Corporate Worship: Benediction

Corporate Worship: Benediction

Dear Church Family,

In our examination of the various elements of corporate worship, this week we come to the concluding element of our service, the benediction. Our English word derives from the Latin and refers to “speaking a good word” or “blessing.” Like many of the other Biblical parts of the corporate worship service, the benediction seems to have fallen on hard times in our day. On several occasions when I have had the opportunity to preach in other churches, I have had the experience of raising my hands at the conclusion of the service to pronounce the benediction only to find looks of bewilderment and surprise on the faces looking back at me.

Even in churches and worship services where one is used to hearing a benediction at the close of the service, there may be some confusion as to what exactly is going on. As Terry Johnson observes, “There is considerable disagreement as to the nature of the benediction. Is it a pronouncement, spoken to the congregation with head uplifted and eyes opened, or is it a prayer, prayed with head bowed and eyes closed?” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 36).

Pronouncing a Blessing

Previously, in our discussion of the invocation, we looked at the difference between the invocation and the benediction. There, we pointed out that in the liturgy of the Christian church, an invocation and benediction have very specific meanings, and they represent two different directions of communication. In the invocation, the congregation (through a representative voice) is calling upon the Lord, their Creator and Redeemer, asking Him to be present with them in worship. In the benediction, the communication is reversed: the Lord pronounces a blessing upon His people (using Scripture, through a representative voice), and usually by way of dismissal.

It is also helpful to remember that in our corporate worship service, God assembles His covenant people in order that they might renew their covenant bond with Him and with one another. This principle of worship as covenant renewal helps us to recognize that in the benediction, God addresses and blesses His people as He sends them out into the world:

“Apart from the narrative structure of this covenant gathering, the benediction could easily become (and too often does become) little more than a way of saying, ‘The service is over, so good-bye.’ But here, one last time, God addresses his people. Grace has the last word, as the people receive God’s blessing through the minister with raised hands. Not only do these benedictions appear throughout the Old Testament (chiefly the Aaronic form), but they are replete in the pastoral letters of the New Testament, closing these missives that were intended as apostolic sermons to be read publicly in churches throughout the Empire.” (Horton, Michael. 2002. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-centered Worship, 160).

I can attest to how the benediction can easily become little more than a way of saying ‘good-bye’ as Horton describes. My wife and I once attended a worship service which concluded with the worship leader declaring, “Y’all come back, now! Ya hear!” Rather than a colloquial “see ya later!”, the benediction is the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon His people at the conclusion of the worship service, these words of blessing coming from Scripture.

Receiving a Blessing

The benediction is pronounced by a minister or elder, but we must remember that it is God who is speaking to His people. The man who pronounces the blessing is simply a representative voice. As such, it is a solemn, yet joyful word of dismissal from the Lord Himself and God’s people would do well to heed these words and meditate upon them as they depart. I have personally known some people who would take the words of the benediction (or other parts of Scripture from the order of worship) and tape them to their mirrors or a conspicuous place by which they could be reminded throughout the week of what the Lord had declared to them on Sunday.

There is no directive given in the Scriptures concerning the proper stance that one ought to take in receiving the benediction. Some raise their hands and look to the one who declares the benediction in a posture of ‘open reception.’ Others bow their heads in humble reverence in hearing the Lord’s blessing. Still others simply stand. Any of these is appropriate; the most important thing, though, is that we acknowledge the great privilege that is ours as God’s people in receiving His blessing to those who belong to Christ.

Response

In our service at Hill Country Church (PCA), following the benediction, the congregation typically responds in a short song of praise and thanksgiving. Whether it be through the Gloria Patri or the Threefold Amen or some other song, it is appropriate for God’s people to respond to His pronouncement of blessing. Singing thanksgiving and praise to God as we are dismissed is a practical reminder that that we respond to God’s initiative. Singing together with one voice as we depart, we are also reminded of the bonds of Christian unity that we share as we prepare to re-enter the world.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

Corporate Worship: Final Hymn

Corporate Worship: Final Hymn

Dear Church Family,

We have discussed congregational singing previously in this series on the corporate worship of our church. We have discussed the importance of understanding the complementary relationship between words and musical setting in corporate singing. And, we have discussed the importance of thinking about corporate singing in terms of discipleship rather than simply its pleasure inducing qualities.

In our order of worship at Hill Country Church (PCA), we typically sing another hymn immediately following the reading and preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. The selection of this hymn is usually based upon – or at least connected in some way to – the sermon. Thus, this final hymn will oftentimes be a congregational song that emphasizes that which was proclaimed in the sermon, or some specific application which is derived from it.

High, Folk, and Pop Art

Since we are once again talking about congregational singing, this might be a good time to discuss the various types of musical aesthetics and how we might employ wisdom in thinking about these aesthetics in the context of the corporate worship of the church. Musicologists, sociologists, and students of aesthetics (particular those who think about worship music) generally distinguish between high, folk, and pop art (see All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers or Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon or With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship by Reggie Kidd).

One helpful way to think about and define these categories is as follows: High art is ‘art for art’s sake’ and tends to be produced by those who have been trained and made the study of art their life’s work. Folk art is ‘art for the community’s sake’ and tends to be more colloquial and accessible without great study. Pop art is ‘art for the consumer’s sake,’ the production of which is often based solely on whether or not it is marketable or will appeal to the masses.

These three different types of art are typically described as relating to one another in a hierarchical fashion – hierarchical with regard to their development and not necessarily their value or goodness. What that means is simply that historically, high art has been developed within the realm of a tradition – musicians and artists study and learn from those who have come before them. Folk art (e.g. the music that families and communities sing together) has developed as an offshoot which is dependent upon high art. Similarly, pop art has historically depended upon the traditions of high and folk art.

However, in the 20th century these relationships changed. This is one of the major points in Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes. Writing in 1989, Myers put it this way:

“Every form of cultural expression builds on something else. In high culture, artists (at least those worth paying attention to) work within a tradition…Folk culture has a more direct and organic tie to tradition. Popular culture, too, must build on something, if for no other reason than that it needs some raw materials. Up until the last decade or two, popular culture has tended to rely on high culture and folk culture for its raw material.” (p 70)

Myers illustrates pop culture’s use of the raw materials of high and folk culture by pointing to how Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse conducted Moussorgsky’s “Night of the Bald Mountain” in Fantasia and how these early pop culture cartoons also drew on arias from Puccini and Verdi. In my own experience, I remember watching Bugs Bunny give Elmer Fudd a shave and a haircut in the operatic tradition of “The Barber of Seville.” Yet, according to Myers, the relationship of pop art to high and folk art has changed:

“Since the 1960s, the aesthetics of popular culture have effectively displaced those of high culture…Popular culture doesn’t ‘look up’ to anything today; it simply looks back at its own past. Once popular culture paid homage to high culture (e.g., the classical music used in Fantasia); today it is fascinated with the popular culture of the past. In fact, the roles have become reversed: while popular culture ignores high culture, the institutions once committed to the preservation of high culture are obsessed with popular culture.” (p 72)

In other words, we might put it this way: at one time popular culture fed off of high and folk culture, but today, popular culture feeds off of itself. As a result, popular culture becomes anemic. Of course, this is a generalization – not all expressions of popular culture have become un-rooted from high and folk art; nonetheless, it is the norm in the vast majority of the pop culture expressions of our day.

High, Folk, and Pop Music in the Church

So, how does this relate to corporate worship? Well, throughout the history of the worship of the church, the musical aesthetics of corporate worship were typically drawn from high and folk art. In fact, it is easy to see how these two are interrelated. Typically, the music of corporate singing in worship has drawn from high art (professional, studied musicians) and folk art (musical forms that developed within the community of the church or family). In our church, most of the musical settings that we use in corporate worship are drawn from high and folk art, as well. The vast majority of music of the hymns in our hymnal and Psalter are what would be considered ‘folk art’ music, and several of them might be considered ‘high art’ music; however, ‘pop art’ will typically not be found.

There are many problems that come with incorporating ‘pop art’ in the worship of the church. Here are just three. First, because pop art (in this case, popular music) has an aesthetic that is defined by consumerism (what sells), it encourages individualism and sentimentalism – if it feels good to me, it must be true. Second, pop music is derivative in nature (at least once removed) from the traditions of high and folk music; thus, it encourages passivity rather than active engagement in the musical forms. Third, if Ken Myers is correct, in the second half of the 20th century, pop art has become dislodged from its roots of high and folk art; thus, the forms of pop music themselves usually encourage a mind-set that is opposed to tradition and authority.

Perhaps some of these categories and ways of thinking about music are new to some, and I recognize that some of the statements that I’ve made deserve fuller development. But, I’ve attempted to introduce these concepts and categories simply to engender some proper ways of thinking about the appropriateness of certain forms of music in corporate worship. I may not have done justice to the definition of these categories, their histories, and how they relate to one another, but my hope is that I’ve at least sparked your interest such that you might pursue further reading and study of these matters.

My argument for the appropriateness of high and folk music in corporate worship, and the exclusion of pop music in corporate worship, may not sit well with everyone. But hopefully, it helps us to think in categories that are different than “I like it” or “I don’t like it” with regard to the appropriateness of the music that we employ in corporate worship. [In addition to the books linked above, I recommend this short article by Ken Myers in which he describes the dangers when the Church embraces the aesthetics and idioms of the pop culture around them: “Is Popular Culture Either?”]

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I personally enjoy many forms of popular music. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I personally don’t enjoy certain forms of high and folk music. But, by using these categories and thinking about ‘appropriateness’ rather than ‘likes and dislikes,’ my hope is that we will be better equipped in thinking about those musical forms and settings that are fitting for the corporate worship service – forms and settings that can actually sustain the weighty matters of the gospel and the truths of God’s Word.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Sermon

Corporate Worship: Sermon

Dear Church Family,

The preaching of God’s Word (the sermon) has fallen on hard times. Many churches are even embarrassed to use the word ‘sermon’ (that sounds too preachy!). Instead, labels like ‘sharing’ or ‘meditation’ or ‘giving a talk’ are used to describe what the pastor does when he stands in the pulpit. Ironically, these terms are used in an effort to seem less authoritarian and manipulative. Yet, the question must be asked: which is more heavy-handed and a willing to power, preaching God’s Word or sharing one’s personal opinions?

Especially Preaching

The confessional documents of the Reformation hold forth a high view of the importance and necessity of preaching that we would do well to regain. From the Heidelberg Catechism, question 65: “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from? Answer: The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is also quite direct in its prioritizing of preaching: “How is the word made effectual to salvation? Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89).

Where did the Reformers get such a high view of preaching? And, why has this high view of preaching been lost in our day? The latter question is too difficult and involved to answer at present, but the answer to the former question is simply this: the Reformers got their high view of preaching from the Scriptures.

Preaching in Scripture

There are various places in the Word of God where preaching is held forth as that which God uses to engender and strengthen faith. In the Old Testament, when the people of God rediscovered God’s law and sought to renew their covenant with the Lord, we find that the scribes and the priests “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). Notice that God’s Word was not just simply read, but it was also translated and explained for the people.

We could also point to the many places in the Gospels where Jesus preached the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g., Matthew 4:17; 11:1; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 8:1), how Jesus commissioned His disciples to preach the same (Matthew 10:7; Mark 6:12), or how preaching was the means that was employed by the early church to save the lost and build up Christ’s church (Acts 5:42; 8:4; 14:7, 21; 28:30-31; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

In fact, in this last passage cited above, we have a succinct definition of preaching. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

The Voice of Christ

One text that clearly emphasizes the unique role of preaching as the means by which Christ communicates to those that belong to Him is found in the book of Romans. In Romans 10:12-15, Paul uses a series of rhetorical questions to emphasize the need of the church to raise up and send out preachers:

12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him;  13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”  14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?  15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Romans 10:12-15)

The second question in verse 14 (“How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”) is particularly interesting. Some translations insert the word ‘of’ in this question: “How will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” With the word ‘of,’ Christ is the subject or content of the preaching (people hear about Christ in preaching). Without the word ‘of,’ Christ is the One who is actually heard in preaching (the voice of Christ is discerned through the preaching by the one who is sent out). Either way of translating this passage is legitimate, but it makes more sense from the context to translate this verse without the word ‘of’ – the voice of Christ is heard through the preaching of human preachers who are sent and commissioned by the church.

This interpretation is also in keeping with what Jesus taught in His earthly ministry: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16). Surely Jesus didn’t limit the ‘hearing of His voice’ to those who personally heard Him preach while He walked this earth. It was through His disciples and those who were subsequently raised up and sent out to preach, that Jesus’ voice was (and is) heard by those who are from other folds.

Expository and Christ-centered

Because we have such a high view of preaching and understand that the voice of Christ is heard through the preaching of the Word by those who have been commissioned by the church, at Hill Country Church (PCA), we seek to be both expository and Christ-centered in our preaching. By expository, we mean that what is preached in the sermon is based upon a particular given text of Scripture and the authority of that preaching is based upon God’s Word. By Christ-centered, we mean that the interpretation and application of a particular text of Scripture is always to be based upon the person and work of Christ as He is revealed in the New Testament (for a more in-depth description of what preaching the Christ-centered gospel looks like, see this essay for my explanation of the two, three-fold ways of talking about the gospel: https://hillcountrypca.org/preaching-what-is-the-gospel/).

Conscionable Hearing

While it is the responsibility of the preacher, by God’s grace, to seek to faithfully preach the word – reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction – it is the responsibility of the hearer to heed and obey the word of God in preaching. The Westminster Confession of Faith calls this “conscionable hearing” by which is meant hearing with understanding, faith, and reverence – seeking to obey the voice of Christ as He speaks to us through preaching (WCF 21.5; Isaiah 66:2; Matthew 13:19; Hebrews 4:2; James 1:22).

Prayer of Illumination

So, preaching is not simply one member of the congregation sharing his opinions or thoughts with other believers. When that which is preached is in accordance with God’s written Word, people hear the very voice of Christ in the sermon. There is much more going on than someone just ‘giving a talk.’ As such, we are dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit and the miraculous working of God to illumine our hearts in order that we might hear and understand the reading and preaching of God’s word. This is why we pray and ask for God’s help before the reading and preaching of the Word in what is known as the “prayer of illumination.”

For the Reformers, “The Scriptural basis for the prayer of illumination was found in Joel 2:28-32, Luke 4:18, Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 119:12, 17, 18, 27, 33, 34, 35, 37, 64, 105, 112, 124, 135, 144, 169. Patristic models were found in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (IV, XXX), Syrian and Egyptian liturgies, c. 340 A.D. Also, synagogue worship at the time of Christ included such a prayer.” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 10). In addition to being an historic practice of the church, the prayer of illumination also helps remind us of our continual need of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for our understanding of God’s Word.

Conclusion

In conclusion, consider this powerful exhortation to pastors from William Still in his book The Work of the Pastor. May we have such a high view of the preaching of God’s Word:

“It is to feed sheep on such truth that men are called to churches and congregations, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organization, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job for God. The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness. Do we really believe that the Word of God, by His Spirit, changes, as well as maddens men? If we do, to be evangelists and pastors, feeders of sheep, we must be men of the Word of God.”

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Confession of Faith through Creeds

Corporate Worship: Confession of Faith through Creeds

Dear Church Family,

Confessing our faith through the historic creeds of the Christian Church is an important aspect of our corporate worship. There are some who decry the use of confessions and creeds as man-made constructs that have no place in the Christian faith; however this goes against the teaching of Scripture itself and the long standing traditions of the Christian church. Indeed, there are many good reasons – essential reasons, even – for the use of creeds and confessions.

In his book, The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman argues that creeds and confessions are necessary, useful and helpful in the church, and indeed a biblical imperative. In the last chapter of the book, “On the Usefulness of Creeds and Confession,” he makes these points with regard to the importance of having and adhering to an agreed upon confession of faith:  

(1) All Churches and All Christians have Creeds and Confessions 
(2) Confessions Delimit the Power of the Church 
(3) Creeds and Confessions Offer Succinct and Thorough Summaries of the Faith 
(4) Creeds and Confessions Allow for Appropriate Discrimination between Members and Office-Bearers 
(5) Creeds and Confessions Reflect the Ministerial Authority of the Church 
(6) Creeds and Confessions Represent the Maximum Doctrinal Competence That Can Be Expected from a Congregation 
(7) Creeds and Confessions Relativize the Present 
(8) Creeds and Confessions Help to Define One Church in Relation to Another 
(9) Creeds and Confessions are Necessary for Maintaining Corporate Unity  

I don’t think that I can add much to these salient points. For a more in-depth explanation of these points, I recommend the book.

In the corporate worship of our church, we use both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. “The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have been in use in the Christian church since the third century and are approved for use by all the Reformed liturgies. The single exception might be the Westminster Directory, where, though the inclusion of the Apostles’ Creed was twice approved, it was for some reason omitted from its final form.” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 35). 

The Apostles’ Creed

The form of the Apostles’ Creed which we use today seems to have had its origin in a baptismal formula – something that new believers confessed upon entering into the life of the church through baptism. Our present form saw some development over the course of many centuries, particularly from the second to the ninth centuries AD. Though the Nicene Creed is the first official (received) doctrinal creed of the whole Christian church, the Apostles’ Creed was probably in use at an earlier time.

The title Apostles’ Creed first occurred in a letter sent by the Synod of Milan in 390 AD. Over the course of several centuries, this creed saw development and refinement. “By the opening of the ninth century, the received text of the Apostles’ Creed, as we have it, exercised a virtual monopoly in Western Europe.” (Jack Rogers. 1985. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, 65).

The Apostles’ Creed follows a general outline concerning five main topics: (1) God the Father and His role as Creator; (2) the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ and His role as Savior set in historical context; (3) the Holy Spirit and His role in bringing about eternal life; (4) the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ; and (5) the future hope of the Christian in the world-to-come. In questions 23-58, the Heidelberg Catechism expounds and explains the meaning of each phrase of the Apostles’ Creed.

The Nicene Creed

Though lengthier and more detailed, the Nicene Creed follows the same general outline of the Apostles’ Creed. “The Nicene Creed was the first official doctrinal statement of the whole Christian church. It developed from the work of the first two ecumenical councils, Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, and was accepted as a definitive statement by the prestigious council of Chalcedon in 451, after two centuries of struggle to clarify the relationship of Jesus Christ to God and to humanity. It has been used in worship ever since the sixth century as part of the communion service.” (Jack Rogers. 1985. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, 39).

In particular, the Nicene Creed summarizes the teaching of Scripture concerning the hypostatic union (the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures). Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes this doctrine: “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever” (WSC 21).

Also of note in the history of the Nicene Creed, is the controversy of the filioque clause (filioque meaning ‘and from the Son’). In the Nicene Creed, we confess that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This was Augustine’s view and though not part of the original Nicene Creed, the filioque clause (‘and from the Son’) was added at the Council of Toledo in 589. This was the historic view of the Church, but was one of the things that eventually led to the split between the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054 AD.

Doctrinal Advance

Both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds are basic and universal to the Christian Church. And, the historic development of creeds and confessions in the Christian church teaches us about the necessity of development and precision in the doctrines of the Christian faith. Consider these words from a sermon preached by J. Gresham Machen called “Creeds and Doctrinal Advance”:

“…all real doctrinal advance proceeds in the direction of greater precision and fulness of doctrinal statement. Just run over in your minds again the history of the great creeds of the church. How meagre was the so-called Apostles’ Creed, first formulated in the second century! How far more precise and full were the creeds of the great early councils, beginning with the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325! How much more precise and how vastly richer still were the Reformation creeds and especially our Westminster Confession of Faith!

This increasing precision and this increasing richness of doctrinal statement were arrived at particularly by way of refutation of errors as they successively arose. At first the church’s convictions about some points of doctrine were implicit rather than explicit. They were not carefully defined. They were assumed rather than expressly stated. Then some new teaching arose. The church reflected on the matter, comparing the new teaching with the Bible. It found the new teaching to be contrary to the Bible. As over against the new teaching, it set forth precisely what the true Biblical teaching on the point is. So a great doctrine was clearly stated in some great Christian creed.”

Conclusion

When we understand the historic development of the creeds and confessions of our church, even if only in a cursory manner, we come to see that these statements and documents often came into being in an effort to refute false teachings and to bring greater precision to the understanding of what the Bible teaches. When we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in our corporate worship, we are uniting our voices in our profession of faith together with the saints of old. And, we are reminding ourselves of the basic content of what we believe as Christians.

As the Preacher reminds us, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The same errors and false doctrines from the history of the church raise their ugly heads, time and again. Therefore, as we confess and come to better understand the foundations of our historic faith through the use of creeds and confessions, we will be better prepared to identify and refute those errors and false doctrines. And, more positively, we will be all the more ready to make a defense to everyone who asks to give an account for the hope that is in us as Christians (1 Peter 3:15).

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Hymn of Response and Preparation

Corporate Worship: Hymn of Response and Preparation

Dear Church Family,

In the discussion of our first hymn, we talked about the uniqueness of singing and the way in which both the words and the music of worship songs help us to engage the whole of our beings in worship – mind, heart, and body. This week, we want to think about what we might call the hymn of response and preparation. It is a hymn of response in that we are responding to our confession of sin and receiving of the assurance of pardon. And, it is a hymn of preparation as we prepare to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word in the sermon.

Discipleship or Pleasure

At this point, however, this might be a good time to talk a little bit about music as it relates to corporate worship. First, let’s consider the purpose of music in worship. Simply put, the purpose of worship music is to mature God’s saints – to aid in maturing discipleship. One way that I have often heard this put is to think of worship music as plowing the hearts of the worshippers in order to prepare them to receive the seed of God’s Word. Unfortunately, we usually don’t think of the role or purpose of worship music in this way (to prepare or mature us). Instead, we often use the criteria of ‘pleasure.’ Consider these thoughts from Calvin Johannson:

“Religious terminology often masks the out-and-out honesty of simply saying, ‘We will respond only to what we like.’ Instead, we say that the criterion for church music is that it ‘bless me,’ ‘move me,’ ‘minister to me,’ or ‘bring me closer to God.’ Such statements camouflage the real criterion by which we judge music’s success – pleasure. Hedonists within the church believe that liking something is the prerequisite for its effectiveness in ministering. Seldom do parishioners tell musicians, ‘I disliked the music today, but it helped me grow in Christ.’ We are so attuned to amusement that worship music must pleasure us – or else! The hard sayings of Jesus, such as, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ are seldom translated into ‘hard’ musical sayings. No matter what is said, most Christians prefer amusement to discipline…When personal gratification is worship’s objective, worship is invalidated. To leave the service with the query, ‘Now what did I get out of church today?’ is to misunderstand the nature of worship. Such worshipers define it by their own pleasurable self-satisfaction, another way of saying that hedonism is not all that secular.” (Johansson, Calvin M. 1992. Discipling Music Ministry: Twenty-First Century Directions, 49-50).

Criteria for Evaluating Worship Music

So, if the purpose of music is to mature God’s saints, then the criteria by which we evaluate that music ought not be influenced merely by whether or not it brings pleasure. Rather, the criteria by which we evaluate worship music ought to be whether or not it accomplishes the task of maturing God’s saints. Here are six helpful questions for discerning the criteria for music used in Christian worship (these six questions come John Witvliet, author of The Conviction of Things Not Seen, and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship as quoted in On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories, 2006, by Sean Michael Lucas, 126):

(1) Do we have the imagination and resolve to speak and make music in a way that both celebrates and limits the role of music as a conduit for experiencing God?
(2) Do we have the imagination and persistence to develop and play music that enables and enacts the primary actions of Christian worship?
(3) Do we have the imagination and persistence to make music that truly serves the gathered congregation, rather than the music, composer, or marketing company that promotes it?
(4) Do we have the persistence and imagination to develop and then practice a rich understanding of ‘aesthetic virtue’?
(5) Do we have a sufficiently complex understanding of the relationship between worship, music, and culture to account for how worship is at once transcultural, contextual, countercultural, and cross-cultural?
(6) Do we have the imagination and persistence to overcome deep divisions in the Christian church along the lines of socioeconomic class?

Music is Not Neutral

While some people default to the criteria of personal enjoyment in evaluating music (as discussed above), there are others who take a very different view: some people believe that the music of a song, especially in worship, is irrelevant and simply a means to get at the text. As Scott Aniol explains, “Several hundred years of post-Enlightenment rationalism has influenced us to see music as amoral, without inherent meaning, and merely neutral “packaging” for lyrics. However, this is not how Christians in the past have viewed music and its role in life and worship. In fact, this is not how anyone viewed music prior to the Enlightenment. And it is certainly not how Scripture views it.”

In his article, Aniol explains and defends the Biblical basis for recognizing that music (and all art) embodies ideas. Music is not simply a neutral or irrelevant medium. Consider this striking illustration:

“The words themselves express ideas, but even the word choices, images employed, and word order already express an interpretation of those ideas. Add music, and now the artist is further expressing interpretation of the ideas present in the lyrics. One of the best illustrations of this is the infamous example of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. The words she sang were certainly not controversial, but her tone, body language, and performance style created a scandal…In this case, the textual content and even the musical form itself were far from offensive. Yet Monroe’s vocal performance, delivery, dress, and image embodied messages that were missed by nobody. The point is that music—in all of its complexities of melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, and performance style—embodies interpretation of ideas that extend beyond merely what the words themselves express.”

Scott Aniol’s writing about the importance of aesthetics in worship, and how we ought to think about these things in corporate worship are very insightful. I recommend reading his article, “How Music Embodies Theology” in its entirety.

Hymn of Response and Preparation

The hymn which we sing immediately following our confession of sin and receiving of the assurance of pardon is usually selected as a response to the specific emphasis of these elements that precede it. In this way, our singing reinforces our prayers and God’s Word. Sometimes this hymn is a mournful song that expresses our sorrow over our sin. Other times, this hymn is a meditation on the promises of God to forgive the sins of His people for the sake of Christ. Or, this hymn may be a song of praise for the forgiveness that is ours by faith.

Whatever the case, this hymn also serves in the order and liturgy of our service as a means of preparation to hear the voice of Christ in the reading and preaching of His Word in the sermon.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Assurance of Pardon

Corporate Worship: Assurance of Pardon

Dear Church Family,

In our examination of the elements of our corporate worship service, most recently we looked at the importance of confessing our sins, corporately and privately. Just as it is important to examine ourselves, confess and repent of our sins, it is equally important to know that according to the promises of God, our sins are forgiven through faith in Christ. So, upon confessing our sins, the minister asks the congregation to rise in order to hear God’s assurance of pardon.

Condition of Means, Not Merit

In preface to the assurance of pardon, the minister declares, “Hear the promises of God to those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ.” Faith (trusting in Christ) and repentance (turning from one’s sins and seeking forgiveness) are inextricably linked together. They are inextricably linked in Scripture (Mark 1:15 – Jesus’ message was: “repent and believe in the gospel”), and they are inextricably linked in our Westminster Standards (WCF 15:1 – “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ”).

Faith and repentance are conditions of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, but we must be quick to clarify what we mean by “condition.” Faith and repentance are conditions of means, not merit. The person and work of Christ is what merits (or earns) salvation and forgiveness of sins. Faith and repentance are the means by which God applies the merits of Christ to His people.

Unfortunately, there have been some preachers and theologians throughout church history (and presently) who shy away from proclaiming the necessity of faith and repentance. They do so because it might lead, they say, to viewing faith and repentance as meritorious works – something which a person does to earn favor with God. That’s why understanding faith and repentance as conditions of means and not meritorious is important. J.I. Packer is helpful as he clarifies, “The truth is that every act of faith, psychologically regarded, is a matter of doing something (knowing, receiving, and trusting are as much acts in the psychological sense as is resolving to obey); yet no act of faith ever presents itself to its doer as other than a means of receiving undeserved mercy in some shape or form.”

Consider the things that are necessary for painting your house. You need a painter, a paintbrush, and some paint. In God’s work of salvation, the Holy Spirit is the ‘painter.’ The ‘paint’ is the righteousness of Christ (His obedience and merit). The ‘paintbrush’ is faith and repentance (the means which God uses to apply the righteousness of Christ to sinful men and women). Perhaps it’s not the perfect illustration, but hopefully it helps.

It is important that we recognize and acknowledge that salvation and the forgiveness of sins is solely based upon the merit of Christ and that there is nothing that we may do that will make us deserving of it. At the same time, it is equally important that we recognize and acknowledge that God does not grant salvation and forgiveness to anyone apart from the means of faith and repentance. Thus, the declaration of the promises of God and assurance of pardon are for all those – and only those – who “repent of their sins and trust in Christ.”

Assurance, not Absolution

In some traditions such as the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) – and even some Protestant traditions (e.g., Lutheranism and Anglicanism) – the priest or minister is said to have the power to forgive the sins of people. According to the catechism of the RCC, in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, “the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of the sacrament.” And, “by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent ‘pardon and peace.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 4, 1424)

Yet, the Scripture is clear that it is only God who is able to forgive sins. Before He healed a paralyzed man (Luke 5:17-26), Jesus declared to him, “Your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes and Pharisees who heard this were outraged at what, in their mind, amounted to blasphemy: “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Then, in order to prove that He was the Son of God and had the power to forgive sins, Jesus healed the man.

The minister or elder who declares the assurance of God’s Word is not forgiving the sins of the people, nor providing absolution. He is declaring the assurance of forgiveness from God’s Word to those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ. There is no special power imbued in the man himself, but there is special power in the Word of God and the promise of assurance. To claim otherwise would be blasphemy.

God’s Promises from God’s Word

It is important to understand that when the minister declares the assurance of God’s forgiveness, he does so as God’s representative voice. That is, God is speaking His Word through the voice of a man. The assurance of pardon is a particular promise from God’s Word spoken by the minister. And, he may declare the assurance of pardon with confidence not because of any special power that God has given to him, but because God is true to His Word.

The promises from God’s Word which are used in our worship for the assurance of pardon are usually selected based upon the previous recitation of the catechism. And, the following hymn is often tied to this assurance of promise by way of reinforcing the truth that has been declared.

Acknowledgment and Response

Following the declaration of the assurance of pardon, at Hill Country Church (PCA), the minister exhorts the congregation: “Now, lift up your hearts.” To which the congregation responds: “We lift them up to the Lord!” In the Scriptures, the Lord commended David as the King of Israel for his being a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Likewise, in the New Testament, we find that the goal of the ministry of the Word “is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

By “lifting up our hearts up to the Lord” we are confessing our need to be cleansed by the blood of Christ. We are recognizing our continual need of God’s mercy and grace. We are acknowledging our own inability, and submitting ourselves to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

“The Altar” by George Herbert

In his poem “The Altar,” George Herbert beautifully captures this idea of the necessity of humble submission in offering one’s heart to the Lord. In the poem, Herbert confesses that the heart is only able to be transformed by the hand of the Lord and nothing else. And, he concludes the poem (at the foundation of the altar) by linking Christ’s sacrifice to the sanctification of the heart. Herbert was one of the first Christian poets to employ what is called concrete (or shape) poetry. Thus, as Herbert describes his heart as an altar to the Lord, the words of the poem take the shape of an altar (if the formatting of the poem below has been altered in transmission, be sure to click on the link above to see what I mean).

 

The Altar
A  broken   A L T A R,  Lord,  thy  servant  reares,
Made  of  a  heart,  and  cemented  with   teares:
Whose  parts  are as  thy  hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A    H E A R T     alone
Is    such    a     stone,
As      nothing      but
Thy  pow’r doth  cut.
Wherefore each part
Of   my   hard   heart
Meets  in  this  frame,
To  praise thy  Name;
That,   if   I   chance   to   hold   my   peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Confession of Sin

Corporate Worship: Confession of Sin

Dear Church Family,

While serving as a hospital chaplain one summer during seminary, I would pay regular visits to the patients on my assigned ward. One time, I visited with a man as he was preparing for heart surgery. I didn’t know the man, but as we talked, he told me of his faith in Christ. At the end of the visit, I prayed for him, specifically for his upcoming surgery. The next day, after the operation, I visited with him again. He told me about how everything went as well as was expected in his surgery, but then he said to me, “I wanted to mention something to you about how you prayed yesterday. It’s been bugging me, and I think you should be made aware of it. You failed to ask God for forgiveness at the beginning of your prayer. And, you know, God does not allow sin in his presence, so I wouldn’t want your prayers to be hindered by not beginning every prayer by confessing your sins and asking God’s forgiveness.”

I graciously thanked the man for his advice; it didn’t seem like the right time to point out that God had actually answered my prayers for his surgery, despite my failure to begin with confession of sin. Still, it got me to thinking. Is confession of sin and repentance a prerequisite for God’s answering our other prayers? Does He not hear our prayers unless we begin with confession of sin and repentance?

On the one hand, the Bible admonishes us to confess our sins knowing that God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Also, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). So, yes, “it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins particularly (WCF 15:5) – and often! Indeed, repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (WCF 15:3).

On the other hand, confession of sin and repentance is a privilege that is granted to the children of God. As Jesus said, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:14). For the redeemed of the Lord, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us when we don’t know how to pray as we should (Romans 8:26). Prayer is a special gift and means of communicating with our heavenly Father.

So, while we ought not to think mechanically about God’s hearing of our prayers (thinking that He only hears what we pray for after we confess our sins), we ought to also readily partake of the privilege of confessing out sins and repenting of our sins as often as we can. Indeed, we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Confessing Our Sins Corporately

What does this have to do with corporate confessions of sin? Well, it tells us that confessing our sins as God’s people is not something that must precede our worship in order for our worship to be made acceptable to God. And, it also helps us to see how confessing our sins together as God’s people is a special privilege, a means by which God communicates His grace to us, and is commanded in Scripture.

At Hill Country Church (PCA), we use written corporate confessions of sin which we pray together as a congregation in unison. These prayers are derived from Scripture or Scripture-based prayers from various sources of liturgical practices in the history of the church. The practice of confessing our sins together and corporately as God’s people is rooted in Scripture. Upon rediscovering and hearing the Law of God read by Ezra (Nehemiah 8:1ff), the descendants of Israel “separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2). The Psalms which were (and are) sung by God’s people contain many confessions of sin (e.g. Psalm 40:11-13; 79:8-9; 86:1-7; 143; and especially Psalm 51).

Confessing Our Sins Privately

Christians ought to confess and repent of their sins daily, even immediately upon conviction of those sins. Yet, in our corporate worship, we also provide a time for the people of the church to silently offer up their particular prayers of confession. Unfortunately, confession of sin (and especially corporate confession of sin) is one of those worship practices that is more and more being omitted in the worship of many churches in our day. Yet, the Scripture is clear that godly sorrow leads to repentance without regret; and repentance without regret leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).

In our technological and media-saturated world, we are constantly bombarded by information and noise. Distraction has become the norm; however, it is good to quiet ourselves and slow down – to contemplate our own sin and unworthiness, confess and repent of our sins. Self-examination is an important part of worship. And the Scriptures admonish us to “not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring a matter in the presence of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). In this way, we are humbling ourselves before our God who hears our prayers from His throne in heaven.

How to Pray?

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines prayer in this way:

“Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men; and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.” (WCF 21:3)

God’s Word gives us a wonderful promise regarding confessing our sins: “If we confess our sins, He is faith and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The context of this verse helps us to maintain the proper attitude in prayers of confession. On either said of this verse, we are reminded of the futility and self-deception of self-righteousness: Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Verse 10 says, “if we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”

As we confess and repent of our sins, let us do so in faith without any doubting (James 1:6). Let us remember our own humble circumstances and the promised forgiveness and salvation which is ours in Christ Jesus. Our sins have been forgiven us for His name’s sake (1 John 2:12). What a wonderful privilege that is!

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Catechism

Corporate Worship: Catechism

Dear Church Family,

In our morning worship service, after the pastoral prayer, we recite together a portion of a Reformed catechism or confession. The Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms) contain the summary of the doctrines taught in Scripture and as such are received as part of the constitution of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. So, we recite together a portion of these standards each week as a church to familiarize and remind ourselves of the doctrines taught in God’s Word. Though the Heidelberg Catechism is not part of the constitution of our church, we use this catechism in worship as well as it too is a good summary of the doctrines taught in Scripture.

[Aside: Herein lies one of the distinctions between the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition and the Continental Reformed Tradition. The former typically hold to the Westminster Standards, while the latter typically hold to the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt). There are certainly some other differences, but this would be the main one.]

Forms Matter

When visitors or new members come to our church from outside the Reformed tradition – especially from traditions that hold to the so-called stance of “no creed but the Bible” – they understandably have many questions. Most of the questions about our worship have to do with our use of forms: “Why do you use man-made creeds, confessions, or even prayers in worship?” One person commented to me, “When I read the catechisms or forms that are used in the service, I don’t disagree with them; it just makes me uncomfortable saying them by rote. It seems too formal.”

Last week, I addressed this idea that for some people formality is equated with insincerity. This notion has become all too common among many Christians today and is a result of thinking of the corporate worship of God’s people as primarily something that ought to be ‘experienced.’ No doubt, you’ve seen commercials and advertisements that use this language: Experience the power of our cable company! Experience the freshness of our laundry detergent! Enjoy the experience of this movie! This kind of language has made its way into the church. Fewer and fewer churches have ‘worship services;’ now, they are called ‘worship experiences.’

D.G. Hart and John Muether address this modern prioritization of experience over form in their book With Reverence and Awe:

“Finally, consider the consequences of the modern bias against forms for our doctrine of Scripture. If we use the Bible to pray or to sing praises, are we actually doing something less genuine in our devotion and piety? If we repeat the Lord’s Prayer are we guilty of ritualism? And what does spontaneity do to the memorization of Scripture or the catechism? If we use the words of the Bible or the catechism to express our convictions, our desires, our praise and adoration, are we guilty of dead formalism and quenching the movement of the Spirit? Conversely, might not the decline of psalm singing and catechism memorizing among Presbyterians indicate the triumph of experience in our worship? So forms matter. There is no escaping them. Instead of avoiding them (which is impossible), we need to determine what the correct forms are. They are the forms that please God, that permit us to express the truth he has revealed. Whatever our experience is, these forms are ones that edify us, that build us up in the faith and increase our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.” (D.G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship, 155-156).

Catechesis

Catechesis refers to oral instruction in the doctrines of the faith, usually by question and answer (learning the catechism). The importance of catechesis cannot be overstated. J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett see catechesis as one of the great losses in the contemporary church, and one of the critical elements that must be brought back in order to sustain the future of the church. They call catechesis ‘building believers the old-fashioned way.’

Again, many Christians may resist the idea of catechesis or learning the catechism, seeing it as something that only the Roman Catholic Church does. Or, some are content to say, “I read and memorize the Bible. That’s all I need.” So, many Christians have much Bible knowledge, but lack any coherent categories by which they may see how all of God’s Word fits together. It would be like memorizing the periodic table of the elements, but having no concept of the chemistry that defines how the elements relate to one another.

I often speak of the importance of having proper categories – categories which help one to mentally sort, file, and remember various ideas. The catechism does just that: it gives us good, biblically defined categories by which we may assimilate and retain the teaching of God’s Word. Catechesis gives a person cups in which to catch the reading and preaching of God’s Word. Without the cups that the catechism provides, the Word of God washes over us, but we are less able to retain it, believe it, and live accordingly.

Therefore, I encourage all of the parents in our church to either begin, or continue, to catechize their children using the Westminster Shorter Catechism. One of the primary responsibilities of Christian parents – which parents promise to do at the baptism of their children – is to teach them the doctrines of our holy religion. For parents (and especially fathers), this is a sacred duty. For some it can be intimidating, but I guarantee that both you and your children will benefit immensely from the regular study and memorizing of the catechism.

There are many ways to go about catechizing your children, but here are some resources that our family has found helpful:

(1) The Westminster Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs (you can easily find this online or in the back of the Trinity Hymnal, as well)

(2) Westminster Shorter Catechism Songs by Holly Dutton. Singing the catechism aids immensely in memorization. Other versions are available, but our family has found these to be very helpful.

(3) Training Hearts, Training Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Starr Meade. This book uses an updated version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Personally, I prefer to memorize and teach the catechism using the original language, but the devotional material in this book is excellent. It is broken down into short daily studies in which a family may study one question from the catechism every week. When you’ve gone through all 107 questions, I recommend what the dentist recommends: rinse and repeat.

Parents sometimes ask at what age they should begin catechesis. My answer is: as soon as possible! Proverbs 22:6 is well known: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Interestingly, that verse may also be translated, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old it (the training and instruction) will not depart from him.” Indeed, even if a child doesn’t fully comprehend all of the instruction that he receives from his parents in his youth, when he walks about that instruction will guide him, when he sleeps it will watch over him, when he awakes it will talk to him (Proverbs 6:22).

Catechism in Worship

In our worship service at Hill Country Church (PCA), we recite together a portion of a Reformed catechism. The pastor will then give a brief instruction by way of explanation and application of the teaching of the catechism. As we have already seen, the catechism is useful for instruction in the doctrines of our holy religion.

In our corporate worship service, however, the recitation of the catechism serves another purpose as well. Immediately following our recitation of the catechism, we have a time of corporate and private confession of sin. These two elements (catechism and confession of sin) are not randomly placed. They are tied together for a reason.

The recitation of the catechism is a help for us to hone our confession of sin. The catechism will remind us of either what we are supposed to believe concerning God, or what duty God requires of us (WSC 3). When we approach our time of confession of sin, we ought to be thinking in these two categories: where do I fall short in what I believe concerning God and how have I transgressed or fallen short of the Law of God. The catechism teaches us the doctrines of our holy religion, and it also helps us to think about all the different ways that we sin against God and His holy Law – in both our beliefs and our behaviors. And then, we may form our prayers of confession accordingly, and amend our thinking and behavior to conform to God’s Word.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

Corporate Worship: Pastoral Prayer

Corporate Worship: Pastoral Prayer

Dear Church Family,

In the corporate worship of the church, the pastoral prayer (called “the long prayer” in some traditions) has fallen on hard times. If there are any prayers publicly offered in worship services today, they are often limited to opening and closing prayers for the service and the sermon. Thus, whether intentional or not, prayer can come to be seen as a merely perfunctory transitional element in the worship service. Yet, the prayers of God’s people, along with the administration of the sacraments (and in concert with the Word) are the ordinary means which God uses to increase and strengthen the faith of His people (WCF 14:1).

In the Apostle John’s vision of the heavenly throne room, the prayers of the saints are “golden bowls full of incense” (Revelation 5:8). These prayers are sanctified with the fire of the heavenly altar, and then thrown down to earth (Revelation 8:5). God works – in blessings and judgments – through the prayers of His people. Therefore, though we may not fully comprehend the mystery and the power of the prayers of God’s people, it is an important and powerful gift which God has given to His church.

Public Prayer

During my seminary studies, I had one of my first opportunities to lead in worship. After the service, I asked a good friend and fellow seminarian for feedback with regard to the pastoral prayer. He responded, “As a general rule, I never critique people’s prayers.” At the time, I thought that to be a good and pious response. We need to guard ourselves from becoming overly critical; however, since then I have come to think differently about what my friend said.

Certainly, we do want to guard ourselves from becoming critical of the different ways in which people express themselves. And we certainly have much freedom in our personal and family prayer life. Yet, when a minister or elder leads the congregation in prayer, he does so as their representative voice. And, there are certain criteria that mark public prayers as different from prayers which we offer up privately or among our family and friends. The leading of public prayer is different in at least two ways.

1. Studied Prayer

Public prayers – particularly the pastoral prayer – are best when the one who leads has made preparations for leading in prayer. This idea of preparing or studying in preparation to pray has been called “studied prayer.” As far as I have been able to ascertain, “studied prayers” is a phrase that was coined by one of the members of the Westminster Assembly by the name of Philip Nye. As the Westminster divines discussed and debated whether written or extemporary prayers were more proper in worship, Philip Nye said, “I plead for neither [set forms or extemporary prayers], but for studied prayers.” (quoted in the paper The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) by Alan Clifford, WRS Journal 7/2, August 2000).

In his book Leading in Prayer, Hughes Oliphant Old writes:

“For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. I hope it will always be so. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not profound. One notices sometimes that the approach that these prayers reveal is immature, if not simply misleading. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought.”

In studying or preparing for prayer, there are really three ‘books’ to which the minister or elder may turn in preparations. First, the Scriptures – God’s Word teaches us how we ought to pray, it equips the man of God for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). We use the language and categories which God has given us as we speak to Him in prayer. Second, knowing and studying the people of the congregation helps the one who leads in prayer to focus on their particular needs and concerns. Third, the private prayer life of the one who leads in prayer, as he depends upon the strengthening of the Holy Spirit for guidance, helps him to lead in prayer according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

2. Formal Prayer

In many people’s minds, informality is often equated with sincerity. In this way of thinking, adjusting one’s form or manner of speech to fit a certain context can be seen as insincere or even hypocritical. As a teen-ager, there was an elder in our church who was very congenial and friendly in his speech with others in the church; he was easy to talk to. Yet, when he prayed, he addressed God in the old King James language of “Thee’s” and “Thou’s.” Some would see that (and did) as a mark of false piety or insincerity: “He doesn’t talk like that normally, so why does he change his form of address when he prays?”

Imagine if you were granted an audience with a king or a president of a nation. If you were granted this audience for yourself as an individual, with the privilege of having personal one-on-one time with the ruler of the state, you would most likely still be respectful, but there would be a bit more informality that marked the occasion. The head of state might even ask you into his private study and hear your personal concerns over coffee.

Yet, if you were granted an audience with that same king or president of a nation as the representative of a group of his constituents (at which they also would be present), it would be a very different thing. You would, no doubt, prepare and study to make sure that you represented the people appropriately. You might even write out what you were going to say. And, because of the larger gathering of people, and more formal occasion, you would use more formal language and terms of address.

“Thee’s” and “Thou’s” may not be necessary when leading in corporate prayer as the representative voice of the congregation before the throne of God, but leading God’ people in prayer is most certainly a different context that requires a bit more formal manner of speech. Even if you were a close friend of the king, when addressing him, in the presence of others as their representative, you would not (or at least, should not!) begin with, “Hey, buddy!”

Content

What should be included in the pastoral prayer? Well, even as there is no set form, the Scriptures do give us topics of things that we ought to prayer for: e.g., all men and governing authorities (1 Timothy:1-4), the church and all the saints (Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 1:1-11); evangelism and missions (Matthew 9:37-38; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2); ministers of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:25); forgiveness (Acts 8:22); sanctification (Hebrews 13:18); healing and good health (James 5:13-16; 3 John 1:2). Surely, there is more, but these seem to be the main things for which the Lord commends us to pray.

In listing the topics of “a full and comprehensive prayer,” the Presbyterian Church in American’s Book of Church Order lists six general topics (BCO 52:2). In summary, they are: (1) Adoring the glory and perfections of God as they are made known in creation, providence, and his written words; (2) Giving thanks for all His mercies of every kind, general and particular, spiritual and temporal, common and special; (3) Making humble confession of sin with a deep sense of the evil of all sin; (4) Making earnest supplications for the pardon of sin, and peace with God, through the blood of the atonement and for the Spirit of sanctification; (5) Pleading from every principle warranted in Scripture; (6) Intercession and petition for others, including the whole world for mankind, for the salvation of all, the growth of the Church of God, ministers and missionaries, those in need, for civil rulers, and for whatever else may seem to be necessary or suitable to the occasion.

Our bulletin lists prayer concerns which are intended to help our congregation to pray, individually and corporately. The “specific” are those personal needs and prayer requests that are made known by individuals in the congregation. The list of the “general” prayers is a simple summary of the topics mentioned in “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” (specifically, the section entitled, “Of Publick Prayer before the Sermon”): personal growth in holiness; propagation of the gospel locally and abroad; the health of the local and universal church; conversion of unbelievers; government authorities and the preservation of peace.

The Lord’s Prayer

At Hill Country Church (PCA), we conclude the pastoral prayer each week by reciting together “The Lord’s Prayer.” Our own Westminster Standards teach us that “the whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer, but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s prayer” (WSC 99). This is the prayer which the Lord Jesus taught His disciples (Matthew 6; Luke 11).

It is a set form of prayer which the Lord has instructed to use. Yet, it is good to understand the meaning and not just say the words. The Reformed catechisms help us in this regard by giving a thorough explanation of the meaning of this prayer: Westminster Larger Catechism 186-196; Westminster Shorter Catechism 99-107; Heidelberg Catechism 119-129.

As with other elements of the corporate worship service that are repeated week in and week out, continual recitation aids the people of God to learn and memorize parts of the service that stays with them for life. I once visited a retired church elder in the hospital as he was dying. He was unresponsive and his family was gathered around his bed. It was apparent that he would not be with us on this earth much longer. He took no notice as I led the family in prayer, but his countenance changed when we all began to recite the Lord’s prayer together in his hearing. He immediately began to speak and mouth the words that he had said all his life. The weekly worship of God had prepared this man to die well.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!