What is the purpose of gathering together on the first day of each week for worship? If worship gathers up the gifts of the past week and gives thanks for them, if worship lays a foundation of grace for the week to come, what does that mean? How does it work? What are we supposed to be doing when we gather? More importantly, what is God doing when we gather?
In his book The Lord’s Service, Jeff Meyers concludes that many churches tend to one of these four models for worship: evangelism (seeker-sensitive), education (the sermon), experience (the heart rather than the head), or praise (celebration). He says:
Obviously, there is some truth in each of these four perspectives. A Christian service that does not proclaim the Gospel, engage the emotions of the congregation, teach God’s Word, and ascribe to God praise and honor will likely be a distorted, dangerously truncated service. All four of these options, however, err to the extent that they reduce the purpose of the Sunday service to one or another dimension. Additionally, those who embrace only one of the first four purposes often tend to see the Sunday service as primarily a technique for producing a particular effect on the members of the congregation, either on their will, mind, or emotions. All four of these dimensions—evangelism, preaching, edification, and praise—are in and of themselves essential. They have their proper place in the worship service. But the overall purpose of a biblical worship service should not be reduced to any one of them. Moreover, the purpose (and practice) of our Lord’s Day worship service must never degenerate into an attempt to engineer or manipulate some desired effect in the congregation. Worship must not be understood as a technique…
Rather than leaning towards one of these four models, we must go to the over-arching Biblical purpose of the corporate assembly. Meyers concludes, “Why then are we called together as a church on the Lord’s Day?…God’s covenant provides the key. Simply stated, the purpose of the Sunday service is covenant renewal. During corporate ‘worship’ the Lord renews His covenant with His people when He gathers them together and serves them.”
The original covenant is an eternal bond of union, communion, and self-giving love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has graciously and sovereignly chosen a people to be included in His divine family, the triune circle of love. Believers and their children are made members of the covenant through Jesus Christ, the eternal Son incarnated in human flesh. Baptism covenantally unites us to Christ; this union gives rise to communion, celebrated in our weekly partaking of the Lord’s Supper. At the table of the Lord, we receive the body and blood of Christ, the glorified life of our crucified and risen Savior. This feast is the climax of covenant renewal each Lord’s Day, when our fellowship with the Triune God and one another is freshly experienced and manifested.
The Divine Service is covenant renewal because God renews and reapplies His pledge of redemption to us and we renew and recommit ourselves to loyal service in His Kingdom. We are restored to fellowship with our Creator and re-bonded to one another as His new humanity. Through the means of grace, we receive God’s love and reciprocate in kind, completing the “liturgical circle.” The covenantal liturgy is about receiving and giving back. God’s service to the Church in weekly covenant renewal is the fuel needed for the Church to go out and serve the world.
Many Christians in our era believe that worship is exclusively their time to give back to God because He has given to them. Thus, describing God as “serving” the Church in the Lord’s Service seems a contradiction to them. However, when we gather as God’s people, we are primarily gathering to receive, not give. We receive God’s forgiveness after corporate confession and are thus able to give glory in song. We receive God’s Word in the sermon, and thus are able to grow in faith. We receive the means of grace in the Supper and are accepted as members of Christ. Of course, we are also gathered to give God the glory due His name, to sing praises unto Him, and to give our tithes and offerings. However, receiving from God in His grace precedes any giving back to God that we can do.
The Assembly of the Saints
Throughout the Scriptures, there is a strong emphasis placed on the corporate gathering of God’s people, the assembly of the saints. Corporate worship is the main event in the Christian life. Family devotionals, private prayer times, and Bible studies are important, but corporate worship is the most basic and foundational Christian action. Eugene Peterson says:
God gave us various means to grow—prayer and Scripture, silence and solitude, suffering and service—but the foundational means is public worship. Spiritual growth cannot take place in isolation. Christianity is not a private thing between the Christian and God. In worship, we come before the God who loves us in the presence of others whom He loves. In worship, we set ourselves in deliberate openness to the action of God and the need of neighbor, both of which require us to grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ who is both God and man for us. Regular, faithful worship is as essential to the growing Christian as food and shelter are to the growing child. Worship is the light and air in which spiritual growth takes place.
Our lives should be centered around this fixture as we gather each Lord’s Day to worship the living God. The whole rest of our lives is shaped by and flows out of what we do in the weekly worship gathering. Hebrews 10 says, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”
Some have said that this Scriptural emphasis on gathering together in corporate worship must be contextualized. They conclude that the Scriptures were written in ancient times, when people were largely pre-literate and there was not the technology we have today. Thus in their view, corporate worship was more important back then than it is now. In the pre-modern era, because individuals and families did not own a Bible, it was their one chance to hear God’s Word when the church bells would ring and summon the people for worship. The argument goes that since we now have so much more access to God’s Word in printed Bibles, electronic Bibles, and digital downloads, corporate worship is not as important as it once was.
However, this argument doesn’t hold up. Corporate worship is much more than just gathering to do Bible reading and hear a message. It is entering into God’s presence in His heavenly throne room to receive His gifts. Thus, we cannot substitute private Bible reading and study for what takes place in the gathered assembly. Corporate worship is central, even after the invention of the printing press and the internet. There simply is no substitute for the corporate gathering of God’s flesh and blood people in His presence to renew covenant with Him on the Lord’s Day.
Decently and in Good Order
In 1 Corinthians 14:40, the Apostle Paul gives an overarching principle to correct deficiencies in the Corinthians' worship: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” On one hand, Paul talks about worship that is guided by the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand, about the need for order. For modern people, the connection between order and spirituality seems counterintuitive. We have this tendency to think that the Holy Spirit is opposed to order and structure. We tend to think that order is a sign of the absence of the Holy Spirit. But most of the time in Scripture, what we see the Spirit doing is bringing order out of chaos (see Genesis 1:1-2; Acts 2).
Our problem is that most of our conceptions of what it means to be spiritual come from some source other than the Bible. In American church history, there was a real shift in which spirituality came to be measured more by emotional outbursts than by life transformation. In this movement, it was understood that the more outrageous and irrational someone acted, the more they must have of the Spirit. Many people today associate spontaneity with authenticity, and link this together with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have this tendency to equate that which is informal, casual, and unstructured with the Holy Spirit.
The Corinthians thought in very similar ways to modern people. They thought that their wild, chaotic, free-for-all gatherings were a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence. The crazier and more disordered things could be, the more it was proof that the Spirit was among them. Through this letter, Paul steps into the situation with a corrective rebuke: the Spirit in truth brings order. Back in verse 33, he said, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” If you have ever attended a symphony, before the performance, you can hear each person playing their own instrument and it sounds chaotic. Yet, when the symphony begins and they play together as a group, with a conductor and each instrumentalist playing his part, it sounds ordered and beautiful. What Paul is saying here is that the Corinthian service sounded like chaos, and he wanted them to sound like a symphony with the Holy Spirit Himself as their conductor. Spiritual worship is orderly worship.
Liturgy according to the Scriptural pattern is done, as the Apostle Paul instructs, "decently and in good order." The reason that getting corporate worship to be Scriptural and correct is so important is because there are good rituals prescribed by Scripture, and there are bad rituals which cause us to become deformed as a people. Rituals that are rooted in Scripture become a training ground to shape our desires to follow God in discipleship. The liturgy unites us in community, forming a shared culture of the people of God. The more we become familiar with the liturgy, the more the liturgy itself recedes to the background and our attention can focus exclusively on God. C.S. Lewis said:
Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like it, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing, but only learning to dance…The perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping…
Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit—habito dell’arte.
The liturgy’s intelligibility, the understandable teaching that takes place in the service, opens our minds to God’s truth. But we can also say that the liturgy itself also educates us. Indirectly, through its repetitive forms, the liturgy inculcates habits in us. This is because human beings, as God created us, are not just thinkers, we also have bodies. There is this connection between our bodies, souls, and minds all throughout life because that is how we were created.
As an example, think of sports practice, such as shooting free throws in basketball. No one gets better by merely thinking about shooting free throws or hearing lessons about shooting a basketball. Any coach will tell you that you have to get the form, then practice by shooting the basketball the exact same way over and over again. This ingrains in your body how to shoot that free throw, obtaining what is called muscle memory. By shooting the basketball properly hundreds and even thousands of times, the rituals form habits, so that your body simply knows what to do.
This analogy from sports reflects what the liturgy is all about: it is a kind of spiritual muscle memory. The Spirit uses the liturgy to ingrain godly habits into us by repeated rituals. It knits the language of Scripture into the very fabric of our being. Thus, the liturgy is the best form of cradle-to-grave pastoral care that a church can provide for its people. A full orbited liturgy is a helpful corrective to those who (under the influence of the Enlightenment) would take a “mind only" approach, as well as those who (under the influence of Romanticism) would take a “heart-only” approach.
The Order of Worship
Worship prescribed by Scriptural standards isn't just about getting certain elements such as prayer, preaching, and the offering into the service. In the Scriptures, there is a set order to worship. If we go back to Leviticus 9, we can read the record of the first time that worship occurred in the tabernacle. There is an orderly arrangement of the different types of sacrifices. In fact, every time that the sacrifices show up after this in the Old Testament, they are always in this same order. First, there is a sin offering, which is all about confessing sin. Second, there is an ascension offering, which is about total consecration to God. Third, there is the grain (or tribute) offering, which is the giving of gifts to the Lord. Fourth is the peace offering, where the priests and the people get to have a meal together in God’s presence. In Leviticus 9:15-18, this sequence and order of the offerings is recounted:
Then he brought the people’s offering, and took the goat, which was the sin offering for the people, and killed it and offered it for sin, like the first one. And he brought the burnt offering and offered it according to the prescribed manner. Then he brought the grain offering, took a handful of it, and burned it on the altar, besides the burnt sacrifice of the morning. He also killed the bull and the ram as sacrifices of peace offerings, which were for the people. And Aaron’s sons presented to him the blood, which he sprinkled all around on the altar.
This is the historic order of the Church’s worship service: moving from confession of sin, to consecration by the Word, to the offering of gifts in the offertory, to sharing a meal in communion.
This sequence of offerings, bracketed by a call to worship at the start and ending with a benediction, is the basic structure that Christians all throughout history have used. This is the order of the tabernacle, the Temple, and the Christian liturgy. There have been changes from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, as we have moved from shadow to reality. We don’t offer animal sacrifices like they did in Leviticus; we offer ourselves as living sacrifices through Christ. The New Covenant Renewal service is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant tabernacle and Temple service. The Church is the true Temple that ascends to God’s heavenly throne room in worship.
In the liturgy each week, we truly ascend into God’s heavenly throne room. In Revelation 4:1, John, as a representative of the Church, is caught up before God’s heavenly throne of grace on the Lord's Day and begins to participate in the liturgy of heaven. He sees elders in white robes, hears angels repeatedly singing, “Holy, holy, holy," sees worshippers falling down on their knees before the Lord, and hears them singing, “Worthy are you, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power.” All of these actions and gestures are coordinated. This worship is corporate, participatory, structured, reverent, and joyful. This is New Covenant worship that is both beautiful and orderly. Yet, it is not just that heavenly worship is the pattern for the Church’s worship, it is that the Church in worship each week is joining into the ceaseless worship of heaven.
When we come to the realization that our worship is participating in heavenly worship, we begin to see how important it is that we do all things decently and in good order. When we gather for worship and corporately progress through the liturgy, we are in the very presence of the Tri-une God and “angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven" (see Hebrews 12:22-24). Because of this reality of entering into heaven’s worship in our corporate worship, many modern church services are a travesty. They look more like what you would find in American pop culture than what you find in the courts of heaven. We must realize that the way that we conduct ourselves—the protocol, manners, order, reverence and godly fear, the styles we employ—should be fitting for entering into God’s heavenly throne room and sharing in the ceaseless worship of heaven.
What, then, happens in this Lord’s Day gathering as the Church ascends into the heavenly throne room of the King? The Triune God serves the congregation in calling, confession, cleansing, consecration, communion, and commissioning. This is the Biblical pattern of worship, the pathway on which we are drawn into God’s heavenly sanctuary. First, the Lord calls us together, that we might be assembled as His people, set apart from the world. He summons us to confess our sin and cleanses us through the pastor’s effectual declaration of forgiveness. Then the Lord lifts our hearts up to Himself, drawing us into His sanctuary.
We enter into His heavenly presence to worship with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven. The Lord consecrates us to His service as He proclaims the life-giving Gospel to us and instructs us in paths of righteousness and wisdom through His minister, wielding the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of the Lord. The Word cuts up apart to transform us into living acrfices. Then the Lord graciously feeds us at his communion table, giving us the body and blood of his Son in the form of bread and wine, thereby manifesting our oneness as His chosen people through this corporate meal. Finally, the Lord commissions us, sending us out into the world with His blessing so that we might be a blessing to others.
Throughout the service, we respond in union with Christ, our great High Priest, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our response includes prayer, praise, thanksgiving, and joyous singing. Because God gives what He requires, we are able to believe His Word, join in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, give tithes and offerings to Him for the work of the Church, receive the feast of the Kingdom, and commit ourselves to serve Him and our neighbors in all of life. This is the heart of what it means to be the Church: God calls us out of the world to renew covenant with Him and worship Him in the heavenly sanctuary. Through the means of grace, He gives us the gifts of the Kingdom: life, wisdom, and glory. Jim Jordan has helpfully pointed out that these three gifts correspond to the contents of the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place (the jar of manna, the ten words, Aaron’s rod that blossomed); thus, in worship God opens up his heavenly treasury to us. At the4 end of the liturgy, He commissions us to go back into the world to disciple the nations, to do unto others as He has done unto us, to spread these gifts to others. Worship transforms us so that we can transform the world, thus shaping and remaking culture.
The Gospel, the Liturgy, and the Rest of Life
There is a connection between how we worship and how we live. The Church fathers had a slogan to encapsulate the transforming power of such worship: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” meaning, “As a man worships, so he believes.” Who you worship and how you worship shapes how you believe and live. The Bible’s liturgical pattern of calling, confession, cleansing, consecration, communion, and commissioning impresses the Gospel story upon us each Lord’s Day, crafting us into a humble, obedient, service-oriented community. While we usually think it is our theology that will shape our worship, the reverse is also true. Worship and doctrine mutually regulate and inform one another; the relationship is a two way street. Thus, a Gospel-shaped liturgy shapes us into a Gospel-shaped people.
The rest of the Christian life flows out of the Divine Service. Because God has called us together, we find that we want to continue experiencing rich, loving fellowship with one another throughout the rest of the week. Because God has forgiven us, we forgive others, even seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22). Because God has taught us, we are driven to teach others, that they may share in the wisdom God has gifted to us. Because God has mercifully served us, we mercifully serve others. Because God has fed us His Son and clothed us in His righteousness, we are compelled to feed and clothe others. Because God has called on us to give generously, a tithe and above, we learn to be disciplined and generous stewards of our possessions in all of life. Because God has preached the Gospel to us, we are led to preach it to others, that they may be brought into Christ’s new humanity as well. Thus, liturgy provides a model for all of life, training us to serve as God’s royal priesthood, in a broken, fallen world as ambassadors of redemption and hope.