By Douglas Sean O’Donnell
In this opening chapter, we will consider various aspects of what is undoubtedly the highest calling of the church—worship of our great God.
I should warn you—Kent has Quaker roots, and I Roman Catholic. What a former Quaker and Roman Catholic might together say about worship in the free-church evangelical tradition warrants careful and cautionary reading. Kent’s first memory of Christianity is the 1949 Los Angeles Billy Graham crusade. His Southern Baptist grandmother took him to the huge tent set up on the corner of Washington and Hill Streets. “The dressed-up crowd, the young evangelist’s blue eyes radiating in the spotlights, and cowboy Stuart Hamblen singing ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’” are a few of the memorizes etched in his mind., ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 136. After the crusade, Kent attended Vermont Avenue Presbyterian Church. Of that experience, he recalls, “It was there, hushed and seated with my mother along with other reverent worshippers in the dark, Scottish-kirk ambience of that old church, that I began to sense the transcendence of God and to be drawn to Christ.”, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 136.
Christ drew Kent to himself in a saving way as a teenager through the Christians at Granada Heights Friends Church. While this was a Quaker congregation, the worship style was eclectic, blending aspects from free-church traditions such as the Methodists, Nazarenes, and Baptists. The church’s “liturgy” looked like that of many evangelical services today: a season of congregational singing (including gospel songs and choruses, with perhaps a hymn and a choir number) followed by a sermon. It did, however, include a short time of silence, a vestige from the Quakers’ traditional silent meetings. One aspect of worship this congregation was not silent about was evangelism! And like his church, Kent regarded evangelism as the Christian’s highest calling. However, this emphasis, as God-ordained and honoring as it was, deemphasized, as least in Kent’s mind, the purpose of corporate worship. He reflects: “I certainly never gave any thought as to the purpose of our Lord’s Day gatherings, other than as a venue for preaching.”, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 137. For more on Kent’s upbringing, see Randy Gruendyke, “Disciplines of a Godly Minister: A Biographical Sketch,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 258–262. Even his embrace of Calvinism before seminary never led him to theological reflection on worship.
It was only after seminary, as Kent served as a youth pastor and then church planter, that serious reflection began. Hughes described the atmosphere from which his many thoughtful questions, such as, “Is this authentic worship or entertainment?” arose:
Irreverence became widespread. Congregational prayers were often a mindless stream-of-consciousness offered in a “kicked-back” cannabis tone. Mantra-like music was employed to mesmerize worshippers, and preachers were replaced by “communicators” who offered bromides strung together with a series of relational anecdotes.
During his twenty-seven years as the senior pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, Kent’s philosophy and practice of congregational worship was honed. He has thought long and hard about answers to questions such as:
In what follows, I have summarized some of his thoughts and added my own.
To say something of my path to serious reflection on the topic of corporate worship, I will simply add that the nineteen years I spent at St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Parish, two years at Willow Creek Community Church, and nearly twenty years as a pastor/church planter with College Church all influenced me, with the emphasis of influence falling on the latter. My times at College Church and its church plants—Holy Trinity in Chicago, Christ the King in Batavia, Illinois, and New Covenant in Naperville, Illinois, where I helped develop various orders of service, write a philosophy of music, and plan and execute special services—refined my own thoughts on the matter. To see if I’ll advocate a blend of the sign of the cross, a splash of holy water, smooth jazz soloists, comfortable auditorium seating, expository preaching, and “A Mighty Fortress” on the organ, you’ll have to read on.
Kent and I have both been to Oz and back—the island of Australia, that is. In fact, I am there now, serving as a lecturer at Queensland Theological College in Brisbane. Our major Oz influence, however, comes from the Sydney Anglicans, especially those associated with Moore Theological College. Kent credits Graeme Goldsworthy, William Dumbrell, Peter Jensen, and Phillip Jensen, among others, for clarifying his view that worship is more than what happens on Sunday. In the New Testament, worship clearly embodies all of life!
The biblical evidence is conclusive. Jesus’s coming fulfilled Scripture’s promise of a new covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31–34). And it is most significant that the entire text of this substantial prophecy is recorded in Hebrews 8:7–13, in the midst of a section (Hebrews 7–11) that asserts there is no longer any earthly sacrifice, priesthood, or temple because all have been fulfilled in Christ. There are no longer any sacred times or sacred places. Under the new covenant, Christians are thus to worship all the time—in their individual lives, in their family lives, and when they come together for corporate worship. Corporate worship, then, is a particular expression of a life of perpetual worship. This is what worship is: “Day-in-day-out living for Christ, the knees and heart perpetually bent in devotion and service.”
Thus, with the New Testament perspective in mind, as Christians we must center our worship on Christ as the temple, priest, and sacrifice; and we must reject traditions that advocate for sacred spaces—“sanctuaries,” “tabernacles,” and such—as well as for an ordained “priesthood,” along with any elements of the levitical cultus of Aaronic vestments, altars, and bloodless sacrifices.
That said, the designated place where Christians worship is, in some sense, set apart. It is not a sanctified place, but it is a special place—whether it is St. Paul’s London or the DuPage Children’s Museum (where my church worshiped for a number of months before we moved into another rented space). Moreover, while we embrace the priesthood of all believers, we recognize that a church is not a church without appointed leaders (elders and deacons), as the Pastoral Epistles make clear. Lastly, individual devotion does not negate gathering on the Lord’s Day to worship the risen Lord until his return. We should make it our habit to gather to encourage one another (see Heb. 10:25), each person prepared to build others up (1 Cor. 14:26), knowing that Sunday through Saturday, as brothers, we are called “to present your [plural] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your [plural] spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).
But why do we gather on Sunday? The New Testament, perhaps surprisingly, speaks little on this issue. The emphasis of the New Testament is on mutual edification, as is clear in Hebrews 10:25 (“encouraging one another”), 1 Corinthians 14:26 (“When you come together. . . . Let all things be done for building up”), and the gatherings described in Acts. Evangelism is also mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14. The hope of a Spirit-filled assembly would be the “unbeliever or outsider . . . falling on his face,” worshiping God, and declaring that “God is really among you” (vv. 24–25). (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2008), 32. Beyond edification and evangelism is the obvious: exaltation! If the church’s desire is that the unbeliever “worship God” (v. 25), then there is little doubt the believers should be on their faces before God as well. Views that advocate that corporate assemblies are merely to edify believers or evangelize unbelievers miss the plain fact that if Christ is not lifted up in praise, no believer is edified and no unbeliever is saved. When the New Testament speaks of God’s people gathering to pray (to God), sing (to God), and preach (God’s gospel), it assumes exaltation. Christian worship encompasses the threefold goal of edification, evangelism, and exaltation. And those three aspects of public worship intersect and support each other on many levels. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), David Peterson argues that edification and evangelism emerge “as a priority for those concerned to offer to God ‘acceptable worship’” (188). By those means, we engage with the true and living God on his terms “and in the way that he alone makes possible” (20). Peterson likewise acknowledges the importance of exaltation. In his chapter on the book of Revelation, he writes, “the Revelation to John stresses the importance of praise and acclamation as a means of honouring God and encouraging his people to trust him and obey him” (279). However, with that said, he does summarize “the purpose of Christian gatherings” to be edification (287). From our acclamation of God, the church is built up, and unbelievers tremble and (Lord willing) trust! As Hughes puts it:
I have come to see that while all of life is worship, gathered worship with the body of Christ is at the heart of a life of worship. Corporate worship is intended by God to inform and elevate a life of worship. In this respect, I personally view how we conduct gathered worship as a matter of life and death.
“Life and death”? Those are strong words. What does it matter how we conduct our Sunday worship service? As long as “all things [are] done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), aren’t all aspects of our edification/evangelism/exaltation liturgy acceptable? Before I answer that important question, a history lesson is necessary. (You can blame this excursus on me and my church history obsession and education, or on Kent, whose work I’m hanging the following thoughts upon.)
The free-church tradition—of which the majority of our readers are a part (just an educated guess)—grew from a protest against Protestant traditions ungrounded in Scripture. In early seventeenth-century England, groups labeled “Puritans” and “Separatists” desired to worship according to the Word. Even though Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer bled Bible, there was reason for reform. “What does the Word of God say about worship?” was a legitimate question. The Puritans wanted to explore what God’s pure revelation said; Separatists (some Anglican Puritans included) wanted to separate from England’s official but not God-ordained religion. The Church of England was not the church. Their critique, summarized with seven points, involved divergent views of (1) preaching, (2) Scripture, (3) prayer, (4) singing, (5) sacraments, (6) simplicity, and (7) vestments. In brief, they advocated the following changes:
Those of us in the free-church tradition worship in the liturgical world created by these reformers. While we should be respectful and appreciative of other Christian traditions (Cranmer’s Prayer Book is incredibly thoughtful and rich), we should also celebrate these changes. The freedom to dress like the people in our congregations, structure the service with biblical simplicity, pray our own heartfelt words, preach our own expositional sermons from Bible texts, and administer the sacraments according to the clear dictates of the Word are reasons to rejoice.
However, there is little doubt today that these freedoms have been abused, and the freedom to worship according to the Word has deteriorated into the freedom to do what works. Pragmatism, not Biblicism, rules the day! From Charles Finney’s “new measures” revivals of the nineteenth century to Bill Hybels’s seeker-sensitive services of recent years, many evangelical churches do what is right in their own eyes. The regulative principle (that we worship based on biblical prescriptions), trans. Henry Beveridge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 17. regulates few independent evangelical churches today. Between the new cultuses of authentic spontaneity and programmatic anthropocentrism, we must find a scriptural center.
What does God’s Word say about corporate worship? We also can ask the question this more focused way: What scriptural characteristics help control Christian worship? The answer can be a hundredfold! There are many scriptural principles, practices, and paradigms we should use to guide us, such as: our worship should be Trinitarian (“Father-focused, Christ-centered, and Spirit-enabled”),, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 62. reflective of God’s transcendence and immanence in balance, and salvation-celebratory as we focus on the life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. Moreover, our worship should be exclusive (we worship Yahweh alone, not alongside other gods), dependent on God’s initiative (we love God because he first loved us), eye-opening, heart-expanding, and mind-renewing. Or we can simply follow Terry Johnson’s excellent summary that worship that is reformed according to the Bible is simple, spiritual, and substantial:
[It is] simple because the New Testament does not describe a complex ritual of service as is found in the Old Testament; spiritual because when Jesus removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshiped (Jn 4:7–24), He signaled the abolition of all the material forms that constituted the typological Old Testament system including not only the city, but all that gave the city significance—the temple, the altars, the priests, the sacrificial animals, and the incense; substantial because the God of the Bible is a great God and cannot be worshiped appropriately with forms that are light, flippant, or superficial; He must always be worshiped with “reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28). (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege, 2013), 9.
With all that is said above duly noted, perhaps the two most glaring omissions in the contemporary free-church tradition are (1) the fear of God and (2) the Word of God read, sung, prayed, and preached. When you can bet your Cadillac that there will be greater reverence (“godly fear,” Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5) and more Bible reading(s), songs, and prayers at the local Roman Catholic Church than at the Bible church, you know something is terribly amiss. A new reformation is in order! We must protest all Protestantism that will not tremble before God as we listen to his voice proclaimed. We must return to bibliocentric, God-fearing worship that exalts, edifies, and evangelizes.
If by God’s sovereign grace liturgical reformation is to sweep through the contemporary free churches, a return to their Protestant liturgical traditions (which is a return to the Word) is in order. In Worship Reformed according to Scripture, Hughes Oliphant Old lists fifteen of “the most valuable worship traditions at the heart of the heritage of Reformed Protestantism.” The first involves preaching the Bible: “At the head of the list should certainly be expository preaching. This has always been the glory of Protestant worship.” The final valued tradition, but certainly not the least, involves our attitude: “The greatest single contribution that the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence and simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 172, 176. “Reverence and fear are at the heart of Christian worship.” D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 119–120. For these two often neglected characteristics of worship under the new covenant—(1) bibliocentric, (2) God-fearing worship—I will, ironically enough, explore two Old Testament texts. We will then conclude by answering how these characteristics and others listed above play out in our Sunday gatherings. We begin with Ecclesiastes 5:1–7., Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 107–119; used with permission.
Many years ago, I went to a wealthy suburban church that had sermon titles such as “What Would Jesus Say to Bart Simpson?” and that, for its youth day, had its teenagers stream down the aisles dressed like inner-city gang members as they rapped out the opening “hymn,” with the appropriate ganglike hand gestures. More recently, I attended a church that showed hilarious homemade video clips to season the sermonette. I have also heard about a church that hands out free popcorn as you enter the “sanctuary,” and another where everyone bounces around a beach ball during the “worship” band’s performance. Although these examples are perhaps extreme, they show a growing trend. Today, as our churches overflow with folksy entertainment and raw “authenticity,” we live in one of the most sacrilegious and blasphemous church cultures in the history of Christianity. No joke.
Yet each generation has troubles of its own. In New Testament times, James criticized those in the church who were showing favoritism toward the rich (James 2:2–4), and Paul decried those in the Corinthian church who were getting drunk on the Communion wine (1 Cor. 11:21). Jesus got out a whip for those making a profit on the pilgrims to Jerusalem, treating the temple like a den of thieves (John 2:13–17). In Old Testament times, the prophets called out the hypocrites who walked through the sacrificial motions (e.g., Isa. 29:13; Mal. 1:14). And in Ecclesiastes 5:1–7, Pastor Solomon (Qoheleth) prophetically shares some choice words of his own for the recreationally religious person who is oblivious that his “worship” is highly offensive to God. Put simply, he warns the “fool” (vv. 1, 3, 4) to fear God (v. 7). Put differently and more broadly, he instructs all of God’s people at all times on how to worship wisely.
As we approach God in worship, Pastor Solomon wants to establish a safe distance between us and the transcendent God. He does this with two imperatives given at the top (v. 1) and tail (v. 7) of the text. At the top, we are charged to watch out when we go to worship (“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God”), and at the tail, we are given the central charge of wisdom literature: to fear God. This inclusio of admonitions counsels “caution, reverence, restraint, moderation, and sincerity” before the Lord., Anchor Bible 18C (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 197.
In Ecclesiastes 1–4, we learn a number of things about God, including that whatever God does endures forever (3:14), that God has given us work to be busy with (3:10), that God grants us enjoyment in our work (2:24–25; 3:13) and the reward of wisdom, knowledge, and joy (2:26), that God has made everything beautiful in its time (3:11), and that in his time he will judge the righteous and the wicked (3:17).
In Ecclesiastes 5:1–7, we learn three truths about God. First, God has a house. In verse 1, “the house of God” references Solomon’s temple, built in the tenth century BC and destroyed in 587 BC. While it stood, the temple was a visible testimony to God’s absolute holiness. There Isaiah saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1) as the seraphim called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (v. 3). The temple symbolized God’s holiness—that is, he was inaccessible except by sacrifice through a priestly mediator, and even such a priestly mediator could be incinerated by God’s consuming fire (Lev. 10:1–2; cf. 15:31; 1 Sam. 6:19–20). Of course, God was not limited to this human-made house. In Solomon’s dedication of the temple, he says as much: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Solomon echoes that prayer in Ecclesiastes 5:2, proclaiming that “God is in heaven.” Is God in the temple and in heaven? Yes, he is: “the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3; cf. Deut. 4:39). Wherever God is, there is a distance and difference between the Creator and his creation. He is not our peer: “I am God and not a man, the Holy One” (Hos. 11:9).
Second, God knows and judges the way we worship. He sees into our hearts—the attitudes behind the actions—and judges whether our worship is “acceptable worship” (Heb. 12:28) or not. If it is not, he renders his judgment against “the [mere] appearance of godliness” (2 Tim. 3:5). He gets “angry” at the blabbering fool and “destroys” (i.e., does not accept) his sacrificed animal and retracted vow (Eccl. 5:5–6).
Third, unlike the gods of the Gentiles, which are deaf and dumb, Israel’s God hears and speaks. In the temple, God’s people were told “to draw near to listen” (Eccl. 5:1), and in the temple, God heard and accepted sincere sacrificial vows.
So, then, in light of God’s transcendence, omnipresence, omniscience, and holiness (God has a house); justice (God knows and judges our worship); and forgiveness and accessibility (God hears and speaks), “God is the one you must fear” (Eccl. 5:7). Our perpetual posture before the Lord should be that of humility, awe, reverence, and faith. We are to come with boldness and confidence before our good, approachable King (mixed, of course, with a bit of shaking in our boots). As Annie Dillard fittingly describes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 114.
This God “in heaven” (Eccl. 5:2), who rules time (3:1–15) and judges all peoples (3:16–22), nevertheless can be approached. The Preacher emphasizes this approachability by changing in chapter 5 from his “reflective ‘journaling’ style” to sermonizing., International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 167. That is, he moves from first-person observations (e.g., “I saw” and “I considered”) to second-person imperatives (e.g., “[You] pay what you vow” and “You must fear”). This is the first time in the book that the reader is addressed and admonished.
Having looked at God, let us turn our attention to you. Between the two imperatives that frame our text, we find a number of negative admonitions: “Be not rash with your mouth” (5:2), “do not delay paying it” (v. 4), and “let not your mouth lead you into sin” (v. 6). All the admonitions are warnings about words in worship, about nouns and verbs related to verbal communication: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word” (5:2); “a fool’s voice . . . many words” (v. 3); “not vow . . . and not pay” (v. 5); “let not your mouth . . . do not say . . . your voice” (v. 6); and “words grow many” (v 7).
Drawing near to God requires that we listen before we speak:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. (Eccl. 5:1–3)
Temple sacrifices were offered in silence. In effect, the silence shouted out the steadfast love of a holy, holy, holy God for undeserving sinners. Then the silence was broken by a reading from the Law of Moses and an explanation for the people. The response to hearing from God was to speak to God—through prayers, songs, and sometimes personal vows. The service closed with a benediction.
The emphasis in Ecclesiastes 5:1–3 is on listening to the Word of God. This listening ear is contrasted with the mouths of fools. Here the foolish worshipers are not necessarily those who bring blind, lame, or sick animals to be sacrificed (“they do not know that they are doing evil,” v. 1); rather, the foolish are those who sin with their mouths. Instead of being like Moses before the burning bush—with their sandals off, mouths shut, and ears open, respectfully revering the Lord, Ex. 3:5)—they chatter on before their Creator. They mumble mantras before the Almighty! With hollow hearts and blank minds, they offer up “empty phrases” (Matt. 6:7), thinking that the more they talk, the more God will listen.
In the temple, Israel was to listen first. As Christians, we know and appreciate that through Jesus’s death, our Lord judged the temple (Matt. 21:13; 23:38) and replaced it (Matt. 12:6; 24:2; 26:61; 27:40, 51). We do not journey to Jerusalem to worship God in some building. Under the new covenant in Jesus’s blood, we have a perfect and permanent sacrifice and an intercessor for our sins (Heb. 7:23–28), as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within everyone who worships God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24; Eph. 2:13–22). Jesus is the temple we go through to worship God rightly, and in him we become the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:5). Nevertheless, like Israel of old, we are to hear (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut. 6:4) before we speak to God. In all walks of life, but especially in public worship, we are to “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). The words of God, rather than the words of the worshiper, are to take priority. Wise worship starts with locked lips.
Those lips should not stay locked, however. Worshiping wisely also involves right words at the right time. We are to listen to God first and speak to God second. The second half of this Old Testament text covers the boundaries for this second lesson:
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (Eccl. 5:4–7)
If it is not obvious from the repetition of the word vow (five times), this section centers on temple vows. Such a vow involved a conditional promise; a worshiper coming to the temple asked God for something in return for something—usually money or an animal sacrifice (Lev. 27:1–25), although it could be just about anything or anyone. For example, barren Hannah vowed to give God her son if she was able to conceive and give birth (1 Samuel 1–2). So the problem being addressed in Ecclesiastes is not the vow itself (it was a condoned but not commanded biblical practice), but the temptation to “delay” (Eccl. 5:4) or “not pay” (v. 5) the vow once the request has been granted. To say to the temple “messenger” (the spiritual bill collector sent to retrieve the coins for the temple treasury) that “It was a mistake” or “It was unintentional” is intentionally sinful (Num. 15:30–31; Deut. 23:21). It is better not to vow than to vow and refrain from keeping your end of the deal. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37 NIV), as Jesus said. Why? Because God doesn’t take kindly to vows like that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Or, as Solomon exhorted, God “has no pleasure in fools” (Eccl. 5:4) and “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (v. 6). All toying with God will be exposed (“You blind fools!” Matt. 23:16–22) and judged (“a rod for his back,” Prov. 14:3). All lame excuses will be leveled by the Lord.
We all make vows to God and to one another. I vowed to remain faithful to my wife “’til death do us part.” As an ordained minister, I vowed “to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity, peace and unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise.” If you are a witness in a court of law, you vow (perhaps even with your hand on a Bible) to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” so help you before God. Making vows is not the issue. Making impulsive promises that you have no intention of keeping or without any real idea of what you are saying is foolish (cf. Prov. 20:25). It is a dream-induced fantasy.
Twice Solomon compares “many words” (Eccl. 5:3, 7) to dreams. The sense of verse 3 is that just as an extremely busy day produces sound sleep (and the dreams that come with such sleep), so a fool produces verbosity. And the sense of verse 7 is that pious phrases uttered by “the mouth . . . [that] pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28)—reciting God’s covenant statutes (Ps. 50:16)—will prove to be as futile as the fantasies created in slumberland. Poof! They are gone the moment you awake. We should watch out for making dreamlike oaths. If we are to vow, let us “make [our] vows to the LORD [our] God and perform them” (Ps. 76:11). Let us not say to the Lord, “I will do this” and then fail to do it (cf. the parable of the two sons, Matt. 21:28–30). There is no value in mindless muttering and great danger in rash vows (e.g., the story of Jephthah’s daughter, Judg. 11:29–40). Perhaps the only vow we should make—certainly the safest, but never the easiest—is the vow to fear God. Pledge to do that today! “Lord, I will listen to you when you speak; and, Lord, when I speak to you I will not come before you with aimless chatter or deluded daydreaming, but with humble and honest admiration and heartfelt and reasonable requests.”, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 441.
Beyond our speak-first, listen-second (if ever) world, the more foundational issue is the absence of the fear of God in the culture as well as in the church. Paul’s quotation of Psalm 36:1, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18), could be the contemporary church’s motto. If it is not found in our actual vision statements, it is found in many worship services every Sunday. We have made glorious Jesus into our own inglorious image and serve him up to accommodate everyone’s personal tastes.
Ecclesiastes 5:1–7 is an antidote for such cultural and religious rubbish. It especially protests against this new Protestantism. It gives us a sorely needed vision of God and a picture of wise worship. It moves us beyond God as “the Big Guy upstairs” and Jesus as our “homeboy.” Instead, it takes us to the feet of “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isa. 57:15) and of his Son, Jesus Christ, “the firstborn of the dead, . . . the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5), the One whose eyes are a flame of fire, whose voice is like the roar of many waters, and whose face is like the sun shining in full strength (vv. 14–16), the One who nevertheless “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (v. 5). Such a view of God compels us to take our sandals off, keep our mouths shut, and listen first.
Writing in the same century as Nehemiah lived, the Greek historian Thucydides penned a popular saying: “It is the people, not the walls, that make a city.”, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 127. We might build upon that concept, summarizing the book of Nehemiah in this way: as God’s people rebuild the wall, God is rebuilding his covenant community under the authority of his Word. This theme is especially seen in chapter 8, which highlights how God’s people love, learn, and live his law.
Nehemiah 8 features three main characters: Ezra (scribe, priest, and Scripture reader), the Levites (Scripture teachers, or we could call them Bible translators and/or exegetes), and “all the people.” It is the laity, however, more than the leaders, that dominate this text. Note that “the people” is repeated eighteen times and “all the people” eleven times. and them. The God-centered worship service at the Water Gate is also, if you will, people-centered. It is people-centered in the sense that we learn here that it was a gathering of men, women, and children (“all who could understand,” v. 2) who wanted to hear and heed the Word.
Having looked at the phrase “the people,” we will next divide our summary phrase—God’s people love, learn, and live his law—into three sections. First, God’s people love his law. Verse 1 and the beginning of verse 4 show this point.
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. (v. 1)
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they [the people] had made for the purpose. (v. 4a)
This was a megachurch. There were thousands in attendance. But this was no modern-day megachurch service. No one was sitting in the balcony, settling into his comfortable seat with a freshly brewed cappuccino in hand as he waited for the soft jazz/soft sermon entertainment to begin. No! Rather, here we find God’s people gathering, building, speaking, listening, standing, and bowing. “Give me the Word!” was their sentiment.
Besides the gathering, building, speaking, listening, standing, and bowing, another action that demonstrates their affection toward the Word was their double “Amen” at the end of the Scripture reading.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. (vv. 5–6a)
To say “Amen” is to express agreement. It means: “We believe it,” “We agree,” “It is true,” or “So let it be!” The church father Jerome “commented that in the early church, when visitors used to come, they were commonly frightened at the amen.” They said, “It had the sound of thunder.” (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001), 152. Does your church say “Amen” after the Bible is read? How about a double “Amen”? How about raising your hands (as they did) and giving the double “Amen” so loud it wakes the babies in the nursery!
Because of the abuses that go with it, we underestimate the value of certain words and certain postures as real expressions of love. The typical story of an engagement proposal ends with the man upon his knees, confessing his love. It would seem odd to us if the proposal ended otherwise. Just imagine if a bride-to-be said her proposal happened this way: “He knocked on the door, turned his back to me, stared into the sky, and muttered under his breath, ‘Um, will you marry me?’” Such a proposal would be preposterous. There can be a deadness in many churches that are full of rote confessions and robotic postures, but that does not mean that such confessions and postures can’t be faithful and appropriate representations of the congregation’s earnest love for God and his Word. In fact, the best worship is when both heart and hands are raised in devotion—when, for example, we stand to hear the Word read, we stand also in our hearts, lifting up our love to the Lord for his divine revelation. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).
Beyond loving the law, God’s people also learned it. Without a doubt—from top to tail—Nehemiah 8 depicts a worship service centered on the written Word of God:
Top: “And all the people gathered as one man. . . . And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law.” (v. 1)
Tail: “And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God.” (v. 18)
The law is mentioned nine times in this chapter! This emphasis is interesting in light of the fact that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah concentrate on the temple. Of course, what we have in Nehemiah 8 is not a new dedication of the temple, such as was done in Solomon’s time. Rather, it is a reverent and royal reception of divine revelation. As Derek Kidner writes: “At the dedication of Solomon’s Temple there had been glory and beauty, natural and supernatural, to overwhelm the worshippers. Here the focus, apart from a wooden platform, was a scroll—or more exactly, what was written in it.”, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), 105–106.
The Protestant Reformation introduced an important architectural shift—giving the pulpit, not the altar, the place of prominence. For projecting sound and the idea of authority, the Protestants built tall and large pulpits, and often in front of the church platform they placed a large, opened Bible translated into the language of the people. There was also a Communion table, but it was set to the side or behind the pulpit. It is this kind of deliberate positioning that we see in our text. “The book of the Torah,” as William Dumbrell explains, “is literally placed at the center of the united people.” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 320. It was the Torah, not the temple, that then, as it does now, served as “the foundation” for covenant community life. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 320.
In graduate school, I took a class on the history of revivals. We began with the “revivals” recorded in Scripture and then walked through the important revivals in Christian history. Our professor argued that there were three characteristics to all true works of Spirit-empowered revival: (1) emotions were shown, (2) order was established, and (3) the emphasis on the Word of God as the center of worship was restored. Nehemiah 8 certainly fits under this rubric.
Notice the emotions expressed. In verses 9–12, people express a mixture of sorrow and joy. At first, when they heard the Word, they grieved over their sins. With each commandment read, it must have felt like blows from a hammer as the perfect Word pounded them with its purity. “Yet, despite the seriousness of their sin, the people were urged to dry their tears,” because it was the Feast of Booths, and within ten days of the Feast of Booths would be the Day of Atonement, that day of mercy when all their sins “would be fully, immediately and irrevocably pardoned.”, 134. So, as is true of any true work of the Spirit, there was the right mixture of emotions—sorrow over sin and joy over salvation.
Furthermore, as is true in any true work of the Spirit, we see the establishment of order. This characteristic may surprise readers who presume that the Holy Spirit is synonymous with spontaneity. There can indeed be spontaneity in worship, but it should all end in order. Recall how Paul concluded his section on spiritual gifts (or the abuse of them) in 1 Corinthians 12–14: “But all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40). The apostle tells the super-spiritual Christians in Corinth that the Spirit desires the church service to have both decency and order.
For some Christians, especially in the free-church tradition, the word liturgy has a negative connotation. To them, that word fits churches that don’t preach the Bible. But the word liturgy comes from the Greek word latreuo (meaning “to work or serve”), which is found in several places in the New Testament. So liturgy is a Bible word, and a good (not bad) one, and “one’s work in worship” is not condemnable but commendable: “There must be some holy sweat if you are to please and glorify God.”, 115. Some think we can divide churches into two categories—liturgical and non-liturgical. However, in reality, every church is liturgical because all churches have an order of service. Even the most charismatic churches, which claim they just let the Spirit have his way, usually follow the same order of service every Sunday. As Hughes says elsewhere:
All churches have liturgies, even those which would call themselves “non-liturgical.” In fact, having no liturgy is a liturgy! Relaxed charismatic services may be as liturgical in their format as a high-church service—and in some cases more rigid., 115.
So the question is not whether such and such a church has a liturgy (order of service). Of course it does. All churches are liturgical in that sense. Rather, the question is this: Is its liturgy biblical or unbiblical? Is its worship governed by the Word or by something or someone else—perhaps the whims of culture or personal preference? Nehemiah 8 gives us a biblical picture of a God-honoring liturgy: a call to worship, a formal reading of Scripture, an oral exposition or explanation of Scripture, and a celebration of a sacred meal. Does this seem familiar? Yes! For nearly 2,500 years, God’s people have followed that basic liturgy. God is not a God of disorder. Just as he sent his Spirit at the beginning of time to bring order to creation, so he still sends his Spirit in these last days to bring order to his new creation—the church.
In Nehemiah 8, we see a true work of the Spirit. It has all the marks: emotions are shown, order is established, and the emphasis on the Word of God as the center of worship is restored.
Speaking of the Word, don’t be afraid to be a bookish church, if your bookishness is Bible-bookishness. We are a people of the Book because God wrote a book. He didn’t produce a movie. He didn’t record a music video. He wrote a book! And the people in Nehemiah’s day loved that book! And because they loved the Word of God, they learned it. Is there any learning in your church’s liturgy? Does your service begin with “all who could understand” assembling to hear the Word (vv. 1–2) and “study” it (v. 13), and end with people understanding “the words that were declared to them” (v. 12b)? Hosea 4:6 reads, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Some of that destruction, it is our strong contention, is in our churches today because we have tossed out the bookishness of Christianity. It used to be said that God’s people were “a people of the Book.” Sadly, I don’t think that would be an accurate assessment today. Perhaps “People of the YouTube Clip” or “People of the Three-Minute Skit” would be a more accurate assessment. Don’t be ashamed to be a bookish church. Hold high the Book! Seek to teach men, women, and children the content of the Bible. Engrave Nehemiah 8:8 above the church doors, upon the preacher’s pulpit, and within the pew Bibles: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Nehemiah 8 shows us that because God’s people loved the law, they learned it, and they also lived it. Authentic worship effects our ethics! Notice how nicely what is said in verses 13–15 (learning) transitions into verse 16 and what follows (living). I highlight below this transition from learning the law to living the law:
And they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. (vv. 14–16)
Verse 18 also highlights the transition from learning (“And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God”) to living (“They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule”). From early morning until midday, all of them listened to the Bible being read to them—“the ears of all the people were attentive” (v. 3). As we think on the wandering, grumbling, rebellious people of the Old Testament, this is indeed “rare responsiveness.”, 104. What (or who) has gotten into them?
The Holy Spirit is the answer! We say this because the Spirit, while not mentioned in chapter 8, is mentioned in chapter 9. The prayer recorded there mentions the secret work of the Spirit in the life of Israel: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” (v. 20). Moreover, verse 30 states, “Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets.” Like Joel 2 (cf. Acts 2), Nehemiah 8 is a down payment of the new covenant. But even a down payment is a real payment. Put differently, this is not the full, final work of the Spirit in the church, but it is a real work.
What does all this mean for those who live in and under the new covenant? It means that we are to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). We who love and have learned the Word ought to live the Word. We ought to live out, by the power of the Spirit, all that is written in the Bible for us.
Nehemiah 8 shows us a high moment in Israel’s history, when God’s people loved the law, learned the law, and lived out the law. Moreover, it teaches the church today—we who have Christ’s indwelling Spirit—that we ought to (by the power of the Spirit) love/desire the Word, study/know the Word, and walk/live according to the Word. When so many churches don’t know why they do what they do or don’t do what they know they should do, we write this book with the desire to ground you in God’s revelation about worship and about keeping the Bible at the center of our services on Sunday and throughout the week.
In answering which scriptural characteristics help control Christian corporate worship, we have seen that our worship should be, among other things, God-fearing (Ecclesiastes 5) and bibliocentric (Nehemiah 8). In other words, our worship should be God-revering and Scripture-saturated. Next, let’s build upon that foundation by answering the more practical question: How, then, should we order our weekly Sunday gathering?
Our worship should be regulated tota et sola Scriptura (“by the Scriptures alone, and by all of Scripture”). the Word of God are broader than the requirements in the Word of God. Our worship is to be authoritatively regulated tota et sola Scriptura, by the Scriptures alone, and by all of Scripture.” Wilson, Mother Kirk, 125. True. But what does the Bible prescribe regarding Christian liturgy? is a Greek (also Latin) word that simply means “the work or service of the people.” It need not have a high-church connotation. Nothing. There is no command in the New Testament to (1) gather on Sunday, (2) say the Shema, immediately followed by the Gloria Patri, (3) read Genesis, Jeremiah, Matthew, and then Paul, (4) share some matzah bread, and (5) go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Rather, what we find throughout the New Testament are descriptive elements of worship. Does this allow for freedom of forms? Yes. Does it mean we ignore what is described? God forbid! “When something is not specifically commanded, prescribed, or directed or when there is no scriptural example to guide us in how we are to perform some particular aspect of worship we should try nevertheless to be guided by scriptural principles.” (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 171.
With that truth in mind, let’s start with Jesus’s worship habits. In Luke 4:16–21, we read:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Notice six details.
First, it was Jesus’s “custom” to attend synagogue on Saturdays. To give a conservative estimate, if Jesus had attended synagogue on the Sabbath since age thirteen, then at this point in his ministry he had worshiped there about nine hundred times. Whatever else we might say about that fact, we must acknowledge that Jesus didn’t find the “formal” liturgy (see what follows below) and regular attendance in a building designated for learning about God to be stultifying to his spiritual development (Luke 2:40).
Second, there was a Bible reading, and Jesus was the one who read it. Did he ask to do the reading or was he asked to do it? We don’t know. Was it in Hebrew or Greek? We don’t know. Diaspora synagogues would have read the Bible in Greek; for the Jews of Palestine, the reading would have been in Hebrew and translated into Aramaic. Perhaps the synagogue in Jesus’s hometown read the Hebrew. Through the synagogue school, and perhaps through Joseph’s business, Jesus would have learned Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.
Third, there was an “attendant” who handed him the scroll of Isaiah. Was Jesus given Isaiah because (1) it was the only scroll they had, (2) there was a set reading from Isaiah for the day and he knew where to find it, or (3) he asked for it and, as the teacher, had the liberty to preach from any text he desired? We cannot be certain, but most likely he simply was given the next section in the prophet Isaiah, following the previous Sabbath’s reading.
Fourth, on this occasion, he preached Christ (himself) from the Old Testament (and it didn’t go over well in his hometown).
Fifth, when he read the text, he was standing, yet when he taught, he was sitting. Sitting was a sign of authority. He spoke ex cathedra (“from the chair”).
Sixth, this passage, along with a few passing references elsewhere in the Gospels and Acts, gives us all we are told about the synagogue service in the New Testament. Why? Is it because the synagogue service was insignificant to Jesus’s view of public worship? No. Was it then because the majority of the first readers of the New Testament knew very well all the elements of service? Yes.
I have read many explanations of the synagogue service over the years. Perhaps the clearest and simplest, and thus certainly one of the best, comes from a children’s book that covers the topic. The full picture is in order:
The synagogue was a place of meeting for reading . . . the Bible, and for prayer. . . . Within the synagogue there was nearly always a closet or chest which stood against the wall that faced toward Jerusalem. This closet or chest was the ark where the scrolls of the sacred books were kept. These were the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. . . . In the center of the synagogue stood a platform on which a reading desk was placed. At the foot of the platform and facing the rest of the room were benches called chief seats. Here important persons sat during the services. . . . The leader of the synagogue conducted the service. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 25. The Shema was said. Benedictions were recited. show something of what the Jews of Jesus’s generation would have prayed. These prayers “cover a wide range of themes . . . partly an expression of praise, partly petitions for spiritual and material benefits and partly supplications for those in need (exiles, judges and counsellors and chosen people).” Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 26. A procession of men and of boys over thirteen years of age brought the scrolls from the ark and placed them on the reading desk. Psalms were chanted. Then the leader chose someone to read from the Law. He began where the reading of the last Sabbath had ended. Then a portion from the Prophets was read. A member of the congregation was chosen to explain the Law or to preach a verse from the Prophets. 2:175; Philo, De Somniis 2:127. There were prayers. The service closed with a final benediction. (New York/Nashville: Abingdon, 1947), 46, 50–51. For more scholarly summaries, see Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 23–27; Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 228–233; and Larry W. Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 31–34.
There is little doubt that when the early church gathered regularly on Sundays (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2) or what came to be called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10)—because it was the day Jesus rose from the dead (see Mark 16:1–2; John 20:1) 14.1; Ignatius, To the Magnesians 9.1; Justin, Apology I.67.3 (Justin speaks of the focus on Scripture reading [the writings of the Prophets and apostles “are read as long as we have time”], exhortation, and prayer). “Each Lord’s Day was an Easter Festival, since this was not yet confined to one single Sunday in the year. . . . It is correct to say that from the time of Christ’s resurrection, the day of rest appointed by God was transferred to the day of Christ’s resurrection and was regarded as ‘fulfilled’ in it.” Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (repr., Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall, n.d.), 11. and bestowed the Spirit upon his church (Acts 2:1–3)—the pattern of the synagogue played a major role in the structure of their gatherings. Perhaps they simplified the structure, or perhaps what is recorded in the New Testament is only part of their gatherings. The picture we get from the gatherings mentioned in Acts 2:42–47 and 20:7–11 centers on table fellowship (“the breaking of bread”), apostolic teaching (Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”), and prayer (“the prayers,” to be precise, likely a reference to set prayers said in Jewish homes, at synagogue, and perhaps when traveling to the temple, no doubt Christianized where needed).
Again, while this pattern is not prescriptive, it would be foolish for us to dismiss a scriptural pattern as unimportant. We can’t be dogmatic (we must order our services like this or else!) (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 23. and we shouldn’t be stale (for example, insisting that Christian worship must always contain teaching, Communion, and prayer in that order and never with variance), but we can be wise. And to be wise is to understand patterns and principles we find in Scripture and, in general, followed throughout church history. As Old writes: “While the Reformers understood the Scriptures to be their sole authority, they were very interested in how generations of Christians down through history had understood the Scriptures. In the history of Christian worship they found many good examples of how the church had truly understood Scripture.”, 4. Later he comments that the contemporary church should “maintain [the Reformed liturgical] tradition because it witnesses to the authority of Scripture.”, 170. Its public worship practices are “above all, according to Scripture.”, 172.
In this same vein, in his excellent essay “Worship Through the Ages,” Nick Needham writes, “Unless we wish to make a virtue of solipsism, any serious consideration of worship must take into account the history of worship, as a sort of running commentary on Scripture, a commentary embodied in practice and preserved in literary monuments, especially liturgies.”, 375. Table 1 (page 49) is my summary of Needham’s historical survey. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). See his helpful charts—from Rome to Rayburn!—on historic liturgical structures (see Charts 1.1 to 6.2).
Four elements shared by all the liturgies on page 49 include (1) the reading and singing of Scripture, (2) the sermon on Scripture, (3) prayer according to Scripture, and (4) the Lord’s Supper modeled after what is recorded in Scripture. The purpose behind the survey and summary, however, is not to pick a liturgy from above or to pick and choose some elements from each of them. Rather, it is to encourage and exhort the contemporary church to be as thoughtful and biblically conscious in ordering our worship as our forefathers were. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 147. We must let the Word inform and comprise our worship. Furthermore, we must understand that there are right and wrong, as well as better and worse, ways to worship God; and our best efforts now will pale in comparison to our future new-heaven-and-new-earth orthodoxy and doxology. Finally, we must be aware that many of today’s trends in worship are powered by subjectivism rather than thoughtful scriptural reflection. As Needham bravely and rightly critiques the contemporary church:
The congregation has become an audience, the minister has become an orator, and everything else in the service can be safely ignored or even treated with casual contempt. Liturgy, creed, Scripture lections, confession, intercessory prayers, psalms and hymns, Eucharist—all have either been dropped or emptied of existential engagement. The only thing that matters is to be uplifted through the sermon. Subjectivity has won its first victory.
If we are to resist the lure of subjectivity, we must reset our sights on Scripture, as was done in the past, and, for God’s sake and our good, stop squandering the rich inheritance that has been handed down to us! Because Scripture allows for some flexibility of form, and perhaps of elements,, 53. Also, he is right to note (and critique) those who use that principle to “enforce traditionalism in worship” (45). For more on “formality and informality,” see Peterson’s helpful critique of the idea that formality over informality is “acceptable worship.” Engaging with God, 160. we should acknowledge this God-given flexibility and adjust our liturgies to our context. However, while much is permissible, not everything is profitable! For example, if a service does not contain a Bible reading and an explanation of the Bible (which, sadly, the services in many of the world’s largest evangelical churches do not), something is devilishly wrong. As Oscar Cullman wrote: “Our sources of investigation of the early Christian service of worship do not yield a perfectly clear picture of the outward development of the gatherings for worship; they do disclose, however, a fairly clear tendency in worship.”, 7. That clear tendency is far removed from today’s liturgical innovators, who have eliminated godly reverence because it is “irrelevant” and public Bible readings because they are “dull.” Let us flee that subjectivity of our age and return to the timeless truths of Scripture.
In the spirit of subjectivity, I thought I’d start with myself. More seriously, I wanted to show some of the thought process that went into two liturgies I designed for two church plants. These plants were birthed from College Church, and thus were consciously dependent on our mother church’s liturgy.
In his chapter “Discipline of Worship” in Disciplines of a Godly Man and in Appendix A of his chapter “Free Church Worship” in Worship by the Book, Kent provides an order of service and its rationale. Below is a summary of his thoughts, often in his own words, as well as my own additional comments based on my experience at College Church as a student and intern:
The Details of Corporate Worship at College Church (1999)
Every Christian “must understand that worship is the ultimate priority of his life.”, 111. On that same page, Hughes further comments: “A look at the massive emphasis on worship in the Old Testament reveals God’s mind on worship’s priority. Exodus devotes twenty-five chapters to the construction of the Tabernacle, the locus of divine worship. Leviticus amounts to a twenty-seven chapter liturgical manual. And the Psalms are a spectacular 150-chapter worship hymnal. Divine worship has always been the occupation and sustenance, the priority, of the believing soul.”
Welcome. Sometimes brief announcements (goal: less than two minutes long) would be done during the Welcome, as they were less intrusive to the flow of worship. However, since people often come late to service, moving them to the middle might make better sense—especially for important announcements that affect the whole body.
Silence. Americans seem to be obsessed with the need for unending sound. Some consider silence in worship a breach of etiquette. They want no “dead spots.” But silence slows the frantic pace and gives time for reflection and individual dialogue with God. It bows to Habakkuk’s call: “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). The time is brief, perhaps even ten seconds, but it helps us “center down” (as the Quakers say).
Call to Worship and Invocation. Properly done, the call is from God, who is inviting us corporately into his presence. We listen to God’s words (often a Psalm) with reverent, prayerful anticipation. As the call ends, we offer an invocation (a pastor prays or the choir sings) that invites God to meet us and calls us to submit ourselves in worship, for his glory.
Doxology. The Doxology is meant to draw us upward in music for the purpose for which we have come—to give God glory. It should be sung with our whole hearts.
Apostles’ Creed. We employ the creed for three reasons: (1) to affirm the essentials; (2) to emphasize that we are in the stream of historic orthodoxy; and (3) to provide a familiar reference to visitors and new Christians from mainline and Roman Catholic backgrounds. The Nicene Creed is often used during Advent, for the same reasons given above.
Hymn. While we sing to each other (and we hear and see each other sing), God is our ultimate audience. We sing to him with heart and head, thus fulfilling Paul’s determination: “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). What a glory it is to God when a hundred, two hundred, or a thousand all truly sing to God with their minds and spirits in the sublime labor of praise!
Congregational Prayer. When the congregational prayer begins, all minds must engage in unison with silent or verbal agreements—“Yes, Lord” or “Amen.” Ending with a congregational “Amen” (said loudly or sung in unison) is very fitting, as this is our prayer to God. The person praying (most often the senior pastor) should be prepared. As Kent writes: “Next to preaching, I spend most of my preparation time on prayer. My hope is not to pray a beautiful prayer . . . rather it is to be so filled with the Word and the needs of my people that we are all borne up to God.” The thoughtful pastor knows that this prayer on behalf of his people has a dynamic potential for exaltation (it lifts us up to God), edification (it builds us up in Christ), equipping (it teaches us how to pray), and even evangelism (it might be used by the Spirit to draw unbelievers into a saving relationship through the prayed truths of the gospel and the communion of the saints).
Often included at the end of the congregational prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. When used, it must never be merely recited but rather prayed with the head and heart. Worshipers are never to babble out (see Matt. 6:7) that perfect model prayer.
Anthem. Church choirs have their precedent in the choirs of voices and instruments in the Old Testament. Thirty-five of the psalms have the superscription “To the choirmaster.” Others were sung according to recommended tunes such as “The Hind of the Dawn,” tunes no doubt well known to many in Israel. Choirs offer music in a way that is beyond the average person’s capacity. It is the congregation’s way of offering its best to God and is an especially beautiful gift for him.
Tithes and Offerings. Giving ought to be an act of conscious worship rather than a reflexive religious act. The givers, as they give of their substance, ought to first give themselves to God (cf. Rom. 12:1; 2 Cor. 8:5).
God at Work. This heading provides the place for the many variations that are part of our corporate worship pattern. God at work in families: infant baptisms and dedications take place. God at work in missions: a missionary focus. God at work in our lives: testimonies.
Scripture Reading. The reading of Scripture is purely the sharing of God’s Word, while it remains to be seen whether the sermon that follows is. When Ezra read the law, all Israel stood (Neh. 8:5), and we should stand in solidarity with such respect for God’s Word, symbolizing our submission to it. By standing, responding with our corporate “Amen,” and then singing the Gloria Patri, we acknowledge and celebrate the centrality of God’s written revelation.
Sermon. Admittedly the hardest work during the liturgy may be listening to the sermon. Here the minister should have done his work (in preparing to expound and deliver the Word), but the congregation has its work to do as well. It is helpful to keep one’s Bible open to better follow the textual argument and look up possible references. It is also helpful to take notes: identify the theme; list points, subpoints, observations, and applications. Pray for God’s grace to hear and understand what he wants you to hear and to apply his voice preached into your life and the life of the body.
Lord’s Supper. Celebrated once a month. (See chapter 6 for more information.)
Hymn. See “Hymn” above. (Also note that sometimes three hymns were sung during the worship hour.)
Benediction. A scriptural blessing is given.
When you look at an actual liturgy from College Church, you can see how these principles are applied:
Sample Worship Service at College Church
“Morning,” Edvard Grieg
“O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing,” arr. F. Gramann - Jubilation Ringers, Bryan Park, conductor
And we with holy church unite
As evermore is just and right
In glory to the King of Light.
Choral Call to Worship
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
Serve the LORD with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
Pastor Marc Maillefer
Lasst Uns Erfreuen (congregation standing)
Apostles’ Creed (congregation standing)
“The Day of Resurrection”
Congregational Prayer and Lord’s Prayer
Pastor Kent Hughes
“Good Christian Men, Rejoice and Sing”
“Christ Is Now Arisen,” Chancel Choir, Greg Wheatley, conductor
Tithes and Offerings
“Alleluia! The Strife Is O’er,” arr. F. Gramann, Jubilation Ringers
2 Timothy 2:8–13, Mrs. Diane Jordan (congregation standing)
“The Essential Memory,” Pastor Kent Hughes
“Jesus Lives, and So Shall I” (congregation standing)
Pastor Kent Hughes (congregation standing)
The congregation will be seated for a moment of reflection.
“Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing,” piano: Ed Childs, organ: H. Willnan
With my experience of worship at College Church and a basic knowledge of the thoughtful rationale for the elements of worship, before I helped plant Christ the King Church and New Covenant Church, I walked the core groups of those plants through some ideas I had for our corporate gatherings. (On an ironic side note, when I showed something similar at a church-planting assessment center, many of the progressively minded twentysomething pastors thought my ideas were fresh, novel, and even hip. Oh, if they only knew I was simply standing on the shoulders of giants.)
The list below shows excerpts from the draft I gave to the core group for the first church. I have kept some of the rough-draft feel to it to give you the sense that this was a work in progress. The pastors (myself and Ken Carr), with the congregation’s feedback, wanted to decide how to worship on Sundays at our new church. As you read through this list, notice how we consciously built upon College Church’s firm foundation at Christ the King. Also notice, in the list further below, how various aspects of the service for New Covenant stayed the same and various ones changed from Christ the King. The changes might have involved theological developments in my own understanding of liturgy, or, more likely, they reflected doing worship in a different context.
The Details of Corporate Worship at Christ the King (2000)
“The heart of the Christian life is to be found in the act of public worship”
—Hans Lietzmann. (London: Lutterworth Press, 1950), 124, quoted in Martin, Worship in the Early Church, 133.
Prelude. What is the purpose of the prelude? The prelude is not a musical filler or a piano recital; it functions to set a “suitable atmosphere for the preparation of heart and mind for the exalted activity of worship.” (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 171–172.
Welcome. This is not necessary, but is obviously beneficial—for setting the tone, informing people that worship is soon to start, acknowledging visitors, and giving the congregation any necessary announcements about body life.
Greeting. What is the purpose of the greeting? We should not seek communion with God if we are not reconciled with our brother (Matt. 5:23–24). Why do we have it at the beginning of the service? Traditionally it is placed before Communion (peace between each other/peace with God). However, if we are to be reconciled with our brother, why wait until the time before Communion? (Some pragmatic honesty: I found it to be disruptive in the middle.) What sign do we give of greeting/peace? A handshake or a hug (that’s just our culture). What did people in the ancient church do? “A holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26).
Call to Worship. What is its purpose? To call us to worship God! The notion is seen throughout the Psalms (95:1; 145–150) and also dates back to Nehemiah 8:1, where the people wanted to worship.
Music/Singing. What are all the musical components of our service? The Doxology, five congregational songs, the offertory, the Gloria Patri, prelude, and postlude. We try to emulate what we see in Scripture. We sing songs from all periods of Christian history to show our solidarity with the whole body of Christ throughout the ages (no chronological snobbery!). The Doxology is a song of praise to God as Trinity. The tune comes from Pseaumes Octante Trois de David (1551); the words, however, come from Isaac Watts’s paraphrasing of Psalm 117, with the third verse written by Thomas Ken in 1709. It functions as a musical call to worship.
The Gloria Patri is also called the “lesser or minor doxology.” It praises the Holy Trinity. It probably originated as an adaptation of the Jewish “blessings” addressed to God (cf. Rom. 16:27; Phil. 4:20; Rev. 5:13). Its form was influenced by the Trinitarian baptismal formula (e.g., Matt. 28:19). Variations of it were used in the Arian controversy. It was written in the second century. The form we now sing comes from the seventh century. It reflects both Jewish and Gregorian chant. Psalm-singing is modeled in the New Testament (see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13) and was also used throughout church history.
Creed. Why the Apostles’ Creed? It is not necessary, but it is helpful for three reasons: (1) it reflects the language of Scripture (cf. Philippians 2; Colossians 1; 1 Corinthians 15) and is a good summary of the content (not the effects) of the gospel; (2) it is a defense against heresy; and (3) it reflects the “common faith” of the church universal. The creed:
There are some confusing words in the Creed:
Note: we will use scriptural “creeds” (Phil. 2:1–11; Col. 1:15–20) as well as other historic creeds (e.g., the Nicene Creed).
Congregational Prayer. Who should give the congregational prayer? The leaders, typically the pastors. This is due to three factors: (1) we have the time to do it, (2) we are your overseers, and (3) we know what is going on in the church better than others. We might also have couples from the congregation (an elder and his wife?) do this.
What should be its content and form? We usually follow ACTS (borrowing from Origen)—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. The prayer should be brief (Matt. 6:9–13); usually written out (as modeled in Scripture, e.g., “the prayers,” Acts 2:42, and certainly in history); not preachy; not sentimental or extremely personal; and not overly detailed (e.g., “We pray that you would stop the pus from coming out of Aunt Martha’s right big toe”).
Offering/Offertory. Why is this part of the “worship” service? Why not simply place a box at the exit? There are several reasons:
King’s Court/Children in Worship. Why do we have children in the service?
How do we help the children grasp what is happening?
Scripture Reading. Why do we have a Scripture reading? The Bible tells us to (1 Tim. 4:13). Why do we read the Scripture the way we do? What’s with the ceremony? See Nehemiah 8 (standing, saying “Amen”).
Sermon. Where do we get the idea of giving a sermon?
Exegetical homilies/sermons were the “standard homiletical form, as it was almost the only sermonic genre in the church before the High Middle Ages.” (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 67. Why do we do expository preaching?
The Lord’s Supper. Why do we celebrate Communion? Christ commanded us to partake of Communion (Matt. 26:26–28). Why do we celebrate it once a month? Jesus did not explicitly state how often we are to partake. There are two major practices: (1) quarterly or seasonally: this draws the connection between the Old Testament feasts (especially Passover) and the vagueness of the phrase “as often as you” (1 Cor. 11:25–26); and (2) weekly: this seems to be what happened in the early church; it seems to be the pattern of worship in the Bible to end with a covenant meal; and it was what many of the Protestant Reformers did or wanted to do. What elements do we use? Bread and wine (should we use wine or grape juice?).
Benediction. The idea for a benediction derives from benedictions in the Bible: Numbers 6:22–27; Romans 15:13; 16:24; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20–21; 2 John 3; Jude 24–25. Note that biblical benedictions are often not about what people do for God, but about what God does for people. What is the purpose? Bene means “good” (as in benefit); diction means “pronouncement.” It is a short invocation (to God) for divine help, blessing, and guidance, usually given after or at the end of the service.
The following is the bulletin from our first service at Christ the King:
Sample Worship Service at Christ the King
Pastor Ken Carr
A Reading from the Psalms
“O Worship the King” (insert)
The Apostles’ Creed
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
John and Debbie Seward
Pastor Ken Carr
“Praise to the Lord”
“You Are My King”
“Lord, We Are Few” (all inserts)
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
Reading from God’s Word
Philippians 2:1–11, Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
“United by the King,” Pastor Ken Carr
“How Great Thou Art” (insert)
Pastor Ken Carr
Seven years later, as I was planning to plant New Covenant Church, I refined some of my earlier liturgical thoughts and added new ideas. In the list below, I have included only components or part of the explanation that changed. I prefaced this handout with a document titled “Foundations for our Fellowship,” which listed three priorities for our worship:
The Sunday Morning “Heavenly Gathering” at New Covenant Church (2008)
Public worship is “the finest of the fine arts.” (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1939), 8.
Prelude. What is the purpose of the prelude? What atmosphere? Festive resurrection music (fast but subtle)—a joyous sound! We are coming to celebrate God’s work through Christ!
Welcome. Welcome all, especially visitors (tell them how to get connected). State our vision, then go into no more than three announcements.
Call to Worship. What is its purpose? To call us to recognize the presence of God and come before him with reverence, praise, and thanksgiving. Usually a short Scripture passage is read, and then a prayer is offered.
Congregational Singing. A group of two to four songs (the best songs of the old and new that flow well together)—very well liked, singable, etc. If needed, instruction is given (singing, history, Bible verses), but rarely.
The Prayers. The key here is diversity of form (as determined by the pastor). The typical pastoral prayer is interactive (“Let us pray”)—on the spot or received during that week. We together recite/pray a thoughtful, beautifully written prayer.
The Offering. Why is this part of the gathering? Why not simply place a box at the exit? There are several reasons:
Offertory music sets the stage for the Scripture reading (thus, it is to be meditative). Children K–5th grade are dismissed.
Scripture Reading. Same as Christ the King.
Sermon. Same as Christ the King.
Doxology. Led by the pastor. Follows his prayer (perhaps sung a capella).
The Lord’s Supper. Why do we celebrate Communion? What is the goal? Christ commanded us to partake of Communion (Matt. 26:26–28). It is a “love feast”—a communal meal (how can we accomplish this in our context?). What elements should we use? Bread (unleavened) and wine (non-alcoholic wine). The bread is broken. How will the elements be distributed and by whom? People will come forward. The elements will be distributed by the pastor/s and elders. One hymn (cross-centered) will be sung as people are coming forward.
Closing Hymn. Joyful, well-known resurrection song (such as the Hillel Psalms).
Benediction. Same as Christ the King.
Postlude. See notes on prelude, similar purpose.
Below is the bulletin from our first service at New Covenant Church on June 1, 2001.
Sample Worship Service at New Covenant Church
Our Gathering In Christ’s Presence, June 1, 2008
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
Musical Invocation (Introit)
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
Pastor Andrew Fulton
Hymn of Adoration
“Holy, Holy, Holy”
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
Pastor Andrew Fulton
Hymns to Christ
“My Heart Is Filled with Thankfulness”
“O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”
Pastor Andrew Fulton
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
“A Camel Gets Through”
Song of Response
“Be Thou My Vision”
The Breaking of the Bread
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”
Pastor Douglas O’Donnell
In that first bulletin, and for months afterward (as well as at least once a year), we included the insert below. This insert shows a more finalized form of our thoughts in the list above. Any recent additions are in italics:
New Covenant Order of Service
Welcome: Our welcome serves three purposes: (1) to warmly greet those who have gathered in Christ’s name, (2) to remind us of the vision of this church, and (3) to inform us of and invite us to its ministries.
Introit and Invocation: Sometimes it is difficult to focus on the things of God. The Introit (a musical entrance) and the Invocation (a call to worship, which often includes a Psalm, the confession of sin, and acknowledgment of God’s acceptance in Christ) serve to turn our thoughts to God, his Word, and his people.
Hymn of Adoration: Some Christian liturgies walk through the life of Christ, the storyline of the Bible, a re-enactment of the events of personal salvation, or the formula of a covenant renewal. Our liturgy seeks to blend all of these as best we can. While we acknowledge we are sinners as we come into the presence of Christ, we also recognize we are saved sinners, all by the grace of God. Thus, we begin with a hymn in which the melody and lyrics are God-centered, joyous, and reverent—befitting our great God and his great work of salvation in history and in our very lives.
Creed: Through a historic creed of the church (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed) or a creedal statement of Scripture (e.g., Phil. 2:1–11; Col. 1:15–20), we join the communion of saints—past and present—as we together affirm some of the essential Christian beliefs (credo is Latin for “I believe”). Also, as we weekly recite various orthodox statements of faith—which have been believed by all Christians everywhere at all times—we renew our minds in the basic truths of God’s revelation to us in Christ, thus combating heretical views about God, man, and salvation.
The Prayers (Acts 2:42): Each week an elder of the church leads us in the congregational prayer. He does so using the “prayers” of Scripture and often following a traditional pattern of prayer.
Hymn to Christ: Here we sing a Christ-centered scriptural song that reminds us of God, his plan of redemption, and our saving relationship with him through Christ.
The Collection (1 Cor. 16:1): We worship God when we give generously to the work of the gospel in the world (here we always pray before the collection for one of our missionaries) and to the needs both within and without the body of Christ (here we also pray for those who are sick or for those grieving loss). As we listen to meditative music and also read silently the Scripture passage that is about to be read aloud (printed in our bulletin or in the pew Bibles), we prepare ourselves to listen to the Word of God read and proclaimed.
Scripture Reading: Following the pattern set forth in Nehemiah 8 (and subsequently followed in the liturgy of the synagogue and almost all liturgies within the Christian church), we stand to listen to God speak to us through the reading of his Word. After the reading, we sing the Gloria Patri—praising God for his revelation to us. In the tradition of Nehemiah 8:6, we encourage people to lift their hands in praise, in a sense affirming the reading with our hands and hearts, “Amen, Amen.”
Scripture Teaching: As we seek to exalt Jesus Christ and to show forth his excellencies, as well as to encourage and equip the saints, each Sunday we gather as God’s people around God’s Word to hear it explained and applied. We also hope and pray that those who do not know Christ might, through our worship, bow before him in saving faith and adoration.
The Breaking of the Bread: Perhaps the most forgotten words of our Lord Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper are the words “as often.” Throughout history, the church has widely differed on how often we are to gather to partake of this meal. We at New Covenant Church gather once a month as a full corporate body to remember, through this visible and tangible drama, the death of our Lord, and also to commune with God as we commune with each other. On Good Friday—at our special annual service—the elders stand at the front, and the people walk forward as we sing to one another of our shared salvation and then receive the elements as the elders say each person’s name and the words of remembrance (e.g., “Joe/Jane, Christ died for your sins. Eat this in remembrance of him”).
Song of Response: Reflective of the text of Scripture just preached, we seek to offer our response to the Word of God and the work of God in our lives. Knowing our sinful tendency to love self or the things of this world more than God, we recommit ourselves to loving him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Benediction: This word comes from the Latin benedicere (“to speak well of” or “bless”). Following an ancient form, the pastor raises his hand, and in a fatherly fashion—as if laying his hand upon the heads of his sons and daughters—asks for God’s continued blessing upon the family of God. This blessing reminds us that it is God who has called us out of the world to worship him and loves to extend more grace each time we gather in his name.
While there is much liturgical reformation still to be done in evangelical churches, we must acknowledge that we are living in a time when many young Christians have returned to biblical thoughtfulness in worship. This can be seen, for example, at Bruce Benedict’s website, Cardiphonia (www.cardiphonia.org), which hosts a wide variety of worship resources, including sample liturgies. Two liturgies we especially liked are from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chicago and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. Their bulletins can be found at http://www.covenantchicago.org/pdf/Covenant_Chicago_order_of_worship.pdf and www.redeemindy.org/worship/worship-bulletins. Benedict also gives an excellent liturgy example from St. Barnabas Anglican Church in London (see his post on September 13, 2013; http://cardiphonia.org/2013/09/13/worshipping-with-st-barnabas-anglican-church-in-london/). Other examples on his website and other websites abound. Some excellent ones include:
Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida, has no printed order of service that the congregation sees. Instead, the church uses a projection system during its time of corporate singing, and the only printed material those in the congregation see is their own copies of the Scriptures.
Although the service order is not displayed, the elements themselves are carefully and consistently prepared based on a pattern of the gospel narrative. Broadly speaking, the services are structured around two parts: (1) worship through singing and giving and (2) worship in the Word. Through singing, Scripture, and prayer, four elements are presented: (1) adoration, (2) confession, (3) assurance of grace, and (4) response. Sometimes the music leader will explain the role of a particular song or Scripture passage (“Now we’ll confess our sin by singing . . .”), but over time the congregation has begun to pick up on the flow of the elements without needing them to be expressly stated. These elements are the essence of the gospel: God is holy, we are sinful, there is forgiveness offered to us in Christ, and we respond to God in faith and obedience. The advantage of this structure is that it gives purpose and intentionality to the flow of the service; but because it is not visible, it frees up the congregation to participate and respond without feeling restricted by a printed page.
The presence of a liturgical structure does not of itself guarantee gospel-centered, doctrinally rich content. Corporate worship is edifying and Christ-exalting only when the leadership commits and plans to make it so.
Grace Immanuel Bible Church (March 16, 2014)
Worship through Singing and Giving
Adoration: “O Worship the King”
Confession: Scripture: Psalm 51:1–3, 10–12
Assurance of Grace: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
Worship in the Word
Response: “O Great God”
Grace Immanuel Bible Church (March 23, 2014)
Call to Worship
“Come, People of the Risen King”
Worship through Singing and Giving
Adoration: “Fairest Lord Jesus”
Confession: Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 53:3–6
Assurance of Grace: “His Robes for Mine”
Exodus 19 (sermon text)
Assurance of Grace: “Now Why This Fear”
Response: “I Will Glory in My Redeemer”
In his book Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chapell provides a few example services, including an “African American Baptist” service from Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis:, 270–271.
“We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise”
Choral Call to Worship
“The Lord Is Worthy of Praise”
Song of Assurance
“Welcome to This Place”
Pastoral Prayer for Church Needs
Preparation for Thanksgiving
Reading: Malachi 3:8–12
Collection with choral and congregational songs of thanksgiving
Announcements and Greeting of Guests
“Praise to the Lord”
Choral and Congregational Preparation for the Word
“Holy Spirit, Come Down”
Proclamation of the Gospel
Text Reading: Matthew 27:27–32
Prayer of Consecration
Invitation to Discipleship
I asked my friend K. Edward Copeland, senior pastor of New Zion Baptist Church, Rockford, Illinois, to send me his typical Sunday morning worship service (along with some brief explanation). Note the feel, but also see the structure that allows for various freedoms of expression:
(We don’t do baptism every Sunday morning, but when we do, we include it here.)
(We gather in small groups and individually read a verse from the psalm for the day to the group and pray it back in our own words.)
(Ministry opportunities we are emphasizing for the week.)
(Corporate singing while we give hugs and handshakes to guests and one another.)
Worship in Giving
(Choir sings during this element.)
Worship through Music
(Choir sings or praise dancers dance, or both.)
Call to Commitment
(We always call for a commitment, but often include an “altar call.”)
(We don’t observe Communion every Sunday morning, but when we do, we include it here.)
Christ the Redeemer in Spokane, Washington, is a Baptist church with Episcopalian roots. Its pulpit is expository, its theology is Reformed, and its worship is a mixture of hymns and Keith Getty/Stuart Townend and Sovereign Grace fare interspersed with a few elements of the church’s liturgical past:
Christ the Redeemer, June 22, 2014
“A Mighty Fortress,” Martin Luther
“I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” Isaac Watts
Welcome and Announcements
Pastor Brian Hoch
High School Senior Acknowledgments
Old Testament Scripture Reading
Minister: “This is the Word of the Lord.”
Congregation: “Thanks be to God.”
Heavenly Father, in spite of the everlasting love You have shown us, we still go our own way . . .
“The Risen Christ,” Phil Madeira and Keith Getty
“O Great God,” Bob Kauflin
New Testament Scripture Reading
Minister: “This is the Word of the Lord.”
Congregation: “Thanks be to God.”
“Gospel Farming,” Pastor Carey Hughes
“Oh How Good It Is,” Keith Getty, Ross Holmes, Stuart Townend
“Come People of the Risen King,” Keith and Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend
Pastor Loren Baker
In his book A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton writes, “Regardless where we find ourselves on the ecclesiastical map, it can hardly be disputed that all churches have some sort of liturgy.”, 141. True. And as he rightly notes: “the structure and content of the service are never neutral, nor should they be regarded as matters of preference”:
Unlike the “gods of the nations,” the God of Abraham and Jesus does not leave the matter of how we approach him in our hands. While there may not always be a clear black-and-white answer to all our questions about which style to use in a given context, it should be fairly obvious that liturgical style is more than the window dressing of worship. In fact, it is that which brings into an embodied form all our beliefs about God, ourselves, redemption, and the chief end of human existence., 143.
Therefore, while we cannot claim that our church’s liturgy is the only way to worship God rightly, we should be able to say that there is great intention as to how we order our public worship. We know what we do and why we do it., 142. For Horton’s own “rough outline of [the elements of] a typical worship service” (143), a “biblical liturgy . . . in new covenant worship” (148), see 148–160. We can defend our motives and motions as biblical, as being “draw[n] from the depths of ‘the whole counsel of God’” rather than from the whims of the world., 143. We recognize that “church services will vary in entirely appropriate ways; some things are necessary [e.g., the Bible is taught] while other things depend on circumstances of time and place”, 148. (e.g., the Bible is taught from a raised pulpit or behind a music stand). The key, at least as we have argued, is God-revering, Scripture-saturated, corporate worship that exalts God, edifies believers, and evangelizes unbelievers.
In this chapter, as we have attempted to journey away from solipsism (from the Latin solus and ipse, which, in the context of public worship, we might define as “self alone”) to standing on the shoulders of others (modern and ancient), we conclude with a call to repentance. Or, less pointedly, we end with a request for recalibration. After reading about the biblical foundations, historical practices, and a few contemporary applications of public worship, how might you change your church’s Sunday morning gatherings? Below are some questions to walk through with the church leadership:
Once you have answered these questions and many more like them, then structure a couple of “ideal” orders of worship. Use the extensive resources in this book to help.
We conclude this chapter with David Peterson’s “brief portrait of an imaginary church.”, 289–292. Read it! It is beautiful. Then ask yourself: What does your biblical ideal of corporate worship look like? Write or list your own thoughts.
Anyone could tell from the way the members of this congregation related to one another that their Sunday gathering was an expression of genuine Christian community. It was clearly a high point in their week, but not the only time when most of them met together or engaged in ministry together. Their conversation, their prayers and their contributions during the service reflected an obvious concern for one another in a whole range of situations. This was no spiritual ghetto, since it was clear that members desired to welcome strangers and to minister to the needs of those outside their fellowship. Many seemed to be actively involved in evangelism, pastoral care, or social action groups in the wider community.
The service began with a time of informal singing, as the congregation remained seated and latecomers continued to arrive. Songleaders and instrumentalists had carefully planned this segment so that people were reminded of the significance of their gathering together, distractions were removed, and minds were focused on God’s character and promises. Every contribution to the service seemed to be motivated by a desire to encourage the congregation in their relationship with God and with one another. This was no entertainment extravaganza, but it was certainly an involving experience that was far from dull. The time of informal singing led quite naturally to the reading of a few verses from Scripture and a challenge to draw near to God with repentance and faith.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this service was the fact that it happily combined a set “liturgical form” with informal and spontaneous elements. The prayer of confession, which all said together, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness which followed, were the beginnings of the formal liturgy. Song leaders and instrumentalists then led another segment of praise and thanksgiving, responding to the reminder of gospel promises which had just been given. When two members of the congregation read the set lessons from the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, it was obvious that they had prepared well and anticipated that God would encounter his people through this ministry.
The sermon which followed was based on one of the readings for the day, though it incorporated insights from the other readings as well. Sometimes sermons were topical or thematic and sometimes they involved the explanation and application of key verses from Scripture. Mostly they were systematic expositions of biblical passages, working through a series of chapters for six to eight weeks, and then moving to another part of Scripture for variety of content and style. When a sermon series proceeded systematically through a segment of the Bible, home groups were encouraged to discuss several set questions each week, based on the exposition given that Sunday. Such questions were prepared in advance by the preachers, to enable members of the congregation to work hard at discovering the implications of the text. With such an integrated programme of adult education in the parish, people were more motivated to listen to the Sunday sermon and were actively involved with one another in implementing its teaching. Many prepared for the next Sunday by studying the relevant Bible passage in advance.
On this occasion the sermon was a careful explanation of a brief passage, well applied to the situation of the listeners and delivered in a compelling fashion. Since the subject was coping with suffering, at an appropriate point in the sermon the preacher asked a lady to share briefly how God had helped her in her recent distress. This unusual contribution really helped to bring the message home. It was one of several creative techniques used from time to time to involve people in the public teaching ministry, giving a voice to their hopes and fears, their victories and defeats. You could tell from the way the preacher handled the Scriptures, exalting the Lord Jesus Christ and challenging the congregation to relate every aspect of their lives to God and his promises, that this was viewed as an opportunity for the congregation to engage with God, in the Holy Spirit, through his words. The prayer before and after the sermon certainly conveyed something of that expectation.
The hymn after the sermon was carefully chosen to draw out some of the consequences of the sermon and enable the congregation to make a further response to what they had just heard. Then followed a time of announcements and informal ministry. A married couple asked for prayer about important family matters. A girl shared how God had answered a recent prayer and challenged the congregation to be bold themselves in intercession. Another person gave news of some missionaries who had gone out from the church and offered prayer for them. A man and a woman made specific responses to the sermon, giving ideas about the practical application of the biblical text. When this activity was first introduced into the Sunday services, people were slow to contribute, but the right sort of leadership encouraged even some of the most timid to share after a while. It was really an extension of the sort of ministry that members of the congregation were already exercising in home groups throughout the week.
The service leader then began a time of corporate prayer, in which he nominated areas of concern and called upon people to pray spontaneously about these concerns, closing each segment with a set prayer. On other Sundays a few people would be asked to prepare the prayer segment in advance and to lead it from the front. Sometimes the whole congregation broke into small groups, sharing in prayer with those seated near them. The matters that were contributed during the announcements and time of informal ministry were incorporated into the intercessions. The focus was not merely on the needs of the local church, however, but on the world and its problems.
On this particular Sunday, a hymn formed a bridge to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A time of preparation was followed by a prayer of thanksgiving for Christ’s saving work and a recollection of his words at the Last Supper. To express their commitment to one another as the body of Christ, members of this fairly large congregation passed the bread and the wine to each other, using appropriate words. On other occasions, they were encouraged to come forward in groups, stand in a circle and share the bread and wine with one another. When segments of the church were away together for weekends of teaching and fellowship, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper quite informally, in the context of an ordinary meal.
The meeting finished on a note of thanksgiving and rededication to God. This was expressed in prayer and singing. In fact, much of the service seemed to be concerned with what would come after—in the time of informal conversation after church, in home groups during the week, and in the opportunities for ministry that many shared in the neighbourhood, in the workplace and beyond. Although the focus of the gathering was on heavenly or spiritual realities, the relevance of these truths to the world in which they lived was the preoccupation of those who participated.
Such an outward-looking emphasis, in the teaching, the prayers and other contributions, served to enhance and not to diminish the importance of the Sunday gathering. The congregation enjoyed meeting together to renew their relationship with God and with one another. But it was not the sum total of their involvement with each other or the ultimate expression of their commitment to Christ! It was a time to draw collectively on all the resources available to them in Christ, through the local congregation. It was a time to serve the Lord by participating in the building up of his body, and to be encouraged together to honour him in everyday life.