It's all in the ordo

April 10th, 2023

This article is the second in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

Attend worship on Sunday, and chances are, it goes something like this: there’s a call to worship, then a hymn, everyone then seated for a prayer, then announcements, then another hymn, followed by a children’s sermon, then an affirmation of faith some Sundays—whoops, forgot to announce the men’s pancake breakfast, so we’ll wedge that in here—offertory, anthem, a scripture text of the preacher’s choosing, sermon, closing hymn and benediction. A pastoral colleague of mine aptly named this “salad shooter worship,”[1] or an order of service that resembles the kitchen gadget that spits forth salad ingredients into a bowl, instantly tossing tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and such. It’s a great way to prepare a salad! But should our order of worship resemble a salad bowl?

What’s more, this service is often labeled “traditional” for idiosyncratic reasons. Maybe that’s because it’s held in the sanctuary, or the robed choir, organ, and hymns somehow make it “traditional.” Often what’s called traditional hits a wall somewhere in the mid-twentieth century and goes no further in its reach across ecclesial time. It’s traditional because it’s what was done fifty+ years ago. The free-form order of worship accommodates any musical or architectural style. It teaches no theology of movement from world to church and back again, or sin to grace, grace to discipleship, Word spoken to Word tasted to Word shared in the world. Sure, hints of these show up in the discreet acts in their haphazard arrangement, but their impact is blunted. If not the salad shooter, they are like the pages of an engaging story torn out and shuffled. 

Given all this, doesn’t the Basic Pattern deserve a serious look? That is, the form of Christian assembly passed down at least since Justin Martyr (100-165) described a second century worship service. It is ingeniously developed in the hymnal, beginning with its most basic ingredients (UMH pgs. 2-5). The first form simply defines four fundamental acts—Entrance, Proclamation and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending Forth—suggesting what acts of worship relate to them. Introducing this order (Latin ordo) invites congregations to think in terms of a rhythmic movement. [2] That’s because the Basic Pattern aptly illustrates Christian living as this movement between the “already” of grace poured out for us, and the “not yet” of the world we live in but are called into as transforming presence.  And so it goes (or, flows):

Proclamation and Response
Thanksgiving and Communion
Sending Forth

Such a rhythm makes a coherent liturgical spirituality possible, mirroring a way of being in the world (a way of seeing, hearing, believing, and being present we are calling a “way of living”—lex vivendi) shaped by the encounter with the living Lord in gathered prayer. 

Wesley’s well-known description of the life of faith with a bit of modification provides a starting point for a liturgical spirituality. Iterations of it show up across Wesley’s writings: “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself.”[3] This “flow” of Christian experience provides a way of thinking about worship from a Wesleyan perspective. Though we can imagine the porch as the Entrance, the door as Proclamation, and the room as Thanksgiving and Communion, the image is applicable to every act of worship we share throughout the service. God is inviting us to the threshold, the door, and the room of holiness all at once. There is no point at which we graduate from one sort of grace to another. Moreover, God’s grace is one action on our behalf, encountered here in three ways (not unlike the Trinity). 

And so, Repentance involves self-knowledge and is made possible by the wooing and calling Wesley called “prevenient” grace, or “the grace that goes before.” As such, much is at God’s disposal to open up a dialog with us about who we might think we are and who God says we are. Prevenient grace is God’s own call to worship. 

The first movement of the dance in the Basic Pattern is the Entrance, a coming together, an assemblage called out of the world. What does it make sense to do here? Christians in Justin’s day might have sung “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). Our order does not tell us anything about style, instruments, movement of people, choir, or presiders. There are many ways of gathering, “entering” into God’s presence by the prevenient grace that calls us to Wesley’s “porch.” The Entrance is a liminal space between assembly and the world, called out and beckoned forth. In the second, more detailed outline of the ordo (page 3-5), six different gathering activities are suggested; worship planners might choose one or more of them or vary them by season. In any case, we should not linger at the Entrance with multiple welcomes and calls to worship, which blunt and prolong this portion of the service. Come in! The Word to be opened in scripture calls us forward.

We move from the porch to the door. In Wesley’s holy “house” that meant justification, heard as glad tidings, the promise of New Birth into faith, hope, and love. Hence, Proclamation and Response is no place to skimp on feeding the gathered with a generous portion of scripture from both testaments. Wesley advised as much. The lectionary’s formative power should not be underestimated. But there is freedom here, and a growing number of preachers are opting for sermon series; many stick to self-chosen readings. The narrative lectionary deserves attention, too. The question to consider is how each of these forms and shapes the hearts and minds of the assembly week by week. For instance, why not spend more time listening to three readings and a Psalm? Do our people know the heart-language of the Psalms well enough to weave them into their daily prayer lives? Why not? In any case, the readings are an opportunity for lay leadership in worship. Have a diverse, intergenerational rotation of proclaimers for the Sunday readings. 

Response forms the second half of the second movement of Word and Table. It is significant that other iterations of this western rite liturgy (Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Reformed) simply call it Proclamation or Liturgy of the Word without citing the acts of worship following scripture and sermon as response. There is a bit of Wesleyan particularity to this. Grace is transformative, that is, the free gift given at God’s initiative, delivered in the Proclamation, elicits our response. Without the response in affirmation, intercession, confession, reconciliation, and offering, the work of grace in reclaiming us is incomplete without its also restoring us. We are not only a people addressed by God, we are born anew, made free to be response-able in the call to these liturgical acts. The Word, after all, said Isaiah, will not come back empty (Isaiah 55:11). The Response is our liturgical participation in this newness of life. 

Perhaps Thanksgiving and Communion is the “room itself” of Christian life. Maybe Wesley’s hearers imagined an English cottage, where a table graced the main room. This is the place of holiness, and Wesley saw Christian life as a matter of making holy, fed and nourished in fellowship with others. What better image could there be than a table? In The Duty of Constant Communion, Wesley wrote “As God, whose mercy is over all his works, and particularly over the children of men, knew there was but one way for man to be happy like himself; namely, by being like him in holiness; as he knew we could do nothing toward this of ourselves, he has given us certain means of obtaining his help. One of these is the Lord’s Supper…”[4] Or, speaking of the Supper more poetically, Charles Wesley:

All the power of sin remove,
Fill us with thy perfect love,
Stamp us with the stamp divine,
Seal our souls forever thine.[5]

We have said that our journey through the Word and Table liturgy is a map of response-creating grace, heading us toward God’s ultimate purpose for us in a renewed and strengthened relationship with God and one another—filled with perfect love, stamped with the stamp divine. Wesley’s love of the Eucharist reflected for him its wonder and mystery as the means of grace most vividly marking our incorporation into the new creation made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Such new creation is the perfection in love he envisioned as that for which we were created, and the Eucharist nurtures us, in community, for such a vision. 

And finally, the Sending Forth. Like the Entrance, this part of the dance is brief and decisive. We are sent into the world with blessing. To return to Wesley’s house, we leave the room, back through the door, onto the porch to head down the street. Whatever movement there may be—recessional, turning to face the door, snuffed altar candles—it should capture this going forth. That such movements are practical should suggest something about what our ministry in the world this week might be like. The holiness of communion with God, in assembly, spills out into our worldly living. 

And that’s it. The Word and Table liturgy is possessed of elegant simplicity, purposefulness of movement, and illustrates the sustenance we receive and share in our time together as the gathered church, preparatory all the while to our being sent forth. 

Many United Methodists will push back. “Why do we need this specific order of worship?” “We like it the way we do it.” “It works for us.” “Don’t replace our comfortable shoes with these squeaky ‘Sunday Bests’.”  We’re a pragmatic people. We wince at what feels like too much form. The instinct is genuine. We hear Wesley in the background, warning us about having religion’s form without its power. This may be a misplaced fear, however, since the salad shooter, the contemporary service, and the revival are all subject to his warning as much as the liturgical service. The Basic Form affords a balance between form and power, catholicity and the evangelical, that befits Methodism and is reflected in our theology and practice. 

I will not engage in a liturgical apologetics, giving reasons why a local church should use the historic orders we have, or at least hew closer to them. I have known and heard of too many congregations where liturgical experimentation backfired; however much the liturgy embodies Tradition, it just wasn’t that local church’s tradition.  I can make only one argument: Worship liturgically because you love it. Do it because it’s your congregation’s spiritual “dance” or rhythm or flow or whatever you want to call it. Worship and its forms are a matter of the heart. Be passionately liturgical because that’s the shape of your congregation’s soul, because it warms your hearts. Because it’s the form through which you best sense God’s grace in all its means. After all, that kind of argument may just be more genuinely Wesleyan than anything else I can suggest. And yet, I hope that, if you’re not convinced, that, by the end of this series, you will be at least challenged. Being open to a challenge can’t help but be part of holy living: no challenge, no growth. I think Wesley would agree.


[1] Thank you, Rev. Nicole Hill Krewson.

[2] Or a “flow” from Entrance to Sending Forth, and from worship to world and back again. Dan Benedict developed the image in Come to the Waters: Baptism and Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers & Making Disciples (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2002), see esp. 13-14, 50ff.; see also Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43 ff., where he develops themes of “flow” and “juxtaposition” in the liturgical ordo; Lester Ruth, Flow: The Ancient Way to Do Contemporary Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020).  

[3] Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained, VI.4.

[4] Duty of Constant Communion, II.5

[5] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, No. 33/4.

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