Worship -- taking a closer look: A four-week teaching series with resources for worship planning, sermon discussion, and home devotions, page 1 of 2

Sermons on praise in the narrow sense (Ps. 95) and on worship in all of life (Rom. 12) are immensely important to preach. But suppose that you want to preach about the worship service, the liturgy, the event of gathering in Jesus’ name (for more on these three meanings of the term worship see p. 46). Perhaps worship has become a source of conflict in your congregation. Perhaps you want to deepen the congregation’s experience of common worship. To preach about worship, what text would you preach? Where in Scripture would you look?

One problem is that so few places in Scripture give us explicit instructions about Christian worship services. In contrast to all the detailed instructions given for worship in the Old Testament, we don’t have a liturgical manual anywhere in the New Testament (wouldn’t it be easier if we did!).

But we do have lots of passages that relate to our practice of worship. These include

  • Old Testament prescriptions of worship practices (for tabernacle and temple worship). Even if these worship practices don’t continue in the New Testament, these texts still have much to teach us about the relationship between God and God’s people. For example, they teach that holiness is a central divine attribute to which we also are called.
  • descriptions of various worship services, including Old Testament covenant renewal liturgies (Josh. 24), New Testament baptism celebrations (Acts 8; Acts 10), and New Testament preaching services (Acts 20:1-9).
  • sample liturgical texts, including Old Testament psalms, canticles, and prayers (1 Chron. 16; Neh. 9), and New Testament hymns and prayers (Luke 1; Phil. 2; Rev. 5, 7; Acts 4).
  • strong prophetic critiques against false worship (Isa.1). The prophets railed against superstition, idolatry, and hypocrisy, three sins that still plague the church.
  • a few specific New Testament guidelines for worship, such as the mandate that worship practices should build up or edify the body of Christ and that worship should be “in Spirit and in truth” (1 Cor. 14; John 4).

These are the most obvious passages that could be used to produce sermons on what happens in the worship service and why. The diversity and complexity of these texts makes me a bit fearful of setting up any kind of series on worship. We will leave so much out. We might wrongly imply that that is all there is!

So one key concern when teaching or preaching about worship is to explain how rich and deep the connections between biblical teaching and worship practices are. Our approach must not even imply that it can all be boiled down into a phrase, three alliterative words, or one five-step method. Worship is like a diamond. No one viewpoint gives us a complete picture of what it’s all about.

To say it another way, worship is so rich and deep because it is not an end in itself. We don’t gather for the sake of the event itself. We gather because this event expresses and deepens something more important, the relationship we have with God in Christ. Just as a wedding exists for the sake of the marriage that is being established, so too a worship service exists in order to express, deepen, and enrich the relationship that God has with us in Christ. Sermons about worship should focus less on liturgical techniques than on the God we worship. Or, to say it in a better way, sermons about worship should point out how particular liturgical techniques are fitting expressions of the kind of relationship we are privileged to have with God.

So what follows is not merely a sermon series on the worship service. It is a series about our relationship with God in Christ, of which worship is a natural outgrowth and expression.

Worship as Covenant Renewal

One central biblical image or metaphor for describing the relationship that God has established with us is the image of covenant. This pattern is as old as the oldest portions of the Hebrew Scriptures, and has been made new with the “new covenant” that God makes with us through Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8-9). This is a relationship that depends on promises: first God’s promise to us and then our promise to God.

A covenant relationship can be established and confirmed by a ritual, a gathering, an event. In the Old Testament, the people gathered when God established a covenant (Ex. 24), and they gathered again several times to renew or reaffirm that covenant (see Josh. 24; Neh. 8-10). So too, in the covenant of marriage, a bride and groom speak their covenant vows in a public ritual to establish their relationship. Sometimes they will reaffirm those promises in a public renewal of marriage vows.

Just as the people of Israel gathered together to renew their covenant with God (i.e., Joshua 24), so we gather to renew the new covenant God has made with us in Christ. Christian worship is like a covenant renewal service. It’s like reaffirming the marriage vows that we have with God in Christ. Think of all the places in which marriage is a metaphor or image to describe the church’s relationship with God (Isa. 62:5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 3:1; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9). In a liturgy, in a worship service, we renew the promises we make to God, and we hear again the promises God has made (and kept!) in Christ.

This four-part series on worship explores four dimensions of this covenant-renewal image. The primary focus will be on the new covenant relationship God makes with us in Christ. The secondary focus will be on the ways in which worship expresses, deepens, and shapes that relationship through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Week 1
Enacting and Expressing Our Covenantal Relationship

We gather in worship to communicate with God together. We listen together to God’s words to us. We speak together our response to God. The service is like interpersonal conversation, an exchange of promises. The amazing thing about this conversation is that it is not something we do by ourselves. It is something we do with other believers.

Scripture Texts
  • Psalm 81. Consider using two readers, one for verses 1-5 (the call to worship), and one for verses 6-16 (the voice of the Lord).
  • Hebrews 8-10, especially 10:19-25 (along with Jeremiah 31:31-34). These chapters could all figure in the development of the sermon. For a manageable reading for worship, consider using two readers: one to read about worship in the Old Covenant (Heb. 9:1-10), and one to read about worship in the New Covenant (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:19-25).
Notes on the Scripture Texts
  • Psalm 81 consists of two distinct sections: an imperative call to worship and a prophetic oracle. In the first part, the people are called to worship by divine imperative (“he established it as a statute,” v. 5). In the second, the people hear a sermon, with words attributed to God, that contains several distinct themes: remembrance of past deliverance (vv. 6-7), a present command that reiterates the first of the Ten Commandments (vv. 8-9), a remarkable promise (v. 10), a divine lament (vv. 11-12), and a further promise (vv. 13-16). One feature of this text, then, is its dialogic character. It conveys human-Godward movement (vv. 1-5), and God-humanward movement (vv. 6-16)—movements that only make sense in a religion that conceptualizes the divine-human relationship in personal terms. From the perspective of other religions, how odd and remarkable this is! Imagine this: a religion in which words volley back and forth freely between God and the gathered community! (For other texts with the same feature, see Psalms 12; 60; 89; 108; Isaiah 6; 45, and several other passages.)
  • Hebrews 8-10 describes and contrasts the Old and New Covenants and pays particular attention to the worship practices that are fitting to each. Hebrews 9:1-10 describes worship in the Old Covenant. Hebrews 10:19-25, the culmination of this section of the book, describes worship in the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, worshipers are called to draw near to God, conscious that their worship is possible because of what Christ has done for us. Our praise, our confession, our petitions, our experience of God’s presence—the fact that any of these things actually “work” is a sheer gift made possible by the work of Christ. A main theme in the book of Hebrews is that Christ mediates both the God-humanward and the human-Godward movements of worship.
Central Idea

We are privileged to have an interpersonal, covenantal relationship with God because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Worship enacts or expresses that relationship.

Key Related Themes
  • Our relationship with God is understood in personal terms.
  • Our relationship with God is not something we have on the strength of our own merits.
  • This relationship is possible because Christ bridges the gap, and the Spirit is at work in our hearts.
  • This relationship is lived out, enacted, “scripted,” expressed, and focused in worship.
  • If worship is like a promise-exchange, then one of the biggest liturgical sins is that of superstition—thinking that we can manipulate God by how we worship. We don’t come to church to make God love us more. We come to enjoy and express the beauty of a relationship made possible by Christ.
The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

The big question is whether most of us experience worship as a promise-exchange between ourselves and God, or whether we really experience it as a meeting of a religious social club, or an educational forum, or a form of entertainment. Because these other kinds of events are common in our culture, we are bound to take our expectations for them into worship with us. We need to be challenged to refrain from this. We need to be challenged to see worship as a deeply participational, relational activity, in which we are listeners, speakers, promise-receivers, and promise-givers.

Since the nature of an event is most often established by how it starts, the opening of worship must provide this challenge. Entertainment events begin with a presentational opening. A social event starts with a mixer. An educational forum or lecture starts with a spoken introduction or welcome. But a worship service helpfully starts by setting up the divine-human conversation.

The classic shape or order of Christian worship—which can be used in many styles and cultural contexts—begins with a scriptural call to worship and continues with a response by all God’s people. This sets the pattern for all that will follow. God speaks. We respond. There are other ways to start a service. But given the power and beauty of this covenantal image, why wouldn’t we want to make it clear that worship is a divine-human conversation right from the start?

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs—Week 1

“God Is Here!” PsH 516, PH 461, TWC 701

Vivid language celebrating the nature and purpose of the worshiping church. For use at the opening of worship.

“Let the Giving of Thanks” Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise, Chicago: G.I.A., 1993, 27

A setting of Psalm 50 that easily invites congregational participation through the refrain. An excellent gathering song.

“All the Earth, Proclaim the Lord” PsH 176, SFL 21

A setting of Psalm 100 that recognizes that God’s covenant relationship with us is grounded in creation. For use at the beginning of worship.

“In the Presence of Your People” PsH 160, SFL 25, TWC 19

In the context of the covenant, this is a fitting vow to praise.

“Gather Us In” With One Voice 718

The covenant relation is celebrated: “Call to us now and we shall awaken.”

“Blest Be the God of Israel” TWC 332

Based on the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), this song shows how Jesus fulfills God’s covenant promises to Israel. For use in morning worship, particularly as a response to Words of Forgiveness.

“You Are Our God; We Are Your People” PsH 272, SFL 203

A text and tune that together marvelously roll through covenantal history. Can be used following Words of Forgiveness. By omitting stanza 4, it is suitable on many occasions!

“I Am the Lord Your God” PsH 199

A setting of Jeremiah 31 that would be a fitting response to the sermon. In order to emphasize the dialogue inherent in the text, have a soloist or ensemble sing stanza 1, with the congregation joining on stanzas 2 and 3.

“Come into the Holy of Holies” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 71

Drawing on the language of Hebrews 10:19 as well as of the Old Testament, use this song during the distribution of the communion elements.

“Forever I Will Sing of Your Great Love, O Lord” PsH 89

A versification of a strong covenant psalm. Stanzas 1 and 8 form an excellent doxology.

Also, see any covenant psalm of praise, such as 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 or Psalm 105. Consider writing a litany or responsive reading based on one of these texts or finding musical settings of them

Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 1

1.    How would you define worship? Have your group come up with asmany and varied definitions as possible. Having done that, comparetheir responses with the three meanings on p. 4. Which of the three waseasiest to emphasize? Which meaning is most easily neglected?

2.    Having thought about what worship is, let’s think about what it’sfor (its purpose). Witvliet argues that worship “is not an end initself.” Rather, it “expresses and deepens something more important,the relationship we have with God in Christ.” Focus your discussion onthe words express and deepen. Also, compare this understanding with therelationship between a marriage and the wedding ceremony (see Isa.62:5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 3:1; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9).

3.    “One central biblical image or metaphor for describing therelationship that God has established with us is the image ofcovenant.” Explore this theme by looking at some of the Bible’s“covenant” passages: Genesis 9:8-17; 15; 17; Exodus 24; Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm 50; 105; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8-10. Next, discusshow Christian worship is like a “covenant renewal service” by examiningJoshua 24; Nehemiah 8-10; Hebrews 10:19-25.

4.    “We don’t have a liturgical manual anywhere. . . . But we do havelots of passages that relate to our practice of worship.” Can you as agroup identify some in both the Old and New Testaments?

5.    “The amazing thing about this [worship] conversation is that itis not something we do by ourselves on our own. It is something we dowith other believers.” Do you agree? That is, could you possibly have aworship service with just you and God? Describe the difference betweencorporate worship and private devotion.

6.    Discuss how worship is different from other cultural events(e.g., club meetings, pep rallies, debates, concerts, sporting events).Even if worship is different from these other events, do you think somepeople experience them the same way? Or want to experience them thesame way? If worship is “a deeply participational, relational event, inwhich we are active listeners, speakers, promise-receivers, andpromise-givers,” how might we be challenged to rethink, reexperience,and redo worship?

Week 2
Honesty in Our Covenant Relationship

Relationships depend on honest communication. The key to any relationship, and especially a deep covenantal relationship like marriage, is honesty. Mistakes need to be admitted. Problem areas must be identified. Sin must be named and rooted out. The good news of our relationship with God is that there is room for that honesty in our worship. The psalms are a beautiful model of this.

Confession, lament, and intercession are all in different ways an acknowledgment that the kingdom of God has not fully come. We still long and hope for a world that isn’t here yet.

Intercession and lament, by themselves, aren’t sufficiently honest. They do acknowledge that the world isn’t all right, but they can be a way to avoid taking responsibility for it. That’s why we also need to confess our sins. There is something soberingly honest about confessing our sin before God. Without confession, we are kidding ourselves.

Worship does not, of course, exhaust our acts of confession. A lot of the work of confession is very personal, the kind of thing that is hard to deal with in the middle of a worship service. Still, our worship services set the pattern. They remind us of the importance of confession; they give us words and phrases and songs to help us.

Scripture Texts
  • Psalm 89. Consider having one reader for each of the sections of the psalm (vv. 1-2, 3-4, 5-18, 19-37, 38-45, 46-48, 49-52). If you read less than the whole psalm, consider reading the first verses of each section of the psalm, so that the movement from praise to oracle (God’s voice) to lament to covenant prayer is clear (use vv. 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-16, 19-21, 30-33, 38-40, 46-48, 49-52). Perhaps a group of nine readers can be used, each reading one section of the psalm.
  • Nehemiah 9. Consider using two readers for this passage, the first for the voice of the narrator (vv. 1-5), the second for the voice of Ezra (vv. 6 and following). The reading could include the entire chapter or verses 1-15 and 26-37.
  • Hebrews 4:14-16
Notes on the Scripture Texts
  • Psalm 89 is known as a covenant psalm. Like Psalm 81, it alternates between the human-Godward movement (vv. 1-2, 5-18), and God-humanward movement (vv. 3-4, 19-37). Remarkably, it begins in praise and ends in lament. The trust and faithfulness of God established in the covenant relationship creates the space for the psalmist to express bold lament (for another example, see Psalm 44). In moments of utter despair, the psalmist still clings to God’s covenant love as a source of hope.
  • In Nehemiah 9, notice how verses 5-31 are like a long history lesson contained right in the middle of a prayer. This recital of covenant history was a common way to express praise to God (see the many historical psalms for other examples). The logic here is straightforward: the people are praying that God will act toward them in mercy in the same way as in the past. (For other examples of prayers of confession, see Ezra 9; Daniel 9; Nehemiah 1:5-11; each of these prayers begins by reclaiming the covenant relationship with God).
  • Hebrews 4 teaches us about the logic of prayer in the New Covenant. We can pray with confidence “in our time of need” because of what Jesus has done for us. Whether we suffer from a cause outside of ourselves or are crushed by guilt because of something we have done, we can approach God on the power of Jesus’ priesthood.
Central Idea

A covenantal relationship demands honesty. Honesty demands that we confess our sin and acknowledge with pain the world’s brokenness. Without this, we quickly fall into hypocrisy, the sin where inward attitudes don’t match our outward actions. When we express our honest prayers before God, we do so in the context of our covenant relationship.

Key Related Themes
  • We must not gloss over the barriers that keep us from complete transparency before God.
  • We have boldness to express our honest prayers because of Christ’s mediation of our prayers.
  • We offer our confession, lament, and intercession in the context of our thanksgiving for God’s past faithfulness.

The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

The classic shape or order for Christian worship features a prayer of confession as an essential element in the divine-human dialogue. Usually, the conversation is set up this way: words of Scripture (God’s word to us) are used to invite, challenge, and call us to covenantal honesty. A prayer of confession for both personal and corporate sin follows (our words to God). Then we hear God’s covenantal promises to us again, words of Scripture that assure us of pardon.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

“Stand Up and Bless the Lord” PH 491, TH 15, TWC 41

Based on Nehemiah 9:5, this song would work well as an opening encouragement to praise.

“Let Heaven Your Wonders Proclaim” Sent By the Lord, Chicago: G.I.A., 1991, 32

A setting of Psalm 89 proclaiming God’s covenant faithfulness. Suitable for the opening of worship.

“Give Me a Clean Heart” RW 54, p. 30; This Far By Faith 216

A prayer of confession in African-American gospel style.

“Change My Heart, O God” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 50

A sung prayer of confession.

“To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul” Gather, 1994 ed. 34; SFL 50

A responsorial setting of Psalm 25 for confession rooted in remembering God’s covenantal mercy and love of old.

“I Will Bless the Lord” Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3 59

Another setting of Nehemiah 9:5. A beautiful response (“acclamation”) to the reading of Scripture or to Words of Forgiveness.

“In All Our Grief” With One Voice 739

Having a high priest who sympathizes with us, we may approach God’s throne with these bold words. Use as sung intercessory prayer, just prior to spoken intercessions.

“My Song Forever Shall Record” PsH 593, PH 209, RL 113, TH 99

A hymn of praise based on Psalm 89, for use before the dismissal.

Small Group Discussion Starters: Week 2

1.    Discuss the following statement from Witvliet’s finalobservations: “Praise is one (essential) form of covenantcommunication. But praise isn’t the main point of worship. The point isthe relationship. In a full-orbed covenant relationship, praise isjoined by confession, lament, intercession, and listening. In amarriage relationship, conversations marked by exclusive praise wouldfeel like false flattery. They might start out fine, but soon they ringhollow.”

2.    “Relationships depend on honest communication.” In our covenantrelationship, do we speak honestly with God? What things are hardest tosay? To hear?

3.    “Confession, lament, and intercession are all in different waysan acknowledgement that the kingdom of God has not come yet.” What doesconfession do that lament and intercession do not? Are all three partof your church’s present worship practices? How so?

4.    Why confess when we know the outcome? In fact, why speak commonwords of confession when we know that not everyone present means whatthey say?

5.    How might our honest communication with God change in heaven?(This assumes honesty will still characterize the relationship!)

Week 3
Hearing God’s Promises with Anticipation

Worship must never be construed as a one-way conversation, a monologue where we sing and pray and praise and testify but never stop to listen. A healthy covenant relationship, especially when it is a relationship with the Creator of the heavens and the earth, will feature lots of listening.

Preaching is at the heart of worship in many traditions, including the Reformed tradition. However, it is easy for us sophisticated modern people to forget that a sermon is no ordinary speech. We need to listen to a sermon in very different ways than we do a political speech. We need to listen to this kind of speech attuned to the voice of the author and finisher of our faith.

Scripture Texts
  • Joshua 24. This passage can be read dramatically using one reader for the narrator’s part, one for Joshua, and inviting the whole congregation to read the words of the people. Consider printing out the whole passage on a bulletin insert, with the people’s words in boldface type. This draws the congregation into the narrative and may help them sense the drama and gravity of the covenant promises made by the people of Israel.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:13
  • 1 John 4:1-6
Notes on the Scripture Texts
  • Joshua 24 records one of the early liturgies of the people of Israel. In contrast to the more frequently practiced “liturgy of sacrifice” (described in Lev. 1, for example), this is a “liturgy of covenant renewal” (for another example, see Josh. 8:30-35). The purpose of this gathering was to reaffirm the covenant—like a ceremony for the renewal of marriage vows.
  • At the center of this covenant renewal service is Joshua’s extended speech, a sermon really. In it, Joshua recounts the history of God’s faithfulness to the people. Like many famous sermons (see Peter’s sermon in Acts 2), this sermon is a history lesson. In it God’s past faithfulness becomes the basis for Joshua’s call for renewal.
  • As the sermon progresses, you begin to wonder who is actually speaking, Joshua or God. Joshua starts by referring to God in the third person. But soon God is the first person singular: “Then I took your father Abraham.” This text portrays Joshua as a divine emissary or ambassador, a prophet sent to speak on God’s behalf.
  • This same image or concept is at work in 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonian believers had heard Paul’s human voice, but they heard God’s message. Paul is grateful that they “accepted it not as [merely] a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word.”
  • But is every preacher really God’s messenger? Certainly not. John challenges us to discern the spirits, to distinguish true from false teaching. The standard for measuring is this: the preacher must confess and teach that Jesus Christ is from God. The preacher must preach the gospel of the New Covenant, and no other.
Central Idea

Our covenantal relationship with God depends entirely on God’s Word to us. A central act in our relating to God is the act of active, expectant listening. And when the message is so good, so wise, so true, why would we want it any other way?

Key Related Themes
  • We come to church to submit ourselves to an authority greater than ourselves. We come to church precisely because we don’t have it all figured out.
  • This form of covenantal speech called a sermon is far more than teaching. We gain more than biblical literacy. In this kind of relational speaking, we are comforted, challenged, provoked, warned, and blessed. When we talk with a friend or spouse, we don’t want them to tell us merely how we could be a better friend or spouse; we want to hear the words of intimacy and promise that are at the core of that relationship.
  • We hear God’s Word in multiple forms in a worship service, through the words of greeting and Scripture readings, through Scripture-based preaching and blessings. Anytime God’s Word is read, we hear those words not simply as a conversation among people. We hear them as God’s Word to us.
  • When it is not tethered to Scripture, our worship can quickly portray an understanding of God and God’s actions that is incomplete. Or worse, we show up for a worship service and sing and pray to a god who barely resembles the God of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this god we are speaking to is more a figment of our imagination than the God who is described in Scripture. In this case, we slip into a form of idolatry. And that should terrify us.
The Meaning of Worship and the Logic of the Liturgy

At the heart of the classic shape of Christian worship is the reading and preaching of Scripture. It is important that significant passages of Scripture be read. We want to convey the impression that the reading of Scripture is a significant act of covenantal listening in its own right, not simply a prelude to the sermon.

In many traditions, including the Reformed tradition, Scripture reading is preceded by a prayer that asks for God to send the Holy Spirit to work powerfully through the reading and preaching that day. This prayer is an overt acknowledgment that the power in preaching does not come from the creativity or rhetoric of the preacher but from God.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

“Gladly to God’s Holy Temple” RL 500

One can almost hear the people of Israel singing this hymn! This text, well-suited to the opening of worship, remembers God’s deeds and indicates our eagerness to hear more.

“Speak Forth Your Word, O Father” PsH 529

This sparkling, contemporary text can be used to confess dependence upon God and his Word as well as our own meager efforts at proclamation.

“Holy Spirit, Mighty God” PsH 278

A prayer for illumination acknowledging our deep dependence upon the God the Spirit.

“Thy Word Is a Lamp” United Methodist Hymnal 601

Centering on Psalm 119:105, this song functions well as a prayer for illumination.

“Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak” PsH 528, PH 426, RL 436, TH 560, TWC 574

A response to the Word, this is a prayer of submission to God’s direction. It illustrates our role in the covenant relationship—one in which we have responsibility and yet are not left without help.

“Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil” With One Voice 713

A prayer before or after hearing the Word, or near the end of the service.

“The Lord Is My Light and My Salvation” Gather, 1994 ed., 37

A refrain for the responsorial reading or singing of Psalm 27.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 56 © June 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.