As we come to the end of this first month of the new year, I am beginning a series of (hopefully) weekly emails on the corporate worship of the church. My aim will be to first enumerate and define a number of the foundational principles concerning the public worship of God. Then, in the subsequent weeks, I will speak to the meaning and purpose of each of the various elements of worship. In all of this, I will seek to emphasize the Biblical and Reformed concepts, with a particular eye to their application in our local church. I will try to be brief and concise, yet as comprehensive as possible.
Principles of Corporate Worship
1. Biblical: The first principle of corporate worship is the regulative principle of worship (RPW). That is, the corporate worship of God is to be conducted according to the Word of God. “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (WCF 21:1). Simply put: the worship of God is Biblical – God is the one who commands how He is to be worshipped by His people (Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 12:32; Matthew 15:7-9).
2. Spiritual: The worship of God is not to be directed, or confined, to a particular place. “God is spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Only those whose hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit are able to truly worship and reverence God. “Externalism and hypocrisy stand condemned” (BCO 47:5).
3. Trinitarian: Renewed and enabled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 4:6), the people of God enter into the presence of their Heavenly Father (Hebrews 4:14-16) through the mediation of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
4. Dialogical: The corporate and public worship of God is a meeting of the Triune God with His people. As such, the elements (or parts) of each service may be divided into two categories: (1) elements which are performed on behalf of God through a representative voice; (2) those elements which are performed by the congregation through their own, or a representative, voice. God addresses His people in certain elements: the reading and preaching of the Word, the salutation, call to worship, assurance of pardon, benediction, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. God’s people address (or respond) to God in the conscionable hearing of the Word, prayer, song, offerings, confessions of sin and of faith, and the receiving and partaking of the sacraments.
5. Covenant Renewal: God assembles His covenant people in order that they might renew their covenant bond with Him and with one another. Though there is no biblically mandated order of worship (i.e., no divine mandate in Scripture is given for the particular ordering of the elements of worship), the concept of covenant renewal is manifested in three general ‘phases’: (1) God summons His people into His presence; (2) God assures His people of His receiving and cleansing them through Christ; (3) God speaks to His people in the Word and sacrament, where they, respectively, hear the voice of Christ and feed on Him – and then, God sends His people out into the world to bear witness to their Savior.
There may be other principles of corporate worship that we could add to this list, but these five are rudimentary in helping us as a church to “worship the Lord in holy array” (Psalm 29:2). These are principles that inform the planning and leading of the worship service, and they are principles which all of us should observe and take into account for the betterment of our corporate and public worship when we come together as God’s people.
Please take note of how the proper understanding and implementation of these principles helps to counteract some of the misnomers concerning the worship service. First, these principles help us to see that worship is more than singing. The term “worship” has popularly been redefined to be synonymous with singing (as in, “After our time of worship [singing], we will have the sermon”). Yet, “the Bible teaches that the following are proper elements of worship service: reading of Holy Scripture, singing of psalms and hymns, the offering of prayer, the preaching of the Word, the presentation of offerings, confessing the faith and observing the Sacraments; and on special occasions taking oaths” (BCO 47:9).
Second, these principles help us to see that worship is not simply a time wherein God’s people share their various gifts and talents as they perform for “an audience of One.” Perhaps you’ve heard that well-intentioned phrase. I imagine that people describe worship as “performing for an audience of One” in an effort to counteract the impetus in some churches to turn the worship service into a talent show (where the people become the audience). The problem with using the word “audience” to describe either God or the people’s role in worship, however, is that it implies passivity. The truth of the matter is: neither God, nor His people, are passive in worship.
That’s why understanding the dialogical nature of the corporate worship service is so important. When a pastor or elder addresses the congregation in corporate worship, he is not simply sharing his gift of public speaking; God is addressing His people through a representative. When the people of God hear the Word read and preached – when they pray, sing, or confess their faith – they are not simply speaking to (or interacting with) their fellow man; they are addressing their Creator and Redeemer.
Only when we understand these principles will we come to see what a glorious privilege it is to join together with God’s people as we “enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Only when we understand these principles will we be able to “offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).
“Always the same, never the same”
There is another unspoken principle that I personally think about in planning the worship service each week which may be summarized as “always the same, never the same.” As the elders of the church have oversight of the worship service, of course, we may change or adjust parts or elements of the service from time to time (as stated above, there is no biblical mandate for the ordering of the elements of the worship service). However, maintaining the principle of “always the same and never the same” in our corporate worship service means that, even as the content (e.g., Scriptures, songs, catechism) may change, the order of the various elements and parts is generally the same from week to week.
There are several benefits to maintaining a regular order in our worship service. For one, God’s people know what to expect when they gather together on Sunday morning and are thereby better able to participate. Also, God’s people are shaped week in and week out by the order and flow of the corporate worship service. Reciting certain prayers and creeds on a regular basis also helps God’s people to learn the language of the faith. At the same time, the content of the elements of the worship service changes from week to week, usually based upon the text and sermon for that week. So, the “always the same” order of worship gives a regular structure to our weekly worship, while the sermon text provides the “never the same” thematic unity for each service.
In coming weeks in these weekly emails, we will examine the various elements and particular parts of our corporate worship service. And, because of this principle of “always the same, never the same,” we will do so according to the typical order of worship at Hill Country Church (PCA) – beginning next week with the “Silent Preparation for Worship.”
It is my hope and prayer that this series of pastoral reflections will be helpful and practical for all of us, as a church. People often ask, “Why do we do such and such in worship?” or “Why don’t we do such and such in worship?” Hopefully, this series will help answer many of those questions. More importantly, the goal of this series is to help us all to be better worshipers of our God – for as Jesus said, “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23).
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch