by Rev. Iver Martin
One of the side benefits of Covid was to force the church to re-examine what worship is. This conversation is no bad thing, and indeed should take place extensively within our current mission goals.
As a people called to proclaim the “excellencies of him who called us out of darkness” (1 Peter 2:9), a healthy church will have worship at its core. It is not enough to have an attractive building, a large congregation or even a strong focus on evangelism. The church that doesn’t worship is not a church and the church that doesn’t place a strong emphasis on worship is not a healthy church. That means that worship must lie at the heart of what we mean by healthy church. So how do we ensure that the worship in our churches is healthy? What even is healthy worship and how can it be measured? And how can we benefit more from our services each Sunday?
It’s important, first of all, to be guided by the Bible rather than our own imaginative and creative ideas. There is no end to what we “could have” in a service but we need to remember that worship is God originated, God centred and God focused. Our question is therefore, not, what do we want, but what does God want?
The marvellously simple pattern in New Testament worship appears to be composed of prayer, Bible reading, singing praise, preaching and the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Of course, within that simple biblical framework lie many sub-components like confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, the giving of finances and teaching, but nonetheless there is a sense in which true, authentic worship can take place anywhere with few, if any, external pre-requisites.
There are two levels at which healthy worship operates. Firstly, the level of the leadership. In our Presbyterian tradition the minister is the worship leader. It is his responsibility, not simply to preach a sermon, but to make sure that each component of the service takes place in such an orderly and reverent manner that it reflects the awesomeness of what we’re doing. Furthermore, as a fellow worshipper himself, his job is not to stand back and tell the congregation what to do. Rather, he is to lead from the front, by inviting the congregation to join him in prayer, singing and hearing God’s word.
This is a huge responsibility because it involves the mood as much as the “doing” of the service. The way we speak to God ought to express not only a sense of who He is, but the reality of God’s actual presence. If we believe in the God who is there our worship needs to reflect that.
But, as worshippers, we too have a responsibility. Our first mistake is to imagine that we are passive because we don’t appear to “do” anything. This is a serious misunderstanding. Worship is no more passive than drinking a glass of water. Our gathering, singing, praying, reading the Bible and indeed, listening involves our active participation in what is taking place.
A healthy church will also have a high view of the sacraments, which means that Baptism and (more regularly) communion will be a central feature. Despite the fact that Covid has done away with the common cup, we can nonetheless authentically remember the Lord’s death by eating and drinking the bread and wine that represent His broken body and shed blood. We must never allow communion to become a “routine” such that we lose sight of the particular blessing that Jesus promises, and we must never allow regularity to obscure the poignancy of the moment.
So healthy worship must never be assumed. The services should be the main event on a Sunday at which preaching should take the centre stage, the leaders prepared and worshippers prayerfully and eagerly expectant.
Lastly, while order, simplicity and biblical faithfulness are important, these components, important as they are, do not, by themselves, make for true worship. There is something additional and mysterious, in which somehow God responds. When God’s people gather on a Sunday, He is active, feeding and encouraging His own family with His word – sometimes in ways in which the indescribable happens. When this happens; when the church is lifted up to heaven and God comes down to fill his people, the church is healthy.
The vision of the Free Church of Scotland is to see a “Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.”
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