By Chaplain Mike
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
• Justin Martyr, First Apology c. 150 AD
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV)
I became convinced long ago…
- That Christian worship follows a certain order.
- That this order has been proven sound and salutary through the church’s history.
- That the main parts of this order involve Christians meeting around (1) the Word, and (2) the Table (and Baptism on occasions when it is practiced).
- That the purpose of these two main parts is to lead us to Christ through the retelling of the Gospel.
- That the subsidiary parts lead to and from the main parts: (1) Gathering, and (2) Sending.
- That whatever elements are practiced in worship should serve the liturgy (music, prayers, testimonies, readings, drama, etc.) by enabling the congregation to prepare for or respond to the revelation of Christ in Word and Table.
So, in my view, Christian worship follows this pattern:
- The Service of the Word
- The Service of the Table
I guess that makes me a liturgical Christian.
As with many evangelicals of my generation, it was Dr. Robert Webber who opened my eyes to the historic traditions of worship in the church. Webber, who came from a fundamentalist background himself, became a practitioner and student of worship, and then became a guide to many who grew dissatisfied with the lack of emphasis on worship in the non-liturgical traditions. You can read more of his story in this earlier IM post.
One of the simple lessons Webber taught about worship was its basic historic order, which from the days of the apostles and apostolic fathers was the common practice of the church.
Accepting this teaching about worship and its traditional pattern is one of the main reasons I became dissatisfied with non-liturgical evangelicalism. In the “free” churches, there is also an accepted order, but it differs from the long-practiced pattern and is rooted in a different history. Generally, it has looked like this:
This order for church services grows out of historic “revivalism,” a movement that finds its primary roots in the awakenings of the early 19th century. Often, its “father” is deemed to be Charles Grandison Finney, who implemented “New Measures” for bringing about “revival” in church meetings.
The basic revivalist meeting order for the service looks like this:
- The time of preparation is designed to “warm the heart,” primarily through singing.
- The sermon is the high point of the service and is designed to lead those in the congregation to a crisis of decision.
- The service concludes with an invitation to make a decision for Christ. This may be a decision to become a Christian or to dedicate one’s life to Christ in a fresh way.
In the past forty years in particular, many evangelical churches have altered the elements in this pattern somewhat, emphasizing the teaching of the Bible more than preaching for decision. In a number of churches, the invitation has dropped out of use, the teaching sermon has become longer, and the service may end with a song designed to “seal” the truth of the Word on the hearers’ hearts, or it may simply conclude with a prayer. The expectation is that the congregation has heard God’s instructions; now it’s time to share what we’ve learned with one another (fellowship) and to practice it in our daily lives (mission).
And so, at least in my experience in such congregations:
- The “song service” has replaced rites of entrance and some parts of the service of the Word.
- The service of the Word is viewed exclusively as the sermon (Scripture readings are rarer).
- The service of the Table is not observed each week. In cases where the invitation is given, it has replaced Communion as the means of response.
- A sending of some kind may or may not still be observed.
Speaking broadly, the traditional liturgical pattern is designed for worship, the revivalist pattern for bringing people to a place of decision.
In the churches that have more of a teaching style, the revivalist/teaching pattern functions primarily to instruct and equip Christians through Biblical knowledge. The decisional aspect is not as immediate. Life change is encouraged through applying the Word.
• • •
I became more and more dissatisfied with the revivalist/teaching pattern of church service primarily because I found it did not assist me in truly worshiping God. It did not lead me into Gospel realities week after week. It focused too much on specific instruction or areas of decision that did not always include the entire congregation. It did not enable me to feel that I was part of the communion of saints gathered around the throne. There may have been a “praise” portion of the service, but as a whole it did not seem to me that the service was centered on Christ and what he has done for us, but rather it was mainly about learning or making decisions about what I should be doing for Christ.
On the other hand, the historic worship order made sense to me as a pattern for meeting with God and focusing my attention on Christ and the Gospel.
It seemed to me like what would happen if I were to receive an invitation to a banquet at a king’s palace. There would be a protocol, set up by the king’s staff, for guests to follow. We would enter the palace and show our respect and gratitude for being invited. We would be introduced to the king and he would address us as his citizens. We would sit down at the banquet table and he would lead us in partaking of the feast prepared for his honor and our blessing. We would be dismissed in peace to go and live as his loyal subjects.
If that sounds too formal and “high church” for you, then think of it like this. The same pattern would hold if my wife and I were invited to the home of dear friends. When we arrived, we would be greeted at the door and as we entered we would say, “Thanks for having us over; boy, that sure smells good; I love what you’ve done with your house” — we would offer words of thanks and praise. Before dinner was served, we might sit down in the living room or out on the deck together. We would catch up with one another through conversation. Then, summoned to the table, we would sit down as guests and enjoy the meal our friends had prepared and served us. Finally, after more conversation, we would bid them goodnight, saying, “We must do this more often. We’ll be in touch.” We would go home, hearts warmed after a time of renewing a special relationship.
Entering. Word. Meal. Sending.
And in case some of you are automatically thinking this is about being “high church” or participating in elaborate rituals or following suffocating formalities, forget it. It’s just a simple pattern that can be worked out with as much or as little fanfare as a congregation desires. It can contain any style of music, any number of creative elements, and it can fit any cultural setting. It’s just the way we meet with God.
But some of you are probably saying, why do we have to talk about an “order” for worship at all? Aren’t we just called to come to church and worship God? Can’t we just gather and worship from our hearts?
Every meeting has an order. No congregation that I know of is truly and absolutely spontaneous when they meet together. Everyone has a “liturgy,” a pattern of what we do when we gather. (Surprisingly, you might discover that the “non-liturgical” churches are stricter in their patterns and less “free” in their worship than many “liturgical” congregations!) This order is simple and centered on the Gospel. It provides the basic form in which we can freely worship God through our Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Spirit.
As a worshiper and a pastor, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the revivalist/teaching pattern for the reasons I’ve stated above. And my main dissatisfaction, it seems to me, grew out of the relative neglect of the Lord’s Table in that way of meeting. At this point in my Christian journey, I cannot conceive of corporate worship in terms other than “Word AND Table.” I think a strong case can be made that this is the NT and historical pattern for Christian worship.
What host would welcome people into his home for fellowship and not provide food and drink?
I would also argue that it is the Table that guarantees our worship is always “Christian” — that it always includes the proclamation and reception of the Gospel of Christ. If the preacher fails to make it clear, the Table will. The Table assures that we will always hear of Christ, see Christ, be invited to come to Christ, partake of Christ, and be renewed and nourished by Christ. “This is the Body and Blood of Christ, given for you.”
So then, let us worship together.