… commit your whole life to the Lord’s service …
The word “church” literally means assembly. Believers are not on their own, but they get together to serve the Lord. Not only to have fellowship with each other—that too!—but especially to engage in worship. Worship is an activity we can do individually and as families, but the Bible insists on communal worship as well, together with many other believers.
In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to have a day of solemn rest every seventh day, a day “holy to the LORD” (Ex. 31:15). For holiday weeks he also prescribed a solemn assembly (e.g. Lev. 23:36). For godly Israelites it became a custom to meet for worship on those days. After the exile, when many Jews were not able to come to the temple in Jerusalem, they held gatherings called synagogues, in which they prayed, sang psalms, read the Bible, and listened to its explanation.
Read Ps 92:1-4. This psalm is “a song for the Sabbath.” What activities of worship are suggested here? What reasons for worship are given?
Worship of the New Testament church
Read Acts 2:42. Which of the four activities of the church mentioned here were communal? Which of the four activities are typical worship activities?
In the first 300 years of its existence, there were no real church buildings. Christians were generally poor and often had to meet in secret. Having a church building was never essential; but gathering together with God’s people was and is. A Roman governor in the year 112 AD gives the following summary of what Christians did:
They would meet together on a fixed day before light, and sing a hymn to Christ, as to a God, taking turns. They obliged themselves by an oath not to do anything that was wicked: that they would steal, pilfer, or commit adultery; that they would keep their promises and pay back what they owed. Then they met again to have a simple, innocent meal.
The information from the Bible and from church history gives the following typical elements of a worship service:
- singing praise
- confession of sin and dedication to God
- baptism after confession of faith
- reading of Scripture and explanation of it
- the Lord’s Supper
In the 1500s, the Reformation took place. Church leaders such as Luther and Calvin opposed unnecessary rituals, especially surrounding the Lord’s Supper (which was called “Mass”), and emphasized the important role of God’s Word and its preaching.
Read Heidelberg Catechism q&a 103. Which four elements of worship are mentioned there? What is more important, according to the catechism: preaching or the sacraments?
An important emphasis in the Reformed view of worship is that we must not worship God in any other way than he has revealed in his Word. We connect this principle to the second commandment: inventing our own worship elements is similar to making idol images to serve God. Among Reformed and Presbyterian believers there is some discussion about what this means, exactly. For instance, some churches reject the use of musical instruments or other songs than the psalms.
We can also think about our worship service as a covenant dialogue. The Lord made a covenant with us; and as covenant “partners”, we talk with each other, back and forth. The Lord speaks to us in the reading of the word, in the sacraments, and so on; we respond in prayer, singing, and giving. In a good worship service, both directions should be present.
The word liturgy means service; in church context, it refers to the elements, order, and wording of our communal worship. On p. 595-596 of the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise you can find examples of typical Reformed liturgies.
Explain the following liturgical elements: (a) votum; (b) salutation or greeting; (c) offertory; (d) benediction.
Throughout the years, there have always been discussions about liturgy. People have different views of what the best way is to worship. In many Reformed churches you find additional elements:
- “call to worship” (a few verses read before the service begins)
- “prayer of invocation” (a prayer before the service begins, either by the minister or as silent prayer)
- “confession of sin” (usually as a short prayer after the reading of the law)
- “assurance of pardon” (a declaration of the forgiveness of sins for believers)
- “offertory prayer” (often by a deacon, before or after the collection)
There is always much to do about church music. Should we stick to the psalms or sing more hymns that specifically mention the work of Jesus? What style of music and poetry do we use? Would it be good to have more musical instruments? Is it helpful to have a choir sing on occasion? Should people be more involved in the liturgy, for instance by reciting a Bible text or prayer, or a question-and-answer period after the sermon? Should more people be involved, such as an elder praying for the congregation, or someone else reading the Bible text? And so on.
Sadly, such discussions have at times led to “worship wars”. Often people think about these things in terms of being more “progressive/liberal” and more “conservative”. The really important question is: what brings glory to God and builds up the faith and love of the congregation?
The goal of worship and liturgy
The goal of worship is always the praise and glory of God. But if we worship in the right way, it is also a blessing for us. In the end, worship and liturgy is the celebration of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and that is a relationship of love, joy, and blessing.
Do you find love, joy, and blessing in participating in the worship services of your church? If so, what is especially encouraging to you? If not, what might be missing?
The endpoint of all our worship services—of all of our life—is the eternal Sabbath (see q&a 103), the perfect and lasting peace with God on the new earth, where we will praise him perfectly. The book of Revelation shows some wonderful liturgies of the angels in heaven; and one day we will join that worship. Our worship services today are meant to be a “foretaste”, a sampling of that.
Memorize: q&a 103.