What’s in a worship service (Part 4)

Of all the different kinds of churches I have attended and worshiped at, I feel most at home in a Presbyterian worship service. I don’t know how much that has to do with the fact that it is similar in its general form to the worship services at the Congregational church I grew up in, how much my 23 years of being Presbyterian, how much with the way its nature matches my personality, and how much it is the excellent features of the worship service itself.

One of the first things I learned about Presbyterianism, back when I switched to that tradition from the Baptist churches I had attended before I got married, is that in many ways they are a “middle way.” There is an excellent book on the subject by Harry Hassell, Presbyterians – People of the Middle Way. Taking a position between two extremes is not always the right approach, because sometimes one “extreme” is right and the other is extremely wrong. But in many aspects of religious belief and practice, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from both ends of the spectrum, and a middle position borrows from both while avoiding the errors of focusing too much on one to the exclusion of the other.

One way this shows up in worship is the mix of traditional, structured elements, and more informal elements of the church’s or worship leader’s choosing. We always say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed (or another confessional statement from our Book of Confessions). We always sing the Gloria Patri and the Doxology. Other prayers and hymns vary from week to week, however. The hymns are usually traditional, accompanied by piano or organ, but special music by the choir or a soloist could include contemporary song and the use of an accompaniment CD.

Even more than these individual elements of the service, however, I appreciate its overall flow, which follows the same pattern every week even though the details change. This article outlines the components of worship and how each part of the service fits into them. In churches I have attended, the first two – entering God’s presence and enjoying God’s presence – are grouped together under Gathering, and the “empowerment” of the Benediction is grouped under our Response to the Word. The order of the service is virtually the same, however.

Baptist churches may follow a similar pattern, but – at least in those I attended – without the structured elements that I find helpful. Consider the Call to Worship, for example. In the Baptist churches, it seemed to be assumed that people came to church with hearts prepared to worship. One would hope this would be the case at all churches, but I find it helpful to have an explicit call to worship to remind me why I am there and to focus my mind and heart on worship. Generally this consists of lines from Scripture, most often from Psalms, that exhort us to worship and tell us why (because God is so great and because we are created by Him for His purposes).

The Call to Confession, Unison Prayer of Confession (preferably followed by a brief time of silence for individual confession to God), and Assurance of Pardon are also important to me. (Again, Baptist churches assume that people have done their own confessing to God privately. They also stress the importance of being specific in confessing sins, and unison prayers are of necessity more general.) The exact form of the prayer we use varies from week to week, but two of the prayers we often use are the third and fifth prayers on this page.

I find it spiritually beneficial to be guided in prayer in this way, even if I have no sins weighing on my heart or mind at the moment. There is something about joining with so many other people in admitting our sinfulness to God. We are reminded that we all sin, and that rather than comparing ourselves to one another we all admit we fall far short before God, and we all want Him in His grace to remedy that. No doubt there are some people who say the words without meaning them, but I don’t consider that a good reason to avoid having unison prayers.

After the Assurance of Pardon, we sing the Gloria Patri. This is one of the traditions I was especially pleased to rediscover when I began worshiping at a Presbyterian church. I had very rarely had opportunity to sing the Doxology or say the Lord’s Prayer in Baptist churches, but at least I remembered them. I had completely forgotten about the Gloria Patri – but quickly discovered that my memory of it had just been lying dormant all those years.

At the church we attend now, the next part is the children’s sermon. Not every church does this, and there is considerable difference of opinion (in general, not in our church as far as I know) on whether it is appropriate. I think it is one good way to involve children directly in worship and let them know that church is about them too, not just the adults.

If done well (and some adults do a much better job of it than others), I think it is a positive addition to the service. (And even if it is not done so well, I suspect many children are glad simply of a break from having to sit quietly in the pew.) Part of it depends on the children themselves – I find it much easier to relate Bible truths to them if they answer questions readily. And I find that – with a few exceptions such as my younger son, who is never particularly reticent – they seem more likely to do so if there is a larger group of them.

In some churches – such as the one we attend now – the offering is next. I know my husband considers it theologically preferable to have the offering after the Scripture readings and sermon, as part of “our response to the word,” but it’s not something he’s going to argue for changing, at least not early in his ministry at the church.

Next is a time of sharing Joys and Concerns, then the Prayers of the People. The Joys and Concerns part was new to me, though the church I grew up in had a Pastor prayer which seemed to be much like Prayers of the People – listing the various concerns for people who were sick, for various ministries, and for specific situations. In in my experience, Concerns tend to outnumber Joys, and health issues seem to dominate both. But occasionally I have heard Joys that are much like the “personal testimonies” given in Baptist churches.

I have to admit that Prayers of the People is one part of the service I have trouble entering fully into. I have never found it easy to pray along with someone leading in prayer, except when the prayer is written out for my to follow in the bulletin. Either I end up trying to simply listen (though my thoughts tend to wander anyway), or I pray on my own without regard for what the pastor is saying.

The pastor’s prayer concludes with having the congregation join in saying the Lord’s Prayer. I have known this prayer at least since I was in first grade, and it’s rather easy to say the words without really thinking about them. I try to think about them, or at least some of them. I find that at the normal rate at which congregations say the prayer, my concentration on the meaning of one phrase means that my mouth goes on saying other phrases while still thinking about the other one.

At this point we normally sing another hymn, following by the Scripture readings. These are chosen by my husband, usually from the Revised Common Lectionary. There are times when he does a sermon series on a topic or a portion of Scripture, but most of the time he uses the lectionary to select the Scripture passages, including the one he will preach on. This is a discipline that keeps him from just sticking to passages or topics he is most comfortable with.

My husband encourages the lay liturgist (i.e. the layperson who is helping to lead worship) to give some comments about the passages before reading them. This can be simply giving some background on the passage, or sharing some personal insight gained while reading the passage earlier in the week. At the end of the readings, the liturgist says, “the word of the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “thanks be to God.” I suppose those ritual sentences at the end are not an essential part of the service, but I am always pleased to be at a church that includes them.

Next (and just about last in the order of worship) is the sermon, about which there’s not much to say, because it’s going to be different at every church depending on the preacher. I read an interesting comment on facebook recently, lamenting that in so many churches, the sermon is so much the focus of the service that people tend to choose a church based on whether they like the preaching.

The remedy, this person suggested, is not to diminish the sermon but to give more thought to the liturgy “such that it served as the beautiful and interactive body of the service itself, (rather than a mere skeleton to hang the sermon around)” He also recommends emphasizing “producing beautiful music and instilling an appreciation for it in the congregation,” and having the elders help lead the service along with the pastor.

I had originally planned to make this the last post about worship (for a while anyway), but now I’m thinking about writing one more, summing up the elements of worship that I find most helpful and suggestions I would make if I were helping plan worship services.


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