All about worship

A series of short talks given during Sunday services 
- presented in reverse order with the most recent talk first.

Why are we here in church worshipping the Lord together?  Because he has invited us.  As sinners none of us has a right to be in the presence of a Holy God, nor do we naturally have any desire to worship him.  The Lord calls us to worship him; he has provided Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin so that we may draw near to him. The Lord has given us new hearts that have a desire to praise him, to confess our sins, to submit to his Word, to pray for his world, to have fellowship with him.  The initiative is all from the Lord.

So the first question we must ask when we think about public worship is not What kind of service would I like? What would my children like? What has been the tradition of this church for the last 10 years? Or 100 years? What would appeal to visitors? What will feel most familiar to those who live in today’s culture?  Rather we ask, what pleases the Lord who calls us, what does the Lord require of us?  We can only answer that from the Bible, as the Spirit opens God’s Word to us – we have no other access to the mind of God. 

6  Why 'you' and not 'us'?

Some have asked why, when I am leading services, I use the word ‘You’ and not ‘Us’.  That happens in two places:

1.  The Absolution (or ‘Assurance of Forgiveness’), eg:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

2.  The Blessing, eg:
The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.  Amen.

Firstly, it’s not my idea.  That is how these prayers are set out in Common Worship (2000) – for priests (presbyters/elders) to say.

And it’s not a modern invention of our present day theologically confused denomination, the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service also directs that these prayers be said in the ‘You’ form by priests/presbyters (BCP pp 252,259).  (This was the case in all versions of the BCP including the 1552 version that is considered the most clearly protestant and evangelical.)

Some vicars don’t agree with this wording and choose not to use it but the reason for it is given in the BCP Morning and Evening Prayer absolution: Almighty God “hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins” (BCP pp 3, 18).

Two qualifications:

1.  ‘You’ does not suggest that I don’t need forgiveness but you do!  No, I am as much a sinner as you are, and from time to time I use ‘us’ and ‘our’ to make that clear.

2.  The minister does not have in himself magic power or arbitrary authority to dispense forgiveness or blessing:
a.       You can be forgiven without a minister pronouncing you forgiven – those who truly confess their sins to Christ are forgiven.  God is not dependent on ministers to be able to bless his people.
b.      If you are not truly repentant, if you do not truly trust Christ for forgiveness, then the minister’s pronouncement does not apply to you!  The words used at confession usually make that clear.  If you have no intention of living in obedience to Christ’s words then the blessing pronounced on the congregation does not apply to you!

So this is not an ‘absolution’ in the Roman Catholic sense – the minister does not have special power to pardon anyone.  The point is that the minister speaks to the congregation on behalf of Christ proclaiming forgiveness of sins to all who truly repent.  He is given authority to speak to God’s faithful people to assure them of God’s blessing and forgiveness. 

God says that he will forgive those who truly repent.  The congregation confesses their sins and then hears God speaking to them through the minister assuring them that their sins are forgiven.  This is meant to strengthen your faith – yes God says that YOU are forgiven in Christ.

God says that he will bless his obedient and trusting people.  The minister pronounces God’s blessing on those who have confirmed their faith in the words of the hymns and prayers.  The blessing of God almighty … be among YOU and remain with YOU always.

What is the scriptural justification for this?

Matthew 16:17-19  17 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.  18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Matthew 18:18  18 "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

John 20:21-23  21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."  22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

1 John 2:12  2  I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

In all these verses we see the Lord giving to his church the right and responsibility to declare forgiveness.  Here is Calvin in his commentary on Jn 20:19-23:

“We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles.  It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven.  And the church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust.”[1]

The Bible also has many examples of men - ministers and leaders - blessing others:

Numbers 6:23-26  23 "Tell Aaron and his sons,`This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:  24 "`"The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD turn his face towards you and give you peace."'

Philippians 4:23   23 ¶ The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Even ‘The Grace’ was originally a ‘you’ blessing and not an ‘us’ prayer:

2 Corinthians 13:14   14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol 2, trans. William Pringle (Baker Books), p272.

5  Children and Communion

Should children who are baptised but not confirmed receive the bread and wine at Communion?

Under the Old Covenant the celebration of the Passover included whole covenant households irrespective of age and background.  Jesus replaced the Passover meal with the Lord’s Supper (aka Holy Communion) and there is convincing historical evidence that infants and young children regularly participated in the Lord’s Supper from the 1st Century AD to the 12th Century AD. 

Children began to be refused participation in HC during the 12th and 13th Centuries, because of growing false and superstitious views about Communion and transubstantiation.

The C16th and C17th Reformers restored a more Biblical understanding of Communion but didn’t change the practice of excluding children.  In recent years there have been calls for children to be restored to Christ’s table, using a mixture of arguments - some bad and some good.

Since 2006 the Church of England has allowed PCCs to reach their own view on whether children should be admitted to communion and our PCCs began to discuss this in July.  It was a new idea for many and we agreed to give ourselves plenty of time to think and talk and read before we take a decision.

Whatever we decide the Bishops have laid down an important principle when a family moves to a new church: if children have been used to receiving Communion then they must not be denied it in their new church (even if that church has not decided to adopt the practice in general).  Think how confusing it would be for a child who has been told that Jesus welcomes them to his table to share in his fellowship meal with all his people, to suddenly find themselves in a church where they are told they are no longer welcome to eat and drink.

We recently welcomed a new family who have just moved into our villages.  They have come from a church where their baptised children regularly received bread and wine and so they are welcome to continue to receive here too.

Do talk about this to the members of the PCC if you would like to, and do talk to me.  I hope to teach more fully on this subject before too long.

4  Psalms

Of all the things that we have done in our services lately it has been the saying or singing of Psalms that has provoked the strongest reactions – of both approval and discomfort. 

Some have wondered why Psalms have been included.  They are songs written by people hundreds of years before Jesus.  They are not always easy to understand, they may not seem relevant to our Christian life and relationship with Jesus, they speak of judgment on God’s enemies, and other subjects that we don’t normally sing about.  And it is not easy to know how best to sing ancient Hebrew songs.  We have tried saying some of them (but songs should really be sung), we have sung paraphrases of some of them set to hymn tunes.  We haven’t tried chanting them.

The Psalms were clearly intended to be a hymn book for the congregation in the Old Testament.  You can see that they were used that way by looking at the headings (eg the notes to ‘the director of music’) and the content.  We know that they were used in the worship of the temple and the synagogue.

Jesus would have grown up singing psalms; the apostles also.  Both Jesus and his apostles quote from the Psalms regularly to explain what was happening in their day.  

It is fairly clear that the early church continued to sing Psalms as God’s people had always done.  There is nothing in the New Testament to tell them to stop doing that.  The New Testament describes the use of psalms in worship in Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16.
Of all people, why would the Christians stop using Psalms?  They now knew what these ancient songs were really about – Jesus had taught them that ALL Scripture spoke of him, including the Psalms.  These are songs about Jesus, or songs that Jesus, more than any man, could have sung.  Christians are the ones who have the key that unlocks the meaning of these songs.

If we find that we cannot relate to their content and have no desire to sing about the themes that the Psalms contain then we ought to wonder why.

However, it’s one thing to believe in the principle: The Psalms are a songbook from God for his church in all ages.  It’s quite another thing to work out how Christians who are not used to these songs can learn to sing them and love them.  I’m sorry if our attempts have been a painful experience for you.

So, it seems to me that the way ahead is to try some other approaches.  Perhaps we won’t have a Psalm every week.  Perhaps we won’t try to work our way through the whole book but instead begin with a few favourites set to good tunes, get used to those, before we learn a few more.  Eventually we might be able to sing a good number of Psalms.  And it will help if there are often some words to explain the Psalm we are singing so that we increasingly see how we can sing these ancient songs from the heart in the ups and downs of 21st Century life and in praise of our glorious Saviour Jesus.

3  Bible Readings

There has been a strange irony at work in many evangelical churches.   Although we claim that the Bible is very important to us, many of us have been removing the Bible from our worship services.

We've done that by removing Bible-soaked liturgy and by ending the singing of Psalms.  Out have gone Canticles (songs from the Bible that were regularly sung in church like ‘The Magnificat’).  And many evangelical churches now have just one Bible reading – the passage that the expository sermon will unfold and apply. 

Scott Newling has written a very challenging article in which he points out that in many ‘Bible-believing churches’ there is now just one Bible reading each week consisting of about 15 verses and lasting no more than 3 to 4 minutes.*  3 or 4 minutes reading the Bible in a service that lasts perhaps 70 or 80 minutes!  The notices often take longer than that!  At 15 verses a week we would read through 750 verses a year which is only 2.5% of the Bible.  It would be 40 years before a regular church-goer had heard the whole Bible read publicly!  This is a world away from the pattern given to us by Cranmer and the other Reformers in whose footsteps we claim to walk. 

Of course, having the Bible read while our ears and hearts are closed will be of no benefit to us.  But why not pray for the Holy Spirit to open ears and hearts, rather than chop the Bible readings?

Paul told Timothy to devote himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:13).  We rightly think that preaching is important, but so too is “the public reading of Scripture”.  We must not devalue God’s Word by suggesting that it only has power when it is preached on.  No, the public reading of Scripture, with no more than a brief introduction, is by God’s grace powerful too.

In recent weeks we have had one Old Testament and one New Testament reading of about 30 verses each.  That is still just 10 minutes or so of public Scripture reading in a week of 10,000 minutes.  We have also sung or said one Psalm (more about singing Psalms in a future talk).

What can we do if we find this relatively small amount of reading difficult? 

Firstly, recognise that former generations would be amazed at us, and ask God to help us!

Secondly, prepare.  Find out from the notice sheet what next week’s readings will be.  Read them and think about them.  At Sunday breakfast it’s a great idea if families remind themselves of the ‘story so far’ and parents raise expectations about what will be heard that morning.  You might pose a question that will be answered in the reading or suggest something to listen out for.

So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.  He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.”  (Nehemiah 8:2-3)


2  Liturgy

‘Liturgy’ means a set form of public worship – the order in which things happen as we gather for worship, and the words that are used by the service leader or the congregation – for example, the Lord’s Prayer, Creeds, Confessions, Collects, Sentences and Responses.

Some divide churches into two groups; the ‘liturgical’ and the ‘non-liturgical’.  But the reality is that all churches have a liturgy – it’s just that some have their liturgies written down and others do not.  Even in those churches that don’t want to be constrained by a written liturgy there will still be many assumptions about what will happen each week and a surprising consistency in the order of the service and the words used.  Informal church services can be very rigid.

What are some good things about written liturgy?

Instead of the pastor doing all the speaking the whole congregation has things to say, to pray and to affirm.  When we repeat words and actions they become part of who we are.  Children especially are formed by the things that they regularly say and do.

Written liturgy sets the boundaries (our understanding from the Bible of the overall shape that Christian worship should have) but, at its best, leaves lots of space for variety and the choice of words and music that are appropriate for particular weeks of the year.

The best of the Church of England liturgy was created by people whose grasp of Christian truth was deep and whose love of the Lord Jesus was evident .  They understood the danger of false teaching and they crammed their services with Bible texts and allusions.  (Because we don’t know our Bibles well we may not realise this.)

But there is still a problem.  In today’s culture many people automatically assume that things written down and regularly said cannot be genuine heart-worship.  Of course we may be just mindlessly repeating words, but the answer to that is to say the words with conviction and enthusiasm. 

But the suspicion still remains that because we are reading words from a service sheet we ‘don’t really mean it’.  Perhaps three examples will help:

At a wedding do the bride and groom ‘not really mean’ the words just because every couple says the same vows?

Is a cockpit pre-flight check with the first officer asking set questions and the pilot replying with set answers about the state of the plane just ‘a meaningless ritual’?

When the ‘All Blacks’ bellow their Haka at the opposition before the beginning of each rugby match do they ‘not really mean it’?*


1  Singing

We must sing!  God’s people sing, from the days of the Exodus to the Psalms to Jesus to Paul to the book of Revelation.  In our singing we must aim to please the Lord – not this song to please group A, and that song to please group B, etc.  God is the ‘audience’.  We don’t set out to delight in the music – “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4) is true in our singing too.  We ask God to help our families to enjoy what he enjoys.

We must sing with reverence (not the same thing as ‘quiet and slow’); with joyful fear we come before the living God and remember that he is present - he sees and hears and knows.   
Hebrews 12:28-29  8 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,  29 for our "God is a consuming fire."

We must sing from the heart, whole-heartedly.  With faith and obedience and zeal.
Isaiah 29:13   13 The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.

We must sing what God has revealed to be true – Bible-faithful, Bible-saturated songs, that express a deep understanding of the richness of Scripture and the glory of the Gospel.   
Colossians 3:16  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

Our music must be as good as we can manage using whatever gifts we’ve been given.  And it must be appropriate.  Some music can be good to dance to, or good for listening to in the car, some is good for singing in the pub, or as a film track.  Some can be used in a children’s party or in Sunday School.  But not all of these are necessarily fitting for the public worship of the church gathered on a Sunday to worship our awesome God.  God says that not all worship is acceptable worship.
Hebrews 12:28  …worship God acceptably with reverence and awe,

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