What is Christian Worship?

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.” (Tozer 47) How we worship God during the week reflects how we worship God together at weekly gatherings. What is worship? Worship is more than something we do. It is more than something we attend. It is more than something we know the order of. Worship is a lifestyle. More importantly, worship is a response to the Living God who is here, who gave life, who continues to work and move in and through the believers.

If the people of God are to be living a life of worship, then the order of worship reflects how lives should be lived. In each worship setting, almost no matter what “style of worship” a person participates in, there is a four-fold movement to help the worshipper move closer to the throne of grace and experience the presence of the Living God. This movement appears in the book of Isaiah chapter 6. In a vision, Isaiah has found himself to be in the throne room of God. Here God is meeting with the heavenly beings, worshipping God, and talking about what should be done on earth. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV) Isaiah decides to be the one to respond and say, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8c NIV) After Isaiah responds, he receives the mission and the gifts to do what needs to be done. This shows the movement of worship (Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending Out), and describes our life with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Flow of Worship

Isaiah has been transported, in a vision, to the throne room of God. This is the first movement of worship called the Gathering. In this movement, people are finding themselves to be in the presence of God. This is where the people gather their hearts and spirits together to worship and begin to celebrate, as a community, all God has done, is doing, and will do. The Gathering is the time to center our hearts and our entire being on the reality of the presence of God. An example to help the worshippers understand the presence of God is among the worshipping community is to proclaim, “Welcome to God’s house where the Risen Christ is ready to receive our praises! I invite you to add your praise to those of your sister and brothers as we rejoice together in this day that God has made.” (Cherry 64) Many different components may be used in this movement. When the people wake up to the fact the presence of God is with them, and they are in the presence of God, the worship leader can offer a call to worship, song, opening prayers, prayers of confession and pardon and/or more. Isaiah has found himself to be in the presence of the Holy One and says, “Woe to me!…I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5 NIV) Isaiah understands where he is and whose presence he is in. He confesses and then one of the heavenly beings comes to cleanse Isaiah from his sin. Being in the presence of God changes lives. There is a need to be cleansed and receive forgiveness, so the people’s hearts are open and ready to fully worship and receive the blessings, peace, and most importantly, the presence of the Living God that is already among them. The point of the Gathering is to help the worshippers understand and appreciate the presence of the Holy Spirit inviting each person to participate in the worship of God Almighty that is already taking place in the heavens.

Since worship is a way of life, one way the worshippers could get ready for the community worship experience is to pray, sing, and read scripture. Psalms 120-134 are called songs of “ascent,” meaning these psalms help the reader, and person of prayer prepare their hearts, minds, the whole being for what is about to happen in the community worship event.

After Isaiah pays attention that he is in the throne room of the Lord, the presence of God, he begins to listen. Through all of the praises going up, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3 NIV), Isaiah hears God speak. This is the next movement the worshipping community goes through, hearing the Word of God read, spoken, proclaimed. During this movement, the worship leader, lay reader, pastor, read the scripture passage(s) for the day and the people are ready to hear the Word of God proclaimed and explained. Since it is the Word of God heard, it is usually a good idea to ask God to open the hearts and lives of the people so the Word can be fully understood and transferred and the Word of God can come in people’s lives and do the work of transformation. This is usually done through prayer, such as a prayer of illumination which calls upon the Holy Spirit to speak to the people through the Word and the sermon of the day.

When the Word of God is read and proclaimed, it is always a good idea to focus on the entirety of the message of the whole Bible, specifically the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This can be done through several scripture passage readings (Old Testament, Psalms, Epistles, Gospel readings) so the worshipper can keep the full message of scripture in their minds. One way to do this is to follow the Revised Common Lectionary readings which cover most of the Bible over three years. If the lectionary is not being used, it is important to still use more than one text or at least a more extended passage, so the full Word is heard in the context it was written.

God is always speaking. This is something the worshippers (all people) need to remember. So it is not just through the scripture reading(s) the worshippers hear from God; it is throughout the community worship event. When scripture is used throughout the service, the presence and Word of God is continually brought to the forefront of people’s minds and lives.

When God speaks, the only thing there is to do is respond. Isaiah’s response was “Here am I! Send me!” To respond to God means the people are ready and willing to do what God is asking. In the flow of worship, the response to God’s Word occurs in the sacraments (baptism and communion) or through song, prayer, or in the way the worshipping community decides. It is essential to give a response to the God who is present, active and speaking. The response “is an acknowledgment that we have truly listened to what God spoke to the community through the Scriptures and the sermon, and that as a result, we intend to offer back an appropriate affirmation.” (Cherry (99) Acts 2 demonstrates why the response is essential.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter and the 119 other disciples are gathered together. Suddenly the Holy Spirit comes upon them in the form of tongues of fire, and the people hear a loud gushing wind. Peter stands up to address the crowd witnessing these signs. He boldly proclaims Jesus is still alive and gives a sermon that God uses to “cut to the heart” of each person there. The Word of God is strong, “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12 NIV), that the people had to respond. As a result, three thousand people decided to follow Jesus Christ and the world began to witness the saving, powerful work of God through Jesus Christ guided by the movement of the Holy Spirit. The world was starting to change. Responding to God means the people are acknowledging the desire to be part of God mission and work in the world. As a result, God fills the people with the Holy Spirit and equips them to do the work they are called to do.

The beginning of the community worship event takes the worshippers into the presence of God. The people are taken to God’s presence. This would be an upward movement, primarily because God’s people are always being worked on to be holier each day, with each experience of God. Then the worshippers have the chance to hear from God. This is God’s Word coming down to the people. When the people respond, the praises, voices, and cries of the people are brought back up to God. The response of the people is essential because the spirit of the people is lifted to God. This is the time when the people have the chance to get “on the same page” like God who is working, moving, and inviting the people to participate in the work being done.

Isaiah has found himself to be in the presence of God. He has been cleansed. He has heard God speak. He has responded. Now, Isaiah is sent back to the people for the mission of God. In the flow of worship, this is called the Sending. What happens in the Sending is the people are sent back into the mission field. The mission field is not a place in another country. The mission field is home, work, the community, the store(s). Wherever the people go, God is working there and inviting the people to participate with the Spirit to work in the world. Robert Webber says “when God blesses us, God confers on us a power to fulfill our calling in righteousness and holiness in Jesus Christ. God’s blessing on us is a gift—an actual pouring out on us the Holy Spirit.” (Webber 184) This is what the Sending is, going back into the world, out of the safety of comfort with other believers, and living into the life and power of God wherever we are and whatever we do.

Liturgy – The Work of the People

Liturgy happens in all worship services. “’Liturgy’ comes from the Greek word leitourgia, translated as “work of the people.” It refers to the actions that worshippers undertake in order to do the work of worship.” (Cherry 39) Cherry goes on to say, “whatever worship acts we offer to God constitute our liturgy.” (Cherry 39)

In traditional worship services, the liturgy will be more formalized and corporate. This means there will be a specific way to pray, to recite, to sing, a particular order. More relaxed, contemporary worship services, still follow a liturgy; however, it may seem more relaxed, or not as obvious. Liturgy is more than what the people say in worship. It is something done in worship. The flow of worship is the liturgy. “Since all worshippers engage to some degree in the actions of worship, all worshippers engage in liturgy.” (Cherry 39)

Time

To help keep the focus on Jesus Christ all year long, the Christian calendar has been introduced and utilized. Time is something sacred. All time is God’s time. “In the tapestry of history, in which God is ever active even if often hidden, that central, brilliant blossom is Jesus Christ who enables us to see so many other evidences of God’s presence, and causes us to know that God is always with us, even when hidden from view.” (Stokey 24) It is through celebrating the Christian calendar, beginning with Advent and go through the year, we have the chance to celebrate the full life and presence of Jesus Christ with us always.

Sacraments in Worship

One of the most significant aspects of Christian worship, for many people, is the participation in the action and practice of the sacraments. The Protestant Churches recognize two sacraments—Baptism and Holy Communion.

Holy Communion, sometimes called Eucharist or breaking of the bread or Lord’s Supper, is best placed within the worship service after the hearing and proclamation of the Word. This is a time of responding to Jesus Christ through the participation of joining him in this meal. When a person participates in this sacrament, sacred moment, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the participant joins in and celebrates the victory of Jesus Christ. “In the heavens, there is a constant and eternal historical recitation of Christ’s great victory over the power of evil and death.” (Webber 129)

The time of Communion helps the participants remember, celebrate, be part of the community, and join in the meal of heaven. During this act of worship, the worshipper is responding to the real presence of Jesus Christ by coming forward to receive the grace, life, and forgiveness Christ offers. This is not something the people go into lightly, nor haphazardly. The people have been building to this time throughout the whole worship service. Now, through the consecration of the elements, the bread and wine (juice) are used to demonstrate the presence of Jesus Christ going into and living through the worshipping community. “The purpose of the table is to engage in acts of worship that enact and celebrate the story of how God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, raised Christ from the dead, overcame the powers of evil, and offers to us the forgiveness, healing, love, and power for victorious living in community and in the world.” (Cherry 86)

Baptism is the second sacrament celebrated and practiced by Protestants. “Baptism, as it is known in the New Testament…is administered only once, at the point of initiation into the Christian community.” (Staples 120) This is an important thing to remember. A person is only baptized once because it is God doing the work, not the people. Baptized people do have opportunities, and should participate in, to remember their baptism by the symbol of water.

John Wesley, in his Treatise on Baptism, says, “The matter of this sacrament is water; which, as it has a natural power of cleansing, is more fit for this symbolic use.” (Wesley) Staples writes, “[Water] helps to create life, but it can destroy life. It nourishes life, yet it can drown it. It can be healing, yet it can be destructive. The Biblical writers knew this.” (Staples 126) Water is also used because Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.

In 1982, the World Council of Churches published a work called “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” In this document, baptism is described as having five purposes: to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection (by going in the water and coming out), outwardly demonstrate an inward working of the Spirit’s cleansing power, it is a gift of the Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, and baptism is a sign of the Kingdom. Just as circumcision was an outward sign for the Jewish people of their status as God’s chosen people, baptism is an inward sign that a person is marked, sealed and set apart as God’s person to live life in a covenant community sharing, showing, and expanding the Kingdom of Heaven wherever the believer is located.

There are many ways a person is baptized—sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. It does not matter how much water is used. The critical thing to pay attention to is how the Holy Spirit of God is working in and through the individual to be a vessel used for the redemption and transformation of the world.

Both Holy Communion and Baptism use symbols to represent the real presence of God through Jesus Christ as experienced by the Holy Spirit. The complete Triune God is present in the sacraments, and the people experience the saving grace of God through these acts of worship which are then transferred to everyday life.

Conclusion

Worship is a way of life. As the people of God gather together in God’s presence each week, they remember the saving act of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christian worship is centered around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and shapes the people of more into the likeness and image of Christ. When the people of God are transformed, by the Holy Spirit, the world will look more and more like the Kingdom of God here on earth. This happens when the people of God live out their worship each day. Alexander Schmemann sums this idea up beautifully:

“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom—not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called ‘sacrament,’ but because first of all, she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the ‘world to come,’ to see and to ‘live’ it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of the world we discern that Christ has already ‘filled all things with Himself’ that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty.” (Schmemann 113)

The Church is the people of God, worshipping, celebrating, and doing the work of Christ in this world, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Bibliography

Cherry, Constance M. (2010). The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Schmemann, Alexander. (1963). For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition

Staples, Rob L. (1991). Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality. Kansas City, KS: Beacon Hill Press.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. (1996). Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan House, 1984.

Webber, R. E. (1998). Planning blended worship: The creative mixture of old and new. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Tozer, A.W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God, Their Meaning in the Christian Life. New York: Harper

Published by

Ryan Stratton

Ryan Stratton is a pastor in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He serves with his wife, Amanda, along with their children. He writes about life, faith, and leadership through his blog.

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