Reformed Worship

Worship is at the center of the church’s life. In worship, we acknowledge God’s worth. That worship encompasses the whole week—when we are out in the community, in our homes, or gathered together. Because Christians are all members of the one body of Christ, we make it a priority to come together to worship as one.

In the Reformed tradition, worship is so essential that its forms—the liturgy—are part of the RCA’s Constitution. Historically, Reformed worship services have a particular flow that reflects our encounters with God: approaching God, receiving the Word of God, and responding to God. The particulars of the service are flexible, but the foundation remains the same.

What You Can Expect from a Reformed Worship Service

Worship services in RCA churches are as diverse as the denomination itself. You’ll find some churches that follow a traditional liturgy. They use the same set of words and elements from week to week. Other churches follow a more contemporary format, ad libbing prayers and incorporating unusual elements. Many churches take a hybrid approach, adapting the traditional RCA liturgy for their context. (Liturgy refers to the way the parts of a worship service are ordered. It comes from a Greek word that means “work of the people,” because God’s people are the ones who do the worshiping!)

In the midst of such diversity, worship in the Reformed tradition has some recognizable patterns. After all, our denomination has deemed worship foundational enough to make the liturgy part of our Constitution. In other words, one of the things that sets Reformed churches apart is the particular pattern of worship that we follow. (The other parts of our Constitution are our doctrinal standards and Book of Church Order.) 

Although the expressions of worship in Reformed churches vary wildly, we share a common understanding about the nature of worship.

Reformed worship is liturgical.

Here liturgical refers to the way a worship service is ordered. The RCA’s liturgy has an arc that follows the biblical patterns of the encounters between God and God’s people. The pattern is this: we approach God in worship but also with the stain of sin; God proclaims God’s gracious, saving Word to us; we respond with gratitude toward God that is expressed in service toward others. 

This pattern—approach, Word of God, response—encapsulates the gospel story. It also follows the same structure as another piece of the Reformed foundation, the Heidelberg Catechism, which is organized into three sections: guilt, grace, and gratitude.

All the specific elements of a worship service—things like prayers, Scripture readings, communion, and songs—find their place within this broader structure.

Reformed worship is missional.

A worship service is not an end in itself. Instead, the liturgy is both a witness to and a participation in the redeeming work of God in Christ. From this perspective, it is difficult to separate liturgy from mission. In the Word proclaimed, in the washing with water, and in the sharing of the bread and cup, God in Christ is at work, reconciling the world to himself. It is here that the world most obviously and most readily discovers the gospel.

Rather than being a self-contained time, the worship that happens when the church is gathered continues into the week and into the world through lives of faith. In fact, the benediction is intended to propel us out. As Christians, we both invite others into the church and are committed to being sent out into the world.

Reformed worship is biblical.

The Word of God is central to Reformed worship. We don’t gather to hear a mere inspirational talk. The church gathers to hear from God through Scripture.
Even the structure of Reformed worship is rooted in the Bible. It’s there that the Triune God reveals himself in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ. The history of Israel’s worship, together with its fulfillment in Christ and the experience of the early church, provides us with the structure of worship.

All the specific elements of a worship service—things like prayers, Scripture readings, communion, and songs—find their place within this broader structure.

Reformed worship is sacramental.

From a Reformed perspective, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “a means of grace” within the church. They are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible. God uses them to work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

When we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God comes to us through all of our senses. We hear God’s promise of forgiveness; we see and hear the water of baptism that cleanses; and we touch, smell, and taste the bread and wine that signifies Christ’s body and blood. Our faith is awakened, renewed, and energized when we celebrate the sacraments.

Reformed worship is corporate.

As the roots of the word liturgy suggest, worship involves the whole congregation. Because we are all members of the one body, we come together on the Lord’s Day to worship as one.

All of God’s people participate in worshiping God, who is also active when we gather. Worship is not a performance with the minister as actor or actress and the congregation as the audience. Instead, from beginning to end, our worship is a dialogue both between the pastor and congregation and between God and people.

A worship service also reflects the context of the community. Music and prayers speak out of the concrete realities of people’s lives. Worship reminds us that they are not alone before the throne of God but are joined by others around the world and across time.

Reformed worship is personal.

At the same time, Reformed worship is personal, though not private. At its best, Reformed worship helps create a warm, genuine piety that sings of a deep relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Reformed worship teaches us how to love God with our minds and our hearts as well. We are constantly being challenged to grow into disciples who follow Jesus and are open to God’s leading.

How Our Theology Shapes Our Worship

Reformed worship arises out of our theology. Worship is an embodiment and expression of our beliefs. It enables us to articulate our faith and to act it out in word, song, and gesture. 

For Reformed Christians, that theology is articulated most simply in the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism. After expressing confidence in God, the catechism is divided into three sections: guilt, grace, and gratitude. That’s shorthand for the Reformed beliefs that God created all things good; we sinned and are guilty of thwarting the goodness of creation; God graciously sent Jesus Christ so that we might have life; and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we respond to God’s grace with thanksgiving and lives of service.

The RCA’s liturgy follows that same three-part pattern, with a beginning note of praise: 

  • We approach God, first with praise, and then with a confession of our sinfulness.
  • God speaks to us a word of grace, in Scripture, sermon, and sacrament.
  • We respond to God with gratitude and service.

Read more about Reformed theology

The Role of the Liturgy: Balancing Form and Freedom

The way we worship is so important to the RCA that we’ve made the liturgy part of our Constitution. However, that doesn’t mean that all churches use the same words week after week.

In the RCA, there’s a balance between form and freedom. There’s the overarching three-fold structure (approach, Word of God, response). Within that, churches have the freedom to design ordinary worship services in ways that are consistent with the Reformed tradition. But we have also agreed to closely follow the liturgies for certain occasions. This means that the more prescriptive liturgies are the ones used for celebrating things like the sacraments of communion and baptism and the ordinations and installations of ministers, elders, and deacons. Our common sacramental forms have nurtured a sense of a common identity, while congregational freedom has encouraged our growing diversity.

Read more about the RCA’s liturgy and the specifics of a worship service.

In a weekly worship service, the specific elements would find their home within this broad outline:

The approach to God

In this portion of the service, the congregation approaches God from a posture of humility and dependence. Elements of this part of the liturgy often include a greeting and an opening song of praise. That greeting is most richly given not as a casual “good morning” but as a greeting from God. We’re also invited to confess our sin and receive forgiveness from a gracious God.

The Word of God in proclamation and sacrament

In the Reformed tradition, God communicates to people through both Scripture and the sacraments. This section of the liturgy includes a reading from the Bible and a sermon that elaborates upon that passage. It’s also the place where a church would celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

The response to God

After hearing God’s grace proclaimed in the Scripture and sermon and after tasting the visible Word of the bread and cup, we respond in gratitude. This gratitude is often expressed in song. The congregation might also join in offering prayers of intercession. The service ends with a benediction—a blessing in the name of Christ, given to the worshipers as they go forth to live out a life of service.

The Sacraments in Reformed Worship

In the Reformed tradition, two of our worship practices are considered sacraments. One is baptism, and the other is the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments, instituted by Christ, are a means of grace within the covenant community. They are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible and the means by which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Read more about sacraments in the RCA

Baptism

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace with us and our children. Baptism points to the reality that we are cleansed in Jesus’s blood, buried with him in death, and raised with him in new life. The RCA baptizes infants, as well as older children and adults. It affirms sprinkling, immersion, and pouring as methods of baptism.

Communion

Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, is a means by which Jesus Christ continually nourishes, strengthens, and comforts us. As we share the bread and the cup, the Holy Spirit joins us to Christ and to each other. All who have been baptized into Christ are welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper, although local boards of elders determine whether young children may be served. Reformed Christians do not believe that the bread and cup are physically transformed into Christ’s body and blood.

A Reformed Approach to Preaching

The Reformed tradition puts a great emphasis on the Word of God. By extension, preaching is also highly valued. What guides how pastors preach? There’s no formula for sermons, but a lectionary offers guidance for what Bible passages to preach on. A lectionary is a list of weekly passages, which church leaders can choose to follow. The RCA doesn’t require churches to use a lectionary, but following one can expand the breadth of a congregation’s exposure to Scripture.

Here are a few of the most common lectionaries used in RCA churches:

Revised Common Lectionary

The three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary was developed with a concern for the entire Bible, for the liturgical year, and for the persons and work of the Trinity. Each week, it includes a reading from the Old Testament or the book of Acts, from the Psalms, from one of the Gospels, and from one of the Epistles. Pastors can select which of the passages to focus on. The Revised Common Lectionary is used by many Protestant denominations.

Lectio Continua

Lectio continua, or “continuous reading,” refers to preaching through a book of the Bible from beginning to end. This enables the pastor to treat the book as the whole, going into more depth than otherwise possible.

Heidelberg Catechism

Because the Heidelberg Catechism is such an important piece of Reformed theology, RCA pastors are expected to preach through its points of doctrine. This can be accomplished by following other lectionaries, but the RCA has a Heidelberg-specific lectionary that pastors can use.

Other lectionaries

There are plenty of ways for pastors to decide what Scripture passages to preach on. Several Protestant lectionaries have been compiled more recently, including the Narrative Lectionary and the Year D Project. The Narrative Lectionary emphasizes biblical literacy by taking congregations through a four-year engagement with the biblical story. The Year D Project adds a fourth year to the Revised Common Lectionary by including many of the passages it skips over.

Music in the Reformed tradition

God’s people sing. The role of music in worship is biblical. Over and over, the Bible shows the people of God singing songs of praise and gratitude, lament and petition. Because of that, Reformed worship emphasizes the participation of the whole congregation. Just as the service as a whole is not a performance, music within the service should allow the congregation to offer their hearts to God. Music should both glorify God and nurture the faith of the people.

RCA churches are free to worship with whatever hymns, songs, tunes, or instruments they wish. Many churches use Lift Up Your Hearts, the most recent hymnal compiled by the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church in North America. It includes both historic hymns and contemporary worship songs. Other churches use The Psalter Hymnal or Sing! A New Creation. Still others don’t use a hymnal or songbook.

Read more about the role of music in worship.

How are holidays celebrated in Reformed worship? 

Just like our lives follow the rhythm of a calendar with seasons and holidays, the church’s life follows the liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar maps the gospel story onto the year. It begins with Advent and Christmas, leads into Lent and Easter, celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and carries us through the remainder of the year. Ordinary time, the time that’s not part of a major season on the church calendar, focuses on living out the Christian faith in daily life. 

Most Reformed churches at least partially follow the rhythm of the liturgical calendar to structure their worship during Advent and Lent. Others celebrate every holiday, including Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, and Christ the King Sunday. Some churches decorate their worship spaces with the color that corresponds to that particular liturgical season—purple, white, red, or green. 

Learn more about the liturgical calendar and find resources for planning seasonal worship.