Monday, August 10, 2009

Worship & Arts at the Center [part 6 of 8]: Proclaiming the Word and Responding in Praise and Thanks

Proclaiming the Word

[*note: lessons are taken, with permission, from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship]

Scripture: Romans 10:14-18 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5

In Nehemiah 8 we are given an interesting and helpful picture of what happened in Jerusalem when the Exiles returned from captivity and rebuilt the city. The Book of the Law of Moses was brought out, Ezra read it aloud before the people, and the Levites instructed the people "…making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:8).

In the New Testament we are given more complete information about how God designs to use the reading and preaching of his Word. Paul, who was a preacher, knew there was a God-designed process. In verses 14-18 he lays out the steps of that process before the Roman Christians.
  • Someone is sent by God to preach the Word.
  • When the preacher preaches, people hear and believe.
  • When they believe, they call on the name of the Lord and are saved. (See Romans 10:14-15)

So "faith comes from hearing the message," he says (v.17). No wonder he speaks about the "beautiful feet" of those who bring the good news (v.15), a reference to Isaiah 52:7! The concept of "beautiful feet" in Scripture is a historic reference to the delight with which the exiles received the good news from messengers who told them they were about to be delivered from captivity and restored to Jerusalem.

In such a spirit, Paul provides the urgent charge to Timothy that he "preach the Word" (see 2 Timothy 4:1). This charge carries extra weight because of the accompanying references to "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead" and also "in view of his appearing and his kingdom" (v.1). This is not a charge to be taken lightly! It is the God-designed means to bring people to faith that they may be saved. Paul adds other references that help us to understand the intensity and urgency with which he expects this proclamation be done. "Be prepared in season and out of season…with great patience and careful instruction" (v.2) adds great weight to what he has said about preaching. And when he adds "…correct, rebuke and encourage…" (v.2), he points to the purposes for which preaching is done. Also, as if to underscore the urgency and importance of this charge, he warns Timothy that the task will not be easy and will likely encounter both disinterest and resistance (see vss. 3-5).

Much more can be said about preaching and how to do it, but this is not the place. Many books, articles and journals will encourage and instruct those who preach.

The Big Picture of Dialog with God

Having listened to Paul's urgent charge to Timothy, we should remind ourselves of the nature of Christian worship, where such preaching is done. In previous lessons we have defined worship as a meeting between God and his people where they engage in conversation together (see lessons 3, 4, and 9). In some elements of the worship service, God is speaking to his people through his Word; in other elements of the worship service, God's people are speaking to him through their prayers, confessions, praise, etc.

A very essential element in this process is the work of the Holy Spirit. Neither the speaker nor the listener would be able to carry out their tasks well without the work of God's Spirit. Just as faithful proclamation requires the guidance and filling of God's Spirit, so discerning listening and responding require the same Spirit. The "things of God" are only understood and discerned "by the Spirit of God" (see 1 Corinthians 2:11-16). This requires a dependence on the Spirit of God by both those who proclaim and those who listen. The Prayer for Illumination in worship is a key expression of this dependence.

The underlying conviction is that God is a speaker. He is not merely a passive impersonal deity who receives obeisance from us. He speaks. And we listen. The most important way in which God speaks to us is through his Word, read and proclaimed. The preacher, therefore, has a formidable and holy task as she/he becomes "God's speaker." At the same time the worshipers have a significant and holy task to listen to the voice of God. In this understanding of worship, both speaking and listening are elevated to a high level of importance.

The Integration of Word and Liturgy

While it may seem that preaching and the liturgy are two quite separate entities, such is not the case. They are and must be intimately integrated with each other. The proclamation of God's Word occurs within a worship service, that is, it is part of the overall conversation between God and his children. We say that preaching is the primary means of grace, but it needs to be surrounded by a thoughtful liturgy. Both will be more meaningful when each influences the other. To make a separation between liturgy and preaching ("preliminaries" and "sermon") is to divide what should not be divided, thereby making both weaker.

Therefore, those who plan the worship service ought to be fully aware of what Scripture will be read and preached, what themes will be pursued, and what outcome or end is in view. Only the preacher can know whether the service should end with confession, gratitude, a call to obedience, encouragement to trust, a challenge to service, or the like. The preacher should, therefore, be a part of the process of planning or, at the very least, provide full and clear information for the worship planners.

There are several ways in which the preaching and liturgy are to be integrated:

  • The theme of the entire liturgy is set by the Word that is read and preached. Because of the primacy of the Word of God in worship, the theme of the scripture reading and sermon ought to shape the focus of the liturgy that will surround it.
  • The liturgy prepares for and anticipates the message of the sermon. The mind and heart of worshipers will be drawn along in this conversation with God in a spirit that will prepare them to receive God's Word.
  • The liturgy can reinforce the message of the Word that is preached. Songs, anthems, and litanies are able to proclaim and reaffirm what is preached.
  • The liturgy enables the worshipers to respond to the Word preached. God's Word is never given only for good interest or casual information, but for obedience and response. Although some of our greatest response is shown in our daily living, the worshiping congregation should also respond corporately through song, prayer, or profession.

An integrated worship service with an obvious common theme, in which proclamation and liturgy serve as partners together, will be a vital and vitalizing conversation between God and his children.

Questions for Discussion

1. As a group spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas that you think should be included in a good definition of preaching. Write them down.

2. Review recent worship services and ask these questions:
How did the theme of preaching shape the liturgy?
How did the liturgy elements prepare the way for the preached Word?
How did the concluding elements of the liturgy reinforce the theme of the preached Word?

3. What opportunities do your worship services provide to respond to the preached Word? Are these opportunities sufficient? What other suggestions do you have?

4. How can the worship committee/planners and your congregation assist and encourage your preacher in his/her task?

5. Does your congregation have services of worship on occasion where the Word is not preached or taught? How do you assess that?

Responding in Praise and Thanks

Scripture: Exodus 15:1-21 and Revelation 5:6-14


"Therefore" is a very common word in the Bible. And it's a very strategic word. Sometimes it is clearly stated, sometimes it takes the form of "then," and sometimes it is assumed.

It draws a direct tie between what came before and what comes after. It's a word that says, "because this happened, now this must happen!" Or, "because God did this, now we must do this!" This one word indicates that a certain response is expected to what has just been said or done.

Our worship also includes this step. In corporate worship we are expected to give a response to what God has said and done. So we talk about the "service of response" of a worship liturgy, and it always follows the proclamation of God's word in the sermon. When God has spoken his word of hope and grace, it is unthinkable that we would leave church without a response. The dialog of worship always includes the assumption that God waits for some response to his word. (Most worship services also include a prior response when God provides his assurance of pardon after our confession of sin. At that point worshipers usually respond with thanks through a song or prayer and a commitment to grateful living.)

The story of Moses and the song of the Israelites in Exodus 15 is an example that shows response to God. After God had mightily delivered the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt and had miraculously led them through the Red Sea on dry ground, Exodus 15 begins with "then." It means that the song of Exodus 15 not only occurred after crossing the sea (in terms of time sequence), but that they sang this song because of and as a response to God's acts in delivering them. Read through this stirring song of praise in verses 1-18. The song is a familiar one that Christians often sing (cf. "I Will Sing Unto the Lord" [PsH 152], an Israeli folk hymn, or "Psalm 136: We Give Thanks unto You" [SNC 26]), and it is sung most meaningfully when we understand that the song was a direct and personal response of overwhelming praise and thanks to God for his spectacular deliverance. Behind this event is the fact that the God who had divided the Sea and led them through is waiting to hear their response to his gracious acts.

A similar event occurs in Revelation 4 and 5. Throughout these two chapters the scene in heaven gradually unfolds. We see the throne room of heaven with the Lord on the throne, surrounded by his angels and saints from all ages. After this it became clear that the Lamb, "looking as if it had been slain" (see 5:6), is in the center of the throne. John, who is perplexed that he cannot unlock the mystery and plan of God for history (see 5:1-4), is told that the Lamb alone can "open the scroll" (see 5:5). There is hope for the world! The Lamb has the victory! What follows is a response that cannot be restrained or contained. The archangels and the church offer prayers and sing praises (5:8-10). Then the whole host of angels join them in praise (5:11-12). Finally all creatures in heaven and earth joined in the response (5:13-14). It was a response that could not be contained!

A Double Response

The response to God is to take place both within and outside of worship. The first response (and the one we are most interested in here) is to be a corporate one within the worship encounter with God. It would be unthinkable that after gathering before God to hear his voice proclaiming the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ with the call to follow him, we have no audible or visible response. How incomplete that the gospel is proclaimed and the congregation silently leaves! How inconsiderate that God speaks and his people say nothing back! The uniqueness of Reformed worship is that we understand we are engaged in a dialog with God. The worship liturgy needs to provide adequate time and means for our hearts and mouths to express our response to his voice. Otherwise, the dialog of worship is left unfinished.

A more comprehensive response, of course, is to occur in our daily lives after we have left worship. At this point the corporate response within worship becomes the personal response of continued worship in daily living. Paul, in his epistles, uses the same powerful "therefore" in this matter. After explaining God's delivering grace in the first eleven chapters of Romans, he goes on to say, "Therefore.offer your bodies as living sacrifices.." (Romans 12:1). In Ephesians he spends three chapters explaining salvation by grace through faith for those previously dead in sin, and then says, ".then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received." (Ephesians 4:1)

Varieties of Responses

Once we see clearly how important a response section is for our worship liturgies, we can begin considering the different ways to give responses. As you will see, there is a variety of ways to do this. As a matter of fact, our worship is usually most vital when our responses take different forms each week.

Many ideas for worship responses can be found in The Worship Sourcebook (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2004). The first half of the book deals with the "Elements of the Worship Service." Sections 1-3 treat the Opening of Worship, Confession and Assurance, and Proclaiming the Word. Sections 4-8 contain resources for responses to God: Prayers of the People, Offering, Baptism, Profession of Faith and Remembrance of Baptism, and the Lord's Supper.

Here are a few options to consider for a response to God:

1. Prayers. We speak our words of gratitude, praise and commitment directly to God in prayer, but there are different types of prayer. The Prayer of Application is found directly after the sermon and is specialized as a response to the sermon. The Prayers of the People (or Pastoral Prayer) is a broader prayer for the needs of the worshipers, the community and the world at large. It also can be placed after the sermon so it becomes responsive intercessions to the God who has bent down to speak to us. It may be led by the pastor, by a lay person, or by several persons. In such a prayer the leader attempts to verbalize the thoughts, intentions and needs of worshipers.

2. Songs. While some songs are prayers for God's help and care, many are intended to be the expression of the worshiper's heart. The coupling of words with music provides the worshiper an excellent method of letting her/his heart speak. Sometimes songs become a specific response to the message of the sermon. While some of our songs express our praise, others sing our thanks. While some profess our faith, others express our commitment to obedience. Some express awe, and others security and comfort. The theme of the service and the sermon will determine which is needed. Generally, these should be songs on the lips of the whole congregation; if choirs, ensembles, or vocalists sing a response, it should be clear that they are singing for the body, not to them.

3. Professions. When a body of worshipers professes, they are corporately speaking to God and before the world of their united response to him. The words of the historic ecumenical creeds (Apostles' Creed or Nicene Creed, for example), selections from other confessions of the church, or formulated litanies give us opportunity to declare our unity with the church of all ages and speak of our convictions. Many passages of Scripture also serve well as our professions.

4. Offering. Many worship planners often wrestle with how to include the offering meaningfully within the liturgy of worship. Sometimes it can easily seem to be an interruption to worship. The word "offering" implies giving freely and presenting something as a token of dedication and devotion. Therefore, it is sometimes wise to present information about the needs and service opportunities. If it is understood as an expression of our response to God and included in the post-sermon part of the liturgy, it takes on new significance. We generously give for God's work in the world as our response to his acts and word. When we can combine the giving of money with the giving of ourselves in times of service or other forms of gifts, such as food for a food pantry, it can represent a presentation of our daily living to God and can become even more meaningful.

5. Sacraments. Both Baptism and the Lord's Supper are fitting responses to God's word. However, the church does not often view baptism in this light. When baptism is celebrated for adults, it is easily recognized as a response. When infant baptism is celebrated, we usually put it early in the service-not for liturgical reasons, but to ease parents' anxiety about the uncertainty of their child's behavior. The Lord's Supper also has historically been recognized as a fitting celebratory response to the proclamation of the gospel and follows the sermon. What more fitting response can there be than taking the bread and the cup in grateful remembrance and celebration of his mighty redeeming acts! Many churches have traditionally celebrated the Lord's Supper quarterly, but today many are rethinking this and moving in the direction of more frequent celebrations.

Passive people don't do much responding. Therefore, in both our worship planning and our liturgy, we want to discourage passivity. We may also need to consider educating worshipers on the importance of such vital responses. Those who are accustomed to leaving church after only a closing hymn may need some explanations of why more extended responses are appropriate.

Questions for Discussion

1. Begin with a personal conversation in which each member of the group shares some of their thoughts on these matters:

* Give a positive example of a recent worship service (either here or somewhere else) where you had a very meaningful opportunity to respond to God like you needed and wanted to. Describe the opportunity given.
* Give an example of a worship service where you felt you needed more opportunity to respond to God and didn't get it. What response would you have needed?

2. Examine the worship sheets of three recent and typical worship services of your congregation. Then spend some time discussing questions, such as these:

* Identify which elements in the worship service are clearly response elements.
* Did the theme of the service and the sermon help shape the focus the response? Where and how do you see that?
* Do you think your worshipers were provided adequate ways to respond?
* How could/would you improve it?

3. Think about this case, and evaluate it together.

Harbor Church usually has about 300 worshipers at each service. After a time of songs and prayers, the pastor presents his sermon. He usually preaches directly through a book of the Bible in successive weeks. His message was biblical, interesting, and easy to follow. He concluded the message with a challenge to be faithful in obeying God. At the end of the message he led the congregation in prayer. When the prayer was finished, he said, "Thank you so much for coming. May God bless you, and we'll continue in the next chapter next Sunday morning." Worshipers left while the accompanist played the postlude.

What do you think?

4. Review the five suggestions for responses to God (Prayers, Songs, Professions, Offering, and Sacraments) as explained above. Then discuss these or similar questions:

* In which of these five are we the strongest?
* Which of the five do we neglect? What suggestions do you have for strengthening them?
* Which of the five are absent? Is this a serious lack? What can and should we do about that?

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