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What Are We Saying with Gathered Worship?

We are always telling a story with the things we do. The question is always this, “what story are we telling?” The saying “The medium is the message” has a pointed ring of truth when it comes to the gathering for worship we often call the “church service.” I grew up in Lutheran and then Roman Catholic Church traditions. As young boy I liked church as a concept but found little meaning. In fact I would daydream of laser beams cutting down the chandeliers in the sanctuary. As far as I was concerned it was stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down and taste an awful piece of bread. Sadly, the purposefulness of the service (the liturgy) was lost on me. I didn’t evaluate it or appreciate it. I just endured it.

I want that to be different for us. Both as we raise our children and introduce new people into the congregation, it would be good to understand the message in the medium. I am going to use an old word but a helpful word “liturgy.” It comes from the Greek word litergeo, which means a service of worship. In the Bible it can apply to any act done for God’s praise. I have been greatly helped by Brian Chapell’s book Christ-Centered Worship in thinking about what we are saying by what we do. In church history, it came to be the name for the plan for the Lord’s Day worship service. Following is the story we tell about gathered worship.

Sunday Gathered Worship Liturgy

Pre-service (Informal Fellowship) Gathered worship always includes fellowship. Fellowship was one of the four devotions of the first church in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42). It meant a complete sharing of life. Gathered worship was never intended to create an individualistic worship experience. We are worshipping the High King of Heaven when catching up with friends or meeting new people in the foyer. It’s not just when the lights go down in the auditorium and the stage lights go up. “Church” by very definition is an assembly of people together worshipping God. This is why church attendance is vital to worship. We tell a story when we work hard at getting to church early enough to make personal connections with others. The writer of Hebrews says that making it across the finish line to heaven depends solely on the work of Christ and one of his means to get us there is the gathering of the saints.

Hebrews 10:24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Adoration (Exalting an attribute of God and includes a call to worship) We begin the formal part of the liturgy in a call to worship that exalts the character and work of God.  We seek to honor the greatness of God by scripture or songs offered as prayers of praise to God. When we don’t give praise to God with our hearts and lips we are saying that many other things in our life are greater. On the other hand, the story we tell by arriving on time and turning our hearts to praise the different attributes of God is that His Kingdom and His righteousness are more worthy and satisfying. It is better than sleeping in on a Sunday and more powerful the worries of the week.

Welcome, Announcements, Greeting (Formal fellowship, facilitate church family life) The church is a household (1 Timothy 3:15-16). When guests come into our homes we greet them. In my home, we all need to look at the calendar together to remind ourselves of the coming events of the week. It gives us a chance to think of what the other family members are doing and allows us to pray for each other. This is no less important for the church family. When we don’t hear and engage with what is going on in the family, we are saying that our activities are the only ones that matter. When we do engage we are claiming joy and ownership of what God is doing across the life of the church.

Confession (Publicly acknowledge sin in light of the glory of God)[1]  A repeated theme across the scripture is the response of confession when we have caught a glimpse of the glory of God. When Israel saw the glory of God in Deuteronomy 5:23-27 they responded by confessing their sinfulness. When Isaiah saw a vision of God’s holiness he cried out “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5). When Peter saw Jesus’ power in directing fish into his nets he said, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man” Luke 5:8. Confessing our sin together is a direction Jesus gave in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and is done with one eye toward God and one eye to the community.  “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 5:12). A failure to confess our sin is either a presumption on God’s grace or a self-deception that we are righteous enough.  Confession tells the story of our sinfulness and our need for grace and mercy. It shows we are humble and needy people not self-righteous people. We don’t confess our sin to wallow in it, but to remember that we need Christ.

Assurance of Pardon Based on the work of Christ (through prayer, songs, or communion) The good news of the gospel comes into focus as we turn from our sin to our savior. It is Jesus’ work in his death and resurrection that we find forgiveness and hope. 1 John 2:1 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Without looking to the pardon found in Christ’s finished, we give in to the idea that we are accepted by God when we redouble our efforts. However, when we come to Christ’s finished work for our pardon we affirm that our standing before God is based on his work not ours.

Thanksgiving (Through prayer or singing) God is the giver of innumerable gifts. The most precious of all is forgiveness through Christ. We overflow with thanksgiving in song and prayer as we see again the great gift. When we see our sin, the work of Christ, and constant forgiveness thanksgiving is natural. When we thank God together, we tell the story that we do not deserve mercy and grace.

Petition for Grace (Elder/pastoral lead prayer for nation, city, local churches, our own congregation)[2] Paul sets out a command in worship services to pray. (1 Timothy 2:1-8).  There are assorted things that are prescribed like praying for the lost, for the government, for the suffering in our midst, wisdom and more. What we are saying, when we pray publicly, is that we have an ongoing need for grace and God is the only source.

Offering (gifts to God for the advancement of the gospel and the help of the poor) Giving is an act of worship that is unique. It is not because God has a need, but rather that we acknowledge that all things are his. Our financial contributions support ministry work here that has fruit in heaven. When we give our financial offerings we tell the story of one who has given us riches in Christ in heaven. We are eager to use our money so that more can tell that story.

Instruction in the word (Sermon to help us grow in grace) Since we have received great grace in the gospel, we must fully work out the implications in our lives. Expository preaching then is an act of worship where we are given spiritual food that helps us live godly lives. Listening to preaching and teaching is the most common command for gathered worship. When we listen to sermons we are telling the story that the king is speaking today and we are eager to fulfill his commands and grow in grace. When we don’t listen to biblical sermons we are expressing an indifference to God’s will and rule in our life.

Benediction (Scriptural or written prayer blessing God’s people in His service) Paul closes every letter with some prayer/blessing on God’s people. It is the final act of the formal liturgy again enlisting God’s grace to carry out his will with joy. This can take many forms, but it tells the story that God is always good and wanting good for his children.

Post Service (Fellowship) Lingering after the worship service to share life with others is just as much an offering of worship as listening to sermons and singing praises. There are naturally some situations that require us to leave the gathering quickly. But on the whole, when we rush out too quickly, we are telling the story that my interests are the only ones that matter.  When we linger to share life’s joys, sorrows, and interests, we are saying that God has made us a connected community that cares about each other’s lives.

[1] The time of confession can be aided by a specific scripture reading. It can also be done through songs or responsive readings.

[2] The petition for grace can follow the public reading of Scripture and cover the broad categories urged in the Bible.