Liturgically speaking, I’ve made the rounds. Down through the years this septuagenarian has worshiped in—or observed the worship of—Pentecostal, Charismatic, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. Also, over the decades during which I served as a pastor, I continually mulled the New Testament (NT) parameters for worship on the Lord’s Day, trying hard to discern them accurately and practice them faithfully. Now, as I near the end of my journey, it has seemed good to me to share my best thoughts on Lord’s Day worship, and to craft a service of worship that I believe would be pleasing to God and edifying to his children.
Theological and Practical Foundations
Here in Part I of the essay I want to share my major premises: the theological and practical foundations upon which I have based my proposed liturgy. There are seven of them.
Lord’s Day Worship is Special
Worship on the Lord’s Day is quite special. Unlike other gatherings of God’s children, on this day the elders and members of a Christian body come together as a whole church (Acts 15:2, 22; 1 Cor. 11:17-18; 14:23, 26; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 10:25; 13:7). Also, the regulations for this assembly are different from, and more stringent than, those pertaining to smaller gatherings (1 Cor. 11:1-15 vs. 11:17-14:40; 1 Tim. 2:1-15).
But the uniqueness of Lord’s Day worship stems above all from its close association with the mystery of the Sabbath. Theological reflection on this subject is extensive, diverse, and sometimes controversial. For brevity sake, I will give my own view simply by citing a Statement of Faith that I wrote some years back:
We believe that the Sabbath Day, which in the beginning God set apart as a day of rest and worship for all mankind, and which at the giving of the Law he instituted as a day of rest and worship for his OT people, stood as a type or picture of the eternal rest that he now offers to all men—and commands them to enter—through the Gospel. / We believe that Christians do in fact enter this rest, first at the moment of saving faith, then more fully at the entrance of their spirits into heaven, and still more fully at the resurrection of the righteous at Christ’s return. / We believe that in order to underscore the perpetuity of the believer’s rest in Christ, the NT does not, by an ordinance, tie the worship of God to the Sabbath or any special day of the week. / But we also believe that through a holy tradition inaugurated by Christ himself on the day of his resurrection, and perpetuated in the practice of the early church, God’s people are invited and encouraged to designate the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day; that on that day they do well to assemble themselves together in order to celebrate and be refreshed in the spiritual rest God has given them, through a reverent and joyful observance of the ordinances of NT worship; and that in so doing God will be pleased, Christ exalted, his people blessed, and the world confronted afresh with the Good News of the Gospel.1
In short, Lord’s Day worship is special because on that day God specially draws near to his people in order to remind them of, teach them about, and refresh them in, their eternal Sabbath rest in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lord’s Day Worship is Important to God and Man
The worship of the Lord’s Day is important to the triune God. Scripture affirms that he takes great pleasure in his people (Ps. 149:4). Indeed, his people are his chosen dwelling place (1 Ki. 8:10-11; Ps. 132:5-7; Ezek. 43:5; 44:4; John 14:23; Acts 2:2; Rev. 21:3). Therefore, knowing their needs, and not unmindful of his own enjoyment, he delights to draw near to them on the Lord’s Day. Abba Father delights to gather his children to himself and take them in his arms (Psalm 50:5, 149:4; Is. 43:2). His exalted Son, their heavenly Husband, delights to speak tenderly to his Bride, and to lay her weary head upon his vast and comforting bosom (Is. 40:1-3; John 13:23, 14:3, 17:24; Eph. 5). The Holy Spirit, knowing these things, delights to facilitate the holy visitation: to unveil and strengthen the eternal bond of love that unites the family of God. For these and other reasons, Lord’s Day worship is indeed important to the Three-in-One.
But it is even more important for man. For though God’s people have been justified, they are not yet fully sanctified. Though they are seated in heavenly places in Christ, they are still making an arduous journey through the howling wilderness of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4; Rev. 12:1ff). Therefore, their needs are great. Because they are weary, they need refreshing (Acts 3:19). Because they are pursued and persecuted, they need protection (Rev. 12:13-14). Because they are without (mature) understanding, they need teaching (Eph. 4:91-16). Because they are called, they need equipping (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Because they have faltered, they need exhortation, repentance, and reassurance (1 Cor. 11:27-32; 14:3). Because they are lonely, they need family; because they are lacking, they need the support of the family (Psalm 122; Acts 2:43-5). And because they are grateful and glad, they need a time and a place in which to express their gratitude and joy (1 Pet. 1:8). In sum, the saints are eager for Lord’s Day worship because they know that on that Day—through word, prayer, sacrament, and body ministry—they will yet again behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and so be transformed into his image from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).
Lord’s Day Worship is Regulated
Because God desires to meet with his people, and because their needs are so very great, he carefully regulates his own worship. In particular, he gives us detailed instructions concerning the attitudes, actions, and procedures that are proper to the gathering of the whole church. We may think of these regulations as borders by which he surrounds, creates, protects, and preserves a sacred space, ensuring that he himself may fully fill that space, and that in it his people may be fully edified and refreshed (Rev. 12:6, 14). He gives us regulations so that he may freely give us himself.
Concerning the attitudes that we are to bring to this gathering, the NT provides rich instruction. We are to come with understanding (Col. 1:9), gratitude (1 Tim. 2:1), joy (Matt. 13:44; Phil. 4:4), reverence (Heb. 12:28), humility (James 1:21), sincerity (Acts 2:46), confidence (Heb. 4:16), faith (James 1:6), and eager expectation (Matt. 18:20). We come in order to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We come faithfully, in spite of what we’ve done or not done, and in spite of what we feel or don’t feel, always remembering that God is faithful, and that he is eager to meet both us and our needs (1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 10:25). And so, having put on these attitudes, we too come with eagerness, hoping and expecting to see his glory fill the house (1 Kings 8:11; Ezek. 43:4; Acts 2:2)!
As for the actions of NT worship, they are far fewer than those of OT times, being carefully designed to facilitate the simplicity of worship in spirit and truth instituted by Christ, and now so supernaturally natural to the regenerate hearts of his flock (John 4:24; 2 Cor. 11:3). These actions include prayer; the reading, preaching, teaching, and prophesying of the Word of God; psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, sung with grace in our hearts to the Lord; the Lord’s Supper; and, on occasion, the administration of water baptism.
Again, these actions are regulated: The NT prescribes basic procedures for each one. As the procedures become familiar, the worshiper comes to rest in them, trusting that all things are indeed being done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Thus resting, he is free to give himself fully to the Lord throughout all the service: to listen for his voice, and to wait for his touch. Regulated worship becomes liturgy, the work of the people; liturgy, in turn, becomes a garden paradise where the people experience the work of God.
Lord’s Day Worship is Participatory and Charismatic
Speaking personally, I cannot read 1 Corinthians 12-14 and fail to conclude that here the apostle’s primary concern is to regulate the worship of the Lord’s Day. Yes, he begins by laying some theological groundwork, by unveiling the Church as the Spirit-filled Body of Christ, each of whose members is charismatically gifted for the continual edification of the Body. And yes, for this reason some of the gifts mentioned here will not typically operate in a worship service (e.g. helps, mercies, administrations, healings, miracles; cf. Rom. 12:3-8). But surely the thrust of these chapters is to educate the saints on the gifts of the Spirit with a view to their proper exercise in the gatherings of the whole church (1 Cor. 14:23).
Accordingly, in our thinking about Lord’s Day worship we must take seriously the words of the apostle in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then, brothers, is the sum of the matter? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” Therefore, I would ask my Reformed brethren: Can a biblically faithful church exclude this verse from its understanding of the regulative principles of corporate worship? Does it not clearly tell us that Lord’s Day worship is participatory (i.e. each one has something to contribute, though not necessarily every Sunday) and charismatic (i.e. each one contributes that something in the exercise of his spiritual gift)?
My cessationist brethren will balk at this claim, believing as they do that with the closure of the NT canon, and with the passing of the foundational apostles, God has permanently withdrawn some of the more supernatural charismatic gifts. I cannot enter into that debate here. Suffice it to say that for nearly 50 years I have been unable to find a single NT text affirming the withdrawal of any charismatic gift. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 I find quite the opposite, since here the apostle depicts the charismata as essential equipment for the Church Militant as she makes her difficult pilgrimage towards the fullness of her redemption in the Age to Come.
How so? The key words are “now” and “then”. Now, in the long Era of Gospel Proclamation, the Church needs the gifts of the Spirit in order to fulfill her mission. Now she needs to prophesy, speak in tongues, teach, etc., so that the saints may be gathered in, and the Body built up (1 Cor. 13:8). However, as important as the gifts are, they reflect only a partial knowledge of God, and are therefore only temporary. For when “the perfect” comes—not the close of the NT canon, but the return of Christ, the Consummation, and the life of the Age to Come (1 Cor. 1:7)—then her partial knowledge will fail, cease, and pass away (1 Cor. 13:8-9). Then, having graduated into her eternal adulthood, she will put away her “childish” things—her childish ways of knowing, speaking, and reasoning—for then she will see face-to-face; then she will fully know, just as she is known (1 Cor. 13:11-13). If, then, it is essential for the Church to pass through her spiritual childhood, it is also essential that she permanently possess the distinguishing marks of her spiritual childhood: the panoply of spiritual gifts.
All that said, the closure of the NT canon is indeed of great importance. It enables us to identify the various spiritual gifts, and to exercise them properly in their appropriate settings. With reference to the worship of the Lord’s Day, it enables us to prioritize the ministry of the Word (i.e. Scripture reading, preaching, teaching, prophecy) with a view to the edification of the church (John 17:17; 1 Cor. 14:26). It enables us to judge the doctrinal and ethical integrity of various ministries of the Word (1 Cor. 14:29). And it enables leaders, through the exercise of their own spiritual gifts, to structure the Lord’s Day worship in such a way as to incorporate all its elements, while at the same time leaving ample room for the move of the Spirit and the spontaneous participation of various members of the congregation.2
Lord’s Day Worship Specially Regulates the Verbal Participation of Women
The NT places special restrictions on the verbal participation of women in the Lord’s Day gathering of the whole Church. Pressured by the surrounding culture, modern theologians fiercely debate the meaning and application of the relevant texts, with the result that different churches have settled on widely different policies (1 Cor. 14:34-36; 1 Tim. 2:9-15). My own reading, which aligns with traditional Catholic and Protestant interpretations, is that sisters in Christ may freely participate in congregational singing and in the corporate recitation of prayers, Scripture, or creeds (yet another good reason to embrace all these practices). They may not, however, engage in any form of solo speech: They may not teach, preach, prophesy, pray (aloud), speak in tongues, interpret a tongue, read Scripture, ask questions, or make announcements.
It should go without saying that in giving us these guidelines God is in no way denigrating the value, intelligence, or spirituality of his daughters, who, just like men, are created in his own image and likeness, loved, and redeemed in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Nor are the regulations meant to exclude women from all verbal ministry, since a number of other NT texts authorize them to teach, pray, and prophesy in settings other than the gatherings of the whole church (Acts 2:17; 18:26; 1 Cor. 11:1-16; Titus 2:3-5).
Why, then, does God mandate these special restrictions? A close reading of NT teaching on gender relations makes it clear that the rules are designed, above all, to reflect—and to reinforce in the hearts of his people—God’s creation order for the sexes (1 Tim. 2:11-15). By his wise decree—which is meant to image the mystery of Christ and the Church—man is the spiritual “head” of woman: the authority over her (1 Cor. 11:2-16; Eph. 5:22-33). In marriage, in the family, in the church, and indeed in the outer worlds of business and government, God has given to men the responsibility—and with that, the authority—to lead, always with a view to the protection and provision of those under their care.
Accordingly, when a woman speaks out in church she is inverting the creation order by displacing the authorized leader(s) of the meeting, replacing him (them) with herself, and setting all the men in attendance under her authority, since the Word of God—or the words of the elders who authorized her to speak—are assumed to be authoritative. Paul, saturated with divine law and established in biblical sensibilities, startles us moderns by declaring that such an inversion is disgraceful, implying that when the illicit inversion is both performed and permitted ignominy rightly falls on the woman, her husband, the elders, and the men in the church—all of whom have had their part in turning the world upside down (1 Cor. 14:35).
There are practical considerations as well. If a woman happens to misspeak (as men themselves will surely do from time to time), she will not only dishonor her husband, but also may oblige the elder in charge to correct her in front of her husband and the entire congregation—a needless embarrassment and further inversion that Paul clearly wanted to avoid.
It should also be noted from 1 Timothy 2:14 that unless a woman is fully submitted to her husband, she, like mother Eve, is especially vulnerable to deception, and therefore to propagating deception, in the event that she is allowed to speak in church.
Finally, we must honestly admit that a solitary woman speaking in church will necessarily attract attention to herself, which in turn can stimulate sexual thoughts in the men (who are more visually oriented than women), thereby distracting them from the worship of the Lord. This, I think, is why Paul urges the sisters to dress modestly and discreetly when they come to church (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-4). The words of the apostle display great practical wisdom, a wisdom that, when applied, will enable us to avoid all sorts of problems, and so to preserve good order and peace in the churches.
I am all too aware that in our day these regulations are highly counter-cultural, and therefore circumvented by theologians and pastors alike. Accordingly, it will take extraordinary wisdom, love, patience, and courage for church leaders to explain and implement them, and for God’s men and women to submit to them. But if they love the Lord, and if they desire the fullest possible manifestation of his presence and power in the worship service, they will do so eagerly and gladly.3
Lord’s Day Worship Honors the History and Accomplishments of the Church Triumphant
In the Lord’s Day worship the Church Militant joins with the Church Triumphant before the throne of God, in order to worship, praise, petition, and receive from our triune Creator and Redeemer (Rev. 4-5). Because this is so, it seems fitting that the Church Militant should honor the Church Triumphant by incorporating into her own worship the forms and contents that her predecessors developed through their own prayerful interaction with the Word of God. Yes, we must do this carefully, striving to set aside anything that we consider unbiblical. But our natural bias, born out of love and respect for the work of God in former times, should be to include from the past as much as we honestly can, so that the worshiping Church of our own time may feel an abiding spiritual connection with our Catholic and Protestant forefathers.
In the service of worship below I have sought to do this very thing. With an eye both to Scripture and Church tradition, I have created a space for preparing our hearts for worship, for a scriptural call to worship, for the public reading of Scripture, for the exaltation of the Gospel reading for the day, for a season of charismatic ministry and free prayer, for the passing of the peace, for the teaching and prophesying of the Word of God, for private confession of sin, for corporate gathering at the Lord’s Table, for a glad confession of our evangelical faith, for a closing benediction, and—through it all—for making joyful melody in our hearts to the Lord. It is through such historically sensitive and inclusive liturgies that the Church Militant, on the Lord’s Day, will find herself seated together in heavenly places with the Church Triumphant, blessedly participating in the eternal worship of God.
Lord’s Day Worship is Regulated but not Rigid
Reading texts like Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and 1 Timothy 2, it is easy enough to discern the basic elements and regulations for the Lord’s Day worship of God. What is not so easy is to picture exactly how the early church put these things into practice. After mulling the matter for many years, I have concluded that this ambiguity is purposeful. Though he could easily have done so, God decided against inspiring his apostles to impose a single liturgy upon the Universal Church. Instead, alongside the various elements and regulations of worship, he granted church leaders a measure of liberty to craft liturgies suitable to their own circumstances, needs, and understanding. Here’s how the authors of the London Baptist Confession express it: “We recognize that some circumstances concerning the worship of God . . . are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian wisdom, following the general rules of the Word, which must always be observed” (LBC 1:6).
This studied NT ambiguity helps us to understand what we see all around us: different folks worshiping in different ways. So long as all is done scripturally, this appears to be acceptable to God. Thus, some worship services will be more simple, others more complex; some shorter, others longer; some more oriented to charismatic spontaneity, others to liturgical formality; some more expressive, others more reserved. Since the NT does not mandate weekly communion at the Lord’s Table, some churches observe this ordinance monthly, some quarterly, and some annually. However, Acts 2:42, 20:7, and the placement and prominence of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in Paul’s three chapters on church order certainly seem to favor weekly participation. Perhaps if we partook of the Lord’s Supper more often we would find ourselves longing to do so more often. Let each elder board be fully persuaded in its own mind (Rom. 14:5); and let all elder boards do all things decently and in good biblical order (1 Cor. 14:40).
A Service of Worship for the Lord’s Day
Here, then, is my “dream” Lord’s Day worship service. As you will see, I have included a number of comments along the way in order to clarify what I have in mind for each element of the service. Very importantly, this is but one of many possible services. No doubt it reflects my own personal history, gifts, and tastes. Nevertheless, because it seeks faithfully to incorporate all the elements and all the regulations of NT worship, I dare to hope that it will prove helpful, whether to you who are seeking a place of worship for yourself and your family, or to church leaders seeking to craft a rich service of worship for the Lord and his people.
I. WELCOME (Brother)
C. Invitation to Prepare our Hearts for Worship
Comments: As people gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, they love to visit. This is an integral part of the fellowship of the saints. To facilitate it, I recommend no background music prior to the beginning of the service (this from a hearing-impaired brother who struggles in pre-service conversations). / One or two minutes before the service begins the musicians should play (but not sing) a hymn. This signals to the worshipers that it is time to be seated, quiet down, and prepare one’s heart for worship. / A brother opens the service by welcoming both the saints and the visitors, giving all necessary information to the latter. He then briefly shares essential announcements, directing worshipers to the bulletin or church website for further information. / Finally, he calls for a moment of silence in which the worshipers may prepare their hearts for their meeting with the Lord (Is. 41:1; Hab. 2:20).
Special Note: Here and throughout this outline you will notice that the brothers always lead. My view is that several different ones should do so: elders, fathers, husbands, older singles, and mature youth and boys. This practice adds participation, variety, and zest to the service. Even more importantly, it aligns the service with God’s creation order for the sexes, and with his rules concerning the verbal participation of women. As a result, it provides the Holy Spirit with a special opportunity to impress upon men their role as leaders in the family, the church, and the world; to bless godly sisters, as they watch the relevant men in their lives stepping up to do this very thing; and to remind the sisters once again of the privilege God has given them to image the Church to the world by freely submitting to the godly men in their lives, even as the Church submits herself to Christ.
II. CALL TO WORSHIP (Brother)
A. Scriptural Call to Worship
B. Prayer of Invocation
Comments: The call to worship should include a biblical text in which God summons his people and/or the nations to come and worship him (e.g. Ps. 95:6; Isaiah 55:1-3). It is led by a brother, but could well involve an antiphonal reading of the text (e.g. leader-congregation or brothers-sisters). Again, these options have the great advantage of enabling the sisters to participate aloud. / Following the call to worship, the brother will pray, thanking the Lord for this special opportunity to worship him, and asking his blessing upon the gathering.4
III. WORSHIP IN SONG, Round #1 (Brother)
A. Song #1
B. Song #2
Comments: The New Covenant is a marriage covenant, and therefore a covenant of great joy (John 2:1-11, 15:11; 16:24; 17:13). Accordingly, at its very heart it involves celebration, music, and song (Rev. 5:9; 14:3). / My view is that in the Lord’s Day service the songs should be plentiful, giving God ample opportunity to stir the hearts of his children, and the children ample opportunity to pour out their hearts to their God (Ps. 62:8). / As for musical leadership and accompaniment, I believe a brother should lead the worship at all times, but that sisters may participate in the worship team. Ideally, the worship team will be located in the back of the sanctuary, or at least to the side of the Lord’s Table or pulpit, so that all attention is focused, not on the team, but on the Lord and the words of the song. If sisters must be visible, they should be very modestly dressed, so as to present no distractions to the men. The music should be simple and relatively unobtrusive, so that emphasis falls upon the lyrics of the song and the blended voices of the congregation. / The first round of songs will normally consist of joyful hymns of praise to God as Creator and Provider. All hymns should be carefully chosen or approved by the elders. Ideally, the hymns will significantly align with the theme of the sermon, which should become the theme of the entire service. Thy lyrics must be theologically sound, and, as a general rule, God-centered rather than man-centered. They should celebrate, above all, the Person and Work of the Holy Trinity in Creation and Redemption, and how these affect us sinful but beloved human beings. / Most of the songs should be familiar; new songs should be repeated two or three Sunday’s in a row; the melodies of the songs should be memorable, and the accompanying music beautiful. / Certain hymns and choruses cry out for clapping; but in the interest of truly congregational worship, the worship leader alone should initiate it (Ps. 47:1). / Since percussion instruments naturally call attention to themselves, I advise against their use. If they must be used, let it be as unobtrusively as possible. / Special music by a soloist, a quartet, or a choir seems best suited for informal gatherings. In the worship of the Lord’s Day, the congregation itself is the soloist and the choir.5
IV. SCRIPTURE READINGS FOR THE DAY (Brother)
A. OT Reading (Law, Psalms, Prophets) (Brother)
B. NT Reading A (Acts/Epistles/Revelation) (Brother)
C. NT Reading B: (Gospel) (Brother; All Stand)
Comments: The NT commends the public reading of Scripture on the Lord’s Day (1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3). Wisely, many of our forefathers decided to implement this rule by reading first from the OT, then from the Acts, the Epistles, or the Revelation, and finally from the Gospels, a comprehensive approach whose conclusion is specially designed to honor our Lord. There are, however, a variety of ways to enjoy the public reading of Scripture. / I believe the teaching elder should choose the day’s Scripture texts, ideally with a view to communicating the theme of his soon-coming sermon. / While at this juncture congregational and antiphonal reading is possible, I think it preferable for two or three different brothers to read the day’s texts. Speaking personally, I find it encouraging to see and hear young men and mature boys giving the readings, a practice that significantly involves them in worship, and helps to train them in biblical manhood. / Those chosen to read the texts should practice beforehand, so that the reading is slow, smooth, audible, and confident. / In harmony with ancient Church tradition, the congregation should stand for the Gospel reading of the day.
V. WORSHIP IN SONG, Round #2
A. Song # 3
B. Song #4
Comments: This round of songs, while still celebratory, begins to focus more on God’s redemptive purpose and plan in the Person and Work of Christ. Songs in this set may be slower and more contemplative, tilting towards expressions of grateful love, longing, and adoration.
VI. PROPHECY AND PRAYER (Elder #1)
A. Prophecy, etc. (Brothers only)
B. Free Prayer (Brothers only)
C. Silent Prayer (Brothers and Sisters)
D. The Lord’s Prayer Aloud (Brothers and Sisters)
E. Song #5
Comments: In this portion of the service, which could take as few as 15 minutes or as many as 30, we specially invite the Lord, by his Spirit, to move among his people, prompting them to charismatic ministry and prayer (Rev. 1:12-13). / Since this portion of the service requires careful leadership and oversight, it should be led by an elder. / During the initial time for prophecy, two or three brothers may take 2-5 minutes each to bring a short word from the Lord. To ensure the integrity of such ministries, the brothers must be members of the church in good standing. Per 1 Corinthians 14:3, their prophecies should be words of edification, exhortation, and comfort, delivered from, or in accordance with, the words of Scripture. NT prophetic diction does not involve the Lord (allegedly) speaking through the prophet in the first person. Rather, the brothers speak in an ordinary conversational manner, sharing the message they believe the Lord has laid on their hearts, humbly recognizing that their words may contain defects. / The people themselves will judge these prophecies for conformity to scriptural truth (1 Thess. 5:19-21). If necessary, an elder may add a supplementary, corrective, or qualifying word. / Based on my reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and especially of 14:26, I believe this portion of the service should be reserved primarily for prophesying, but could also include a short teaching (i.e. words of wisdom and knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8; 13:8-10), a supernatural tongue with (mandatory) interpretation, or a song (sung or led by a brother). While the Spirit may indeed suddenly grant a revelation to a brother during the service (1 Cor. 14:26), there is nothing in Scripture to say that the Lord could not do so hours or even days earlier, giving him time to prepare his remarks. / The season of free prayer is led by an elder, who briefly states the guidelines and perhaps suggests topics, and then opens the meeting for the men to pray aloud (1 Tim. 2:8). The men may pray as the Spirit leads, but as a rule will offer prayers of thanksgiving and adoration to God, and then intercede for temporal rulers, missionaries, and the special needs of the church family (1 Tim. 2:1-2). / I recommend closing this portion of the meeting by inviting the sisters to join with the men in a moment of silent prayer and intercession to God, after which, as led by the elder, the whole church may offer the Lord’s Prayer aloud. / I believe that prayers for physical healing or other special needs are best offered in a prayer room after the church service. One or more of the elders should be on hand to pray with those who come, though other church members, with a special gift for intercession, should be present as well.
VII. THE PASSING OF THE PEACE
A. The Passing of the Peace
B. Song #6
Comments: The Passing of the Peace is an ancient tradition, now commonly practiced in liturgically oriented churches. During this short break in the worship service the people stand, shake a neighbor’s hand, and say, “Peace be with you,” to which the neighbor then replies, “And with you also”. When performed sincerely, this little ritual is a beautiful manifestation of the fellowship of the saints, and of the exchange of grace that continually occurs in God’s family (1 Cor. 12:4-31). / As a rule, this portion of the service will last from 3-5 minutes, giving worshipers a mini-opportunity to stand, pass the peace, greet a newcomer, and briefly visit. / The beginning of Song # 6 is a signal for the congregation to re-assemble for the sermon.6
VIII. SERMON (Teaching/Preaching Elder)
B. Brief Season(s) of Q and A (Brothers Only)
Comments: In evangelical circles, which commonly prioritize the Word of God, the sermon tends to be the climax of the service. In Catholic circles, which always prioritize the administration of the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper is the climax. I incline to the Catholic position, but for evangelical reasons. In the sermon, the elder will bring the Word of the Lord to the people; but this is only in preparation for the climax, when he then brings the people to Lord of the Word and steps aside (a beautiful and healthy exercise in Christian humility). / I do not believe the Sunday sermon should be an in-depth Bible study, a ministry better accomplished in settings where time limitations are not a factor, and where extended dialog can take place. Rather, it is a special opportunity for leaders to exercise one (or more) of three scriptural charisms: gospel proclamation (preaching), gospel instruction (teaching), and gospel encouragement and exhortation (prophecy). Depending on the nature of his spiritual gift(s), the preaching elder will typically major in one of these charisms, and minor in the others. In larger churches with multiple elders, this fact of charismatic life argues for letting differently gifted elders preach at different times in order to meet different spiritual needs. / As a rule, the sermon should last 20-30 minutes, thus leaving ample time for the church to linger at the Lord’s Table. The preacher will normally close with a word of prayer, thanking the Lord for the good gifts celebrated in the sermon, and asking him to help the people walk in their practical applications. / Again, it is ideal that each Lord’s Day service have a clear theme. This can be briefly stated even in the Welcome, reflected in the Scripture readings (one of which will normally be the text for the day’s sermon), and opened up in the sermon itself. / Per 1 Corinthians 14:35, the preaching elder should leave room along the way, or at the end of the sermon, for short comments and questions from the brothers. If sisters have comments or questions, they can share them with their husbands at home, visit briefly with the preaching elder after church, or (better yet) participate in an elder-led discussion of the sermon after lunch.
IX. COMMUNION (Elder)
A. Welcome to the Lord’s Table
B. Fencing of the Table: Words to Seekers, Words to Saints
C. Invitation to Private Confession of Sin
D. Consecration, Distribution, Corporate Sharing of the Elements (Song #7)
E. Corporate Confession of the Faith / Scriptural Words of Assurance of Forgiveness and Salvation
F. Final Song of Celebration (Song #8)
Comments: Again, I think it wise, both by word and practice, to train God’s people to view their time at the Lord’s Table as the climax of the service of worship.7 / We honor the sanctity of the Lord’s Table, and best serve both seekers and saints, by fencing it. To do so is first to graciously ask inquiring non-Christians not to participate, but instead to carefully consider the deep meaning of this rite. It is also to invite the saints, during a moment or two of silent prayer, to examine their hearts, and then privately confess and forsake any specific sins for which the Spirit may be convicting them (1 Cor. 11:28). An anointed sermon will often lead to such introspection, confession, and prayer.8 Elders should advise those who are unable or unwilling to forsake their sin to abstain from participating. But they should also remind honest strugglers that their divine Host warmly invites them to his table just as they are, so that they may receive the True Food by which to fight the good fight of faith. / There are a number of possible procedures for consecrating, distributing, and sharing the communion elements (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:23-26). While approaches will differ, NT testimony concerning the one Loaf given to the one Body argues that the saints should partake of the elements together, thereby manifesting and underscoring the unity of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17). / During the distribution of the elements it is a great blessing to sing a hymn celebrating the atoning Work of Christ and its glorious fruits. / I believe that the moments immediately following our time at the Lord’s Table are ideally suited for a “good confession” (i.e., affirmation) of our Christian faith. The specific words may be drawn directly from Scripture, or from the classic creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the historic Church.9 The confession should (usually) be chosen in such a way as to strengthen the believer’s assurance of the forgiveness of his sins, his justification, and his final salvation. This is accomplished through confessions that focus our attention on the all-sufficient work of Christ, and on the once-and-for-all justification that God grants his people at the moment of saving faith. / Following the corporate confession of faith, the elder will invite the congregation to stand and sing Song #8, which should be a rousing celebration of the finished work of Christ, the blessings it bestows, and the joyful hope it imparts to all who believe.
X. CLOSING ACTIONS (Elder)
A. Final Reminders (Offering, etc.)
Comments: One of the elders will close the service by reminding the people of special matters. This will likely include his inviting both seekers and saints to the prayer room (or corner) of the church, where they can meet with leaders or mature members for counsel and prayer. It will also include his encouraging the saints to worship the Lord by placing their offerings in the special box located near the entrance to the church. / Drawing upon Scripture, the leader will ask the congregation to stand; then he will declare a benediction over them, join with them in singing a doxology, and send them out into the world to love and serve the Lord. (But not before they take time to enjoy refreshments and a post-service season fellowship!)
I want to conclude my meditation with some observations of a largely practical nature.
Regarding the place of children in the worship of the Lord’s Day, I believe that leaders and parents should strive to include them as much as possible. The Lord has given us his mind on the subject: “Let the children come to me” (Mark 10:14). I can think of no finer place for a child to meet the Lord, or to receive memorable impressions of the beauty of Christ and his Church, than the Lord’s Day worship service. With maximal participation, and with Spirit-led leaders moving things steadily along, children will find the service interesting. I do indeed favor dismissing children for age-level teaching during the time of the sermon. But beyond that, by all means let them join the family, and let us adults show them how much we enjoy their presence and participation. / I appreciate those wise parents who graciously train their children to sit still, and (at the appropriate times) to be quiet during the worship service. I appreciate the patience and forbearance of the rest of the saints, when some of the little children fail to do so. And I greatly appreciate church leaders who provide a nursery and cry room, to which Dads or Moms can swiftly take their little ones if and when they start to disrupt the service.
From 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 it appears that love feasts were commonly held just prior to the saint’s time at the Lord’s Table (Jude 1:12). However, the NT does not mandate this practice, but only mentions it. I am aware of at least one medium-size church that concludes its formal worship service, and then invites all who so desire, first to eat lunch, and then to partake of the Lord’s Supper. In smaller churches, like the house churches of NT times, this is a viable practice. But since many in a larger congregation will not be present, this practice does not seem to manifest or promote the unity of the Body as the Lord intended. Let each leader be fully persuaded in his own mind.
Again, I very much favor the idea of the saints eating lunch together after church, and then discussing the sermon. It seems a shame to me that a pastor will spend hours crafting a rich sermon, and then, having delivered it, simply move on with his flock to the next thing! Surely an excellent sermon is worthy of an excellent discussion, one in which all church members may share their thoughts and ask questions of the preacher. Might not such a discussion seal a pastor’s message in someone’s heart for a lifetime? If so, why not offer it?
The total time for the service outlined above is around 2 hours. Yes, that’s a stretch for many American Christians, but perhaps American Christians need stretching, seeing that longer gatherings were actually quite common in days of old. Again, if the service is variegated, if there is frequent congregational participation, and if leaders—sensitive to the promptings of the Lord—keep in step with his life-giving Spirit, the two hours should fly by. That said, any number of exigencies may require a shorter service, and there is nothing in the NT to forbid it, so long as all necessary things are done decently and in order.
In conclusion, let me urge all involved—elders, worship leaders, and church members—to prioritize the worship of the Lord’s Day. It is entirely possible that apart from one’s daily quiet time with the Lord, there is no more important activity for a Christian man or woman. For again, here the Father desires specially to gather his children to himself; and here the High King of the Church desires specially to walk among the golden lampstands, and to minister to his Bride (Rev. 1:12-13). Therefore, in preparing for the Lord’s Day, let all the leaders aspire to excellence. Let them stand in the counsel of the Lord, earnestly praying for a revelation of his heart and mind for the Sunday ahead (Jer. 23:22, 1 Cor. 14:27). And with that revelation in mind, let them carefully select the call to worship, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the contents of message, and the ministry at the Lord’s Table. Prior to the Lord’s Day, let them communicate with their people, urging them to prepare for it, and helping them to do so. And together with the whole church, let them pray for God’s richest blessing on the gathering. Surely he is eager to bestow it. And if we, on our part, do all we can to prepare the holy ground, surely the Holy One will meet us there.
O DAY OF REST AND GLADNESS
O day of rest and gladness, of day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright:
On Thee, the high and lowly, through ages joined in tune,
Sing holy, holy, holy, to the great God Triune.
On Thee, at the creation, our worship had its birth;
On Thee, for our salvation, Christ rose from depths of earth;
On Thee, our Lord victorious, the Spirit sent from heaven,
And thus on Thee most glorious, a triple light was given.
Thou art a port protected, from storms that round us rise;
A garden intersected, with streams of Paradise;
Thou art a cooling fountain in life’s dry, dreary sand;
From thee, like Pisgah’s mountain, we view our Promised Land.
Thou art a holy ladder, where angels go and come;
Each Sunday finds us gladder, and nearer to our home;
A day of sweet refection, thou art a day of love,
A day of resurrection, from earth to things above.
Today on weary nations the heavenly manna falls;
To holy convocations the silver trumpet calls,
Where Gospel light is glowing, with pure and radiant beams,
And living water flowing, with soul refreshing streams.
New graces ever gaining from this our day of rest,
We reach the rest remaining to spirits of the blessed.
To Holy Ghost be praises, to Father, and to Son;
The church her voice upraises, to Thee, blest Three in One.
1. This portion of the Statement of Faith is based upon the following Scripture texts: Gen. 2:3, Ex. 20:8, Mark 2:28, Col. 2:16-17 / Heb. 4:3-11, Rev. 14:13, 20:4-6 / Rom. 14:5, Col. 2:16 / Mt. 28:1, Mark 16:2, John 20:19, Acts 20:7, Rev. 1:10; Isa. 56:1-5, 58:13-14, 1 Cor. 16:2, Heb. 10:26; Isa. 56:1-5, 58:13-14, Mark 2:27-28, 1 Cor. 11:26. To view the entire Statement, click here.
2. For a thorough introduction to the gifts of the Spirit from a continuationist perspective, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1994), chapters 52, 53.
3. The exegesis of the texts dealing with women’s verbal participation in the whole-church gathering is highly contested. To read interpretations that I have found convincing, please click here, here, and (especially) here.
4. To read a list of Scripture texts appropriate for the call to worship, please click here.
5. In 1 Corinthians 14:24 we find Paul saying, among other things, “ . . . each one has a psalm.” While the apostle, in making this statement, likely had in mind an individual brother leading out in a psalm or hymn, I find nothing here to preclude the ministry of a chosen worship leader and his musical team, just so long as the psalms they “have” have been prayerfully received from the Lord.
6. To read a short article on the history and practice of Passing the Peace, please click here.
7. This emphasis and place of honor is based on the richness of the meaning of the ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, since here the saints are invited to remember and contemplate his substitutionary death in their behalf (Luke 22:9; 1 Cor. 11:24-25); it is a proclamation, since it brings both saints and sinners before the (heart of) the biblical gospel (1 Cor. 11:26; 15:3-8); it is a prophecy, since it looks forward to the Lord’s return and the eternal Marriage Feast of the Lamb (1 Cor. 11:26; Rev. 19:9); and finally, it is also a fresh participation in the body and blood of Christ, in the sense that here the Holy Spirit pours into the expectant souls of believers that spiritual refreshing which is the fruit of the broken body and shed blood of Christ (John 6:56; Acts 3:19; 1 Cor. 10:16). Here, indeed, is a feast of fat things on the LORD’s holy mountain (Ex. 24:9-11; Is. 25:6)! How shall we not come to this table as often as we can?
8. I do not favor pre-written confessions of specific sins, seeing that this practice, which is common in Reformed liturgies, can actually force believers to sin by confessing sins that they have not committed in the week prior, and for which they are not under conviction by the Spirit! Also, I do not believe that leaders (or liturgies) should encourage believers to ask God for forgiveness of sins. This practice tends strongly to undermine their grip on the once-for-all character of their justification. When they trusted in Christ, God forgave them all their sins, once and for all (time). When they trusted in Christ, God also imputed Christ’s perfect righteousness to them, once and for all (time). This is the clear teaching of Scripture (John 5:24; Rom. 5:1; 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:7; 9:12). Therefore, in light of these tremendous truths—so easily forgotten or misunderstood—I believe leaders should train their people simply to confess any specific sin for which they are presently under conviction, resolve with God’s help to forsake it, and then thank him once again for having so graciously forgiven them for it when they trusted in Christ. The Lord’s Day worship service must never undermine the saints’ grip on their justification, but instead do all it can to strengthen it.
9. In the interests of truth and clarity, it may necessary for the elders slightly to modify one or more of the ancient confessions, in order to align it with their best understanding of Scripture and the church’s Statement of Faith.