We have many things in common as Christians. The Apostle Paul lists several of these in his letter to the Ephesian church: one Lord, faith, and baptism; one Spirit, body, hope, and Father (Ephesians 4:5). These are all real things we share as believers, but in an individual and personal way. The one thing that we experience as a group, however, is the public assembly. Worship is that Christian event that is designed for people to experience together, as well as individually. It is at the time of public worship that we see each other and, more importantly, participate with one another in doing uniquely Christian things.
Since this is a public group activity, it is no wonder that there tends to be a lot of discussion about how things "ought" to be done. After all, public worship is about doing things, as opposed to thinking about things, so people have opinions about how to properly conduct a worship service.
First of all, let's look at the things that most of us agree upon when it comes to worship. In reading the New Testament, we learn that in the context of public worship (because the New Testament recognizes the difference between public and private worship - I Corinthians 11:18) there are four specific activities that constitute what we call worship. Of course not all activities are worshipful in nature (walking, sitting down, smiling, etc.). These things can be done reverently but are not in themselves worship. In Acts 2:42, however, Luke describes four basic activities that the early church practiced under the guidance of the Apostles and thus constitute acceptable Christian worship.
You can read through the New Testament and find each of these explained or practiced (sometimes practiced improperly), but it is always a combination of these four that constitute public worship for Christians (no others were added by the Apostles and so these four remain the only acts of worship given the church through the inspired teaching and example of the Apostles).
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
- Acts 2:41-42
This was naturally the first element of public worship because it was Jesus' basic command to the Apostles regarding their care of the church.
"...teaching them to obey all that I commanded you..."
- Matthew 28:20
This teaching takes many forms: Training in the knowledge of the Scriptures themselves; encouragement; teaching; training; preaching etc.
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.
- 1 Timothy 4:13
Regardless of the approach and immediate purpose, the basis is always the same: the church is being taught not only the words of Christ, but encouraged to obey and internalize His teachings.
The Greek word for fellowship means sharing, the sharing of common things. In the context of Acts, the New Testament church shared:
- The responsibility for caring for the needs of the saints, as well as the needs of the community around them. These were usually met using the resources that the church pooled together for this purpose. The offering taken each Sunday is the modern equivalent of this effort by the church to meet needs (Acts 2:44-45).
- They shared their time, homes, and lives together (Acts 2:46).
- They shared a common faith in Christ, and hope of His return leading to their own resurrection (I Corinthians 11:26).
In the book of Acts, Luke uses the term "breaking of bread" several times. Depending on the context, this term meant taking communion or to have a meal. For example, in Acts 20:7 Luke writes that the church came together for the purpose of breaking bread on the Lord's day (communion). In the following verses (Acts 20:11) he says that the church then broke bread together before Paul's departure (ate a meal). The context determines what action this term describes. In Acts 2:42, Luke refers to prayer and teaching, so the term breaking of bread here means that the church took communion together.
The taking of the bread and fruit of the vine to commemorate Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection is an act of worship. In fact, it is the central act of worship because it symbolizes the core event upon which our faith is built. The miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is proof that He is God (Romans 1:4) and guarantees that we, also, will rise from the dead. This particular act of worship, unique to Christianity, commemorates this historical event and provides a continuous public and corporate witness of our faith until Jesus returns (I Corinthians 11:26-27).
The original Greek word for prayer was made up of several words:
- One word meant to motion towards or move towards.
- The other meant a wish or will.
Essentially, prayer is bringing our will and wish before God in a variety of ways:
- If our desire is to praise Him and lift up His name in a glorious fashion, we can do this in the ways that both Paul and James instruct the church (Ephesians 5:18-19; James 5:13), through songs of praise and other types of spiritual songs.
- If we have needs we want to place before God, we can make supplications directly to Him (I Timothy 2:1-4; 8).
- If we are in need of healing we can bring each other before God through the prayer of the elders (James 5:14-15).
Prayer is the way we bring the content of our hearts to God through supplication, thanksgiving, praise, and song.
These four elements (teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer), therefore, make up what we refer to as Christian worship. However, one clarification needs to be made. We need to differentiate between public/formal worship and private/informal worship, because the Bible recognizes the difference.
- In Acts 20:7, Luke says that the church gathered together to break bread on the first day of the week. This is an example of formal worship because we see the entire church gathered together.
- In I Corinthians 11:17-18, Paul specifies that when the Corinthians came together "as a church" they were to do certain things and have an orderly procedure to their "worship" (i.e. their teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers).
This has some practical applications for us as Christians:
- In formal worship, when the church gathers together, the men are to teach (I Corinthians 14:34-36). At informal gatherings, however, there is the give and take of discussion regarding the Bible by both men and women (Acts 18:24-26, Priscilla and Aquila).
- In public worship, we put aside a certain amount of money for the work of the church (fellowship of our goods) and collect it on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 16:1), and those who handle this money are accountable before all. In private, we give to many needs, share our lives and goods in a much less structured way, and are answerable only to God and our conscience. It is not a public action.
- In formal worship, we share the bread and fruit of the vine as a witness of our faith and hope (I Corinthians 11:26). In informal times, we tell of what Jesus has done for us, we do good in the name of Christ, and we bring others to faith by sharing the gospel with them as we are able. This is our witness (Acts 8:4).
- In public worship, we use singing to praise God musically and the men lead in prayer and thanksgiving on behalf of the church as we are instructed to do (Ephesians 5:20; I Timothy 2:8). In our private lives, everyone can pray and praise God in whatever way they can using their skills to God's glory. In our private lives, everything we do should be a form of worship as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God on a daily basis (Romans 12:1-2).
Most people, I believe, agree that "formal" worship includes teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer, and that these activities should focus on Jesus Christ who is the object of our worship. In order to avoid confusion, however, we need to remember that the rules that guide formal worship (what we do when we come together purposefully as the church) are different than when we are alone or with only a few other believers gathered informally.
Formal worship happens when the church knowingly gathers together for that very purpose (I Corinthians 11:18).
When my partners in ministry at the church where I serve are together in the name of the Lord, working or studying, I know that the Lord is with us ("For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there in their midst." - Matthew 18:20). But, He didn't say that His presence meant that we had to have formal worship. He only said that where two or more call upon Him He would be there with them.
What We Don't Agree On
1. One of the major things that divides Christians has to do with confusion over what belongs to public or formal worship and what needs to remain private. For example, there may be women who are gifted teachers and speakers who feel that their skill permits them to violate the Bible's teaching that prohibits women from leading in public worship (I Timothy 2:8-12; I Corinthians 14:34-35). In their case, what is good when done privately (teaching both men and women) becomes an offense when done in the context of formal worship (women are not permitted to teach men in the public assembly).
A good example of one who understood the necessity of obeying these instructions despite the personal challenge the Bible presented to them was Dr. Harold Fletcher, Oklahoma Christian University's gifted music teacher, historian, and organist. He glorified God with his musical knowledge and talent as a professor in the music department and musician, but never played the organ in church because he understood that this would violate the Bible's teaching prohibiting the use of instrumental music in public worship (Colossians 3:16). He was a wonderful example of one whose humility and respect for God's word enabled him to refrain from using his musical gifts in ways that would disobey the New Testament's teaching concerning the use of instruments in public worship.
N.B. For a more complete teaching on this point refer to the lesson entitled "Why We Sing" - BibleTalk.tv
2. Another thing we seem to be disagreeing on more and more these days is how to do the things we do during public worship. Some people have grown used to a certain procedure for the communion, the selection and leading of songs, and the type of fellowship events we have. Congregations have a certain way they do these things and are comfortable with their traditions. Others, usually younger Christians, want to do the same things but do them differently. For example:
- They want to use more modern music during the worship period.
- They would like to shorten the time for preaching and focus more attention on the communion.
- They would like to experiment with multiple song leaders or have a song leader on video.
The problem here is usually generational, not doctrinal.
One generation likes the security and comfort of the way things are, and feels that the way they do things is "sacred." They transform the "two songs and a prayer" method into a doctrinal position and become indignant if someone suggests a change.
Another group in the church doesn't necessarily want to change what we do (teach, pray, communion, fellowship), they simply want to perform these things in a manner that is more meaningful to their generation. Remember, the largest population group in our nation are the "boomers" (born 1945-1965), followed by the "X" generation (born 1965-1980), now followed by the "Millennials" (1980 - ?). The younger generations have been nurtured on:
- TV religion/Internet social media
- Charismatic movements
- Emotionalism in youth programs and camps, etc.
They want to be able to identify with the worship. They want to feel something when they worship an almighty and awesome God. This explains:
- Why there is hand-clapping.
- Why there are more rhythmic melodies in modern worship music.
- Why there is more use of audio/visual aids and group dynamic techniques.
I believe all groups have a point and each have needs that have to be addressed, and if we don't deal with the evident generation gap in the church, two things are going to happen:
1. We will be divided in the church with each generation and group going their own way.
2. We will lose the opportunity to reach out to the largest segment of the unchurched population today which are the 18-40 year olds.
When you look at a map of the USA and see where Oklahoma (where I live and minister) is located, you will note that it is pretty much in the middle of this country. I believe our position on this issue of "how to worship" should also be right in the middle. We should not be identified as either conservatives or progressives, but as "progressive conservatives" (where the title of this Mini Book comes from).
A good example of this progressive conservative attitude was demonstrated by the Bereans in Acts 17:10-12 when Paul came to preach to them.
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.
They were "progressive" in that they listened to Paul and his seemingly new and radical ideas — ideas that would mean important changes. They were not afraid or reactionary. Luke says they "…received the word with eagerness." But they were also conservative, careful, prudent, and wise, verifying everything against the proper criteria of God's word, not hearsay or the passion that comes from debate.
We all need to become like the Bereans, progressive conservatives who are open and ready to learn and grow but only learn and grow according to what is written in the Bible. Also, I think that we all would do well to remember two key ideas that can help us keep the activities of worship in perspective:
1. Worship is not strictly a human thing. The things we do when we worship God are expressions of our spiritual lives, not our physical ones, even though we use our physical bodies to declare our faith and love for Him. Let us, therefore, stop comparing our worship to human experiences in order to judge its effectiveness and value. Worship is not like a business meeting or a concert or rally. It isn't entertainment — it's worship! We keep trying to make worship feel like something earthly and it doesn't work because the adoration of almighty God is not meant to be like anything earthly. Public worship is an effort to communicate our love, praise, gratitude, and needs to a Being who is pure Spirit. It is not an experience like any other that we have had and for this reason our only guarantee of success is obedience to the guidelines for this activity given to us by God. In order to worship God in an acceptable manner (acceptable to Him, not us) is to worship according to His commands. We have had great worship, therefore, if we have worshipped according to His directives contained in the Bible.
2. Worship without love is vain. You can follow the instructions in the Bible for acceptable worship correctly, even creatively, but if you don't love your brother in the process, your worship is useless. A good example of this is found in Luke 18:9-14 where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican who both come to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, full of pride and self-righteousness, is confident in his prayer because he sees himself as a much better person than the sinful Publican standing and praying behind him. Meanwhile that Publican is not even willing to lift his head in prayer before God because of the weight of his guilt. Jesus tells us that the worship of the Pharisee was rejected because he despised the social status of the Publican who prayed behind him, and the sinful Publican was justified because of his sincere repentance. (The Pharisee knew how to worship, but he didn't know how to love his brother.) John summarizes well this idea in 1 John 4:20-21.
If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.
John reminds us of a basic principle which supports all we do as Christians, including worship.
Developing more creative ways to do the things of worship or maintaining the status quo may not violate the rules of corporate worship, but if the way we implement our ideas violates the basic rule of love for others, it will invalidate our worship because worship without love is vain.
We have to find a way to worship God in a manner that is both Biblical and relevant for all, and the beginning for this is that love exists for all the brethren. It is the love present in the church that produces the good feeling we want, not styles of worship. When there is love among the brethren, there is joy and enthusiasm, and this ignites our worship and gives it meaning no matter how well we perform the actions.
Worship is a spiritual thing which has different rules that guide its public and private practice. In order to have acceptable, meaningful and satisfying worship, we have to begin by loving one another more, not just change the order or style our worship. Add to this love a sincere effort to worship God in the way that He has given us to do so in His word, and we have worship that is satisfying to both the worshipper and the One worshipped.