It's really quite an amazing thing when worshipers gather. They come from a wide variety of locations and experiences when they come into the place of worship. They do this in various ways. Some may wander in quite at random. Some are ushered to their usual pew. In some congregations the worshipers gather around a coffee pot in the fellowship area and noisily catch up on the events of the week until they are called in. In still others the gathering takes the form of clergy and choir solemnly processing down the aisle to their respective places.
Stop and take an intentional look at how your congregation gathers.
Those who gather are usually quite a mix. While most congregations are of similar background and culture, it's also true that every congregation has a mix of diversity. People who are strangers are sitting next to each other. We all see a number of other people we probably would not choose to be with in any other setting. Tom Long (in Testimony) says that worship trains us to have a "sort of double vision about other people, to see people, including ourselves, as flawed and broken but also as created, chosen, and beloved by God" (p.45).
As you reflect on Psalm 95, notice the direction in which these exhortations move. We are called into the presence of God. We are exhorted to come with joy, thanksgiving, music and song. We affirm that he is the "great God," our maker and our shepherd. We can expect to be welcomed into his presence because we are the "flock under his care." What a rich spirit in which to begin worship!
The glimpse we receive into the New Testament church in Acts 2 illustrates their practice of what Psalm 95 presented. With awe and faith they came into the presence of God, eager to hear him speak, to speak to him in return, and to enjoy fellowship with each other. The results were seen in deepened commitments to obedience and in warm welcomes to all who came to faith.
Basic convictions should always shape our actions. The following beliefs help form our worship practices, and we should intentionally affirm them.
1. The purpose of worship. The opening of worship should clearly establish worship's purpose. The opening actions should make clear that we are here to listen to God and respond in faith.
2. God's identity. God is Trinity, and we worship him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In order to do justice to the way in which God has revealed himself, none of the three should be eclipsed by another. We come to worship all three.
3. Our identity. We gather as the image-bearing creatures of God who bring him honor, but also as the redeemed children of God who bring him our love and needs. We can expect that he is eager to meet us and will respond to us with his gracious blessing.
4. God's gathering act. As worship begins it is vitally important that we are made conscious that we have not gathered ourselves, nor have we as leaders done the gathering. God has gathered us. Worship is not first of all a human activity, but a divine activity. This God-action (the vertical dimension) must be made clear at the beginning of worship.
5. Standard actions. As worship opens nearly all worshipers need certain familiar and standard actions on a weekly basis to reinforce the above convictions. With familiar acts of entrance each week, worshipers will find security and strength in entering the presence of God.
Opening Acts of Worship
Depending on the style of worship and the culture of the congregation, the acts of worship will be quite different from one congregation to another. However, variations in style should always be consistent with the essence of worship and the assumptions mentioned above. Five ingredients usually are necessary for a healthy opening of Christian worship.
1. Prelude/Gathering Music. While it may have different titles, may be with different instruments, and may be played, sung or a combination of both, music is an excellent aid to assist worshipers in making the transition from their daily lives into the worshipful presence of God. The purpose of gathering music is to aid the mind and heart of the worshiper to center into the presence of God, leaving behind distractions and freely bringing along all her/his needs into the welcoming presence of God. Usually a time of centering on God before beginning to sing can be very effective so an instrumental prelude is helpful.
2. The Welcome and Call to Worship. Words that are spoken at the opening of worship are very influential words and should be chosen very carefully. Often the opening words will establish whether the horizontal or the vertical direction of worship is primary. Both are important. Horizontal references make it clear that all are welcomed. They extend a spirit of hospitality regardless of our diversity and give opportunity to welcome strangers and visitors. However, the horizontal is secondary to the vertical. God is the one who welcomes us into his presence. Since worship is at God's gracious invitation, we do well to make sure that the opening words express God's call and welcome to us as even more important than our welcome to each other. This may be expressed in spoken words crafted by the worship leader, Biblical words that are read, or sung words by a choir or the congregation. Often, a physical gesture by the worship leader can enhance this welcome and call.
3. The Greeting. Since we are called to worship first and foremost by God himself, it is appropriate that the primary greeting in worship comes from God expressed through Scriptural words. God's greeting is, after all, even more important than our greeting of one another. In some traditions this was called "The Salutation" and was formulated according to the words of Scripture. The words of greeting found in the opening verses of many New Testament epistles are useful. Posture and gestures can be very expressive. The worship leader may raise a hand in blessing, and worshipers may extend hands to receive it. Some prefer to bow heads with closed eyes to receive it; others prefer to receive it with head lifted and eyes open. It is often meaningful for worshipers to respond with "Amen" or "Thanks be to God" as an act of grateful receipt.
4. Adoration and Praise. Music and congregational song play a large part in the opening of worship. Worshipers enter the presence of God with hearty expressions of their praise, adoration, and awe before God. These expressions may be rich and deep, very reflective, or strong and exuberant. In this action worshipers not only affirm their adoration of the triune God but reject all other "gods" who have clamored for their attention all week. Many Christian songs and hymns of adoration are careful to give praise to God as triune. When you select songs for opening, be careful to look for references to the triune nature of God.
5. Opening Prayer. Sometimes called the Invocation, these words consist of a plea, arising out of both need and faith that God will work powerfully among us during the time of worship. We need not ask that he will be present, for he always is. But we expectantly plead that his work, through the Holy Spirit, will be powerful for all who are present. This invocation may be expressed in a spoken prayer, or it may take the form of a sung prayer by worshipers.
Questions for Discussion
1. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" come through most clearly in our worship services? What aids that?
2. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" do not seem very clear to our congregation? How can we improve that?
3. Try to imagine that you are a visitor to your congregation. Picture yourself arriving for the first time and watch how your congregation gathers. What do you notice? What seems helpful and positive? What might be confusing? How can you make the time of gathering more hospitable? How can you make the time of gathering more clearly illustrate the “Formative Assumptions”?
4. Review and discuss the five "Opening Acts of Worship" cited above. Be sure that all are clear on what is meant by each one. Then review the printed sheets from recent worship services. Ask yourselves questions such as:
a. Which of these are obviously present here?
b. Which are not present?
c. Which are particularly healthy and helpful to all?
d. Where could we improve our opening of worship?
e. How and by whom should that be implemented?
Vital worship, like a healthy marriage, requires honesty and openness in order to thrive. God longs for our honesty before him. We are deeply in need of his renewing pardon.
And so, the second step in our worship journey with God is a time in which we confess our sins, and God answers our confessions with the assurance of his pardon. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm the necessity of confession and assurance. In Psalm 32, David extols the happiness that a forgiven person can experience. However, he explains from his own experience how easy it is to delude ourselves, hide our sins and refuse to make confession. Such delusions cut us off from the rich experience of knowing God's forgiveness. Similarly, the apostle John explains that we live in self-deceit when we refuse to admit we have anything to confess. However, we may trust that God is faithful and righteous and more eager to forgive our sins than we are to confess them. The corporate conversation of God with his people, which we call worship, should include this part of the conversation early in the service.
It is in the Service of Confession and Renewal that the good news of pardon through the finished work of Jesus Christ comes through so personally and pastorally. This part of the worship service should not be seen as a negative element, but a time to prepare us for receiving the Gospel with all its assurance.
However, we have observed two challenges that we must consider in dealing with this step in our worship. First, our culture has lost its awareness of sin and guilt. Ever since the fall in Genesis 3, sinning and guilt have been a part of life. The Bible makes it clear there is no peace and happiness without confession and forgiveness. Yet, both in the world and in the church our awareness of this seems thin. With the loss of our awareness of sin comes the tendency to omit confession in our liturgies.
The second challenge is the embarrassment that many Protestant churches seem to feel about the confession of sin in a worship service. Some are afraid that speaking of anything but grace will turn seekers away.
Vital and healthy worship will require that planners carefully assess whether they have adequately dealt with these two challenges.
Good Reasons for Confessing
There are very good reasons for retaining the Service of Confession and Renewal in worship liturgies.
1. Theologically, when we worship, we come before the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is holy and pure. Yet we are sinful. We can either be
- self-deluding and refuse to acknowledge this,
- intentionally dishonest in that we know this but deny it,
- try to ignore it and assume it won't influence our relationship, or
- make honest confessions and receive the assurance of his gracious pardon that has been made available through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
The basic teaching of the gospel is that only those who make confession of their sin receive the pardon of God's grace. Consider Psalm 32, 51, 1 John 1:9, 2:1 and other passages. Repentance precedes justification!
2. Pastorally, both in Scripture and in observed behavior today personal health is directly related to our ability to make confession of our failures, own our culpability, and receive cleansing. As we plan and lead worship, we ought to remember that many worshipers are dealing with a crippling sense of failure in their moral life, family life, marriages and business. Though most have never been free to admit this to others, the burden within them eats away in the same way that David experienced in Psalm 32. For all of these, the greatest cleansing and healing will come with clearly pronounced words of assurance of pardon after honest confession. These acts can make the worship liturgy richly pastoral! True, it is not pleasant to make confession of our sin. But, as Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. observes, "The problem is that sin is like garbage. You don't want to let it build up. Confessing sin is like taking out the garbage. You want to do it regularly because taking out the garbage is an extremely healthy thing to do" (Beyond Doubt, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p.54).
In both of these considerations, let it be clear that we do not make our confessions in fear that perhaps God will hold these sins against us. We make them confidently as those who are standing on friendly ground, in the presence of a gracious God, who has provided the atonement in Christ, and is eagerly waiting to speak to us of his pardon! So we confess knowing that pardon has already been extended!
Elements in the Service of Renewal
It is wise that the service of renewal be similar in structure each week, for its sameness will speak to the confessing worshiper of security and safety. Yet, freshness and variation in the words and music that are used will retain its vitality. It is also wise to alternate the elements expressed in words and those in music. For instance, if the call to confession is sung, let the prayer be verbal, and vice versa. Normally the structure will involve elements like these:
- The Call to Confession is brief words, either from the presider or Scripture or a song, which bid us to confess.
- The Prayer of Confession will take different forms. It may be spoken by the presider, printed and read by all in unison, sung by the congregation, a time of silence for personal confession, and/or a responsorial with the "Kyrie" or some similar historic sung prayer
- The Assurance of Pardon is a recitation of promises directly from Scripture on the basis of which the assurance of pardon can be given to the confessors, normally by the ordained pastor.
- A Response of Praise and Thanks allows worshipers to pass the peace to one another and/or sing of their thanksgiving
- A Commitment to Grateful Living gives those who are assured of God's pardon the opportunity to hear God's call to live grateful lives. This will likely include the reading of God's law or some other passage that calls us to obedience.
Perhaps it is helpful for us to clarify the uses of the Law of God (from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5). In some congregations it has been customary to read the Ten Commandments before making confession of sins. The questions should be raised about the purpose of the Ten Commandments. Historically, we have held that there are three possible functions of the Ten Commandments: (1) a civil function in which it aims to restrain sin in society and make civil society possible,(2) a teacher of sin, and (3) a teacher of the life of gratitude.
If we view the law in the second function, it can be used as a call to confession. If we view it in the third function, it serves as a guide for us to know how to live out our gratitude for God's pardon. Those who are familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will note that the study of the Ten Commandments shows up in the third section of the Catechism, the section describing how we are to thank God for our deliverance. (See Lord's Days 42-44).
Questions for Discussion
1. Do you have a Service of Confession and Renewal regularly, occasionally, or seldom? Discuss the reasons for your practice and how your practice developed.
2. Discuss the reasons that some give for not including the confession of sin in worship ("it makes worship negative…we've heard too much about sin in the past…it will turn seekers away"). Share your insights about such matters for your congregation.
3. Is the Service of Confession and Renewal pastorally helpful in your worship? Do you think those who come with a burden of guilt will actually find release from it? How does that happen?
4. Evaluate the variations that are incorporated in your worship from week to week. Are they adequate? What other suggestions would you make? Put your suggestions together in a list as a help to your worship planners.
a. Is the Call to Confession varied each week?
b. Do the prayers of confession invite us in to make them our own?
c. Does the Assurance of Pardon present the gospel promises clearly and joyfully?
d. What other suggestions do you have for our response of praise and thanks?
e. How can we more clearly hear God's call to grateful living?
5. Does your worship include the Passing of the Peace? If so, is it done meaningfully? How could that be improved? If you do not include it now, should you consider doing so? And where should it be placed in the liturgy? What is the difference between “Passing the Peace” and saying "Good Morning" to others around you?
6. Have a discussion about how you can best educate your congregation to both the need and the value of having a Service of Confession and Renewal.