The Living Body of Christian Worship

The Living Body of Christian Worship

Copyright © 2015 Susan Briehl and Marty Haugen. All rights reserved.

This article may be downloaded and shared by parish liturgy committees and worship leadership teams and parish music ensembles without charge. It should not be distributed beyond a single community. Refer any requests for further distribution to Marty at

This article is a “work-in-progress,” an attempt to develop a simple model for examining and exploring the faithfulness and vitality of Christian community prayer.  The model offered here is being developed jointly by Marty Haugen & Pastor Susan Briehl. The model of “heart, skeleton & flesh” is somewhat related to the categories of “content, structure & form” used by Robert Webber in his discussions and presentations on Christian worship renewal.

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When a community, a worship leadership team or a denomination considers how its worship can be "renewed," it is critically important that they have a good understanding of what is central and important and what is of less importance. While preparing for a joint workshop on liturgy at the Lutheran Campus Ministry in Austin, Texas, Susan Briehl and I searched for a simple way to talk about Christian worship as an experience that has an essential heart and a long-established structure, as well as a need to constantly evolve within a particular cultural and historic context. The image of worship as a living “body” (which grows and changes while remaining the same individual) is offered here for your reaction and comment as one possible model.

The Heart

The heart of all Christian worship is God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. While God’s love for us and for all creation is both infinite and eternal, Christians believe that God chose to manifest this love in a unique way through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus gives us a human face for God and for God’s love. The worship of Christian communities originated and continues as a response to that love and as a vehicle for God to once again grace us in love.  

Since the earliest worship of the first Christians, this heart of God’s love has pulsed through countless liturgical communities and cultural expressions, denominations, musical styles and practices and actions.  However, if liturgy does not begin and end with the proclamation, celebration and evocation of God's love in Christ there can never be authentic worship. Worship renewal that begins with the focus anywhere else (for instance, on musical style or instrumentation) strays from the fundamental mandate that, when we gather, we do so “in memory of me.”

The Skeleton

Jesus did not leave his followers with a careful list of instructions about what their worship should look like. Throughout his life, Jesus and his disciples worshipped as the other Jews of his time, in synagogues, at the Temple and in sacred meals shared together. Jesus demonstrated a deep love for the Jewish tradition that nurtured him, and he called the Jewish religious leaders to task for distorted or inauthentic expression in their worship life and leadership.

Consequently in the book of Acts, we see the earliest Jewish/Christian communities continuing to worship very much out of their Jewish roots. They proclaimed and prayed and sang from the Hebrew Scriptures (much as in the synagogues of their times), they blessed and broke bread and wine together as part of a sacred meal (as the apostles had done many times with Jesus). Over the centuries as worship evolved and changed, these two main actions, Word and Meal, have remained the backbone of the “skeleton” of Christian liturgy.  The constant, faithful remembrance of Jesus’ teaching and actions, lived out weekly through these two complementary activities, preserves and carries the heart of worship—God’s love in Jesus.

Word – Very early in its evolution, the Christian church discovered that congregations needed to hear the whole salvation story—not just the easy and happy parts.  Because there is no resurrection without a death, congregations need to hear and reflect and respond to the entirety of the Gospel message—Jesus came to die, and only then to rise again. The Lectionary is a gift to us from the ancestors—our brothers and sisters in faith from long ago, telling us, “You need to hear all these stories—good and bad—so that you can rejoice and remember God's constant love and so that will not lose heart in the darkest hours.”  The lesson for us today is “Preachers, musicians, readers, congregations—you stray from the Lectionary or omit readings at your own risk.”

Meal – The meal was central to Christian ritual gatherings (just as it had been for Jesus and the Jews) from the very beginning. The prayers and songs surrounding the action of blessing, breaking and sharing have changed dramatically through history, the way in which the community received Christ's Body and blood have varied over time, the weekly sharing in this sacred feast was, from the very beginning central to the weekly gathering of Christians. The early Church clearly believed that Jesus' command to meet “in memory of me” was the call to every community each week.

Just as in a newborn child, this skeleton was originally much smaller and less developed in the earliest Christian communities. Over the first 900 years of the Christian church (as Christianity spread throughout the Middle East , North Africa Asia and Europe ) the framework of liturgy grew and matured to accommodate changing cultural and community needs. Larger and more diverse communities needed a more formal way to gather congregations into prayer and send them out to mission and service. The Gathering rites (words, prayers, songs and actions that precede the Word service) and the Sending rites (words, prayers, songs and actions that follow the Meal service) began to evolve separately in many different parts of the Christian world beginning in about the 4th century. By 900 CE, this four-part skeleton of worship

 Gathering – Word– Meal– Sending  

was essentially formed and firmly established as normative for the weekly eucharistic gathering of virtually all Christian communities. Just as a human skeleton protects the heart and other vital organs, the “skeleton” of our liturgical structure provides a strong and consistent form that transcends the agendas or whims of a particular community or nation or individual. The sturdy frame of this liturgical structure allowed God's love in Jesus to be proclaimed and remembered each week, and it gave the community a true taste of that love in the feast that simultaneously looked back at Jesus' meals with his followers and forward to the meal we will all share in the fullness of God's Reign.

In the above listing, “Word” and “Meal” are in larger type to indicate their centrality within Christian celebrations.  While each of the four “services” within Christian worship have a unique and venerable role, it might be argued that, because of their function (to lead into and out of the Word and Meal services) and because of their later evolution, Gathering and Sending should rightly be experienced as subservient to the “twin peaks” of Word and Meal (worship committees and musicians, take note).

The Flesh

As I move through my sixth decade on this earth, I become more aware each day of how the flesh on our bodies changes over time. My heart continues to beat—indeed, it must, or I will quickly die.  My skeleton (although it calls more attention to itself with the passing years) is very much like it was when I was twenty. But my flesh changes with my changing circumstances—reflecting the process of aging, my diet, my life experiences, my level of exercise, and… so on.  

In the same way, the skeleton of Christian worship—Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending—that carries the heart of God’s love in Jesus, has been enfleshed differently by every culture and every denomination and in every historical period. And this is not only natural, it is essential.  Just as Jesus lived in a culture, in a moment of history, in a religious tradition, so does every Christian community. The eternal and infinite message of God’s love is revealed again and again in constantly changing, particular and peculiar gatherings of believers. But we should never mistake the flesh for the heart (or indeed for the skeleton).  

So “flesh” is about “musical style” and “media” and “worship aids” and “sound equipment” and “instruments” and “translations” and [you fill in the blanks].  Ironically, like so much of American culture today, it is the flesh—the stuff on the surface—that gets all the attention. Certainly we can change the style of music we play—from classic hymnody to pop to folk to [you fill in the blanks]. But none of us—leaders, musicians, members of the congregation—should ever think that style or instrumentation is anywhere near the heart of worship. If, trying to make our worship more "relevant" or "interesting" or "engaging" we lose sight of the centrality of Word and Meal for the congregation, our worship can become mere entertainment.

When we consider the face and future of Christian worship—for our parish community, for our synod or diocese, for our denomination, for Christians everywhere—can we remind ourselves to look first to the heart, then to the skeleton and, only then, to what we might want to have (this song, this instrument, this ritual)?  

The Clothing

We easily change our clothing to suit our mood, the weather and our plans for the day. Although what we choose to put on our body can effect our self-image or sense of comfort, we are not what we wear. 

In the same way we "clothe" our worship with cultural elements: musical style, instrumentation, vestments and choir robes, furniture and physical, "traditional" hymns and "contemporary praise songs." Oftentimes it is these various elements which generate the most passionate and divisive arguments in communities. It is important not to mistake this clothing for "the heart of the matter." If we cling to any article of clothing because we have come to believe that it is essential to true and faithful worship, we will lose the ability to judge whether our words, music and actions are truly inviting and inspiring our assemblies to proclaim God's love in Jesus to each other and to the world.

Arguing with the Ancestors

Pastor, teacher and author Dan Erlander suggests that, before we make changes to the skeleton of this ancient Christian liturgical tradition, we need to “have a long argument with the ancestors.”  Amputation, knee surgery, hip replacement—anytime that we mess with our skeletons, there are serious and long-lasting implications. Sometimes, indeed, amputation or surgery is necessary—but it is always a last resort.


Schedulng an event You can schedule an event with Marty (workshop, conference, evening of sung prayer) by wrting to him at 

Every attempt will be made to keep this list as up-to-date and accurate as possible; however, it is subject to change.  If you cannot reach the contact person for any of these events, you may Email Marty

Saturday-Sunday, January 27-28, 2024: Benefit Concerts for St. Camillus Center (with Bob Hurd and Trevor Thomson), Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Claremont, CA & Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Hermosa Beach, CA  click here for information: St. Camillus Concerts

July 26-28: National Network of Pastoral Musicians Conference (NNPM) Hayes Conference Center, Swanwick, Derbyshire, UK