I. Public Worship Defined and Described


  1. Public worship includes the entire service.
  2. Too often the other parts of the service are put below the sermon.
  3. We must resolve never to do this.
  4. In urging the people to attend church, lay stress on the fact that we meet together for worship.
  5. Remember that in any part of the service a blessing may be found.
  1. Consider the term "Public Worship."
    1. Worship. (1) As to worship in general; (2) As to Christian worship. It includes: a. A true appreciation of God; b. A recognition of the spiritual character of the worshiper.
    2. Public worship. Two features: (1) The special presence of Christ; (2) The presence of others; a Limiting and b. enlarging the sphere of worship.

      NOTE. The Authority for Public Worship.
      1. Divine command.
      2. Human instinct.
    1. It should be devout: (1) Preparation of leader; (2) Services a heavenward aspect; (3) Services decorous: (4) Services solemn.
    2. It should be inspiring: (1) True worship is full of life; (2) This is the special province of church music.
    3. It should be intelligent.
    4. It should be restful: (1) Leader to avoid impropriety; (2) Worship simple and fervid; (3) Worship harmonious.

Public Worship Defined and Described

1. UNDER Public Worship we include the entire service, from the invocation to the benediction. The sermon should not dominate all other parts of the service, as though it were a mountain and they only a plain lying in its shadow. The other parts of the service should not dwarf the sermon, and by their number or length leave no time or vigor for the full delivery of its message. The Protestant Reformation necessarily laid much stress upon preaching.

2. By the very attitude that it assumed that great movement was put on the defensive, and therefore needed to support its claims by a constant appeal to Scripture. "The Christian congregation," Martin Luther asserted, "should never assemble except the word of God be preached." The same emphatic insistence upon the sermon characterized the churches which, a century or so later, broke away from a liturgy and held by a freer form of worship. The Puritan, in all lands, has been earnest in his plea for the sermon; and it would be idle to assert that in doing this he has not frequently neglected equally important parts of the service. "In other countries," said Isaac Taylor, "the bell calls people to worship; in Scotland it calls them to a preachment." Charles Kingsley, "with a sneer unworthy both of his genius and his character," found fault with the Dissenters of England because they "went to the church to hear sermons."

3. At the present time the disposition on the part of the non-liturgical churches is toward a reasonable enrichment of the service. It was in the interest of the sermon, as much as of any other part of the public worship of God, that Phillips Brooks declared: "You never can make a sermon what it ought to be if you consider it alone. The service that accompanies it, the prayer and praise, must have their influence upon it."

4. It is well for us, at the outset, to recognize the importance of each part of the church service, and also of the act of worship as a whole. Not to hear a sermon any more than to read the Bible, to sing, or to pray, does the congregation come together. It meets to do all these as conducive to public worship. In urging people to attend church it will be well for us to lay stress upon the fact that we meet for this purpose mainly. "I remember," said Dr. R. W. Dale, "that before I was a minister myself, I was very much astonished when I heard ministers reasoning with their congregations about the duty of attending public worship regularly. I used to think that if I were a preacher and could not make my sermons good enough and attractive enough to induce people to come and listen to me in crowds, and because they could not stop away, I should shrink from the humiliation of implicitly confessing my inefficiency by imploring them to come. That was proof of my folly and ignorance. As if Christian people were to meet together principally to listen to a sermon."

5. In what part of the service may not a blessing be found? Insisting upon the care that should be taken in the selection of the hymns to be sung, Mr. Spurgeon recalls the circumstance that an "ungodly stranger stepping into one of our services, at Exeter Hall, was brought to the cross by the words of Wesley's verse: 'Jesus, lover of my soul.'" A country boy unused to public worship goes to a church in Boston, and wearied with his first week of work in the city, sleeps through the entire service. The closing prayer was almost spoken when the hand of sleep was lifted from him. His opening eyes were upon a devout congregation, and his ears caught the four closing words: "For Christ's sake, Amen." "That sleeper was Dwight L. Moody, and the last words of that closing prayer, leading to his conversion, became the motto of a life which alone would be a glory to any church and pastor; a motto very simple, but covering time and eternity: 'For Christ's sake, Amen.'"

I. We may first consider the term "Public Worship." These two words need to be looked at in their intention and extent. Evidently the second of them is limited by the first; but we shall do well to think, before going any farther, of 1. What is understood by "worship."

(1) As to worship in general, then, a good deal can be learned from the mere word itself. It is a contraction of the old Saxon noun "worth-ship," which was applied to "a person in recognition of the good qualities or worth which he was supposed to possess." Sometimes more honored in the breach than the observance, it still survives in the title given the English mayor, "Your Worship," as "Your Honor" is used as a figure of speech in America. "Then the noun came to be in the verbal form, and to worship was to recognize the worth of the person to whom the worship is addressed. To worship God is to recognize in appropriate ways the worth that is in him." The Book of Common Prayer, preserving this old meaning of the word "worthy," reminds the worshipers that they assemble "to set forth God's most worthy praise"; and when we meet together for worship it is, first of all, to recognize the worth of the God in whose honor it is celebrated.

(2) In Christian worship there is a double modification of this idea.

a. We must have a true appreciation of God as "the Father of our spirits." "God is a Spirit," said Jesus to the woman of Samaria, in the discourse which still remains our fullest authority on the true character of worship, "and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." "God is the mind of the universe. Force, law, harmony, all this is of God. And yet remark the coldness of this, for he is thus revealed only as a God for the intellect, not for the heart. Therefore for the heart he is revealed as a Father." Here, then, is the revelation of God by Jesus which is the very core of our Christian worship.

b. A further modification of the general idea of worship is found in the spiritual character of the worshiper. The true worshiper "shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers." The voice which spoke this was the voice of the prophet rather than of the priest. To worship the Lord in "the beauty of holiness" could never again be made to mean to worship him "in holy array."It was not the Pharisee, correct in dress and posture, but the penitent publican, who went down to his home justified. To pray "lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting" is to pray indeed. The state of heart of the worshiper will largely determine the acceptableness of his worship before God.

2. We pass on to inquire what is meant by public worship, and we notice that it must have two distinguishing features.

(1) The special presence of Christ. It is only when we meet one with another that we can claim the gracious promise of our divine Master: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." "In entering into perfect union with each other they enter into perfect union with him. The intimacy of their union with each other determines the intimacy of their union with himself... The church is dear to us because in the church is granted to us the special manifestation of the glory and goodness of God." To be assured of the presence of Christ should be the first—shall we not say, the chief?—ambition of the minister. Graduating from the seminary, Dr. R. S. Storrs heard words from an honored and eminent pastor in Boston (Dr. N. Adams) which he never forgot, and which we also do well to lay to heart: "In a certain congregation there was a hearer of whose presence the speaker was not aware during the delivery of his sermon. When the fact of that hearer's presence was made known to him it had a great effect upon the preacher... Who was the preacher, and who this hearer? The preacher, I doubt not, may have been any young minister present, and the hearer was Jesus Christ. When the great and the learned and the honored of earth come to hear you; when we meet a few of our flock in that distant schoolhouse on a dark and stormy night, in the bungalow, or under the plantain or the palm, or in those South African huts, where you must creep like an animal to get in, remember that you cannot speak in his name but you will speak in his ear."

(2) The second feature which distinguishes public worship is the presence of others. Worship is congregational. It is common in the sense in which that word is used in the phrase, "The Book of Common Prayer."

This fact both limits and enlarges the sphere of worship.

a. It limits it, since because of it the worship becomes not private and peculiar to any one person; but, so far as it is possible to make it so, worship in which all may join. The purely personal element must be made subordinate. There are many hymns which are suitable to the heart in its solitude, or to the family circle around the piano at home, or even to the prayer meeting, which are entirely out of place when in the promiscuous congregation everything that hath breath is invited to praise the Lord. So of petitions and confessions to be used in prayer, and so of many chapters in the Bible. If our common worship is more than any lonely altar can express, it is also less.

b. But the fact that the worship with which we are dealing is public, also enlarges its scope. We join in the rich and varied devotion of the whole congregation. For acceptable worship we need each of us a heart of all conditions. It must be our aim "to pray with the sorrowful for comfort, and with the guilty for mercy, to offer thanksgiving with those whose hearts are filled with music and whose homes are bright with joy. Some part of the service should touch and satisfy each worshiper."In her declining years, when perhaps the memories of her early religious fervor frequently came back to her mind, George Eliot wrote to a friend: "If there were no reasons against my following such an inclination, I should go to church or chapel constantly for the sake of the delightful emotions of fellowship which come over me in religious assemblies, the very nature of such assemblies being the recognition of a binding belief or spiritual law, which is to lift us into willing obedience and save us from the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse." Unconsciously to herself, the writer by these words echoed the apostolic injunction: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing near."

NOTE. At this point it may be well for us to notice upon what the authority for public worship rests.

1. It is based upon divine command. The following passages are only a few among many which might be cited: Exod. 34:14; Deut. 26:10; 2 Kings 17:36; Ps. 95:6; Acts 2:42; Col. 3:16; Heb. 3:12-14.

2. It also rests upon our own human instinct. Worship is the satisfaction of a deep-seated impulse of our nature. To believe in a God is to feel need, gratitude, yearning, aspiration. To all these worship gives such an expression as will be sought for elsewhere in vain. There is sound sense in the suggestion of Doctor Tucker: "The Puritan churches have made their uninterrupted appeal for many generations to the reason and conscience. Why should they not also make the appeal more distinctively and impressively to the instinct of reverence and to the craving for worship?" By no other human act can we do such full justice to Augustine's golden words: "O Lord, thou madest us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in thee." And in no other part of our religious life do we more evidently engage

In such rich offices as suit

The full-grown energies of heaven

II. We are now prepared to glance at some prominent features in Public Worship.

1. First among these we place that reverence which is so prominent in the worship of the Old and New Testament; and we say that public worship should be devout. This is what moved Jacob when he awakened from his dream at Bethel to exclaim, "How dreadful is this place!" it prompted the psalmist to sing, "Holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, for evermore"; in the presence of the vision of the Lord in his majesty, this brought from Isaiah the cry, "Woe is me! for I am undone;.. for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." And this it is which inspires the four living creatures in the Revelation who have no rest day and night, saying, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, which was, and which is, and which is to come."

To cherish this devout feeling in his own heart and in the heart of the congregation must be the first endeavor of the minister. The essential idea of the church, Wendell Phillips held to be, "the stated expression of devotional feeling." Praise and prayer and preaching should all promote this.

In our own time reverence is lamentably lacking in many religious services, and it is probable that to this fact, in part, we must ascribe the trend toward liturgical forms of worship which, whatever may be said of the spirit, anyhow preserve an outward deference in the letter. And yet when one recalls the services in which this spirit of reverence was most prominent, it is only fair to confess that they have been oftener than not the services of the free churches rather than those which are confined within the lines of a prescribed liturgy. This needs to be said in order to insist that in this matter, as in so many others, the minister is bound to be an example to his congregation. On him very largely will it rest to make the public worship devout.

(1) Previous to the service let him prepare his spiritual nature by private prayer and meditation, so that he can say, like David, "My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed."

(2) During the whole conduct of public worship let him keep in mind that the services have a heavenward as well as an earthward aspect. He stands in the pulpit, as it were, to be the exponent of each of these. With angels and archangels, as well as with men and women like himself, he worships God.

(3) At the bidding of no transient clamor for the sensational should he allow himself to forget the decorum which ought to mark his conduct of the service. Not reverence alone, but even the simplest canon of good taste is violated by the minister of whom a Boston paper reports that, on a national anniversary, one feature in the morning worship was "the playing of 'The Star Spangled Banner' softly on the organ while the pastor was praying."

(4) By his carriage, his tone, his whole conduct, he must impress the congregation with a solemn sense of the most responsible position which he occupies as he leads them in their devotions. Let him pray to be gifted at such times with "a nature at once essentially spiritual, and withal truly human in its sympathies."

2. Again, public worship should be inspiring.

(1) True worship is stimulating and elevating, because it is affluent in life. "This seems to be the condition on which the Jewish prayer book (the Psalter) insists beyond all others, the association of the object of our worship with the idea of life... The one thing on which it insists is, that its God shall be a living God. That for which the soul of the psalmist thirsts is a fountain of life, an object which, by community of life, can commune with his own nature. 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.' One would almost imagine that he had in his mind certain prevalent conceptions of God which made religion 'a dry, parched land.'"

(2) Evidently to rouse and quicken this sense of life, to inspire the worshiper with its enthusiasm, is the special province of church music. It is after invoking the aid of voice and instrument that the psalmist concludes, "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord."

a. There may be certain parts of the service which are not for the whole congregation, and there seems to be no more reason in the man who cannot play or sing trying to do these than in the man who cannot preach afflicting his brethren with an exhortation. The chant, the anthem, the organ solo, rendered for me by others, may express my sense of praise as I myself cannot.

b. But because the musical part of the service has in it this element of life to a rare degree, it is desirable that it should be largely congregational. To very few people is the ability denied to join heartily in a hymn or chant.

c. It should be added that the inspiring character of our worship will very largely determine which hymns shall be most frequently sung. "Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints." The hymns on which the heart of the church has been set in all ages, and especially in times of religious revival and of spiritual quickening, have been hymns of praise.

3. Further, public worship should be intelligent. This follows from the nature of the God whom we adore. It is the Father whom the true worshiper worships in spirit and in truth. John Stuart Mill gave utterance to a supremely Christian sentiment when he said: "If instead of the glad tidings that there exists a Being in whom all the excellencies which the highest human mind can conceive exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a Being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn... convince me of it, and I will bear my fate as I may." It was the joy of each apostle and early preacher that he could confront heathen darkness and philosophical surmise with the assurance: "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you."

Moreover, that our worship must be intelligent is evident if we remember the purpose which it is intended to serve.

When he conducts the public religious service, the minister aims to do three things: First, he speaks for himself and his congregation to God; this he does by his words of prayer and by the voice of praise in which he invites the congregation to join. Secondly, he speaks as God's voice to man; by the reading of the Scriptures. Thirdly, he speaks as a man with a message from God to men; and this finds its utterance in the sermon. The main purpose served by public worship, therefore, is intelligent communion with the Father of our spirits. It brings him near to the worshiper, and the worshiper near to him.

4. As a final point, we claim that public worship should be restful. The thing which we intend by this word is perhaps easier understood than defined. It is what the devout worshiper gratefully recognizes when it is present, and wofully misses when, as too often happens, it is absent. It has nothing in common with somnolence or inaction. It is easily disturbed and dissipated. It is capable of distinct cultivation.

(1) We mention only a minor matter, but yet it is one which cannot be passed by without a note of warning, when we say that in public worship the minister should avoid everything which may jar upon that sense of propriety which a refined and cultured worshiper possesses. Not by dress or behavior or language should he offend the reasonable good taste of any of his congregation.

(2) He should strive that the whole act of worship should be simple and fervid and full of spiritual unction.

(3) He will do well to preserve some measure of harmony between the various parts of the service. Of a minister who gave much care to this matter, it was said: "Whatever the subject of his sermon may be, his prayers, the parts of Scripture read, the hymns sung, are all dominated by the central idea of that subject. The whole service illustrates, as it were, the truth or truths he wishes to impress upon his hearers. There is no haphazard or digression; all is proportionate and relative."Of Robertson of Irvine, the poet-preacher of Scotland, his biographer writes: "The correlatives, as he called them,—praise, prayer, and preaching,—were built up by him on the principle of a progressive unity." And of another minister of the same church, a casual worshiper says: "As we listened to him the other day we could not but remark the oneness of the preacher, the service, and the building. All three were instinct with homogeneous reverence and naturalness." Contrast with this conception of what worship should be, the following report of a service in another place: "We had solos, congregational hymns, organ voluntaries, the brass band of Salvation Army household troops, the singing of a body of hallelujah lads and lassies, while occasional volleys of loud applause by the audience interlarded the services throughout." It is not difficult to decide which of these services would be the more reverent, inspiring, intelligent, and restful.

Exceptional circumstances will no doubt lead us to vary the service, and even at special times to entirely alter its character; but for the ordinary worship in our churches we may surely claim that it be marked by these four features. The test of a service is often found in the impression which it leaves on the mind of a devout person. Coming away he should be solemnized, quickened, enlightened, and refreshed. His heart should bear witness to the fine discernment of Wordsworth's lines:

I bent before thy gracious throne,

And asked for peace on suppliant knee;

And peace was given—nor peace alone,

But faith sublimed to ecstasy.