The better order of service

Today’s customary printed worship order of service is a triumph of technology that’s been left too long without a serious revisit. I forgot where I read  — and this is not a thought original to me — that the development of the spirit duplicator was a watershed for local liturgy, because it gave ministers the tools to make their own weekly bulletins at little cost, thus allowing introductions and innovations that a long-use printed liturgy (or job printed order of service, pasted into the front cover of a hymnal) could not accomodate easily.

And there it rests. Swap the word processor and photocopier for the typewriter and duplicator, and really little has changed in many church — in terms of format — since. The assumption of lifelong denominational loyalty has changed, the liturgical literacy of congregations has changed, and consumer-driven demands for quality have changed. The order of service, not so much. Not in its shape and format. And where it shines with good directions, lovely typesetting and good paper, you can bet there’s a hearty staff, perhaps some print shop magic and a significant budget for the effort. And that’s a hard sell for most.

I think it might be time to abandon the format, for some churches anyway. Here’s an idea I’ve been mulling over. In place of a weekly order of service, publish a quarterly (or so) booklet of 40-64 pages. Have it include an outline church calendar and leadership/contacts directory. Have it include a thumbnail church history and outline of governance. Have it include how to join and how to leave a bequest. Have it include a order of service — it needn’t be listed as usual, but should have descriptions of what’s done in worship, and so far as possible, the reasons why the service has this or that element. It should include most of the usual responsive readings, psalms or litanies. Also the hymns most commonly sung in that quarter, to help build familiarity. Directions on how to use the booklet at home, or prayers for spiritual emergencies or table graces for extra credit. Have it also include a readable excerpt from a good sermon, faithful proverbs or both.A bit of art, a well-chosen poem or even a recipe can finish the work. It should be more handbook than service leaflet.

A special edition each for the Christmas and Holy Week-Easter arcs might make sense, since those tend to get more attendees.

The  church handbooks can be reused from week to week for a season, but the church should encourage them to be taken by guests or used at home by members. It should feel like a gift and a useful tool. It would require advance planning and seeking licenses, or the use of public domain or liberally-licensed works. But the discipline, if there’s capacity, might focus attention on the importance of planning worship in places where “the minister does that” or “that’s not my concern.”

It would need a weekly tip-in — for a special hymn, liturgical fragment and timely notices. And perhaps not even that if a hymnal is used or retained, and a there’s good announcement discipline and a well-mananged communications plan.  But after the first couple of issues, it might not take any more time to produce than all the publications it would effectively surplant. And it would make a grand statement to members and guests: we have something good here, and this is how we do it.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Coming from an Episcopalian background, that sounds like a miniature Book of Common Prayer — the US version is in the public domain; while modern bible translations are not in the public domain, it appears that the Psalter is still based on the original Miles Coverdale work. They do give away BCPs as gifts, but normally only to those newly baptised or received, not just newcomers.

    I guess it might be useful, in a congregational polity, for different congregations to collaborate on common issues like typesetting, and then customize the booklet with their own church histories, sermons etc.?

  2. It’s quite different than a prayerbook because it has elements unrelated to worship, particularly church organization and cultural artifacts. There is a native Universalist style of handbook — seen in the antebellum period — that this more closely mimics. See, for instance, this from Menzies Raynor (though you’d be correct to say he was a former Episcopalian.)

  3. I have a vague recollection that the Christian Science youth ministry program has something akin to this: with the weekly Bible lesson and commentary, articles written by and for youth, plus announcements of upcoming programs and opportunities. I remember seeing a copy a few years ago. I was impressed by how it was put together, even if the theology was not my own.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.