The Worship and Liturgy Committee of the Baptist, Methodist, and Waldensian churches in Italy was born at the end of the 1980s and merges three liturgical sensibilities:
• Baptist: product of English and American missionaries
• Methodist: Episcopal, Wesleyan, and free church roots from England
• Waldensian: Reformed Calvinist origins with French roots
Since 1997, the executives of the three denominations have appointed both pastors and lay leaders to serve on this committee, which is charged with providing musical and liturgical resources for use in all churches.
Between 2000 and 2014, the Baptist, Methodist, and Waldensian churches produced a lot of musical materials before turning their attention to the liturgy. In 2020, the book Benedire ed essere benedetti (To Bless and to Be Blessed) was published, with reflections on the idea of blessing in the Bible, in the Jewish tradition, and in the traditions of Francophone and English-speaking Africa. Then, in 2022, two volumes of liturgies were published. In the first is offered material for all Sundays of the year, including texts and various materials for the Holy Supper. The second volume includes liturgies for all other occasions when the church is called to bear witness through worship.
The following article is a translation of a portion of the introduction to the liturgical volumes from 2022. It articulates an understanding of worship that forms the foundation of the practice exemplified in the liturgies in the collections. You can find the translation of the Ascension and Pentecost liturgies on page 10.
—Pastor Gregorio Plescan, coordinator of the Worship and Liturgy Commission of the Baptist, Methodist, and Waldensian Churches in Italy.
Various definitions can be given of worship. Indeed, one might ask whether there is only one type. In the past the thesis was supported, later refuted by Oscar Cullmann (Early Christian Worship, Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, 2012), according to which the early church would have had a time of worship centered on the Word and a gathering centered on the Eucharist in imitation of synagogue worship and sacrificial temple worship in Judaism. But even if we rightly want to avoid a division of this kind, we can recognize that different aspects of worship can receive different emphases in different contexts. It is a human attempt in which we try, more or less successfully, to respond to different needs: joy and solemnity, presence of young and old, tradition and modernization, order and freedom, word and gesture (see Laurent Gagnebin, Le culte à coeur ouvert: Introduction à la liturgie du culte réformé, Bergers & Mages, Labor et Fides, 1992).
This human attempt, however, is based on a promise: Christians meet because the Lord has promised to be among them (Matthew 18:20). The initiative is God’s. It is God who convenes, who speaks, who creates communion. In its essence, worship is dialogue, one in which human words and actions come as a response. This dialogue is the first raison d’être of the assembly of believers—that is, the church. From worship, the life of the church then develops into the daily existence of its members and into various forms of action. However, worship remains the center, the reference from which every other activity receives strength and orientation.
In short, worship is the central and driving force of that service to God which must characterize the entire life of believers. The term “liturgy” itself originally means service, and only later is it used to indicate the order of Christian worship or the set of elements that compose it.
In classical Greek, the term leitourgia indicated a public service. It could be the organization of public games, but also the official religious acts of the city. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word is used in reference to the functions of the priests in the temple. In the New Testament, leitourgia and its corresponding verb can indicate Jewish worship (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 9:21), the ministry of Jesus (Hebrews 8:6), the service of believers (Philippians 2:17), or the collection for the poor of Jerusalem (Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 9:12). In only one case does it indicate an act of prayer (Acts 13:2).
Even if we limit ourselves to the Reformed context, there are different orders of worship (one example is the different placement of the confession of sin or confession of faith). Still we propose the following changes to what was our traditional order, understanding the possibility that local churches might adapt it further:
- Dedicate more space for praise in the opening of worship. This would include a larger portion of a psalm being read and a more developed prayer of praise.
- Don’t make the confession of sin a separate part, but connect it to praise and the confession of faith. The praise of God precedes and determines the confession of our sin; the announcement of forgiveness leads to the confession of faith.
- Precede the biblical readings with a prayer of illumination to “ask God for the grace of his Holy Spirit, so that his word may be faithfully exposed to the honor of his name and the edification of the Church, and so that it be received with appropriate humility and obedience” (John Calvin, Genevan Psalter, 1542).
- The preaching immediately follows the biblical readings, or it may be preceded by a short time for personal reflection.
In the third part there are no significant changes. Worship is thus divided into three parts: praise, Word, and communion (see the service outline in the sidebar on page 6).
The attitudes or posture of the congregation may vary according to the habits of local churches. We limit ourselves to observing that our physical position has a function in relation to what is being done:
- Standing: praise and singing
- Sitting: contemplation and listening
- Kneeling (if we are capable): expression of adoration
The indications regarding posture that we give in the liturgy are not binding and can be adapted to local habits.
Singing accompanies every moment of worship. It helps us unite and puts the body and the depth of emotion into action; it can be (but is not necessarily) accompanied by instruments, which should support and stimulate it but must not overwhelm it. Its communication function is fundamental. Singing places us in continuity with the believers of the past; therefore, we sing the chorales of the Reformation (some of which take up hymns of the ancient church), the Huguenot Psalms, and hymns of later eras. Chorales, psalms, and hymns are now part of our spiritual heritage, a component of spirituality that would be unwise to give up. But singing with new forms of verbal and musical language also puts us in tune with our own era and should thus allow, with everyone’s commitment, greater communication between generations.
The First Part of Worship: Welcome and Praise
The first part of worship is essentially the actualization of what baptism announces and reminds us of.
Baptism is the act that expresses being welcomed by God in Christ as children and being forgiven and included in his covenant to live a new life in Christ, thanks to his death and resurrection. Thus, at every moment, baptism illustrates to us the meaning of our Christian life.
Worship, therefore, opens with the proclamation of the grace of God that welcomes us. This is the meaning of the initial greeting addressed to the assembly. The assembly recognizes that God is at the beginning of everything with God’s grace: “Our beginning and our help are in the name of God, who created us and who saves us in Jesus Christ, our Lord,” or “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” These or other similar opening formulas of worship attest to us that all worship is an encounter to which the Lord himself invites us.
The best beginning is for the person presiding to invite the congregation to stand up with a gesture; if you feel the need to extend a verbal invitation, you can say, “We gather in the presence of the Lord.” Avoid anything that suggests we need to invoke the presence of the Lord, which is theologically incorrect—it leads us to think that we are the main actors of worship and that God is present only when we decide to invite him. God is not absent and does not need an invitation. The “absent” are us, who need to be awakened by the Spirit and freed from our distraction. Worship cannot begin with anything other than the proclamation of what is at its foundation: the grace and peace of God which are given to us.
Praise and adoration can be developed with freedom and imagination. Nothing can reach the richness of motifs expressed by the psalms; therefore, an essential part of praise is the reading of a psalm. The prayer that follows will connect the themes of the psalm to the context; this moment is completed with singing, in which the whole assembly unites in praise.
The confession of sin is not an abrupt change of scene, a dramatic part that is inserted brutally without any relation to praise. The best way to understand its meaning is to understand it as a moment of praise. By praising God for God’s works, we recognize that we cannot equally praise our works; by praising God for what God has done, we are led to recognize what we have not done or have done badly. In confessing our sin, we are aware that everything could stop or be compromised by our estrangement from God, but the announcement of grace assures us that God welcomes us back, that the encounter with God is possible, that worship can be carried out in spirit and truth.
The first part of the worship service can now be concluded with an act that is both praise and adoration and commitment: the confession of faith. This act should not have the sense of a theoretical parenthesis inserted to make worship more solemn; we are not simply listing the things we believe. With the confession of faith we prepare ourselves to live the new life that is born from baptism. We say that this life is based on the work of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we proclaim this work to be the action that sustains our faith, the gift that nourishes our love, and the promise that inspires our hope. In this way we unite in saying that our whole life will take place within this framework and with this backbone.
The text most commonly used for this purpose is the Apostles’ Creed; the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed approved at the councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 is more complete. But there are contemporary texts that can help us express our faith in current and perhaps more understandable terms, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or the Confessions of Faith of the United Reformed Church of England and Wales or of the African Presbyterian Church of the South.
The Central Part of Worship: Listening to the Word of God
If the meaning of worship is the encounter with God, its center is listening to what God wants to tell us. This central moment is neither a simple commentary on the Bible nor a simple meditation; it is an action of the Spirit, carried out through reading the Bible and preaching, to set in motion and orient our whole life.
Therefore the assembly prepares for listening with a prayer of illumination to ask for the light of the Holy Spirit to understand and receive the word of God. It is better for this prayer to precede the biblical reading instead of following it.
When reading the Bible in worship, avoid leaving the choice of passages to chance or to the discretion of the person presiding. Nothing prevents the readings from sometimes being proposed by the members of the assembly according to the inspiration of the moment, but this cannot be the rule; in fact, the choice must be guided by the overall biblical message and not by our preferences. Therefore, two criteria are normally followed when choosing readings:
1. Complementarity: In every worship both the Old and New testaments must be listened to. Since the time of the ancient church, this method has been divided into three readings:
- one from the Old Testament (the teachings of the prophets),
- one from the epistles or Acts or from the Apocrypha (the teachings of the apostles),
- one from the gospels (the teachings of the Lord).
This method should not be considered binding. The essential thing is that we avoid, with exceptions, having only one reading, because then a fundamental element of the biblical testimony would risk being forgotten.
2. Completeness: Attention must be given to every aspect of the biblical message. It is obviously not possible to do this in every service, but we try to do it at least over the course of a year or several years so that the Bible is read in its entirety.
To meet these criteria, the custom of celebrating the liturgical year became established in the ancient church and was accepted by the churches of the Reformation. The liturgical calendar is fundamentally about remembering the great moments in the history of salvation, so early on we began to celebrate Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost; later the celebration of Christmas was added. The various periods of the year were structured around these moments, which suggested the choice of readings. The consequence of that was the introduction of the lectionary, a cycle of readings that covers the entire year or various cycles that cover two or more years.
Preaching makes a text explicit and actualizes it. If it is important to proceed in breadth with the different biblical readings, it is then also necessary to proceed in depth through preaching, which therefore must normally concentrate on a single text.
The Third Part of Worship: Communion in Christ
The liturgy of the Lord’s Supper must contain these essential moments:
- The anamnesis: tthe act of remembering the story of the last supper between Jesus and the Twelve and of proclaiming the death of the Lord as the source of our salvation.
- The eucharist: the full thanksgiving. Its liturgical expression can be more or less elaborate, but its essence comes from knowing that we owe our whole life to Christ and that we can belong to him entirely. This thanksgiving not only can, but must include all creation and all generations of believers. And it would not be complete without the expression of our hope, because the Lord’s Supper is also a sign of perfect communion in the kingdom of God.
- The epiclesis: the invocation of the Spirit so that the act we are about to perform renews us, nourishing our life with the gift that Jesus made of himself.
The act of eating the bread and drinking from the cup, poor and simple in itself, is thus filled with truth: we can approach and we are there without bringing anything, but solely to receive; and what is given to us through bread and wine is communion with Christ, which reconciles us with God.
The prayer that concludes the communion liturgy is a new expression of thanksgiving and contains the request that communion continue to characterize every aspect of the life of the church and the personal commitment of its members.
The meaning of the third part of worship is also to express in various ways the communion that is given to us in the meal.
Announcements about the life of the church and its members, cultural activities, diaconal works, churches that operate in other areas, or initiatives that concern social problems are an act of communion. It is good in worship to give space from time to time to these realities because information keeps us connected and is a first form of fraternal concern.
The collection of offerings as an act of communion is a sign of gratitude to the Lord, of responsibility for the needs of the church, and of solidarity with those who are most in need. The offerings may be an extension of the announcements about the work of the church or another initiative, and it is then natural to mention it also as part of our intercession.
Intercession is an act of communion in which the assembly participates in the life, joy, and pain of people, present or absent, and presents them to the Lord in their prayers. Intercessory prayers should reflect both an awareness of the world and the concrete life of the local church.
The Lord’s Prayer is obviously also an act of communion, but its meaning is broader. It essentially summarizes every moment of worship: it is praise, an expression of hope and obedience, a request for material bread and spiritual bread (the bread of the Word and of communion), a request for forgiveness and a commitment to forgive, and a request for protection and liberation. The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer place every aspect of daily life under the gaze of God and thus prepare us to live it in freedom and in the responsibility of service.
The blessing does not conclude the worship, but opens it onto daily life. Fortified by the encounter with God, we prepare to resume our activities. The blessing assures us that the Lord will be with us and reminds us that everything we have learned in worship can now become a plan for our life. In fact, Christian worship is not limited to the moment of assembly, but is realized in the commitment to service of our entire existence:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will
Greeting (initial proclamation)
Prayer of praise
Hymn of praise
Confession of sin
Announcement of forgiveness
Confession of faith
Hymn (referring to the Word of God or the creed as a transition from what came before)
Prayer of illumination
Song of response
When the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, it is enfolded into the various moments of this section.
Offering, concluding with a prayer of blessing over it
Prayer of intercession
Song of praise (unless the Lord’s Prayer is sung)
Amen (said or sung by the congregation)