Journeys in Worship: The Service

Last week I shared about my first experience leading a worship service.  This week I want to turn our attention to a few specific things of the many I have encountered and learned in the intervening years.  I am couching them as the “journeys in worship”: things that can, to paraphrase The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, lead us “further up and further in” to a relationship with God and his Church.  These journeys not only lead the congregation on a “journey within a journey” (i.e. the Christian faith), they also ask the Church to live within a constant rhythm of God’s loving, salvific story.

Today we will look at the one with which most of us should be familiar: the Sunday morning worship service.

To quote Robert Webber, “Worship does God’s story!”  Worship should not only tell, but also enact God’s story.  While there are many different formats, plans, or orders of worship that could be utilized and categorized, I want to lift up one that has undergird many generations of worshipers.  This singling of one order of service by no means indicates that it is the meta-form; it is one that has stood the test of time and, therefore, deserves our attention.

That being said, let us look at the four-fold pattern of worship.  The four components of this pattern are:

  1. Gather
  2. Declaring the Word
  3. The Table
  4. Sending

GATHER

We have been called out of the world to worship the Triune God.  The Prophet Isaiah writes, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isaiah 60:3, ESV) This calling to know God and worship him has existed even before we knew it.  In his first epistle, St. Peter echoes Isaiah’s sentiment: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1st Peter 2:9, ESV, emphasis added) Isaiah records the call of God to his people, Israel:

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off” (Isaiah 41:8-9, ESV)

And again,

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live…Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:1, 3a, 6, ESV)

We should also note that when we enter the worship gathering, whether in a cathedral or a home, we are entering in response to the call of God, to the tug of the Holy Spirit.  We, therefore, enter intentionally to the place of worship.  Webber likens attending a dinner party.  In his book Blended Worship Webber describes the preparations one would make when hosting such a gathering, from cleaning the house to choosing the menu, selecting music to setting the table.  When we gather at the appointed time and place, Webber says, “[We] open the doors, welcome our friends…and do various acts of verbal and symbolic greeting which express the joy of being together.” (Webber, Blended Worship, 96)

DECLARING THE WORD

After entering the worship gathering we now use a multiplicity of words in a number of ways.  We speak to God, we speak to each other, we speak to each other about God.  We sing to God, we sing to the world about God.  We pray, we preach, we teach, we sing – and, hopefully, at some point, we wait for God to reply, to dialog with his children.  Webber describes theses as “acts of communication.” (Webber, Blended Worship, 96)

There are several ways in which the worship leader, the pastor, and the congregation typically use/utilize words during the course of the service:

  1. Scripture readings (whether from the Lectionary or otherwise)
  2. Songs (choruses, psalms, anthems, chants, etc.)
  3. Prayers (The Lord’s Prayer, written, extemporaneous, Prayers of the People)
  4. Homily/sermon
  5. Responsive readings

Ideally, the words we use should engage the life of our congregation.  This can prove a daunting task considering we are all at different places in life.  Regardless, an intentional journey, particularly when done in conjunction with the seasons of the Church (more on that next week), can be beneficial to the life of the worshipping community.

While on the topic of the Word and words, it is paramount that we consider the words we are using and putting in front of our congregations.  St. Paul emphasized this to the congregations under his oversight:

  • “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up….” (1st Thessalonians 5:11a, ESV)
  • “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV)
  • “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (Ephesians 5:4, ESV)
  • “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6, ESV)

Whether through the lyrics in the songs we select or the homily that is preached may we direct people’s attention toward God.

THE TABLE

After arriving at a dinner party, greeting each other, and spending some time in conversation, catching up on life, sharing interests and the like, at some point the host or hostess would call everyone to the table to eat.  The previous two events of the dinner party have led to this point; it is the apex of the evening.

In a more “high church” traditions (i.e. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran) this would be the point at which Communion would be celebrated.

Celebrated – let’s consider this…

The term generally used in high church traditions for Communion is “Eucharist.”  This word comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία (eucharista), which translates “thanksgiving.”  Think about it: “Eucharist” is not a term that should be the exclusive property of a portion of the Church – it should be used by the whole Church!  In the portion of the service that centers around the Eucharist there is more of the same that happened in the previous two events: we gather everyone (this time to the Table) and we once again speak, pray, and sing to God, to each other, and to each other about God.

During the course of this meal we recall the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We join our voices with the company of heaven – angels and those who have died in the faith – to praise God.  We ask for the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower us.  We ask God the Father for his provision and praise him for it.  This is cause for celebration!

In the days of the Old Testament a covenant would have always ended with a meal.  It was the “amen,” the “so be it,” to all the actions that had been done.  St. Paul said when we “eat this bread and drink the cup” we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1st Corinthians 11:26, ESV)  To return to a point made at the beginning of this writing, “Worship does God’s story!”

Not only that, at the Table we receive nourishment for our journey.  The Body of Christ (the Church) comes to receive the Body of Christ (the bread).  Talk about “you are what you eat!”  Furthermore, just as we rehearse our music teams for the Sunday service, and just a the wedding party has a wedding rehearsal the night before the wedding, so to we “rehearse” the “marriage supper of the Lamb”in which we will one day participate, (Revelation 19:9)

Note: As one who comes from a tradition in which the Eucharist (Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, etc.) is celebrated weekly it seems unusual to me when I attend a worship service in which parts 1, 2, and 4 of the service are done and not part 3.  As I know that not everyone who reads this will be from a similar tradition, there are other ways that have been practiced as a means to respond to what has been enacted in the parts 1 and 2; many time this takes the form of a “hymn of response” or other such congregational action.

SENDING

When the meal ends, we again engage in word and action – hugs, handshakes, and goodbyes –  to prepare ourselves to part company and re-enter the world.  Just as we intentionally gathered, so too we intentionally disperse.

Before his ascension to heaven Jesus said to his apostles,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore….” (Matthew 28:18b-19a, ESV)

Those whom Christ called and gathered to himself he sent to continue the work of the Kingdom.

Many times near the end of our services we offer a benediction, a blessing.  This is no mere statement: it is the imposition of the Name and blessing of God upon those who have gathered to worship him (see Numbers 6:22-27; vv.24-26 constitute the benediction).  Empowered by the blessing of God we can follow the rest of Jesus’ command to his apostles:

“… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19a-20, ESV)

Just like the sower who went out to sow seed (see Matthew 13:1-17), Jesus sows us out into the world, as seed, sower, and harvester.  After the benediction is the sending, which often commands to the people to go out to love and serve God and the world.

CLOSING THOUGHT

I have attempted to do here what many have written in sections of books or even whole books!  My “takeaway” for you is this: If our worship services are journeys where are you leading your congregation and how are all of you getting there?  May we continue “further up and further in” to the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Lord be with you…

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Bishop Ryan Mackey is a guest columnist for TalkingWorship.com.  Mackey is Professor of Music History and Technology at Central Christian College of Kansas and an Auxiliary Bishop in Province USA of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches.  His passions include teaching on and incorporating the historic traditions of the Church in contemporary practices.

 

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