I love the Lord’s Day. I love gathering with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day. It is an oasis in the midst of the desert. I joyed when to the house of God, go up they said to me. Sunday morning worship and Sunday evening worship is for me the highlight of the week. It is the engine room, the food store and the healing place of my life
Not every Christian feels that way. Sometimes the church they go to is dull. Sometimes they are dull. Sometimes they just don’t go. Public worship is for them an optional extra, something they go to if they have time, are not too tired and have nothing else better to do. Sometimes they feel too far from God, sinful and discouraged. For me I cannot think of anything better to do, and it is because I am far from God, sinful and discouraged that I go. Because it is in worshipping the Triune God with his people that I draw near, am cleansed and encouraged.
Alaister Begg’s wee clip above identifies one of the key problems that we have in worship. It is all about us. How we feel. What we want. What we need. Alaister is not saying that feeling is not important in worship – what he is saying is that we don’t allow our feelings to determine what we know, but rather that what we know affects and determines our feelings. To know Christ is to love him.
Which is why what we do in public worship, and how we do it, is so important. It is all to be Christ centred.
This morning as I head to worship in St Peters, I am excited. God has been blessing us in recent weeks and there is a real sense of anticipation, in the midst of the struggles and sorrows of the spiritual warfare we are engaged in.
Here is what I love about the public worship of God. To me these are the ten basic elements that we have.
- I love the gathering together – Just before the service as people come in, as the musicians prepare and everything is being set up, as people pray and greet one another, and friends and strangers alike are welcomed at the door – there is a real ‘buzz’, a hum of anticipation. The call to worship really is that.
- I love the sung praise – we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We sing with, and without musical instruments. The musicians are at the side, they are not there to perform, they are there to lead the congregation in sung praise. We sing the Psalms of the bible (personally I cannot understand any church that does not use the hymn book that God has given us), other paraphrases, the great traditional hymns that the church has sung for generations, and contemporary songs of praise (although not what Begg calls ‘silly repetitive songs’). I love having freedom – people can raise their hands in praise, or not. People can sing harmonies or not. We sing songs of lament and songs of joy. The purpose in our singing is not to have one giant karaoke, or to have a concert, or to inactively just sit and listen to others. It is to praise the loving God and therefore it is essential that we sing only what is in accordance with God’s self-revelation, and that we do so in a manner worthy of him. Sometimes I have heard people refer to the singing as ‘the preliminaries’ – some thing we do as a warm up to the Word. God forbid! We sing the Word. It is an essential aspect of our public worship.
- I love the public prayers – The opening prayer of praise, the pastoral prayer by an elder for the congregation, the prayer for mission work and the prayer after the sermon. Sometimes we say the Lord’s Prayer together. Collective prayer is an essential part of public worship – not to be hurried, nor neglected and, like the praise, not to be a performance. It is not about the leaders eloquence and we are to heed the warning about ‘those who for a show make lengthy prayers’, but it is a vital part. I love the fact that we have different people lead us in public prayer – with different styles – some come with a written out prayer, others are more extempore, but all enable us to pray with them and say amen at the end. In intercessory prayer we remember not just those present, but those absent, our political leaders, our communities and Gods people and mission throughout the world.
- I love the confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness – We are possibly a little more liturgical than most Free Churches. A few years ago I realized that whilst in many churches there was a common confession of sin through the pastoral prayer and the psalm, it seemed to me that we were missing out on something essential. We need to collectively confess our sin and not just presuppose that that is what we are doing. So we say together a confession (often from the Book of Common Prayer) and then hear from the Scriptures an assurance of the salvation, love and mercy of God.
- I love the systematic reading of Scripture – Again following the directory of public worship (and because I was concerned about the level of biblical literacy and because we wanted to honour the Word of God and let people know that we take all the word seriously) we systematically read through a book of the Old Testament and a book of the New Testament. This has been a great blessing to us. We are, as Begg stresses, under the control of the Scriptures.
- I love talking to the covenant children – We do have a children’s talk – before they go out to the Sunday School and crèche. We do this not as a form of entertainment for the grown ups but to let the children know they are a vital part of the covenant worship, to teach them the Scripture and to help the minister get to know them better!
- I love the opportunity to give to the Lords work – We stopped taking a collection at the door (largely because of security and also because it seemed like an entrance fee – or paying to get out!). We now take the collection as part of the public worship. This is often symbolic because many people give by direct debit or standing order, but it is an important symbol. It is a biblical practice and we are to do everything that the Word of God commands (and nothing that it does not). The widow’s mite and the millionaire’s tithe are of equal value as all are put in the common purse.
- I love the preaching of Gods word – For me it is a joy to share what I have been studying through the week. It is a joy to bring the prophetic proclamation of God. This is what the Lord says. To wound and heal. To convict and convert. To reveal and save. It is also a joy for me to listen as we have the privilege of excellent preachers such as Sinclair Ferguson, Harry Mealyea, Will Traub and Craig Anderson within the fellowship and regular visits from Dominic Smart as well as irregular visits from many others.
- I love the benediction- This is the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon the congregation. The peace is upon us. We come with joy and we go out with joy.
- I love the community – Except many people don’t want to go – no matter the length of the service! The vast majority hang around for coffee and to chat. Why? Because we have not come to a show, or just done our duty. We are there to meet with the Lord but we are also there to meet with one another. Even the notices reflect the fact that we do not ‘come’ to church, we ARE the church. And the work of the church goes on all week. Including at Sunday lunch and in the afternoon when many people offer and receive hospitality. I love the fact that each Sunday there are people from many different nationalities, different family situations and different social backgrounds. The variety and diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and circumstances is a testimony to the grace of Christ – because he is the only thing we all have in common. Except of course for those who are not yet believers. But I love the fact that they are present and that every Sunday there are people who come to hear the Word of God, who as yet do not know him. He is reaching out and drawing them in!
- I love the sacraments – We have communion once a month and baptism whenever required. Thankfully in recent times it has been required a lot. Initially when I came to St Peters we had a majority of adult baptisms, but as the congregation has grown and people have married we have more covenant children and more people from a Baptistic background who have become persuaded of the importance of covenant baptism, so now the majority of baptisms are of covenant children. For me the communions are always special. A time of covenant renewal, forgiveness and beginning again. Some times there is stillness a peace and a real sense of unity at the communion as we share a common loaf and drink from a common cup. It is truly ‘union’ with Christ and with his body.
- I love the evening worship –
The bible does not mandate two services but for us it is important. Why? Because it is a tool to obtain what the Bible does mandate. It protects the Lords Day (by ‘bookending it), because in relative terms our morning services are short (75-90 minutes), because we need the teaching and the fellowship, because it is an opportunity for outreach, and an opportunity for children to come and hear a sermon (after being at Sunday school in the morning). I understand those who are tired, who are working shifts, have family responsibilities etc., but I really struggle to understand Christians who profess to love Christ, his Word and his people, who stay at home and just watch TV when they could be with their family and their Lord!
I had meant this to be a really short article so apologies. I guess it’s my enthusiasm. I confess it has not always been thus. There have been times when I dragged myself to public worship, more out of a sense of duty, rather than a sense of joyful expectation. Maybe that will happen again but for now I thank the Lord that I long for public worship on the Lord’s Day. I don’t want you to have the impression that St Peters has it all sorted and that we are heaven on earth. We are just finding His way. We have a lot to learn. We are sinful and our sin keeps getting in the way. We are a mess. There is so much that is wrong and could go wrong. But there are often times when in public worship it feels as though all that mess and sin fades away into the background as we focus on Christ (sometimes of course He brings it to the fore so that he can deal with it) and then it is as though we get a taste of heaven on earth. These are precious times.
I remember a former St Petes member stating that she missed the only Presbyterian/Baptist/Anglican/Charismatic church she had ever been in! I guess she was referring to the eclectic nature of the worship – but I hope that we can all learn from one another. There is no one ‘right way’. There are basic principles and elements which we will all put into practice in different ways.
Begg talks about feeling rotten and us having nothing. He is right. But the key is to understand that it is not about what we have got for each other, but what does God have for us? We worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our worship is Trinitarian. All of the above elements would be empty and meaningless if it were not for the presence of this living God. The story is told of the elder hearing his minister in the vestry before the service saying ‘I will not go unless you go with me’. As he opened the door, wondering who the minister was talking to, he saw him on his knees pleading with God. That should be our attitude. And our confidence should be in Christ’s promise that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst, by his Spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St Peters Free Church –
You can find out more about the church here –
March 13th 2016.