Review: Ryan M. Kelly, Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is man’s chief end?” The answer, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” I know, you know the answer already. You have heard it innumerable times. But consider this question: where is it that man glorifies God and enjoys him most visibly? The answer I would offer is in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. Consequently, if corporate worship is the chief expression of man’s chief end, then it follows that rightly ordering the worship of God is one of the chiefest responsibilities that a person can assume.

Ryan Kelly’s Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions will serve as an indispensable, weekly guide to all those called to oversee and assist in worship and who desire to do so with reverence and excellence. Already, in my short time using this book, it has rekindled my affection for the oft overlooked elements of Reformed worship and enlarged my understanding of historical developments in Reformed liturgics dating back to the Reformation. Of all the books that will collect dust on a pastor’s shelf, Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions will not be one of them. Mine certainly has not.

Kelly’s stated purpose for the book is twofold. First, to assist the worship organizer in developing worship that is steeped in the language of Scripture (but allows for responsible adaptation of scriptural language when necessary), and second, to demonstrate that Reformed worship is not monolithic as many suppose.

The book is divided into three sections. For the first forty pages, Kelly explains the historical functions of the call to worship, invocation, and benediction and how these were integrated into the liturgies of continental and English Reformers and American Presbyterians up to the present day. The second, and by far the lengthiest portion, offers ready-made calls to worship, invocations, and benedictions that are organized according to the liturgical calendar (one finds calls to worship for Advent, invocations for Lent, benedictions for Ascension, etc.). Even if one is not persuaded by the historical arguments and rationales offered in the first section, there are enough calls, invocations, and benedictions that directly quote the words of Scripture that even those with narrower convictions stand to benefit from Kelly’s excellent work. Finally, the third section includes two resource portions for those wanting to read further on the subjects covered in section one (xi-xlix) and two sets of indices, one topical and the other scriptural, which will prove helpful to those who are looking to incorporate a particular text of Scripture or focus on a particular theme in the course of their order of service (e.g. In the “Index of Themes in Benedictions” topics include angels, anxiety, Creator and creation, face of God, etc.).

Though brief in comparison to the second section, Kelly’s most noteworthy contributions come in the first section of the book. I personally appreciated how he wasted no time in tackling the burning question that every minister worth his salt has asked at himself at some point, “How far is too far? To what extent am I free to use the words of Scripture without being guilty of innovation or manipulating Scripture?” Before reading this book, I had only ever used calls to worship and benedictions that were directly quoted from Scripture for fear of seeming to prefer my own words over the Word of God. If the Bible already has many inerrant and infallible calls to worship and benedictions to choose from, then who am I to offer a call to worship or benediction of my own? This was my thinking, but it has since changed.

The preface alone was enough to alleviate my anxiety concerning the limits of linguistic liberty in worship. Kelly writes, “I hope to encourage pastors to adapt Scriptures for these elements and to do so without the fear of abusing them, overstepping their ministerial role, or offering ‘strange fire’ unacceptable to God. In Matthew 6, Christ does not command all ministers to use only his prayer in worship; rather, by saying ‘Pray then like this,’ he instructs believers in the structure, posture, content, and manner of biblical prayer. Historically, Reformed theologians decried those who would bind churches with prescribed worship language” (xi-xii). While the binding referred to in this last sentence, I expect, has special reference to the Act of Uniformity which required English clergymen to abide by the prescribed liturgies outlined in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, until reading Kelly, I had not applied this same logic to calls to worship, invocations, and benedictions that are directly quoted from Scripture. While the Lord’s Prayer is indeed a fitting prayer to pray during a corporate worship service, it is not the only prayer that is permissible, as Jesus’ own words demonstrate. Jesus offered the Lord’s Prayer as a model, a template after which we are to pattern your own prayers. And so, by that some logic, the calls to worship, invocations, and benedictions that we find in Scripture are themselves fitting for corporate worship but are not the only fitting forms of these elements. While Kelly may not subscribe to word-for-word calls, benedictions, and invocations, one cannot charge him with flippancy or carelessness regarding the words he speaks. All our words are to be patterned after the Word of God; Kelly makes this unmistakably clear.

Kelly’s book was profitable in that it challenged my thinking at several points. For example, prior to reading, I was under the impression that a formal call to worship was the historic practice of the Reformers. I learned quickly that this was not the case. Kelly revealed that, prior to the seventeenth century, “few prescriptions for calls to worship exist; neither Roman Catholic nor early Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican liturgies prescribe one” (xv). Neither Calvin’s, Zwingli’s, Bullinger’s, or Knox’s services opened with a call to worship (xvi). Calvin’s liturgy began with the votum. It was only after the Westminster Assembly published its Directory for the Public Worship of God (1644) that the call to worship became the standard among the Reformed.

That ministers were afforded latitude regarding the call to worship is proven by the fact that the Westminster divines adopted a directory for worship and not a manual. The intent was never to limit ministers to express words, but to outline the necessary elements of corporate worship (xx). While Kelly advocates for flexibility in language, I appreciate his stressing that the calls to worship must include language that is exhortative. There must be a “call,” a summons, a command to behold God and to worship him in spirit and in truth. The essence of the element must remain intact, no matter the particular words one chooses. This goes for the invocation as well, which is a brief prayer calling for God to be present among the worshipping body, and the benediction, which is either a prayer for or a pronouncement of blessing upon those gathered for worship.

Early on in this first section, Kelly informs the reader that there is no singular, Reformed way of worship, which at first may seem rather jarring:

Worship styles are strikingly dissimilar among the greater Reformed Church, and pastors may think that their personal worship experiences represent accepted and historical Presbyterian or Reformed practice when, in reality, they are much less historical and universally accepted than they are perceived to be. While I do argue for a few positions regarding worship elements, my primary goal is to demonstrate that, five hundred years after the Reformation, many faithful leaders have disagreed over these elements and implemented them differently—and there is no single, authoritatively Reformed practice (xii).

“Strikingly dissimilar worship styles,” you can imagine my hesitation after reading a sentence like that! You might well think this is the problem we are facing now—dissimilar worship practices that threaten the purity and the unity of the church. Will this book advocate for the extent of liturgical latitude that plagues the church today? Thankfully, Kelly’s answer is, no. The dissimilarity of worship styles with which Kelly deals is far narrower than that which we experience today. The differences were whether the votum, invocation, or call to worship ought to head the service, not whether smoke machines or interpretive dance were fair game. The differences identified by Kelly were not apples to oranges, but Granny Smiths to Red Delicious. It is possible to have a faithful, historic Reformed service that begins with a votum and another that begins with a call to worship. Kelly’s steady hand helps the reader to be content with these, I will call them, subtle differences.

The one shortcoming of the book is its failure to defend its primary structuring principle, the liturgical calendar with its various seasons and festivals. Because Kelly articulated his earlier positions so thoroughly and convincingly, I was hoping to find Kelly defend his organization of the book into categories like Advent, Lent, Epiphany, and Ordinary Time when these are more closely associated with Anglicanism than with Reformed Presbyterianism. While I appreciate that none of the calls to worship begin with “In this time of Lent” or “On this day of Pentecost,” which makes them usable to those who do not adhere to the church calendar, it would have behooved Kelly to provide historical backing for these holidays, especially since he made them the backbone of the book.

Calls to Worship, Invocations, and Benedictions, is an essential resource for the Reformed minister. Whether you are wanting to start out on the right foot or if you desire to breathe some new life and variety into your current order of worship, Ryan Kelly’s book will serve you well. I heartily commend it to you.

©Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by Stephen Spinnenweber | Thursday, November 17, 2022 | Categorized Books, Reviews, Worship | Tagged , , , , Bookmark the permalink.

About Stephen Spinnenweber

Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley. Meet all the Heidelberg contributors»


  1. It is, as the phrase goes, passing strange – if not inexcusable – that the review does not bother to mention that the reason why “the liturgical calendar with its various seasons and festivals . . . Advent, Lent, [and] Epiphany . . . are more closely associated with Anglicanism than with Reformed Presbyterianism”. is quite simple.
    The Westminster divines clearly repudiated the same.

    The Appendix “Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship” to the Directory for Public Worship plainly states:

    THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the
    Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
    Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God,
    are not to be continued.

    Meanwhile we are informed elsewhere that a Senate bill for same sex marriage advances.

    But judgement begins in the house of God.
    Maybe even the Reformed Presbyterian version?

  2. That there are no holy days other than the Lord’s Day does not imply that particular Lord’s Days may not be observed and celebrated with particular emphsis to the Christ event, such as incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. It’s when non-Lord’s Days are given Sunday status, or certain Sundays are viewed holier than others, that we depart from biblical precept.

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