WORSHIP PRINCIPLES IN THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Understanding and Participating in the Morning Worship Service at First Presbyterian Church of Tuscumbia
When people come to a Presbyterian Church, they usually notice that the worship service is a bit different than other churches. Frequently, it is less formal than what they are used to. There is less structure than many churches and the bulletin is rather simple. For many it is more formal, with creeds and responsive readings that are foreign to them. Some people aren’t used to reading responses, like the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. Another difference is our music. The hymns and tunes are sometimes unfamiliar; some seem to be very old, and some seem to be very new. So why do Presbyterians worship the way they do? This brief paper will attempt to address that question.
Historically, Presbyterians start with the Bible when they want to find out how to worship God. It is our authority for all our Christian lives (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). The Bible talks about worship more than some people realize. The key passage in all of Scripture about worship is found in John 4:23 and 24. Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman at a well. In the course of the conversation the woman notes the difference in the place of worship for the Samaritans and the Jews. Jesus quickly deflects her aside on the place of worship and gets to the real issue. He says, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” It is a striking statement on many levels. First of all, isn’t it amazing that Jesus says that the Father seeks worshipers? Can you think of anywhere in Scripture where God is seeking something? And what is He seeking? He seeks worshipers, and not just any kind of worshipers. He seeks those who worship in sprit and truth. These twin truths have been at the root of the historic Presbyterian understanding of worship.
Worship in spirit must mean, at the very least, that worship is primarily spiritual, rather than physical. It can never become routine and dull. It must always breathe life and reach to our deepest being. Our spirits must be conscious of participating in a supernatural event in which we truly meet with God. A church that worships in spirit is always concerned not to be too bogged down in any extensive ritual that can become rote or wooden. Each worshiper must engage God and freely respond to Him. For this reason, among others, Presbyterianism has shied away from highly liturgical and complex worship. Pastors and people must learn to think through their own response to the calls of God. For example, the prayers in our church are most often spoken by a leader and are rarely read. The congregation must listen and agree with that prayer in their hearts. That simply takes more spiritual attention than recitation.
Worship in spirit may also mean the Holy Spirit must be central to the activity. The Holy Spirit must be present and called upon to lead and assist so we might truly meet with the Father and the Son. It will not be worship in spirit if the Holy Spirit is not dominant. We must call on Him to help us worship.
But worship must also be in truth. This must mean, at the very least, that we must be sincere and heartfelt in our worship. But it also means we must worship according to the truth. Christianity has always stated that the truth about God and worship is found in the Bible. Thus we believe that how we worship is governed or regulated by God in His Book. Historically, this has been called the Regulative Principle of Worship. This asserts that there must be Biblical command or example for the format and the elements of worship. In other words, when it comes to worship, we will not engage in any worship activity that the Bible does not command. We need, then, to go to the Scripture to look at those times when God met with His people. We carefully seek God’s commands, and even examples, for the structure of the worship service. Further, these examples show the atmosphere, or “ambiance” of worship, as well as its activities or elements. Many of the circumstances of worship, such as the shape of the building, or the seating, and the like, are arranged as the leaders of the church see fit. But the elements of worship are always governed by Scripture. In addition, the pattern and atmosphere of worship should be informed by Scripture as well. These principles may be found in the Old or New Testaments, but whenever the Old is used, it must be applied in the light of New Testament fulfillment. The Reformers recaptured this key principle in the 1500’s and churches in our tradition have been committed to it in one form or another ever since. God not only seeks worshipers, but those who worship His way.
Having analyzed this important key concept in John 4, we can go on and see other fundamental principles in the rest of Scripture. We will briefly mention five. For memory purposes we will say that the Bible opens DOORS to true worship. The letters stand for five key characteristics of worship that are revealed in Scripture.
First, when people met with God in the Bible there was frequently a dialogue (D) between God and man. Isaiah 6 most clearly shows this concept. In our service, each time the Bible is read we regard it as a call from God to which we should respond. God calls in His Word and we respond in prayer, song, recitation, and obedience. Worship is a dialogue or a conversation between the church and God. That is why there are several verbal responses in each service to balance the response that the worship leader or choir does for us.
Secondly, and related to dialogue, is that worship is orderly (O). Both 1 Corinthians and Colossians, in their discussions of worship and church life, call for order. There ought to be an atmosphere of order and peace, not chaos and confusion. Order also means Biblical order. The call/response format of worship proceeds with a Biblical and logical progression from praise to confession of sin, to thanksgiving and supplication, to new obedience and resolution. There is predictability about it’s general format. This insures the worshiper can anticipate and participate in the dialogue.
Next, the service is chiefly an offering (O) of God’s people. The Book of Psalms, which is the hymnbook of the ancient church, demonstrates that from start to finish. “Give to the Lord the glory due His name; Bring an offering and come into His courts” (Psalm 96:8). All our responses are offerings unto the Lord. There are offerings of praise, thanksgiving, obedience, and, yes, our tithes. We need constantly to see that worship is a matter of giving God what is due to Him. We do not come primarily to get, but to give.
Worship is also reverent (R). There is never a casual, flippant, or wild scene of worship in Scripture. When men and women come into the presence of God, there is a sense of God’s grandeur and holiness. He is seen as high and lifted up. From the Old Testament (such as Isaiah 6 or Nehemiah 9) to the New (such as Revelation 4 and 5), we see the same sense that God is to be worshiped in reverence and awe. True worship is a solemn and joyful event.
Finally, worship is simple (S). As was hinted at earlier, the service should not be so diverse that it loses its logical flow. Our forebears believed that simplicity follows the New Testament pattern. Not only do we not add what is not added in the Scripture, but we also do not make what is ordered in Scripture too complex, ornate, and tedious to follow. Biblical elements in a simple dialogical format satisfy the spiritual heart.
With all this in mind, let us now look at the common elements of a typical Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian Church.
Preparation for worship begins by getting to bed at a decent hour on Saturday night. Sleeping late and rushing to get ready will never prepare a heart for the solemn duty of the Lord’s Day. We recommend coming to church (and getting up!) early enough to take the rush out of the morning. Once you arrive, we believe the best preparation is a quiet reflection on the privilege of coming before God with your brothers and sisters. Though we always like to greet our friends and neighbors in the annex, when we step into the sanctuary we ought to clear our minds and focus on the glorious task at hand. “Bibles should be read and prayer should be said.” As the music begins to play, complete silence should come into the sanctuary. “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2:20). At First Church, there is a key attribute of God, such as love, holiness, mercy, or power, for example, written at the top of the worship service bulletin. There are 22 attributes that are used twice a year and are keyed to the sermon. Meditating on that attribute is a good beginning to worship.
Usually the announcements and an official welcome come at this time. These are necessary in the life of our church, but are not really a part of the worship service. That’s why we place them at the beginning of the day before the actual call to worship. We ought to listen attentively to them, but quickly transition back to the prospect of worship as soon as they are finished.
After the announcements there is either a short musical interlude, a choral call to worship, or an introit to signal the opportunity to refocus on worship. The introit is a brief hymn to set our eyes upward. In any case, our ability to worship properly begins long before the call to worship. Good preparation is so important if we are to worship God rightly.
THE CALL TO WORSHIP
At First Church we stand in respect for God and His Word when the pastor comes to the pulpit. The call is most frequently responsive, symbolizing our need to answer the call of God when it comes to us. The call is always from the Scripture, usually a Psalm, and it is always a true call or command to worship. It may be as simple as the pastor saying Praise the Lord or it may be a whole Psalm. Since the Reformation, many Presbyterian churches and their forbears have begun services with Psalm 124:8: Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth to remind themselves of the God to whom they respond. Whatever is used, the key is for us to remember that God is calling us to worship Him and we must respond. This is known as the “first call” in worship.
THE HYMN OF PRAISE
When God calls for our praise, we should give it to Him fully. It is spiritual sanity to do what He says to do! The Bible often speaks of praise in music and song. At First Church, the call to worship is always followed by a hymn of praise. This hymn is to be a “burst” of love and honor to God from a grateful people. The first hymn is to be primarily about God and not ourselves. Frequently, the first hymn will be from the Psalms. Whatever the origin of its words, it ought to express the greatness and majesty of God, and it must have music that is consistent with its words. Light tunes do not easily mesh with weighty words!
Most hymns that talk about the greatness of God our Father are grouped in the beginning of our hymnal. Since the religious music of the last two centuries have been primarily centered on our experience with God rather than God Himself, many of the great “God centered” hymns in our hymnal are virtually unknown to a modern audience. We hope our congregation will patiently grow in appreciation of these very singable majestic tunes with their matchless words. This hymn is frequently in 4/4 time, symbolizing God’s people “marching” to worship before Him.
Singing should always be done to the best of one’s ability. Not singing, or singing with barely audible voices is not consistent with the privilege and mandate that God gives. “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.” (Psalm 95:1, italics added.)
THE PRAYER OF ADORATION
Right after the Hymn of Praise the pastor will lead in a prayer of praise and adoration. He raises his hands for us (1 Timothy 2:8) to proclaim the glory of God. He will praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and conclude by asking the Holy Spirit to help us to worship in spirit and truth. The Lord’s Prayer is used at this time, being a prayer that contains all the different elements of prayer. It is equally appropriate in a later context, as we will see. Whether we pray together or the pastor leads in prayer, all prayer in the Presbyterian Church has historically been responded to with a hearty “Amen”.
THE READING OF THE WORD
God commands the reading of His Word in worship. In the first reading of the Scripture we hear of God’s great attributes. At First Church the first reading is usually out of the opposite testament from the sermon, making sure that reading is done from both testaments in the worship service. In the Presbyterian tradition the law of God (expressed in the Ten Commandments) is frequently read at this time. Whatever selection is read, it should be kept in mind that this is the “second call” from the word and logically should lead us from praise and adoration to a greater view of the God we worship. It ought to remind us of the greatness of God and His demands upon all humanity. The logical response to this reading, with its holiness and unchangeable standards, will not be an amen or an assent, such as later in the service. It should lead us to our knees in confession of sin.
THE PRAYER OF CONFESSION
In Isaiah 6 the prophet saw an incredible vision of God seated on His throne. There were amazing physical phenomena and striking heavenly creatures. When Isaiah saw these creatures declaring the holiness of God, he immediately cried, “Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” This was a shattering, but morally logical, response. It should be the response of every spiritually awake person. We must confess our sins. Though true believers never ought to fear losing their heavenly standing, sonship, justification, or eternal forgiveness when they sin, our sins do affect our fellowship with God. We lose fellowship, power, usefulness, blessings, growth and the ability to worship when we sin, and we need to cleanse ourselves of the stain of disobedience. In our service the confession most frequently takes the form of an opportunity for silent prayer followed by the pastor leading in a prayer of confession. Sometimes the confession can be in song. Sometimes we confess together with a prayer from the Bible (such as parts of Psalm 51) or a traditional confession from church history. The purpose of this part of worship is to regain our fellowship with God, enabling us to worship freely. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” (Psalm 66:18)
THE ASSURANCE OF PARDON
After we confess our sins, there is always the “third call” from God. This is the word of forgiveness that declares that all who believe in Christ and who confess their sins are forgiven. This call is always from Scripture. It is the climax of our service and declares that Christ’s atonement is good for sinners and that full fellowship is restored. Though we use about 30 verses from the Scripture at this point in the service, the one we all remember is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If we hear that call from God and, by the Holy Spirit, are able to apply it to ourselves, it should produce joy and peace in our hearts. In addition, hearing it with scores of other Christians who have also just asked for forgiveness, should lead us to a burst of praise and adoration to Christ. We should declare to the world that we believe in Christ. We should, as Isaiah did in Isaiah 6 when forgiveness was applied to his soul, say “Here am I, send me!” The four Biblical and logical elements following the assurance of pardon, then, are confession of faith, offering, prayer, and praise.
THE CONFESSION OF FAITH
A common response to the Assurance of Pardon is for Christians to proclaim what they believe. This creed, or statement of faith, often takes the form of one of the historic creeds, such as the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession and Catechisms, or Heidelberg Catechism. It can also be a statement of faith from the Scripture (there are some in the epistles of Paul). Whichever it is, the beauty of forgiven sinners proclaiming their faith is encouraging to the whole church. Sometimes the pastor will even tell the congregation to imagine that they are before all their friends and co-workers before they speak. The Father has forgiven us through the life and death of His Son. Now tell the world that you are a believer in Him!
THE OFFERING AND THE PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
Some believe that the collections of tithes and offerings are not to be placed in public worship because reference to money demeans the grandeur of worship. But others, including myself, believe that the climatic response of worship is the collection of the offering. Why? Like Isaiah 6, we, too, have heard the words of forgiveness which have atoned for our sin. The logical and moral response is “Here I am, send me!” We offer ourselves to God as instruments of His will. The collection of the tithes, which has been used in gatherings of believers since the beginning of the New Testament Church (1 Corinthians 16:1, 2), is a symbol of this offering. How we use our money is an excellent indicator whether “Here am I, send me” is a reality in the heart! Offering is never paying God, buying grace, or currying favor with God or the church. It is an obedient response to a saved heart. We give because we love. We love because He first loved us. The ushers collect all the gifts and bring them to the front, usually as the congregation sings a traditional chorus. The Gloria Patri is a confession of faith in the reality of the triune God and His eternal worth. The Doxology is a more recent composition which admits God is the origin of all our blessings here and praises Him for them. Both are fitting songs by which to offer the whole church’s gifts to God. When the ushers arrive the pastor leads in a Prayer of Thanksgiving, when we once again remind ourselves that God has given us all we have, and deserves all we are.
THE PRAYER OF INTERCESSION AND SUPPLICATION
At this point in the worship service there is usually a prayer called the “pastoral prayer”. In Presbyterian history it was often called the “long prayer” because it dealt with the whole spectrum of prayer. In our case we only pray a prayer of thanksgiving, intercession, and supplication at this time, though it is usually the longest prayer time in the service. It begins with thanksgiving to God for all His blessings, but especially for forgiveness in the Son. Then it enters into intercession, that is prayer interceding for the needs of our fellow men. We pray for the sick, the hurt, the afflicted, the progress in the spread of the gospel in the world, and the government that God has placed over us (1 Timothy 2:1, 2). In supplication we pray for ourselves, for our growth in grace and the way in which the Word is heard and preached that day. We may end this prayer with the model prayer of Scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, which has all of the elements of prayer mentioned thus far. Sometimes we also pray together one of the other wonderful prayers from the apostles (e.g. Colossians 1:9f). These prayers enable us not only to pray and amen with the pastor, but also to pray together in audible unity.
THE SECOND HYMNS
After the Assurance of Pardon and before the next call is usually one or more hymns. They differ from the first in content. Normally they are hymns of praise about Christ, a reflection on the One who has forgiven us. Sometimes the hymns are about thanksgiving, or celebration of the glories of forgiveness, or the joys of a life lived with God. Often the second hymns take the subject of the wonder of the church as the object of Christ’s love. If the singing was robust in the first hymn, it should be doubly so now that the words of forgiveness and grace have been read. Real joy is the logical response of His grace for us!
THE READING OF THE WORD
The “fourth call” from the Scripture is usually found in the context of the sermon. It is not a call to praise, confession, or pardon. This time it is a call to believe and do. A proper response to the reading itself is with the traditional “This is the Word of God” by the pastor met with the “Thanks be to God” by the congregation. This puts the congregation in the frame of mind that God will lead them in His Word.
If the offering is the climax of all the responses in the worship service, the sermon is the climax of the calling of God. The sermon is an exposition of the Scripture, not merely the opinions of the preacher. The sermon explains, illustrates, and applies a text or section of Scripture. The sermon is to be faithful to the teaching of God’s Word, and plain enough for all to understand. Normally, the pastor will have spent hours in the study, carefully and painstakingly analyzing the text of Scripture, so that he will be faithful to God’s message to the people. The sermon should be earnest and heartfelt, simple yet full of spiritual depth, filled with joy, yet not light or silly, for the pastor represents God to the people. Only those ordained by the Presbytery as teaching elders are able to preach regularly in the Presbyterian Church in America. Ordination comes only after years of study and trial.
Preaching is an activity that has not always been well received. Nevertheless, the Scripture is clear that it is to be the staple activity of the pastor and the main means by which God converts, grows, and matures His people. Several Greek words in the original texts of the Scripture are translated preach in our English Bibles. One is more powerful than the others. It refers to the solemn task only the pastor is commissioned to do. This Greek word, kerusso, refers to one man speaking publicly to many (called heralding) on behalf of a king. This man is charged with calling out the message exactly as he received it, with all the force with which it was given him. If carefully and accurately delivered, the herald carries all the authority of the king himself. God has called the pastor to preach like this with all his heart (2 Timothy 4:2). The gravity of preaching is best expressed by the last few words of Romans 10:14. A literal translation of the last sentence in the Greek version would read thusly: “And how are they to hear Him without someone preaching?” Though this passage does not intend to equate the preacher’s sermon with direct revelation from God, these are the strongest words in all of Scripture concerning the means Christ uses to call mankind. Both the preacher and the hearer should call upon the Lord to help them hear the voice of Christ in the sermon.
Preaching has often been divided into three types. The first is evangelistic preaching, which is preaching directed to the conversion of sinners. The next is experiential preaching (or as the old writers called it, experimental preaching) which seeks to primarily build up the Christian in His relationship with and obedience to God. The third is didactic preaching, which is primarily intended to build up believers in their knowledge of Scripture and doctrine. Each of the three types overlap into each other every Sunday. At First Presbyterian the morning sermon is usually experiential and the evening sermon is usually more didactic All sermons at our church will normally have an evangelistic component, particularly in the morning.
THE HYMN OF RESPONSE
Any proper sermon demands a response. The pastor always leaves the hearer with a call to believe and do something according to the Scripture. In worship the most frequent response is to sing a song of obedience and faith. The last song usually talks about us and our need to respond to God and His Word. This mood of this hymn is like finding a greeting card for the one we love which says exactly what our heart cries out. As we sing, the hymn, like the perfect card, gives thoughtful and poetic words to the heart’s cry. Nevertheless, no physical response can fully represent the dealings of the Holy Spirit with a heart. The true response to His Word is always inward and spiritual, and comes after the service, as we go out into the world.
One might think that we should leave the presence of God with our obedience (or lack thereof) foremost on our minds. Many pastors delight in seeing members filing out with their heads hung down in guilt and conviction. However appropriate those feelings may at times be, they should not be the last emotion in the worship service. God speaks to us with the “fifth call,” the Benediction, which comes from the Latin meaning “good words.” Once we have responded to God by singing out our determination to be believing and obedient, God calls out to us with grace and mercy. In the Benediction, He is, in essence, saying to us, “Go with My approval, with My blessing, and in My strength.” Since this call is from God, the Benediction is nearly always the very words of Scripture. There are several excellent examples in both the Old and New Testament of God’s good words to us. The most common is a variation of the simple, “(May) the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Corinthians 16:23, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:18; cf. Galatians 6:18, Ephesians 6:24, Philippians 4:23, Colossians 4:18, 2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 4:15, Philemon 25, Hebrews 13:25.) Hearing these words reminds us of God’s love for His children and His help to all who seek to follow Him. At times the congregation will respond to the Benediction by singing a short chorus or meditating with a moment of silence.
AFTER THE SERVICE
Unlike the beginning of the service, where silent meditation is appropriate, the end of the service will see a mixture of responses. Some may want to prayerfully sit and ponder what God has been saying to them. In spiritual worship it is not uncommon to see people praying alone or in groups in the pews after church. Most normally, however, the pianist will play a postlude as we leave the sanctuary. After a reasonable period of fellowship, we gather in our Sunday School classes.
THE ROLE OF THE PASTOR
The worship leader in the Presbyterian church is in a unique position in Christian worship. He stands between God and the congregation in the dialogue of worship. He represents God to us as He reads the Scripture. But he represents us to God when he prays. Not only does he lead in these ways, but in Presbyterian worship, the leader normally gives sentences between each element of worship to ensure context and continuity in the dialogue that is worship. Historically, this job has been given to ordained teaching elders, or pastors. Certainly ruling elders and other laymen can and do take part. But part of the teaching and preaching ministry of the pastor is the leading of worship according to the Word and Spirit. The original Westminster Directory of Worship (1646) encourages the pastor to direct the service, especially in the area of leading in prayer. Preparing to lead worship is both related to and similar to preparing to preach. Dr. Robert Godfrey says, “By the call of God and the congregation, the minister is set aside to these important tasks in worship. . . .In his leading role the minister leads the worship of God in a way that keeps the worship faithful and expresses the unity of the people in their meeting with God.”
THE ROLE OF THE CHOIR
God has created us as people who naturally use music to express their deep feelings of gratitude and joy. The choir is able to express these feelings in such a way that inspires us to more profound experiences with God. Choirs are found throughout the Old Testament, and the choirs of the book of Revelation in the New Testament show us the power and glorious nature of music in heavenly worship.
The choir normally represents the congregation as they respond to God’s calls in the dialogue of worship. Like the pastor’s prayers, the choir speaks for us, and not to us in the worship. Generally speaking, the choir is to offer praises to God that are beyond the capability of the entire congregation. In the same way that the pastor is to show gifting and thoughtfulness when he prays on behalf of the people, the choir shows gifting beyond that of the typical church member. They work hard, leading us to God by “playing skillfully with a shout of joy” (Psalm 33:3). They are our voices, calling out to God with beauty. That is why the church has always encouraged the corporate “amen” to follow the choir’s music. The amen is not to signal “Christian applause” but our heart’s agreement to the message and music of the choir.
The choir can be used in all of the different places of response in the worship service. They may sing praises, confessions of sin, confessions of faith, and thanksgiving. Sometimes they may sing the Scriptures to us to remind us of our precious faith. At First Presbyterian the choir often sings during the taking of the offering, an ideal time for thoughtful reflection. Consistent with the Presbyterian tradition where choirs have been used only in the last 150 years, and then with great care lest they become too prominent, the balcony is used for the choir. This accentuates their role as representing the congregation as it calls back to God. This position, by taking the congregation’s eyes off of the singers, has frequently helped dispel the notion that the choir is performing for an audience. From this rear position it is symbolically clear that they sing for us as part of us. The choir also plays a role in assisting the congregation in singing hymns and psalms. This role is especially important when the pastor introduces new music to the congregation. All who have any gifting or passion for beautiful music ought to consider God’s call to them to be part of the choir.
Sometimes we just “go to church” and don’t think about what we do. I suppose it is possible to get some benefit from worshiping with God’s people whether we are aware of what we are doing or not. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be so much more beneficial if we knew what we were doing and why we were doing it? I trust this paper assists you to worship in a knowledgeable way. But even more, I pray it helps you to worship in a deeper, more godly, and more spiritual way. There may be no greater obedience to God than for you to worship Him in spirit and in truth. May God help us to give unto the Lord the glory due His holy name!