Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Participation in Corporate, Public Worship

I wrote this for my congregation back in December...

Participation in Corporate, Public Worship
Pastor Logan Almy
Kirk of the Lake Presbyterian Church
December 2010

“I was glad when they said to me,
      ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”  
 Psalm 122:1

Many Christians do not fully participate in the corporate, public worship of the triune God on the Lord’s Day. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason is that our churches do not explain how to participate in the elements of public worship. In this tract I shall provide a brief explanation of the central elements of a worship service, and I shall explain how the individual members of the congregation participate in each element of the service. The main purpose of this tract is to encourage Christians to participate in every element of the public worship service.

The Prelude
Technically, the Prelude begins when the pianist plays a hymn or some other Christian melody after the Announcements and before the Call to Worship. The pianist also plays, however, before the Announcements. This time is somewhat of a prelude to the Prelude. Both times provide a moment to prepare our hearts for worship. What should happen during these times? During the first prelude before the Announcements, I would encourage you to finish all personal conversations, find your seats, and begin to prepare your hearts and minds for worship. Listen to the Announcements, which are not part of the worship service proper, and note any upcoming activities or events. After the Announcements are given by one of the elders, he will say, “Let us prepare our hearts for worship.” This introduces the Prelude proper, and this is the time for us to reflect on the importance of worship, to pray, and to prepare our hearts for worship. It should be noted that this is still preparation for the worship service. This is a time for silent and solemn reflection and meditation. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10).  

The Call to Worship
The Call to Worship is the official beginning of the worship service. There is an important theological reason for this. Worship does not begin with us and what we do or say. Worship begins with God and his Word. Our sovereign God calls us to worship him, and he calls us to worship him by his Word. Normally, the Call to Worship is a section of Scripture read by the minister that serves the purpose of summoning the people of God to worship God (e.g. Psalm 95:6). The Scripture may explicitly call the people to worship or the minister may add a phrase that invites the people to worship in light of some truth of Scripture. Regardless of the form that this Call takes, the Call to Worship should be understood as a call from God, not the minister. This is a time to listen as God calls us into his presence to praise his holy name. The way to participate at this stage is to listen to the reading of the Word of God with the understanding that God is speaking to you personally and calling you to worship him in Spirit and in truth.

The Hymn of Adoration
After the Call to Worship has been read, the worship service has begun. God has called us by his Word and Spirit to worship him, and now it is our turn to respond to his Word and adore him (cf. Psalm 29:1-2). The first hymn is our first response to our God who calls us into his presence for worship. This Hymn is called the Hymn of Adoration because the first thing we should do when we enter the presence of God to worship him is simply to adore him. The Hymn of Adoration is a hymn that focuses on the nature and works of God. It may focus on God as Creator or Redeemer. But this is a time to sing and to reflect with wonder on the splendor of God. We should remember that a hymn is both a form of praise (cf. Psalm 69:30) and a form of instruction (cf. Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). When we sing these rich words about the nature and ways of God, we both praise him and instruct one another about the being and nature of Almighty God.

The Invocation
After the Hymn of Adoration, the minister offers the Prayer of Invocation. The Prayer of Invocation is simply a prayer for God to bless us with his presence as we worship him (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:4). We must always remember that even though the minister offers the prayer, the people are invited and encouraged to pray silently with the minister. His prayer should be the prayer of the people. He is praying for the people and with the people. This is why it is appropriate and important for the people to say, “Amen,” aloud with the minister at the conclusion of his prayer (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:36). This is the public and corporate affirmation of the people of God that we agree with what the minister has prayed, and we long for it to be so among us in Jesus Christ. The Invocation is not a time for the people to daydream or to think about lunch or the football game or anything else. The Invocation is a time for every member to pray along with the minister so that all may conclude with a heartfelt, “Amen!”

The Affirmation of Faith
After the Prayer of Invocation, the congregation affirms their Christian faith together in one voice. There are Affirmations of Faith in both the OT (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:4) and the NT (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The Affirmation of Faith is our corporate agreement that we are bound together by our belief in the truth. The Affirmation may take many forms. The familiar forms are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Christian Catechism may also serve as an Affirmation of Faith, or the minister may choose an Affirmation from the Holy Scriptures. The Affirmation of Faith is an essential element of our worship because in this Affirmation we remind ourselves that our faith and our worship are founded upon the truth. We must always remember that we come together as a congregation on the basis of the truth that we affirm. In addition, the Affirmation of Faith supplies the language for us to express our Christian faith to others. We must, then, reflect on the theological meaning of what we affirm. In many cases (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed), we should commit the words to memory.

The Hymn of Praise
After the minister and the people have prayed together for the covenant God to bless his people with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and after the people have affirmed their Christian faith, it is time to worship the triune God with some Hymn of Praise (cf. Psalm 150). The Hymn of Praise is similar to the Hymn of Adoration, but in this hymn the people are extolling God for his nature and his works. Praise naturally follows Adoration and Invocation. When we sing praise to God, our hearts fill with joy at the beauty of his being. Again, as in all our singing, we must seek to sing with our minds engaged in what we are saying. We must reflect deeply about the words as we are singing. The essence of vain worship is worshipping God thoughtlessly (cf. Matthew 15:8). Our worship should be meaningful, and this requires an active reflection upon what we sing and why we sing what we sing. If you do not understand a word or a concept or why we sing this or that hymn, you should ask the pastor or one of the elders after the service. A point must be stressed here. You should ask after the service, not during the service. When you ask questions during the service, you distract the person you ask and, most likely, others around you. If you are afraid that you will forget your question, then simply make a note on the bulletin to remind you later.

The Confession of Sin
It is a sad fact that in many churches today there is no Confession of Sin. Our God is holy, and when we enter his presence, his holiness exposes our sin (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-7). We cannot worship God as he desires without a time of Confession of Sin. And the natural place to confess our sins is after we have adored and praised him and recognized how far short we fall of his infinite and majestic glory. The Confession of Sin typically has three parts, although the form of these three parts may vary from Sabbath to Sabbath. First, there is the Call to Confession. The Call to Confession is almost always a section of Scripture that exposes human sin (e.g. Exodus 20:1-17). The Call to Confession is a time for us to listen to God speaking in the Scriptures and to hear him identify our sin. After the Call to Confession, there is a time to confess our actual sins. On occasion this takes the form of a silent confession. At other times this is a prayer that is read by the congregation. On rare occasions this prayer is made by the minister in behalf of the congregation. Regardless of what form the Confession of Sin takes on a particular Lord’s Day, the important thing is to use this time to confess your sins. We must acknowledge our sinful nature and our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds before the Lord. There is no reason to hide any of our sins because our secret sins are exposed in the light of his presence (Psalm 90:8). So we should be sincere, open, and honest before the Lord about our sins at this time. Again, let me caution you here. If a silent confession is used, you must fight against the sinful tendency to be distracted by sounds and other things. All members should be as quiet as they possibly can during this time. Finally, the third section of the Confession of Sin is the Assurance of Pardon. During this time, the minister reads a section of Scripture and offers words consistent with the Scripture that bestow God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ on all who believe in him (e.g. 1 John 1:9). At this point it is appropriate to look up at the minister and hear the words of grace. The time of self-examination, confession, and sorrow is now over. The Assurance of Pardon brings gospel relief to our guilty conscience. Listen carefully to the words of grace. Let them sink into your heart. Allow the truth of the gospel to dispel doubts about the promise that Jesus Christ is able and willing to save all who draw near to God through him (Hebrews 7:25).

The Hymn of Pardon
Worship is a continual interaction between God and his people. He speaks to us, and we respond to him. Having received the Assurance of Pardon through Jesus Christ, we now sing of his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. The Hymn of Pardon is a unique hymn in that it focuses on some aspect of the saving work of Christ in our behalf. The Hymn of Pardon is the time for us to look away from our bad works and our good works and look to Christ’s work. This is a moment for us to sing and to celebrate the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood. Hallelujah! What a Savior! We should sing these words with joy. Our facial expressions should communicate the glory of the gospel. At this point in the service we should be soaring into the arms of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Here we should reflect and pray and sing so that the gospel rings loud and true in every heart.
The Intercessory Prayer
We have praised God the Father, received forgiveness and acceptance through God the Son, and now we are ready to make our petitions in the power of God the Holy Spirit. The minister may read some verse of Scripture about the importance of corporate prayer (e.g. Colossians 4:2), and he may also point out a few prayer items from the prayer sheet contained in the bulletin. When he begins to pray, all the people should pray silently as he prays audibly. As with the Invocation, the people should make his prayer their prayer. This is a time for united prayer for the needs of others. This is not simply a time to listen passively or to get lost in your thoughts. This is a time to join the pastor in prayer and to make his prayer come alive in your hearts. Again, it is appropriate to say, “Amen,” aloud at the end of the prayer to indicate agreement with what has been prayed by the minister in the presence of God and his people.

The Offering
At this juncture in the worship service the minister says, “Let us continue to worship God with our tithes and offerings.” These words reveal how important it is to remember that the offering is an act of worship, not an act of business (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:7). People may think of the offering with a “business-as-usual” mentality. However, the offering is an opportunity to express our gratitude to God for his abundant provision of our every need. During the offering we must bring our regular tithe and, at other appropriate times, our offerings in addition to the tithe, to the Lord Jesus for the advance of his kingdom through the ministry of his church. God does not need our money (cf. Romans 11:35). In fact, our money already belongs completely to him. Our tithes and offerings are an act of obedient gratitude to him. And so we should faithfully give our tithes and offerings to the Lord and reflect and pray about his goodness to us during this time. I would also encourage you not to make the offering a time of rushing to write a check. Let me encourage you to write your check before you come to the church on the Lord’s Day. In this way, you will be ready to drop the check in the offering plate when it comes around, and instead of searching for a pen, you can use this time to pray and thank God for his provision. Whatever your practice, please recognize that this is a time of worship too, not a time for personal conversation. It is not an intermission. It is an element of our worship.

The Doxology
When the elders have finished passing the offering plates, the pianist will play the Doxology. The congregation should stand and sing praise to our generous triune God. The Doxology is something that we may sing every Lord’s Day, and for that reason it can be a dangerous time. The words can be so familiar to us that we do not think about what we are saying. We should fight against this attitude. Instead, we should focus on the words and sing them meaningfully to the Lord. This is a time for us to thank God our Father for his good and perfect gifts (James 1:17).

The Prayer of Dedication
The Prayer of Dedication should not be thought about as “just another prayer” in the service. This is the dedication of the tithes and offerings that we have brought to the Lord. We want the Lord to bless them for the advance of his kingdom. As in all prayers, the people should join in prayer, and conclude with the minister with the words, “Amen!”

The Hymn of Preparation
The reading, preaching, and teaching of the Word of God are the pinnacle of the worship service. This does not mean that everything else is merely a “preliminary,” but it does mean that this is the top of the mountain. It is appropriate, therefore, to prepare our hearts for receiving the Word of God, and this comes in the form of the Hymn of Preparation. This hymn may come in a variety of forms. It typically exalts the Word of God. The Hymn of Preparation may also speak of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures and illumines our minds to understand them. This is a time for us to sing meaningfully and expectantly for both the Word of God and the Spirit of God to touch our hearts in what follows.

The Reading of the Word of God
What follows the Hymn of Preparation is the Reading of the Word of God (cf. 1 Timothy 4:13). This is a sacred and special time. Here God the Holy Spirit speaks to us by and with the written Word. The minister reads the Scripture, and it is important for every member to participate. What does participation look like at this point? It means in the first place that all talking should cease. When God speaks, we should close our mouths and listen. Second, it means that we should turn with the minister to the relevant section of Scripture. We should also follow along with the reading in our own Bibles or the Bibles that are provided. We should listen with diligence and reverence. We should also stand in honor of the Word of God when the Word is read (e.g. Nehemiah 8:5), if the minister instructs you to do so. If you are not able to stand for some physical reason, you should not feel less spiritual because you must sit. Also, if you stand, you should not look down on those who must sit for some physical reason. But if you are able, you should stand in honor with the rest of the congregation.

The Prayer for Illumination
We cannot understand the Word of God without the illumination of the Spirit of God (e.g. Psalm 119:18). This is why the Reading of the Word of God is followed by a Prayer for Illumination. The minister prays for God to open our hearts and minds to receive God’s truth, believe, and obey. Again, we should pray with the minister for the Spirit to bear witness to God’s Word and God’s Son. The congregation is seated after the reading of the Word and the Prayer for Illumination.

The Preaching of the Word of God
The preaching of the Word of God is the explanation and application of some passage of Scripture to the people of God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2). This is a time of instruction, conviction, and encouragement. The congregation now hears from God through his servant. As the Church has believed from the beginning, the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. So we should listen and pay diligent attention to what the minister says from the Scriptures. Let me encourage you to listen actively. Of course, different strategies work for different people, but some strategies have proven effectiveness. Listen to the sermon with an open Bible and follow along with the sermon points in the Bible. If you can listen to the sermon with a Bible closed, then it is not a good sermon. In addition to this, I encourage you to mark in your Bibles. This is a way to listen actively and learn from Scripture. Highlight or underline key verses. Write cross references in the margin. Make personal notes. Be an active student of the Bible. You may also want to take notes. I would not, however, make sermon notes in the Bible. Use the sermon notes page in the bulletin. There may be some underlining or a brief note or cross reference here and there that you may want to put in your Bible. However, most of the sermon notes are too extensive to place in the Bible. I advise you to take these notes in the space provided in the bulletin. Sermon notes serve two purposes. First, they help us listen actively to what the pastor is preaching. Second, they serve as a reference in the upcoming week for prayer and obedience. I do not think that we must take notes on every single sermon. Some Christians do, and that is wonderful. But sermon notes are an excellent way to listen and learn from what is said. If you do not remember the sermon in the following week or you are distracted in the middle of the sermon, then you probably need to take notes. Make notes of the main points, the key applications, and the memorable phrases. In everything you record, remember your personal need to be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only (James 1:22).

The Prayer after the Sermon
The Prayer after the Sermon is really a prayer of supplication. In this prayer the minister, and the people praying with the minister, present themselves, body and soul, to the Lord, asking for him to transform them into the likeness of Christ (cf. Romans 8:29). This prayer often reflects the themes of the sermon. Be sure to make this prayer your prayer of application of the sermon.

The Hymn of Supplication
The final hymn of the service is the Hymn of Supplication. This is our response to the content of the sermon. Sometimes the theme is explicitly in agreement with the sermon, but at other times the connection is less evident. The important aspect of the Hymn of Supplication is that this is what we leave singing. Typically, we sing that we will strive to be earnest in our obedience to the Lord and his Word.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion
The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a special time for the people of God, and we need to consider how to participate in an appropriate way. The congregation may sing a Communion Hymn before the celebration of the Sacrament. The hymn provides an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the Holy Supper of our Lord. In the Communion Service proper the minister begins with Words of Invitation. These are almost always the words of Christ inviting believers to come to him without fear of condemnation (e.g.. Matthew 11:28-29). When we hear the minister read these words, we should not hear them as the words of the minister but as the words of Christ. We should hear Christ call us to himself. Such words demand an attitude of repentance toward God and faith in Christ. This is also the setting in which the minister specifies who should come to the Lord’s Table. The pastor, speaking in behalf of the session (the elders) of the church, invites all baptized believers in Christ who are either communicant members of the church or some other evangelical church, to partake. If you are not able to partake of the Lord’s Supper, you should reflect on the meaning of the Supper, and you should seek admission to the Table as soon as you are able to do so with a clear conscience. After the minister speaks the Words of Invitation, he will read the Words of Institution of the Holy Supper from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Although most of us are familiar with this passage of Scripture, this reading calls for reflection on our part. It is the Word of God that makes the Supper a Sacrament (a visible sign of an invisible grace) rather than an ordinary meal. So listen thoughtfully and carefully. The minister will move from the Words of Institution to the Words of Instruction. The minister reads the words of warning from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. In doing so, the minister calls for those who plan to partake of the Supper to engage in self-examination, repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ. The minister must warn the ignorant and the unrepentant not to partake of the Supper. We must remember that this is an act of love. Since there is the possibility of eating and drinking judgment upon oneself at the Supper (1 Corinthians 11:29), the minister warns the ignorant and unrepentant from partaking in order to protect them from spiritual peril. There is a word of caution here. The people must understand that there is a difference between being worthy to partake of the Supper and partaking of the Supper worthily. No one is worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper. We are all sinners. Nevertheless, we partake of the Lord’s Supper worthily when we understand that we are sinners, repent of our sins, and trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. If this is the state of our hearts, then the Supper is for us. God’s people should use this time in the service for sober, solemn, careful, and diligent self-examination and repentance. After the Words of Invitation, Institution, and Instruction, the minister prays the Prayer of Consecration. In this prayer the minister asks the Lord to bless the celebration of the Sacrament. He prays for the Lord to consecrate the elements and the people. The consecration of the elements means that the Lord sets the elements apart from common use to holy use. So the Lord, by his Word, makes the bread and wine to become holy signs and symbols of the body and blood of Christ. It must be emphasized that nothing magical happens to the bread and wine. The bread and the wine remain bread and wine, but they become signs of the body and blood of Christ. And since they become signs by virtue of the word of Christ, who instituted the Sacrament, they may be called what they signify. So the minister may refer to the bread as the body of Christ and the wine as the blood of Christ because they signify such things. This is not magical but sacramental. In terms of the prayer to consecrate the people, the minister is asking that the Lord will set apart the people from sin to Christ and his service. After the Prayer for Consecration, the minister will take the bread and break it in the presence of the congregation and say, “On the night our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed, he took bread, and having blessed it, he broke it and gave some to his disciples, as I ministering in his name do so to you, and said, ‘This is my body, which is broken for you. Take and eat all of it in remembrance of me.’” The minister then instructs the congregation to wait until everyone has been served, and then all will commune together. During this time the people should think about the broken body of the Lord Jesus and how his body was broken for them. Use the time for prayer and reflection. When the minister instructs the people to eat the bread, all should do so together. Every Christian who eats the bread should be reminded of Christ and his broken body. Every Christian should also realize that Christ is as present to their souls by faith as the bread is present to their outward senses by sight and touch. After the bread has been served, the minister takes the cup and says, “In the same manner, after Supper, our Lord also took the cup and said, ‘This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. Drink from it all of you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” The same procedure should be followed for the cup as for the bread. The Christian should meditate on the blood of Christ which is shed for the remission of his sins. When the time comes to drink the wine, let every Christian not merely remember what Christ did in the past but also commune with Christ by the Holy Spirit in the present. Finally, at the end of the Supper, the minister concludes with a Thanksgiving. If he chooses, the minister may make a few brief comments at the end of the Supper. The people should listen carefully and diligently heed what the pastor says. The Prayer of Thanksgiving is an expression of gratitude to God for the death of Christ and for the Sacrament as a sign and seal of what Christ has done for his church. The prayer will often lead the congregation to thank God for the past sacrifice of Christ, the present communion with Christ, and the future reunion with Christ in the new heavens and new earth. As in all prayers, the people should join the minister in thanking the Lord Jesus.

The Benediction
The corporate, public worship of God always concludes with the Benediction. We must be careful that we do not misunderstand the meaning of this important element of worship. The Benediction is not a closing prayer. There may be a time and a place to close a worship service in prayer, but prayer is emphatically not the purpose of the Benediction. The Benediction is a blessing from God through his servant, the minister, upon his people (e.g. Numbers 6:24-26). The minister leaves the pulpit and comes down to where the people are. The minister and the people should not close their eyes as this is not a prayer. Rather, the minister raises his hands, and with some Benediction from the Word of God pronounces God’s blessing and peace on God’s people. The people are also invited to extend their hands and receive the blessing from the Lord. The worship service began with God calling his people to worship by his Word, and the worship service concludes with God sending his people out into the world with his blessing by his Word. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all! Amen!” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

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