Note: This is the final post in a series exploring Reformed 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.
This is the final installment of my posts on the meaning and movement of my church’s worship service. I have already covered the first three elements of our Service for the Lord’s Day: The Gathering, The Word, and The Thanksgiving. And the last movement of the symphony we call worship is The Sending.
Christians have often talked about the “church gathered” and the “church scattered.” Remember: the church is not a building, but the church is Christ’s redeemed people, the communion of saints. Christians are always a part of “the church,” whether we are sitting in a sanctuary together or are traveling the far reaches of the planet. For most of the week, we are scattered to workplaces, homes, recreational destinations, and schools. But for a brief time on Sundays, we gather together with our church family to glorify God and enjoy intimate fellowship with him and with one another at the intersection of worship. When we assemble in our building and lift our hearts, we are sitting in the heavenly places with Christ (Ephesians 2:6), and our songs of praise join the worship that is already happening before the throne of God in heaven (see Revelation 7:9-12).
So just as the Call to Worship invites us to be the “church gathered,” so The Sending propels us out into the world to be the “church scattered.” During our communal encounter with the living God, we are renewed in our inner selves (2 Corinthians 4:16) and filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), as though we are fueled up in preparation for going out into the world to fulfill our vocation as evangelists and missionaries to a darkened and broken world (see John 20:21; Matthew 10:16; and Matthew 28:18-20).
During the closing hymn, we are given one more opportunity to sing God’s praises, to hear his message, and to give thanks for his faithfulness. The Scriptures over and over encourage God’s people to offer up, not just words, but songs of praise. In giving instructions for a holy life, the apostle says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16 TNIV) It doesn’t matter if we use the words of the biblical psalms, songs of faith written by believers past (called “hymns,” from the biblical Greek word humnos), or other musical expressions inspired by the Holy Spirit; it doesn’t matter if our music is “contemporary” or “traditional” (that is a false distinction, usually cited for polemical reasons); and it doesn’t matter if we sing them well or not. It matters that our hearts overflow with song, in gratitude for all that God has done for us. (See also Psalms 33, 96, 98, 144, and 149 for invitations to song.)
Liturgically speaking, the closing hymn also gives one more repetition to the theme of the worship service, whether it’s Jesus the Good Shepherd, evangelism, Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, God’s love, or whatever. Practically speaking, it also gives the Fellowship hosts time to sneak out of the sanctuary and make sure the snacks are set out!
I have not mentioned the work of our acolytes before, but their silent movement is significant to understanding the church gathered and scattered. Prior to the worship service our acolytes (second graders through middle schoolers) bring forward a flame and light the candles on the Lord’s Table. Light and fire are common symbols for God in the Bible. In our assembly, the lit candles signify God’s presence in our midst, his illumination for our path, and the light of Christ that shines in and through our lives. At the end of the service, usually during the closing hymn, the acolytes extinguish the candles and carry the light out of the sanctuary. Likewise, we are challenged to bear the light of Christ out into the world and not merely enjoy it while we are gathered.
Reformed Christians do not necessarily espouse the idea that the pastor or worship leader represents Christ in any meaningful way, as other liturgical Christians envision their priests. However, there are some instances when pastors are vested with Christ’s authority to speak on his behalf. For instance, when pastors preside at the Lord’s Table, they re-enact Christ’s covenant by repeating his words and actions. Likewise, at the closing of the worship service, it is the pastor’s privilege to pronounce God’s blessing on the people as they are sent out into the world.
In the Old Testament, after the priests made sacrifices on behalf of God’s people, they came out of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) with a word of peace from God—that all was well, that reconciliation had been accomplished, that their sins were forgiven, and that they could live in peace. This is similar to what pastors do in the benediction: they bless the people and announce that all is well, usually with the words of the priestly, Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.
“Amen” is an ancient Hebrew word that means, “May it be so,” and it has functioned as a statement of hearty agreement in prayer to God. So what could be more appropriate than for our congregation to add its threefold (or Trinitarian?) “amen” to all that has been said and done during the worship service!
These are the four movements to our Service for the Lord’s Day at First Presbyterian Church: The Gathering, The Word, The Thanksgiving, and The Sending. Like journeying to the center of a labyrinth and then back out again, the order of our worship leads us out of the world and into an encounter with the living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—before leading us back out again. I pray that all who worship in our church family will be blessed, edified, and challenged by the Holy Spirit in our midst.
Soli Deo Gloria! (Glory to God Alone)