Worship is a conversation with God. He speaks in and through his Word and we respond to that Word with worship. Possibly the simplest definition of worship is this: “Spirit directed response to the Word of God”. Some say it is Spirit directed response to the presence of God, which is true. But, we believe that his presence is authoritatively and accurately experienced as he comes to us in his infallible Word. There is a rhythm between his speaking and our responding that ebbs and flows throughout the worship service. Therefore, our worship services should be a seamless tapestry of elements that are like any personal conversation: each thought should link with the next in a logical progression … each element of worship should prepare for and spill into the next one. Each element should seem like the next logical thing to say or do. How does that understanding guide our services so that they possess the order you observe? What is first, second and third, and why?
At the beginning of our service we have a period of preparation for worship. This portion of the service includes welcoming each other and exploring ministry opportunities or announcements of our common life together. While recognizing the fact that we are a spiritual family with the need to communicate on plans and projects together we want to get these things out of the way early so that we can focus in an undistracted way on God, the Gospel and our response to him. The service moves vertically (Godward) after these horizontal (us-ward) considerations and it stays primarily vertical for the rest of the service. The gathering song or musical meditation is designed to orient us to the theme of the morning, tune our hearts (and voices) for worship and get our attention flowing in a united direction.
The Call to Worship is normally straight from Scripture, and though it may point in a number of directions in terms of its content and context, it is the point at which we hear God summoning us into his presence. Again, an attempt is made to use Scripture that accentuates the theme of the service as a whole. By the way, normally the theme is developed from the content of the sermon. In this audible recitation of God’s Word (the Call to Worship) we are urged by God and by one another, through the merits of Christ’s blood and righteousness, to bring our sacrifice of praise before his awesome, Holy Throne.
This is normally followed by a burst of praise (our response to that summons) as we enter his manifest presence. This is usually done with a hymn, a Psalm or a song of praise. A prayer of invocation or adoration continues that burst of praise. This prayer is informed and shaped by the Scripture used in the Call to Worship and by the hymn(s) or song(s) used in the previous elements.
Having declared our praise to God through song and prayer at the beginning of our worship service we next affirm our commitment to him through a Confession of Faith. If we esteem him – it is natural that we would be committed to him or would believe in him. Confessions of Faith can be taken directly from Scripture or from one of the great creeds, which summarize aspects of what we believe concerning God and his Word. It is somewhat like the exchanging of vows in a wedding service. It involves a reaffirmation of our loyalty and love to God (or a reaffirmation of our trust in him). In the previous section of worship, marked mainly by praise, we are bragging on him in his presence, whereas in this portion of the service we are expressing to him our dedication and consecration to belong supremely to him alone. When we are impressed with him, and tell him so, we next want to express our allegiance because he is so trustworthy.
However, when we do this, we are reminded of how far we fall short of this commitment and trust. Indeed, our commitment to him is as our Savior. But only sinners need a Savior. So we bring our sinner-hood to him in confessions of sin so that we might enjoy afresh his Savior-hood in pardon. This is the reason for the Corporate Confession of Sin at this point followed by the Reception of Pardoning Grace. Hymns, songs or Psalms can be woven into or actually be the Confession of Faith or the Confession of Sin. Again, music must be carefully selected to introduce, prepare for, undergird or actually express these various elements. We seek to plan worship that is timeless, therefore we will use some music that is very ancient and some that is very modern as long as the text and music is Biblically sound and musically of good quality.
Some folks question the use of written responses and prayers. They find them distracting or cumbersome or insincere or a host of other negative descriptions. However, it is interesting that in the history of Christian worship, from a variety of quarters all through the centuries, both written and recited scripture and confessions of faith and sin and other forms of recited prayers have been used in corporate worship services. This is also true in the history of Presbyterian and Reformed worship. When such elements are not included in corporate worship the congregation’s “voice” in the service becomes almost exclusively confined to singing songs or hymns. A pastor and worship leader, in behalf of the congregation, then voices the other elements of reading scripture, prayer, repentance, and declarations of doctrine or reaffirmations of commitment. This is not illegitimate of course, but if the congregation’s participation is curtailed too much it can become a problem. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament word used for the work of the priests in the temple is leitourgia (from which we get our word liturgy). It literally means “the work of the people” and therefore accentuates the fact that with the coming of Christ all believers became priests under the priesthood of Christ and all are now called to do the “work” of worship. Worship is an action verb. It is something we do. It is not primarily something to which we listen or passively watch. This is why we design services that engage the hearts, minds and voices of the people in as many and varied ways as possible. True Biblical worship therefore requires the people to expend mental, emotional and verbal “effort” and to be as actively engaged in as many aspects of worship as possible. In the process the congregation is also taught how to pray by praying corporately and by using Scripture and hymns to expand the depth and breadth of their prayer.
Having confessed and repented of our sins it is important to actually receive and enjoy God’s pardon. This is the Reception of Pardoning Grace. This is usually done in the form of different passages of Scripture being read each week that accentuate various aspects of God’s forgiveness as it is actually promised in the Word or the fruit that flows from the reception of his pardon. Having received anew his forgiveness we are ready to bring our petitions to him in the Prayers of Intercession. Because we stand as forgiven sinners, robed in the righteousness of Christ alone, we may come boldly before his Throne of Grace as the book of Hebrews says and find grace to help in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Gospel is tangibly expressed in our tithes and offerings followed by the Doxology or some other song extolling our Triune God as the fount of all blessings. This leads to a dedicatory Prayer of Thanksgiving for his provision so that we might have the privilege to give and that he might use the tithes and offerings to glorify himself and extend his Kingdom. Through all that has taken place to this point our hearts have been opened to hear again instruction from God through his preached Word. After the sermon, we again respond to God’s Word by prayer and a hymn, Psalm or song that reflects the theme of the sermon. This provides an opportunity to either challenge one another based on the sermon or to make a commitment to God in light of his truth.
Communion (once per month is our current pattern) follows as the supreme way God sacramentally (through Holy Signs and Seals) offers himself to us in the Gospel. God offers himself to our ears in the Word and to our other senses – sight, smell, taste, etc. in Communion. Augustine called the Lord’s Table, “the Visible Word”. In this way we share together (Communion with one another as well as with Christ) in all the riches of that Gospel feast as the people of God.
Finally we receive his blessing and peace now and forever in the Benediction as we are dismissed to serve him and love one another and a lost world that desperately needs him.
A few remarks in general are in order. It is important to see that, though the logic flow follows a similar pattern each week, the elements used should vary substantially in theme, pace, emphasis and structure in order to forestall the tendency to “the metronome factor” (rote repetition that anesthetizes the spiritual senses). We must remember as Dr. Larry Roff, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary wrote in an article years ago, our worship must not only be “right” (faithful to the regulative principle) it must also be “rich” (full of freshness, vitality, sincerity and passion). This means that much effort must be put into planning services that call from us the best we can offer to our Triune God in robust, content rich and heart felt praise.
Notice a couple of things in summary:
· Worship involves a dialogue between God and the worshippers. And, God initiates and directs the conversation through his Word.
· Worship is rooted in the Gospel in the sense that the person and redemptive work of Christ are in the center of the conversation. There is a Gospel-centered structure to the service as seen in the conversational flow above. He makes it possible for us to approach the Father through the Spirit. Even Old Testament worship was Christ-centered as he was portrayed in the types and shadows of the sacrificial system in the ceremonial law.
· Worship includes singing, but it involves several other elements such as reading and reciting of Scripture, affirmations of faith, repentance and reception of forgiveness, the sacraments, vows (not mentioned above but found in such cases as reception of members and ordination of officers), prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, rendering of tithes and offerings, etc. all of which are also vital and bring vibrancy, breadth and depth to the worship of God. These other elements are not merely preliminaries for the preaching. Indeed preaching is itself primarily an element of worship.
Corporate worship is not simply a matter of what we receive, but it is also about what we bring. Psalm 96:8 says, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.” Biblical worship, by its very nature, is primarily about the One worshipped – not primarily about the desires, preferences or even the needs, of the worshipper.
Actually, OUR greatest “need” is for HIM to be glorified. This brings fulfillment to those made in the image of God more than anything else can!
1“Manifest presence” is a phrase used in some of the Puritan literature to refer to God’s experienced presence as opposed to his omnipresence which of course is real whether we are aware of it or not.
2The Regulative Principle is the doctrine that says that not only who we worship (1stcommandment) but also how we worship (2nd commandment) must be regulated by Scripture rather than our own ideas or hunches.