Planning Worship With A Worship Directory

Themes: Biblical, Scholar, Worship Planning

Modern options for worship range from fixed liturgical practice at one end to “free church” liberty at the other. The directory approach, common among Presbyterians, falls in the middle. Modern directories are adaptations of the original directory of the church of Scotland (first published in 1645). In recent years many Presbyterian denominations have adopted new directories with the intent of using them to reform and renew worship. A directory not only guides worship, but also is useful as a teaching tool for pastors, leaders, and members.

A Directory for Worship combines law with liturgical theology and gives practical guidance for planning and leading worship. The Presbyterian tradition’s official texts deal with doctrine (the set of catechisms and confessions), government (the Form of Government and Rules of Discipline), and liturgy (the Directory for Worship). Such documents are the constitution of a Presbyterian denomination. The liturgical standard or Directory is found in the Book of Order, with the governmental and disciplinary parts of the constitution. A Directory is a strategy for ordering worship in a tradition that seeks to be evangelical, catholic, and Reformed.

Three Approaches

A directory approach may be contrasted conveniently with three other classic strategies for ordering worship. To the right of the spectrum is the prescribed liturgy such as the Roman Sacramentary, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the Lutheran books of worship. To the left is the Free church tradition, which historically insists upon the local liberty to be governed by the Bible alone in ordering worship. The middle ground is represented by the Reformed churches, which have books for discretionary use by the pastor. A directory, such as that used among Presbyterians, is a fourth strategy, closely related to a discretionary liturgy. In fact, contemporary worship renewal displays more a continuum than a set of discrete alternatives among these strategies: Their characteristic features are blending together in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

American and Irish Presbyterians have repeatedly revised and rewritten their directories. The Church of Scotland, on the other hand, has never reworked the original directory (The Directory for the Public Worship of God or Westminster Directory of 1645). While other national traditions have also adopted the directory approach, the Presbyterians of the United States have maintained the model most consistently as their constitutional provision for worship.

Directory Contents

All directories for worship have dealt with these topics: the principles of worship, parts of the Sunday service, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, pastoral ceremonies and ministries (weddings, burials, and visiting the sick), daily (family) worship, and special times of worship (fasting and thanksgiving). American Presbyterian directories a have added topics such as offerings (systematic giving), Sunday school (or “catechism”), and the prayer meeting (or “social worship”). The aim of the directory as a strategy has been to guide worship by the Word of God in Scripture, balancing liberty and liturgical tradition.

History of Directories

The notion of an abbreviated summary or outline of liturgical practices has a long history. The church orders of the ancient church (third to sixth century) described the practice of worshiping communities with varying detail. Many sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans tackled the definition of essentials for evangelical church life and order. By the time of the Westminster Assembly in England (1640-49), various “directories” (such as that of Thomas Cartwright, 1574-90, reprinted 1644) expressed what the different parties favored in a reforming church order.


The first generations of the reformed Church of Scotland, as well as the Reformed churches on the continent, adopted liturgical documents derived from the ministry of Calvin and other reformers. John Knox represents this extension into Scotland of the worship of the continental Reformed churches with the Book of Common Order (or “Psalm-Book”), which was printed continuously for Scotland from 1564 until 1644. But by the seventeenth century, English Puritanism and similar forces in the Church of Scotland demanded further reform in liturgy and polity.

The Westminster Directory

The Directory of Worship derived from the efforts of Puritans in England, and Scottish Presbyterians, to reform the British church at the Westminster Assembly of the 1640s. Westminster thus supplied Scotland with the first Directory for Worship, along with the doctrines (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) characteristic of later Presbyterianism.

The Westminster divines sought a basic uniformity in doctrine, favored plainness of ceremony, and insisted on the freedom to obey Scripture and the Holy Spirit in worship. Disputes over liturgical customs necessitated measures of compromise between the Scots and the vocal minority of Independent Puritans. The Directory for the Public Worship of God proved both too radical for Puritans willing to tolerate a prayer book, and too restrictive for Separatists and many Independent Puritans. Though briefly enacted, the Assembly’s Directory for Worship was virtually ignored in England.

Only the Church of Scotland replaced its liturgical book (the discretionary liturgy from Knox’s book) with the new Directory. It became the distinctly Presbyterian liturgical strategy, adopted by the General Assembly along with a second document of 1647 known as the Directory for Family Worship. The ideal of liturgical unity in an English-speaking Reformed church resulted ironically in another new approach to liturgical order, alongside Free church liberty and the Anglican prayer book.

The Westminster Directory provided the order for the Sunday service and guidance for every part (“ordinance”) of worship. An outline or schedule was given for each of the prayers. At least a full chapter from both the Old and New Testaments was to be read in every service. An eloquent treatise on the “plain style” preaching typical of Puritans and Scots provided edification for the pastors. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper were outlined with the ceremony, exhortations, and prayers in detail just short of a full wording.

The Directory demanded spiritual discipline and skill for the ministry of leading worship. The Bible was to be expounded through a continuous reading in public worship and was to be read systematically in family worship. The prayers were comprehensively outlined to guide the pastor through confession and petition for grace, intercessions, and thanksgiving. Considerable attention was given to marriage and visiting the sick, with an eye to civil law and pastoral theology. Other matters addressed included the Lord’s Day, fast days and days of thanksgiving, burial (a civil event), and a brief mention of the singing of psalms. The Directory for Family Worship dealt with the daily worship of the church in its households.

The first Directory was a failure, both as a tool for guiding worship and as a means to reconcile different liturgical customs. The ideal of evangelical rigor in the worship of a comprehensively national church proved to be too demanding for the context in which it appeared. But it provided a precedent for later Presbyterians to pursue the same goals: guidance for worship that is broad enough to include diversity and hold a changing communion together, while excluding unacceptable deviations and providing specific helps for prayer and worship. The Presbyterian Directory bore fruit in later generations of liturgical renewal from the mid-nineteenth century through present efforts to revise resources and develop skills for worship.

Current Directories

The directory strategy currently is flourishing among American Presbyterians, as separate denominations shape their liturgical and doctrinal idiom. The largest denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), adopted a complex new directory in 1989 while it was also publishing a series of supplemental liturgical resources (1984-91). This latest directory was significantly influenced by the revisions of liturgical forms and books for voluntary use in worship. A new service book (projected for 1993) will share a partnership with the Directory in guiding worship. A similar relationship now exists in the Reformed Church in America (Worship the Lord, 1987). A service book for the Presbyterian Church (USA) will not have the constitutional authority of the Directory, but this option now clearly includes discretionary liturgical book(s) for the use of those who plan and lead worship.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Directory for Worship (1989) gives constitutional requirements for worship, but its role is shifting to primarily a teaching document. The change began in the 1960s, as a century of liturgical recovery and creativity once again inspired directories designed to guide reform of worship. This latest directory speaks more in permission and suggestion than as law or regulation; it is also by far the longest, most complex directory ever adopted.

Other Presbyterian denominations are revising and adopting new directories. The Cumberland and the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church adopted in common a new directory in 1984. The Presbyterian Church in America reclaimed the nineteenth century tradition in its new directory of 1975. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church adopted in 1981 a directory based on the directories from the 1960s. In 1975, the directory of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church reduced its scope essentially to the sacraments, and acknowledged that many resources will be employed for assisting public worship. Both the Reformed Presbyterian and Orthodox Presbyterian Church are refining their directories from the 1940s to conform with their confessional priorities. An unofficial but general experiment seems in progress among American Presbyterians to discover how best to guide worship. Both the fracturing of the tradition and fresh ferment within it can be seen in the state of directories for worship in the United States.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages and disadvantages of a directory approach tend to be the same features. Considerable authority is given to, and skill expected from, those who plan and lead worship. Principles and guidance must be translated into words, actions, and ceremonies. A directory can communicate the essentials of worship and define a denomination’s liturgical tradition, while still encouraging local creativity. A directory (in contrast to a prescribed liturgy) may risk allowing poor liturgical discipline, because it requires self-discipline on the part of both leaders and worshipers. A directory can be a mirror of unity in the midst of diversity and also a tool for liturgical training.

The current generation of Presbyterian directories all tackle the educational task to a greater extent than previously. More of a background in theology of worship is given, as well as more practical guidance. These directories also assume the use of other resources in the manner of the Presbyterian Church (USA) service book, the official Reformed Church in America liturgy, or the relatively new tendency to borrow liturgical forms and texts of other denominations. Blending of strategies is taking place as one result of ecumenical sharing in scholarship and resources.

A directory approach expresses the truth of Christian worship that liturgy must be appropriated individually, and adapted to the local community. Many churches involved in liturgical renewal are struggling to move beyond the stage of preparation of new books to this deeper level. A directory for worship can be a teaching tool for ministers, leaders, and members. It can also affirm the nature of true liturgical unity within the variety of styles and missional requirements created by evangelization and change in denominations. A directory for worship is helpful when both training and resources are available, and pastors are committed to the ministry of leading and teaching worship. The directory strategy for ordering worship holds up the ideal of a comprehensive catholicity, combined with an evangelical fervor and Reformed obedience to the Word of God.

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