Note: Over the next 5 weeks or so, I will publish posts exploring worship, including an annotated commentary of my church’s worship service, a modified version of the Service for the Lord’s Day from the Book of Common Worship. You may read Part 1 here.
As I’ve mentioned before, all you need to do is walk into different churches on Sunday mornings (or even Saturday evenings!) to discover that not all churches are alike. Some are loud and boisterous; some are quiet and contemplative; some are a little of both. Some Christian worship services are stripped down to bare bones: announcements, songs, sermon, and the offering (there’s always an offering). Other Christian worship services are elaborate, including liturgical actions such as confessing sins, chanting songs, reciting a creed and/or the Lord’s Prayer, kneeling, as well as the other bare-bones components (including the offering, because there’s always an offering).
So who says what a worship service should look like and what it should include? This is a question that, unfortunately, divides the body of Christ greatly. Some Christians are locked into a liturgical cycle, and some Christians make sure they are not locked into anything. And some of us—like us Reformed Christians—are somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, the Bible tells us very little about how we should do worship. The Book of Acts says that, following his ascension, Jesus’ followers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42 ESV). The apostle Paul observed that when “you [that is, the church] come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV). But these tantalizing Scriptural morsels only vaguely describe the earliest Christian worship and offer no prescriptions for how to properly worship the Lord.
Of course the Old Testament is full of instructions about how to offer sacrifices and how the priests are to present offerings before the Lord. But most Christians would agree that those regulations, which were part of the Old Covenant, have been fulfilled by Jesus’ sacrifice (see Hebrews 7:27; 8:6; and 9:12) and are therefore no longer relevant to the New Covenant.
So that leaves us little to go on besides applying wisdom to Scripture and tradition and trying to faithfully worship God in a way that honors him and promotes communion between believers and their Lord.
Justin Martyr, an early church leader (died A.D. 165), described how the believers of his day were worshiping, and it helps shed light on the worship forms that still exist in the church today: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [that is, the presider of the Table] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying ‘Amen;’ and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president.” (First Apology, “Weekly Worship of the Christians”).
Over time, as Christians reflected on the apostles’ teachings and the practice of the early church, a four-fold pattern to Christian worship emerged that is still discernable in most churches’ liturgies (liturgy, meaning “the people’s service,” is the fancy word for the order of worship): Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending. These movements give shape to the Roman Catholic Mass, the Lutheran Divine Service, the Anglican Eucharistic Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy, Reformed churches’ Service for the Lord’s Day, and even, to some extent, evangelical “free” churches’ worship services.
But, as that diverse list demonstrates, when well-meaning Christians set about to structure a worship service, they may end up with very different products, even if their beginning points are roughly the same. How many memorized parts should be in a worship service? How often should Communion be celebrated? How much of the service should be written down and how much should be extemporaneous? Annie Dillard, an author and a Christian, summed up the debate about which words and actions we should use as we approach the living God like this: “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.” Well said.
In the coming weeks, I will take each of the four movements of our worship service (Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending) and explore how they shape our Sunday morning assemblies. Hopefully, as you probe our worship along with me, you will appreciate our particular approach to worship while better understanding other traditions. And my prayer is that, as you understand worship more deeply, you will be drawn into a deeper relationship with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)