The History of the Worship Order


Worship order. It's something most of us use every week to inform our planning and help us prepare for Sunday. (Chances are, you have one sitting on your desk right now.) It's an ancient practice - a structure we use to organize and plan worship, based on a certain order of sacred elements - readings, music, sermon, offering, sometimes Communion.

For most of us, there is structure and order to our worship, one that is informed by tradition, ritual, and practice. For some, the worship order is more flexible, embedding contemporary elements and expressions of faith into the traditional liturgy, connecting various ministries to the life of the church. For others, worship is seen as a time-honored tradition, something historical, preserving the patterns and practices from the Early Church.

No matter what your particular worship order looks like, I bet we'd find a few things in common if we compared them. Because the underlying structure - the rhythm of the liturgy - has stood the test of time (we're talking almost 2,000 years here).

Like I said, it's an ancient practice.

Let's take a look at the history of the worship order and how it developed over time:

History of the Worship Order

The book of Acts outlines the order of worship in the Early Church (ca. late-1st century): "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). Worship had four main components:


Four elements still present in our worship today.

Justin Martyr wrote a first-hand account of worship in the Early Church in his First Apology to the Roman authorities (ca. 153):

On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers.

When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the“Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.

Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need.

We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught these things, which we have offered for your consideration.

-  First Apology, 67

Justin's account also reveals four components that are still present in our modern-day services:

The Word of God


There are a couple of other interesting things to point out in this description. First, Justin wrote, "We all rise together and send up prayers." Everett Ferguson, in Christian History, noted that standing to pray "was a sign of joy and boldness . . . . To stand in the presence of God meant to be accepted by him and to have the right to speak freely." (source)

Pretty amazing for the 2nd century, right?

Second, "Justin describes a liturgy . . . in which there are two balanced pairs of activity," Ferguson observed. "In the service of the Word, God speaks to human beings. In prayer, human beings speak to God . . . . In the second pair, the Eucharist represents God’s gift to us—spiritual life through Christ. The offering or contribution represents the gifts of his people to God. God gives, and we give in return." (source)

I love this. Such a beautiful way to describe the rhythm of worship - the balance between prayer and praise, giving and receiving, speaking and listening.

Both of these accounts (the book of Acts and Justin Martyr's ordo) are based on a pattern of Word and Table (source). Today, many churches still use this basic pattern as a starting place for the modern worship order. Here are a few examples:

Episcopal (Rite II)

The Word of God
Hymn, Psalm, or Anthem; Prayer; Hymn of Praise; Collect of the Day; Lessons (Scripture Readings); Sermon; Creed; Prayers of the People; Confession of Sin; the Peace

The Holy Communion
Offertory, the Great Thanksgiving, the Lord's Prayer, the Breaking of the Bread, Prayer, Benediction


Lutheran (Divine Service)

Confession and Absolution
Hymn, Confession, and Absolution

Service of the Word
Introit, Kyrie, Hymn of Praise, Gloria in Excelsis, Salutation and Collect of the Day, Scripture Readings, Alleluia and Verse, Hymn of the Day, Sermon, Creed, Prayer, and Offering

Service of the Sacrament
Sanctus, Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Words of Our Lord, Proclamation of Christ, the Lord's Prayer, Pax Domini, Agnus Dei, Distribution, Canticle, Nunc Dimittis, Collect, and Benediction


In more recent history, some denominations have expanded upon this basic pattern of Word and Table, adding a Gathering and Dismissal. Scholars have explained that the Service of the Word really has two parts: the Word itself (Scripture readings and sermon) and a response (affirmation of faith, prayer, and offering) (source).

Thus, the basic pattern or order of worship (for many churches) has five parts:

Service of the Word
Service of the Table

Here are a few denomination-specific examples:

United Methodist

The Entrance
Gathering, Greeting and Hymn, Opening Prayers and Praise, Anthem

Proclamation and Response
Prayer for Illumination, Scripture, Sermon, Response to the Word, Concerns and Prayers, Offering

Communion, Prayer of Thanksgiving, The Lord's Prayer

Sending Forth
Hymn or Song and Dismissal with Blessing, Going Forth



Call to Worship, Hymns of Praise, Confession and Pardon, and the Peace

The Word
Prayer for Illumination, Scripture Readings, Sermon, Invitation to Discipleship, Affirmation of Faith, Baptism, and Prayers of the People

The Eucharist
Offering, Invitation to the Table, Great Thanksgiving, Lord’s Prayer, Communion of the People

Songs or Acts of Commitment, the Charge and Blessing


The order of worship in the PC(USA) church (found in the Directory for Worship) has been revised a bit, focusing on the centrality of God's Word:

Gathering Around the Word
Proclaiming the Word
Responding to the Word
The Sealing of the Word in the Sacraments
Bearing or Following the Word into the World


What does your order of worship look like? Do you include elements of these basic patterns in your services?