People often ask, “How can we improve or renew our worship?” My response is that we should restore the central things and practice them robustly, using contemporary forms rooted in the practices of John Calvin, a sixteenth-century pastor and liturgical reformer. Even though Calvin is most widely known as a systematizer (Institutes, 1536-1559) and exegete (Commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible), the twenty-first century church should not ignore his leadership in liturgical renewal.
Calvin published the 1541 Form of Prayers “in order that everyone might know what he should say and do in the Christian assembly . . . what form the faithful should maintain and follow when they gather together in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Here, then, is a list of worship planning ideas drawn from the writings of John Calvin. You’ll want to develop and apply these ten ideas, and to improvise within the discipline of these practices, in the context of your local congregation. Doing so will give your worship depth, consistency, and continuity with the saints who have gone before.
Remember the necessary practices and include them every week: the Word, prayer, the meal, and sharing. Calvin wrote in his Institutes,
Luke relates in the Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers “. . . continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Lord’s Supper and almsgiving.
Calvin treated this passage in Acts as a central norm for Sunday worship. There were to be four elements present: the reading and preaching of the Word; prayers in the language of the people; the Lord’s Supper; and a sharing of goods, principally through almsgiving in the service.
Keep the traditional ordo: gathering, Word, sacraments, sending. Calvin did this, reforming without disrupting the traditional outline of worship. See the green box for the order of worship. Of particular importance is to gather first around the Word read and preached. This sets the agenda for the intercessory prayer that follows and allows the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to seal the message of the Word. Calvin pointed out that we are created with the need to see, touch, smell, and taste as well as hear; hence the sacraments.
Let the Scriptures come through. Notice how many times the Word speaks in the Genevan service (see green box at left). It opens with a sentence of Scripture, and includes the Law and Psalms as well as a lesson and sermon. The Word is not only central, it is pervasive, guiding even our praise and prayers.
Connect the reading and preaching to prayer and the sacraments; balance the necessary practices as means of grace. In Geneva, preaching was an exposition of the portion of Scripture that was read. In turn the reading and preaching were confirmed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word was answered in the praise and prayers of the people. The secret is to closely integrate the whole service around the Scripture readings of the day. Allow people to see and hear the connections.
Provide a full diet of prayer. Include an invocation, confession of sin, prayer for illumination, prayer of inter-cession, Eucharistic prayer, and thanksgiving, as shown in the outline in the Form of Prayers with the prayers in bold (p. 34 left box). In our day, public prayer has sometimes atrophied to a small, brief general prayer. To enrich worship, give each prayer its own identity and place. The prayers should be succinct and fulfill specific roles. Encourage the people to see the hymns and psalms as prayers.
Use the Lord’s Prayer as the backbone of praying. In the Form of Prayers, Calvin used the Lord’s Prayer in three places: to end the prayer for illumination before the reading and preaching of the Word; during the prayer of intercession after the sermon; and in the table prayer during the meal. He wrote that God “prescribed a form for us in which is set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need to ask.”
How is this petition reflected in a hymn, or a psalm, or how do the readings and the sermon support and lead to another petition? “Give us today our bread” is not just about the needs of the people in the room, but about the needs of all the world for bread. And not just for the bread that perishes, but also the bread, the flesh of the Son of Man in the Supper that gives life (John 6:25-51). It is about crops and the means of grace. It is pleading that God hold the world in mercy.
Let the people pray: singing the prayers, psalms, creed, Song of Simeon in the language of the people. This was Calvin’s way of restoring prayer to the voice of the people after centuries when only the clergy prayed (and in Latin). Make the intercessory prayer a common prayer by using the same outline week after week so that people can anticipate and enter into prayers for the church, for the world, and for the poor, needy, and sick. Intersperse the prayer topics with responses by the people, such as “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Focus on baptism to comfort the troubled consciences of believers. One way to do this is to lead the confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness from the baptismal font (see Rom. 6:3-4). For Calvin, the sacraments are instruments with force. “For first, the Lord teaches and instructs us by his Word. Secondly, he confirms it by the sacraments. Finally, he illumines our minds by the light of his Holy Spirit and opens our hearts for the Word and sacraments to enter in, which would otherwise only strike our ears and appear before our eyes, but not at all affect us within.”
Feed the poor from the Lord’s table. Calvin and the early reformers reintroduced the gifts for the poor into the main liturgy. Calvin’s essay on the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Supper, which appears in some editions of the Form of Prayers, draws a direct connection between the blessings given in the supper and our offering ourselves in service to God, and further, to “holy offerings and gifts which are administered to Jesus Christ in His least ones, to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked.” Make the offering for the poor (both money and food) a weekly practice connected to the Lord’s Supper. Then develop an enhanced ministry to the poor and needy in your area.
- End by singing the Nunc Dimitis, (the Canticle of Simeon) (Luke 2:29-32). This leads the people to give thanks for what they have heard and seen in the Word and sacraments.
Order of Worship (Form of Prayers)
Opening sentence: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8)
Confession of sin
The Ten Commandments (sung)
Prayer for Illumination
Lesson and Sermon
Prayer of Intercession
Apostles’ Creed (sung)
The Lord’s Supper (including the table prayer)
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Psalm (sung) or Canticle of Simeon (sung)
Offering for the poor
Prayer of Confession from the Form of Prayers
O Lord God, eternal and almighty Father, we confess and acknowledge unfeignedly before thy holy majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress thy holy commandments without end or ceasing: Wherefore we purchase for ourselves, through thy righteous judgment, our ruin and perdition. Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended thee; and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, beseeching thy grace to relieve our distress. O God and Father most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the name of thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as thou dost blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of thy Holy Spirit: that as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which shall bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing unto thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of Illumination from the Form of Prayers
Almighty and gracious Father! since our whole salvation stands in our knowledge of your Holy Word, strengthen us now by your Holy Spirit that our hearts may be set free from all worldly thoughts and attachments of the flesh, so that we may hear and receive that same Word, and, recognizing your gracious will for us, may love and serve you with earnest delight, praising and glorifying you in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.