Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Covenantal Corporate Worship: Part 6


Having answered the question “Why does the Christian Church gather for corporate worship?” we now turn to the question “How should the Christian Church gather for corporate worship?”


Because there is no clearly defined order of service set forth in the New Testament, we must investigate the earliest patterns of Christian worship. However, for an order of service to be biblical, it must have more than historicity in its favor; it must reflect, in substance and in form, God’s total plan and purpose for his people. Therefore, it must be covenantal. The early church reflected its Christologically-covenantal origin through a twofold focus: the ministry of the Word and the Table. In his First Apology (ca. 155 A.D.), Justin Martyr reflected this liturgy in his comments about early Christian worship:

On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place. And the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as there is time. Then, when the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, admonishes and invites the people to practice these examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as we mentioned before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is presented, and wine with water; the president likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent by saying, Amen. The elements which have which have been “eucharistized” are distributed and received by each one; and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.” [1]

Over the course of time, two other formal sections were developed and added, thus making a four-fold order of corporate worship: 1. The Acts of Entrance/Gathering, 2. The Service of the Word, 3. The Service of the Table, and 4. The Acts of Dismissal. [2] The tendency throughout the wide span of church history has been to emphasize either the Word or the Table more than the other. For example, whereas the medieval church placed a high priority on the Eucharist, the Reformation church placed a greater emphasis on the preaching of the Word. No less a quagmire is the current state of corporate worship in evangelicalism, which has no consistently discernible liturgy[3] and seems to have invented a new sacrament in its overemphasis on music! The varying emphases of the different traditions suggest, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that certain aspects of the corporate worship service are more important than the others. A return to a biblical, covenantal epistemology will aid in correcting both the past and present excesses and neglect brought on by human tradition, political compromise, biblical ignorance, over-reactionary measures, and individualistic experientialism. By following the simplistic movement of the four-fold pattern, Christian corporate worship best demonstrates its place in redemptive history and faithfulness to stipulations and character of the New Covenant. Precisely because a covenant is made up of equally important elements (historical prologue, stipulations, etc.), so the four-fold pattern emphasizes how the entire corporate gathering is a covenantal act of worship. Richard C. Leonard summarizes it well:

Historic Christian liturgy moves through a sequence of entrance, service of the Word, service of the Lord's Table, and dismissal. This pattern certainly reflects the general outline of Biblical covenant structure. The entrance serves as the prologue, a joyful celebration of the Lord's dominion and his acts of salvation. The service of the Word brings forth the Scriptures as the stipulations or charter defining the relationship between the great King and his servants. The service of the Lord's Table is an act of covenant affirmation, the worshipers' pledge of loyalty in the intimacy of communion and mutual participation. The dismissal is a time of benediction or blessing pronounced upon the faithful, those who keep covenant with Christ the King. [4]

The benefits of such a liturgy become obvious when seen in light of its consistency with the covenantal structure of biblical revelation and its denominational and cultural transferability. To better explicate how this order of service might function within a North American context, we will consider the different elements that may be applied in each movement. Appendix 1 “Order of Service Sample and Rationale” has been attached as an example of the following principles applied within the context of an entire corporate worship service.

The Acts of Entrance
Every church has its own liturgy, whether the denomination belongs to a liturgical [5] tradition (Roman Catholic, Anglican) or whether it belongs to the Free Church movement (Baptist, Charismatic). Therefore, how a congregation begins their service reveals many of their presuppositions for gathering. If the beginning elements of the service are mere formalities for the “important stuff” (i.e. the preaching or the Lord’s Supper), then this reveals a missed opportunity for proper worship. Some elements that may be incorporated in the Acts of Entrance include the call to worship, an opening hymn, the invocation, prayer to and/or acknowledgement of God, confession of sin, and words of encouragement. However, the declaration and realization that the community of faith has gathered out of obedience to their Redeemer-King is the most vital aspect that must be communicated and experienced. Thus, God Himself is the one who actually issues the “call to worship.” The songs chosen ought to recount God’s mighty acts of salvation and his covenant character, while the prayer of adoration and time of confession/encouragement remind the people of God that their engagement with a holy God is only made possible by the forgiveness they have received by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The constant flow of the service then becomes “revelation of/from/about God” and the “response from/by the people of God.”

The Service of the Word
The Service of the Word involves hearing the stipulations of the New Covenant read and taught. One of the benefits of using a lectionary is the large quantity of organized Scripture readings throughout the course of the year. However, the lectionary can be confining and or become a “required” element of corporate worship when it is actually only a form. On the other hand, many evangelical churches have little Scripture read (or taught!) in the average service. Therefore, the intention of the lectionary ought to be carried through by a prayerfully constructed reading of the Scriptures that complements the preaching of the Word. Many denominations include the brief response after the Scripture Reading: “This is the Word of God”—leader; followed by “Thanks be to God”—the congregation. Any songs chosen during the service of the Word ought to convey the congregation’s response to hearing the revelation of God’s Word, emulates Israel’s response to their hearing God’s Law being read at Sinai or at the Tabernacle or Temple.

The Service of the Table
As noted above, the Lord’s Supper most explicitly symbolizes the ratification of the New Covenant. Originally, the celebration of the Table involved a community meal (Acts 2:42, 46; 1 Cor 10:26; 11:21ff.) traditionally known as the “agape feast.” This is significant considering the institution of both the Sinaitic Covenant and the New Covenant involved and/or were followed by a covenant meal. As the church became more established and the celebration became more formal and elaborate, the meal was abandoned. Furthermore, many restrictions were placed on the catechumenate that made the Lord’s Supper the privilege of the “sanctified” few rather than the means of grace for the entire community.

Most non-liturgical churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly. Supposedly, if the Table is celebrated too often (weekly), familiarity and a lack of significance may result. This is completely unfounded since the New Testament and early church both portray at least a weekly observance of this ordinance. Thus in order to remind the congregation of their covenantal relationship with God and each other, a weekly or bi-weekly inclusion of the service of the Table may be the best option. The distribution and reception of the elements ought to convey a mixture of somber reflection and joyous celebration, remembering both the first and second Comings of Jesus Christ. Passing the bread and the wine throughout the seated congregation appropriately communicates the priesthood of believers. The vessels and furniture need not be overly ornate, reflecting the simple beginnings of the apostolic church and avoiding the over-complication, sometimes associated with the Catholic Mass.

For the alternative week, a similar time of recounting God’s acting on behalf of his people may include opportunity for corporate thanksgiving and testimony. A time for extemporaneous prayer for and by the congregation would be most fitting. The recitation of a creed, ancient or modern, would be appropriate for both the Service of the Table or the Service of Thanksgiving and Testimony. It communicates the catholicity of the church and the communion of saints, further emphasizing the salvation of the entire community and guarding against the individualization so common in our culture today.

The Acts of Dismissal
The Acts of Dismissal remind the congregation that their corporate worship flows in and out of their life of worship and that they carry out their mission to the world as the covenant community of God. A song of commission, rather than praise or prayer, may best enforce the urgency of the movement from the “church gathered” to the “church scattered.” Lastly, when the benediction is pronounced, the congregation is comforted by God’s abiding and empowering presence as they are commissioned to extend the boundaries of the Kingdom of God in their homes, their schools, their workplaces, their local communities, or the ends of the earth.

[1] Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), 9.
[2] The four-fold order of service is detailed in Robert Webber, Worship is a Verb (Peabody: Hendriksen, 1992), 45-54. Also helpful is Michael Horton’s chapter “What should Our Service Look Like?” in A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 141-162. There, Horton plainly lays out the covenantal structure that is common throughout many Reformed churches and discusses the elements and circumstances (under the convictions of the Regulative Principle). Both Webber and Horton define the essential elements of corporate worship on the basis of the covenantal nature of New Testament worship.
[3] By “liturgy,” I simply mean an order of service that is biblically intentional and historically sensitive. Even though there is no explicit mandate in the New Testament for a particular order of service, or liturgy, there are certainly better and worse arrangements. Unless a congregation meets without any pre-planned order, that congregation has created an order of service, a liturgy that they have deemed to be the most appropriate for their congregation at a particular time. In this way, every church (and really denomination) has it’s own liturgy, except possibly the Quakers.
[4] Leonard, “The Biblical Covenant and Christian Worship.”
[5] By “liturgical,” I mean an order of service that is highly detailed in its pre-planning. Churches that are “liturgical” usually utilize an order of service that contains specific readings for both the leader of the service and the congregation. This originally was to promote the congregation’s participation in the service rather than spectatorship. In fact, “liturgy” comes from the Greek, leitourgi,a, which simply means “public service, the activities of Christian service” or put another way, “the work of the people.” Unfortunately, the liturgy of (some) liturgical churches has become entrenched and unchangeable. However, even though non-liturgical churches are less formal, their lack of a detailed, pre-planned service often results in members becoming an audience rather than participants. Because both traditions end up with some sort of order of service, both run the risk of leaders and members equating their way of “doing corporate worship” as the right way. Both traditions need leaders who understand and can explain why we do what we do in corporate worship in light of God’s total plan and purpose for his people.


corey thomas said...
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corey thomas said...

thanks for the education in this series of postings. i really appreciate every word and i am trying to digest it all by reading each post several times. being raised in a southern baptist church and mainly exposed to a dispensational theology a lot of what you are writing is a fresh perspective for me and much needed. if only there wasn't that stigma of it being a reformed theology i would rush into my pastor's office and make him read it!

one question i have been wrestling with is how much time and effort do i spend each Sunday trying to teach these concepts to a baptist, spectating congregation? do i come right out and plainly teach the regulative principal? do i explain why we use each element and reduce the emphasis and over use of singing songs? i am having some problems figuring out how to creatively teach these concepts in a way that is memorable and life changing. can you give some practical suggestions from your own experience?

Josh said...

Corey, I am right there with you. I too was raised up in dispensational theology. And although I'm using 'covenant' language, I am by no means a 'covenant theologian' in the classical sense of the word. In fact the church I'm serving at now is a Conservative Baptist Church (CBA: e.g. Denver Seminary). So I am still wrestling with how to teach these things within a church that is most familiar with a disp. point of view.

Probably the most important thing to communicate is what Scripture says. We will only build walls if we try to push a system: reformed vs. dispensational, regulative principle vs. 'free church.' All of these words carry with them stigmas that throw little red flags up in everybody's mind. I myself hold to a variation of the regulative principle mostly akin to John Frame. However, I implement it from a Baptistic reference point not a Presbyterian. I don't go out of my way to tell the congregation that I hold to the regulative principle; instead I regularly (no pun intended) communicate that Scripture is our chief guide in planning and leading times of corporate worship. Who could argue with that?!

How much time should you spend teaching or explaining? That all depends on your level of leadership and relationship with your elders/pastors. Do you plan and lead every week? Humility and patience will be your best friends through this process.

I'd be interested in knowing what some of the areas in your corporate worship could be more (intentionally) biblical. Feel free to email me if that would be better for you.

smerickson said...


This is great, but what would you say to those who would respond by saying that the Order of service isn't very important. As long as the content is biblical and contains the appropriate elements, they can be arranged in whatever order might make most sense on a given day? Do you see the order outlined above as a general order that all services should follow or simply one equal option out of many possibilites?

It might be interesting to consider how different types of services (wedding, funeral, Sunday morning, sunday evening, mid week, etc) would fit into the general overaching structure you outlined and how the service would benefit from being ordered that way. Keep up the great work.

Josh said...

Steve, great questions. Of course, an order of service can only be biblically-intentional at best. There is no clear order of service outlined in the NT. That said, I realize I need to draft a "rationale for an order of service." Here's a beginning response to your comments/questions that might be raised by the "others."

To say that "the order of service isn't very important" may be faulty.

1. First, there are obviously better and worse ways of arranging the elements of a gathered meeting. If the content is biblical, but haphazardly arranged it becomes sub-biblical.

2. Furthermore, if there is no order of service how do you determine "the appropriate elements"? Are there elements that should happen at every gathered meeting? Or do they change so as to make "most sense on a given day"? If they stay the same, is there an order that better helps us understand and participate?

3. Every church will inevitably form its own order of service, either by lack of planning or by habit/tradition. Liturgical and non-liturgical churches must constantly ask "WHY do we do WHAT we do WHEN we do it in gathered worship?"

Josh said...

Oh, yeah. I believe that the "Four-Fold Pattern" is one of the most biblically intentional order of service. It's progression declares the gospel and aids our understanding and participation of each of the elements. Yet, it is flexible enough to include or exclude various elements, incorporate different styles, and to adapt to any culture. Rather than saying it is "an equal option out of many possibilities", I would describe it as a biblical, theological catalyst for other possibilities.