What is the spiritual significance of each element of worship (e.g., singing, the sermon, communion, etc.)?

What is the spiritual significance of each element of worship (e.g., singing, the sermon, communion, etc.)?

Singing serves as a form of praise and worship. Its also a form of rememberence and wisdom. Its worth noting that having sung songs dozens or even 100s of times, they can serve as rememberences or internal mantras when you encounter challenging life events.

The sermon is about education and raising awareness. Its partially about clearing up myths and misconceptions.

Communion is about remembering the sacrifice of Christ and its role in our lives. Communion is also a time of self-reflection.

Overall worship is a time when life slows down and we are allowed to pause, reflect, and remember what is most important in life.

Its also a time to relate to and connect with our spiritual family.

Most places of worship (temples, mosques, churches, holy sites, and so forth) have one thing in common, regardless of religious affinity: they are meant, by people, as sacred sites. It’s the intention behind them, their purpose.

Because these places are meant to be sacred sites, they are. This is how powerful human intention is. By intending a place to be used to connect with Spirit, the location or building does indeed have an energy of connection.

When you visit a Catholic church for example, any given church, even if you don’t follow that specific religious values, is you notice, the air inside is cleaner, the energy is purer, there’s something sacred about it.

The priests and staff conduct ceremonies and rituals in it; the building was designed to propagate sound in a certain way; candles are lit; figures and drawings adorn the walls; people go there to worship, both in and outside ceremony; and silence is generally kept. The energy is maintained both by intent, and by the actions of its guardians and the people. And this is so for any kind of religious temple.

The spiritual significance of places of worship is given by the intent of humans, them being spiritual beings themselves. Because of their intention, these sites do have with them an energy of closeness with Spirit.

Why do we worship God in the public services of First Presbyterian Church in the way that we do? People visiting or new to our congregation regularly comment on the form and content of congregational worship of First Presbyterian. There was a time when Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, low-church Episcopal, Methodist and independent Bible church worship services looked very much alike. Today, however, the person who visits among churches is likely to experience as many worship styles as there are churches. Even within the same denomination, there may be a wide variety of worship practices. So it is not surprising that folks new to First Presbyterian Church would have differing impressions of and questions about the public service of worship.

First Impressions

Some come from churches where the public services are much more informal and contemporary. Very often they express appreciation that the service here is Bible-filled (including a regular Scripture reading distinct from the sermon and faithful expository preaching – that is, preaching that explains and applies the Bible), that the tone is serious but joyful, that there are substantive and Scriptural pastoral prayers, as well as rich hymnody and majestic music. Indeed, many are attracted to First Church precisely because of their frustration with what they have encountered in many evangelical churches – the hollow excitement, lack of strong Bible preaching and the triviality of the services. They like the God-centered worship of First Presbyterian in contrast to the more entertainment-oriented worship they’ve experienced, but they aren’t sure of our reasons for doing what we do. They want to understand. Fair enough.

Others who also come from churches with a contemporary “style” occasionally comment that First Church is more “formal” and “traditional” than the churches they’ve been a part of. They like the strong Bible preaching/teaching ministry but will sometimes wonder why First Presbyterian doesn’t use “contemporary music,” sing choruses, and feature a worship team or a praise band. Some of them may secretly wonder if we are a bit stuck in the past, and if we are capable of reaching “this” generation with this “style” of worship. Usually they are too polite to ask, but they really do want to know why public worship is like it is at First Presbyterian Church. Fair question.

Still others come to us from “high church” backgrounds where there is prescribed liturgy strictly adhered to by an officiant. They may be from Lutheran, Anglican (Episcopal), Reformed, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox backgrounds, and First Church has a more “informal” feel to them. Some of them may miss the beauty and structure of those liturgical forms, even if they find public worship at First very edifying and understandable, while others may enjoy the greater freedom and simplicity of public worship here. Nevertheless, they may not know the reasons behind these differences between our practice and what they’ve previously experienced. They’d like to know. Perfectly legitimate.

In the next few pages, we will try to answer these questions (and more) and explain the basic reasons for why we do what we do in public worship here at First Presbyterian Church. We will also provide detailed information about all the elements and parts of our public services.

What Worship is (and isn’t)

What is worship? Well, the Psalmist tells us succinctly. It is giving unto the Lord the glory due his name (Psalm 29:1-2). Jerry Bridges, noted author of The Pursuit of Holiness and Transforming Grace, recently asked this very question and answered as follows: “In Scripture the word worship is used to denote both an overall way of life and a specific activity. When the prophet Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God heaven, who made the sea and the land “(Jonah 1:9), he was speaking about his whole manner of life. In contrast to Jonah’s words, Psalm 100:2 says, “Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” The psalmist there speaks of a specific activity of praising God. This is the sense in which we normally use the word worship today. These two concepts of worship—a broad one and a more narrow, specific one—correspond to the two ways by which we glorify God. We glorify God by ascribing to Him the honor and adoration due to Him because of His excellence—the narrow concept of worship. We also glorify God by reflecting His glory to others—the broader, way-of-life manner of worship.”[1]

        To say it a little differently, worship is declaring, with our lips and lives, that God is more important than anything else to us, that he is our deepest desire, that his inherent worth is beyond everything else we hold dear. Lou Giglio has recently, and provocatively, explained: “Think of it this way: Worship is simply about value. The simplest definition I can give is this: Worship is our response to what we value most. That’s why worship is that thing we all do. It’s what we’re all about on any given day. Worship is about saying, ‘This person, this thing, this experience (this whatever) is what matters most to me . . . it’s the thing of highest value in my life.’ That ‘thing’ might be a relationship. A dream. A position. Status. Something you own. A name. A job. Some kind of pleasure. Whatever name you put on it, this ‘thing’ is what you’ve concluded in your heart is worth most to you. And whatever is worth most to you is—you guessed it—what you worship. Worship, in essence, is declaring what we value most. As a result, worship fuels our actions, becoming the driving force of all we do. And we’re not just talking about the religious crowd. The Christian. The churchgoer among us. We’re talking about everybody on planet earth. A multitude of souls proclaiming with every breath what is worthy of their affection, their attention, their allegiance. Proclaiming with every step what it is they worship. Some of us attend the church on the corner, professing to worship the living God above all. Others, who rarely darken the church doors, would say worship isn’t a part of their lives because they aren’t ‘religious.’ But everybody has an altar. And every altar has a throne. So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy: You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your allegiance.  At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne, and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship. Sure, not too many of us walk around saying; ‘I worship my stuff. I worship my job. I worship this pleasure. I worship her. I worship my body. I worship me!’ But the trail never lies. We may say we value this thing or that thing more than any other, but the volume of our actions speaks louder than our words.”[2]

        So worship is rooted in our deepest desires, and reflects those deep desires outwardly. This is important to note because of misconceptions of what constitutes “worship.” It is not uncommon to hear someone distinguish, for instance, between “worship” and the sermon. “We had a great time of worship this morning, and then the pastor gave a really practical message,” someone might say, with utter innocency of spirit, not realizing that the statement reveals that he doesn’t know what worship is. In that sentence, “worship” stands for “experience” and probably for music. The songs and singing leading up to the morning message were moving, made him “feel closer to God” and thus that portion of the service is associated in the heart and mind with “worship.” But this is to confuse the meaning and action of worship with the effects or byproducts of worship. We do not come to a congregational service of worship in order to “experience worship” or to be deeply moved by the time of singing or to have some kind of an emotional catharsis. We come to meet with God and to give to him the glory due his name.

        If one has any other goal in worship than engaging with God, coming into the presence of God, to glorify and enjoy him, any other aim than to ascribe his worth, commune with him and receive his favor, then one has yet to worship. For in biblical worship we focus upon God himself and acknowledge his inherent and unique worthiness.

        Why do we worship? There is more than one right biblical answer. Surely at the top of the list is “for his own glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31, Psalm 29:1-2). There is no higher answer to “why do we worship?” than because the glory of God is more important than anything else in all creation. The chief end of the church is to glorify and enjoy God together forever, because the chief thing in all the world is God’s glory (Philippians 2:9-11). There are other answers as well: because God said to, because God created us to worship, because God saved us to worship, because it is our natural duty as creatures and joyful duty as Christians to worship, because our worship is a response of gratitude for saving grace, because those with new hearts long to hear his word and express their devotion, because God wants to bless us with himself, because God has chosen us for his own inheritance and seeks to commune with us in his ordinances, and more.

        Hughes Old points us to the Psalms and Paul for the answer: “We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being. God created us to be his image—an image that would reflect his glory. In fact, the whole creation was brought into existence to reflect the divine glory. The psalmist tells us that ‘the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). The apostle Paul in the prayer with which he begins the epistle to the Ephesians makes it clear that God created us to praise him.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace . . . (Eph. 1:3-6)

This prayer says much about the worship of the earliest Christians. It shows the consciousness that the first Christians had of the ultimate significance of their worship. They understood themselves to have been destined and appointed to live to the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:12).”[3]

The Goal and Meaning of Public Worship

Our aim, as the congregation gathers to meet with God in public worship on the Lord’s Day, is to glorify and enjoy God, in accordance with his written word. That is, the very purpose of assembling together as the people of God in congregational worship is to give to the Lord the glory due his name and to enjoy the blessing of his promised special presence with his own people, in obedience to his instructions set forth in the Bible.

Corporate worship (so-called because the body or corpus of Christ, that is, the people of God, the Church, is collectively involved in this encounter with God) is sometimes referred to as “gathered,” “assembled” “public,” or “congregational” worship. All of these names are helpful, and bring out different dimensions of this important aspect of biblical worship. Though the Bible indicates that there are, in addition to public worship, other distinct and significant facets of Christian worship (like family worship, private worship and life worship), the importance of public worship is featured in both the Old and New Testaments. When Psalm 100:2 and Hebrews 10:25 speak of “coming before the Lord” and “assembling together” they are both addressing public or gathered worship.

The great distinctive of our whole approach to public worship is that we aim for the form and substance of our corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology. An apt motto for this approach is: “Read the Bible, Preach the Bible, Pray the Bible, Sing the Bible, See the Bible.”

What our worship looks like: the Elements and Principles

At First Presbyterian Church, Bible reading, Bible preaching, Bible praying, Bible singing and biblical observance of the sacraments are at the core of what we do in public worship. This means the following for our services.

        We read the Bible in our public worship. Paul told Timothy “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) and so, a worship service influenced by the teaching of Scripture will contain a substantial reading of Scripture (and not just from the sermon text!). The public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. In the reading of God’s word, He speaks most directly to His people.

        We preach the Bible in our public worship. Preaching is God’s prime appointed instrument to build up his church. As Paul said “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:14, 17). Faithful biblical preaching is to explain and apply Scripture to the gathered company, believers and unbelievers alike. James Durham put it this way: “This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without, and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord’s side, so should they never be separated on our side.”[4] This means expository and evangelistic preaching, squarely based in the text of the word of God.

        People who appreciate the Bible’s teaching on worship will have a high view of preaching, and little time for the personality driven, theologically void, superficially practical, monologues that pass for preaching today. “From the very beginning the sermon was supposed to be an explanation of the Scripture reading,” says Hughes Old. It “is not just a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture.”[5] “Preach the word,” Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). “Expository, sequential, verse by verse, book by book, preaching through the whole Bible, the ‘whole council of God’ (Acts 20:27), was the practice of many of the church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom, Augustine), all the Reformers and the best of their heirs ever since. The preached word is the central feature of Reformed worship.”

        We pray the Bible in our public worship. The Father’s house “is a house of prayer” said Jesus (Matthew 21:13). Our prayers ought to be permeated with the language and thought of Scripture. Terry Johnson makes the case thusly: “the pulpit prayers of Reformed churches should be rich in biblical and theological content. Do we not learn the language of Christian devotion from the Bible? Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don’t we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people, for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout.”[6] The call here is not for written and read prayer, but studied free prayer. Our ministers spend time plundering the language of Scripture in preparation for leading in public worship.

        We sing the Bible in our public worship (Psalm 98:1, Revelation 5:9, Matthew 26:30, Nehemiah 12:27, 46; Acts 16:25; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). This doesn’t mean that we can only sing Psalms or only sing the language of scripture, though this tremendous doxological resource of the church should not be overlooked. What we mean by “sing the Bible” is that our singing ought to be biblical, shot through with the language, categories and theology of the Bible. It ought to reflect the themes and proportion of the Bible, as well as its substance and weightiness. Terry Johnson, again, provides this counsel: “Our songs should be rich with Biblical and theological content. The current divisions over music are at the heart of our worship wars. Yet some principles should be easy enough to identify. First, what does a Christian worship song look like? Answer, it looks like a Psalm. The Psalms provide the model for Christian hymnody. If the songs we sing in worship look like Psalms, they will develop themes over many lines with minimal repetition. They will be rich in theological and experiential content. They will tell us much about God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. They will express the whole range of human experience and emotion. Second, what does a Christian worship song sound like? Many are quick to point out that God has not given us a book of tunes. No, but He has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words. They will be sophisticated enough to carry substantial content over several lines and stanzas. They will use minimal repetition. They will be appropriate to the emotional mood of the Psalm or Bible-based Christian hymn. Sing the Bible.”[7]

        We “see” the Bible in our public worship. That is, we are to observe the appointed visible ordinances or sacraments in public worship. When we say that we are to “see” the Bible, we do so because God’s sacraments are “visible words” (so said Augustine). The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are the only two commanded dramas of Christian worship (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In them we see with our eyes the promise of God. But we could also say that in the sacraments we see/smell/touch/taste the word. In the reading and preaching the word, God addresses our mind and conscience through the hearing. In the sacraments, he uniquely addresses our mind and conscience through the other senses. In, through and to the senses, God’s promise is made tangible. A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to his people. Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the reality of which is received or entered into by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance. And so these “visible symbols of Gospel truths” are to be done as part of our corporate worship. They will be occasional, no matter how frequent, and so we are reminded that they are not essential to every service. This is not to denigrate them in the least. After all, they are by nature supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word, and the grace conveyed in them is the same grace held out via the means of preaching.

Our aim then is to have a public worship service that is according to Scripture: that is, a service rooted in the Bible’s teaching about the form and substance of congregational worship. Presbyterians often call this the “regulative principle” in arranging our public worship — the axiom that we ought to worship God in accordance with the Bible’s teaching about the public worship of God. This axiom applied, in turn, helps us with the whole scope of worship. How we go about corporate worship is the business of the second commandment, but it is also a central concern for the New Testament church as well (see, for instance, John 4, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and Colossians 2).

        For our worship to be biblical in all its aspects means, among other things, (1) that its content, parts and corporateness are all positively in accord with Scripture; (2) that it is simultaneously a communal response of gratitude for grace, an expression of passion for God, the fulfillment of what we were made and redeemed for, a joyful engagement in a delightful obedience, as Scripture teaches; (3) that it is a corporate Christ-provided, Spirit-enabled encounter with the almighty, loving and righteous Father, and thus always has in view the Triune God, again in accord with the Bible’s teaching; and (4) that it aims for and is an expression of God’s own glory, and contemplates the consummation of the eternal covenant in the church triumphant’s everlasting union and communion with God.

        Determining that the Bible will guide our worship, helps the church ensure that the elements of worship (like singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments, making solemn vows, confessing the faith and giving offerings) are unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture, and that the forms of worship (how you go about singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments) are in accord with Scripture and serve the elements they are intended to help convey, and that the circumstances of worship (incidentals like whether you sit in pews or chairs or stand, whether you meet in a church building or a storefront, what time you meet, how long you meet, etc.), are maximally helpful in assisting us to do what the Bible calls us to do in worship.

Why the manner of congregational worship is important

Presbyterians have not been concerned with forms and circumstances so much for their own sake as much as for the sake of the elements and substance of worship, and for the sake of the object and aim of worship. The Reformers (from whom Presbyterians have learned much about Scripture) understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message. For example, if you sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (the meter works, but the tune doesn’t – a light, quasi-sea-shanty, with comedic associations, coupled with gravely serious words) it changes the whole tone of what one is doing in singing that text, and easily becomes a sacrilege. Second, they knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.

        So Presbyterians care about how we worship not because we think that liturgy (the order of service) is prescribed, mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy can get out of the way of the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the word of God to and from God, from and to His people. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God” (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer).[8] This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say: “In true worship men have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness.”[9] That is, in biblical worship we so focus upon God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him, and thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.

Worship, Culture and Reverence

By the way, Presbyterians do not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do. We are against culture-derived worship, and are more concerned to implement to principles of Scripture in our specific culture (and even to emulate the best of the Bible-inspired cultures of Scripture), than we are to reclaim current cultural forms for Christian use. This is precisely one of the areas productive of the greatest controversy in our own age. Many pastors and churches think that, in order to reach people, you must use the church’s worship “style” to position the church for evangelism. Hence, pop-contemporary forms or the distinctive ethnic forms of a particular sub-culture are employed in order to reach an audience that likes that particular “style.” This is exceedingly dangerous and turns the focus of corporate worship on its head, and opens the door to encouraging participants to view themselves as consumers rather than as worshipers. This is a significant problem in our consumer-oriented context.

        And we Presbyterians believe that worship ought to be reverent. If worship is meeting with God, how could it be otherwise? It is precisely the reverence and awe of the greatness of God that should characterize worship at its best. We agree with Hughes Oliphant Old who says “The greatest single contribution which the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence, of simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.”[10] That’s why we aim for a worship service that is Scriptural, simple, Spiritual, historic, heartfelt, majestic and reverent.