On most Sundays, we come to church and we pick up our bulletins and we get into our places and at a little before 10:30 we begin our worship with our Organ Prelude – Choral Introit – Call to Worship; and then we continue on down through the usual schedule of activities printed on our page without thinking much about that schedule. After all, that’s just what worship is, isn’t it: Hymn, Prayer, Scripture, and so on.
But every once in awhile, it’s good to stop and say . . . “Wait a minute – why?” Why are these particular things part of our weekly worship schedule, and not . . . well, other things? Why is Sunday morning composed of Hymn, Prayer, Scripture, and so on, and not, say . . . business meeting – short video – small group discussion? Or dramatization – dancing in the aisles – speaking in tongues? Why are we worshipping this way, and not doing something else?
So today we are stopping and asking that question instead of just rolling along by habit: why do we worship God the way we do? I’m going to start, with some background material, and then you’re going to have a chance to ask your questions about our worship – so you may want to jot them down if they come to you as our discussion progresses. Why do we do what we do?
First of all, there are historical reasons we do what we do. The components of our worship service – things like hymns, Bible readings, sermons, prayers – are found in Christian worship services as far back as Christian writings go. We have a bulletin, in effect, from the year 150 AD, which goes like this: opening Scripture, sermon, prayers of the people, greeting of one another, offering, Lord’s Supper, hymn. So we’re continuing in a long line of tradition, handed down by the early church. And in fact it goes back farther than that, because that service was based on the order of Jewish worship, which goes back centuries before Christ; this was the way Jesus worshipped God. So we are maintaining a long-standing tradition, carrying on the “wisdom of the ages,” if you will, when we worship this way.
Among the things we learn from this tradition are these two features: One, that worship is something which all the people present do –not something that a few people up front do, and all the rest watch. Worship is an activity, not a spectator sport or an entertainment hour. Everyone prays, everyone praises, everyone works together at trying to understand God’s word. The Bible exhorts us to come and worship God, as we heard in Psalm 95 this morning, not come and watch someone else worship God. Worship is something we all do.
Two, worship is something we do together, as a group. From the very beginnings of organized worship, way back with Moses and the Israelites wandering through the desert, 3000 years ago, God called the people together to a central place to worship; God didn’t say, “now each of you go off by yourself somewhere to worship.” For when we come together we reconnect with the community, and we remind each other to focus on God, not on our own individual issues. Worship is something we do together.
Besides the historical reasons for our worship format, there are some Scriptural ones, some reasons from the Bible – but there aren’t many. The New Testament says virtually nothing about how to worship, probably because its writers presumed that the church, with its Jewish roots, would carry on in the Jewish worship tradition. And the Old Testament doesn’t tell us much either, but we do have, along with a few others, that passage from Isaiah we heard this morning. In Isaiah’s encounter with God, the meeting begins with praise, by the angels; continues with Isaiah’s confession and forgiveness; moves on to his hearing the Word of God, God’s message to him; then to his response to God’s word, “Here am I, send me”; and finally concludes with the charge “Go out into the world.” And as we will see in a couple minutes, our encounters with God in worship here have those components too: praise, confession and forgiveness, hearing the Word of God, responding to that Word; and going out into the world.
When I first saw the Paris Presbyterian Church order of worship, over 15 years ago, I was pleased to see that you already had built into your order that sequence of events, complete with subtitles: “We gather around . . . We hear . . . We respond to/the Word of God.” So there is something of a model in the Bible, even though not a whole lot of material.
But the main reason, I think, for the way we worship God, is not the historical or Scriptural. Rather, it’s that our worship is a way of telling the story of our relationship with God. Our worship service is a way of reviewing, every week, the story of our relationship with God. Let me explain what I mean:
The way we present the Christian message at Paris Presbyterian Church, in our worship services, classes, studies, and so on, can be described as having four parts. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it picks up the main points. In the history of humanity’s relationship with God, there were these four developments:
- One, God called us into being, along with the rest of the world, and God loves us.
- Two, we turned our back on God by doing that which we should not do, by sinning, thus breaking our relationship with a God who refuses to be around sin.
- Three, God restored the relationship, got us and God back together again, by sending the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ.
- And four, we respond to what God did for us by trying to live as God wants.
Called into being, sinned, restored through Jesus Christ, respond to God.
It’s the story of humanity in general, and it’s the story of each and every one of us:
we each were called into being, we sinned, we are restored to God through Jesus Christ, we try to respond to God. Four parts.
And our worship service has these four parts in it as well: There are parts which call us together, call us into being as a congregation – choral introit, call to worship, opening hymns. There are parts which acknowledge our sin – prayer of confession, silent confession. There are parts where the Word of God comes to us, just as Jesus came to us: Scripture readings, sermon, puppet presentation, anthem. And there are parts where we respond to God’s Word: prayers, offering, statement of faith. Our worship service reflects the story of our relationship with God. It’s a way of retelling the story every Sunday, of reminding ourselves of our history: called into being, sinned, saved through the Word of God, our response.
Some specific examples make it a little clearer. If you’ll take out your bulletin, you’ll see how these fit into the story:
First we see the opening parts – Prelude, Introit, Call to Worship, Hymns – that call us together. They re-gather, re-call the community of worship into being, on a particular Sunday morning, just as God called us into being – each one of us, and this community of faith, 195 years ago now.
Second we see the confession section, and one thing to know about that confession is that, in the Presbyterian Church, there is an actual written rule that says an Assurance of Forgiveness must follow the Prayer of Confession, any time there is a Prayer of Confession in a Presbyterian worship service. We are not left in a state of sinfulness, or guilt; we always hear: “Know this: your sins are forgiven.”
Then we start hearing God’s Word – the lessons of the Bible, the content of what we believe – through the words of puppet presentations and anthems. They’re not just singing or presenting any old song up there, you know. And then the hearing God’s Word continues with the Scripture readings and sermon. While there’s nothing for the congregation to say or sing in this “hearing the Word of God” part, except a hymn dividing the two Scripture lessons, that doesn’t mean this is a not-active or passive section of worship. Our part is to work at listening for what God is saying to us, through the anthem, sermon, and so on.
After hearing God’s Word, we begin to respond: we say what we believe, using an excerpt from one of the statements of faith in the Presbyterian Church’s “Book of Confessions.” We pray together, including sections of the prayer related to the Word of God we have just heard. We give back to God some of what God has given us, through the offering, which both supports this congregation’s work and helps people in need outside the congregation.
So our worship tells the story of our relationship with God: we are called together, we acknowledge our sin, we receive the Word of God, we respond. It is a story with a happy ending, leaving us with the God who loves us and who triumphs over sin and death. It’s a story we can be glad to relive each week.
The goal of it all is summed up in the part of our Presbyterian constitution called “The Book of Order”: “In worship the people of God acknowledge God’s presence in their lives. They are transformed and renewed. And they offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world.”
And that’s why we do . . . what we do.
So that’s the broad outline of why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. Do you have any questions about the particulars? I don’t promise I’ll have the answers to all your questions, but I can try – and I can always look them up for you later if necessary.
What do you want to know about worship?