Father, who is in heaven; and one teacher, who is the Christ." Church members then sing the "Doxology." The presider declares, "Brothers and sisters, God is holy, and we are all sinners; let us confess our sins to the Lord who sees all things!" The congregation recites the confession, followed by a prayer from the presider. The congregants respond, "Amen! Thanks be to God!" concluding with the "Gloria Patri."

Pastor T pointed out that the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)  (a three-year cycle of Sunday readings)  promoted by CCC&TSPM can be used for preaching. He shared that many believers and even pastors arbitrarily consider the RCL as a Catholic tradition and think that using the RCL in Protestant churches is a step backward in faith. In reality,  adopting the three-year lectionary is a tradition of the universal church,  as it was used by the Roman Catholic Church and advocated by Martin Luther and John Calvin during the Reformation, and currently by the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, and Anglican Church.

Regarding the communion service, it is a church tradition to hold it weekly, while Chinese churches observe it monthly. Pastor T explained that this change might be due to the lack of ordained ministers or elders to officiate the communion ceremony after worship services resumed, eventually forming the tradition of monthly communion as weekly observance is impractical.

"No matter how simplified, these four components are indispensable," he said. 

Practical experience based on the local church

"It is much quieter." This is Pastor T's biggest impression of Sunday services after implementing the new worship liturgy according to church tradition. The effect of the worship is what many churches intend to achieve, "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him."

"When you do it well and persist, believers will notice the difference between the previous guerrilla-like approach and the current formalized one. Everyone can feel they are part of the worship," said Pastor T. Over the past few years, it has become noticeably apparent that "fewer people are talking during Sunday services."

Pastor T believes that rebuilding liturgy can improve the worship atmosphere because liturgy can help cultivate believers' worship attitudes. "We are not saved by liturgy, absolutely not, but liturgy can help us live a godly life. Visible liturgy can be used to foster invisible piety." 

- Translated by Abigail Wu

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