Public Worship (2018)

From time to time people ask me questions about our services of worship and why we worship the Lord the way we do in Immanuel. Back in 2013 I wrote about public worship, but I thought it would be helpful to write about this subject once again.

There are five main principles which should control all we do when we meet for worship. First of all, since the Lord uses his word to convert sinners and to build up believers, then the service should be saturated with the Scriptures. We should aim to read and preach God’s word, sing God’s word, and pray God’s word. From the call to worship at the beginning of the service to the benediction at the end, we should be continually hearing God’s word.

So, we read and preach from God’s word. The sermon is, of course, an exposition of God’s word. However, we also read a chapter from another part of the Bible at every service; we’re currently reading through the Psalms in the morning and Ezekiel in the evening. The call to worship, the assurance of pardon after the prayer of confession, and the benediction at the end of the service are all taken from God’s word. The children’s address is normally a Bible story.

We sing God’s word. We normally sing part of a Psalm at each service, using a modern version of the Psalms which was published by the Free Church of Scotland. However, I try to ensure that the other hymns and songs we sing are based on the Scriptures. When choosing hymns, I’m not so much interested in whether it’s old or modern, but in whether the words are biblical and whether it is suitable for public worship. Songs for children should be simple (but never childish since everyone must sing them), but still biblical.

We pray God’s word. There are three main prayers in each service. The first is a prayer of adoration which is often based on the opening song and uses biblical language. The second is the prayer of confession which normally opens with a paraphrase of Psalm 51 and the rest of the prayer comprises quotations from the Bible. The third main prayer is the prayer of intercession when we pray, in obedience to God’s word, for those who rule over us and for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. The brief prayer before the sermon is from Psalm 19.

Since God’s word is a means of grace, and since his word is powerful, I aim to fill the whole service with his word. That also means I try to use a plain style in my delivery so that I do not distract anyone from hearing his word. When people leave, I want them to talk about what they have heard and not the person from whom they heard it.

This leads me to the second main principle which is that our services of worship are not so much about meeting one another, but meeting with the Lord. Just as the people of Israel gathered in the presence of the Lord at Mount Sinai to hear his word, so we gather in his presence to hear his word. He speaks to us through his word and we respond to him in prayer and praise. These then are the two main parts in every service of worship: God speaks to us and we respond.

The Lord calls us through his word at the beginning of the service to worship him; and we respond with a song of praise and a prayer of adoration. He speaks to us through the reading of his word; and we respond by confessing our sins. After we confess our sins, he speaks to us through his word to reassure us of his willingness to forgive us; and we respond in praise and in our prayers for others. He speaks to us through the reading and preaching of his word; and we respond afterwards in praise. He speaks to us again through the Lord’s Supper; and we receive it with thankfulness. He then sends us away with a blessing and we go out to honour him in our daily lives. Thus the service is a dialogue between the Triune God and his covenant people when he speaks to reassure us of his love and his willingness to pardon our sins for the sake of Christ the Saviour.

Furthermore, while other meetings of the church can be informal, the services of worship on Sunday ought to be more formal, because we’re coming before the Lord our God, who is to be feared and before whom even the angels in heaven hide their faces.

The third principle is known as the ‘regulative principle’ which simply means that our worship should be regulated by God’s word. He has revealed to us in the Scriptures how he wants us to worship him. Therefore we should be guided in how we worship by what he has said and we should not introduce any new element or practice which he has not commanded us to do. This not only honours the Lord, but it protects his people from having to do things against their conscience. For instance, I never ask the congregation to perform actions when singing a song for children, because God has not commanded us to do so; and doing so may embarrass or offend some adults.

The fourth main principle is that the Lord is at work when we meet together for worship. He speak to unbelievers through his word to call them to repent. He speaks to believers through his word and his sacraments to build them up in comfort and holiness. The Lord is at work when we meet for worship. We too must work, for we’re to prepare our hearts to receive his word; we’re to receive his word with faith and love; and we’re to seek to practice it in our lives by believing his promises and obeying his commands.

The fifth and final principle is that our worship is heavenly. It is heavenly because by faith we have now been raised with Christ to sit with him in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6). We are now citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). By faith, we have already come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God (Heb. 12:22). The Lord speaks to us from heaven (Heb. 12:25). Therefore when he speaks to us, as he once spoke from Mount Sinai to the Israelites, we must be careful not to refuse him (Heb. 12:25). Furthermore, we must be thankful and must worship him with reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28). And so, with the angels and saints in heaven, we gather before the Triune God to worship him for creating all things and for redeeming his people with the blood of the Lamb.