When in Philippi..: Joining early believers in worship

What was it like to worship in Philippi? How did those early Christians respond when they first heard Paul's letter? Those were the questions we asked as we planned this unusual service.

Reformed Christians stress the importance of understanding biblical texts in context—and rightly so. But how often do we read the entire context of a Pauline epistle or a gospel? Usually we read a few verses on either side of our text, make a few explanatory comments, and consider it sufficient. For this service we wanted to do more. The simple message for our evening service was a reading of Paul's entire letter to the church at Philippi. We used other parts of the service to put that letter in context.

For example, knowing little about the musical instruments that might have been available to the church in Philippi, we decided to sing all songs without instruments other than the human voice. We planned no prelude, postludes, or offertory.

Worshipers gathered quietly and expectantly that Sunday evening, wondering what was going on. I began by reminding the church of Jesus' words in John 15, noting that the Philippian church would not have had the gospels to read. I added that they probably had no musical instruments as they gathered in homes and halls either. Then I greeted "Lydia" seated in the front row and asked her how sales had been lately (see Acts 16).

The congregation did not use books at any time during the service. I explained that the printing press didn't make songbooks or Bibles available until much later. Only a privileged few could afford paper and printing. That certainly didn't include the church at Philippi.

The notes on page 19 correspond to numbers in the service itself and provide some additional details about various parts of this unusual liturgy.


We Are Reminded of What Jesus Called Us: John 15:14

Song: "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"PsH 579, PH 403 RL 507, SFL 52, TH 629, TWC 629, TWC 622 (1)

God's Greeting and Words of Welcome

We Learn More about God's Creation and Providence: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26, 27, 28 (2)

Song: "Father, We Love You"PsH 634, SFL 77, TWC 10

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 139 (3)

Song Service During the Offering (4)

Time of Prayer as We Share Our Lives Together (5)

Song: "Rejoice in the Lord Always" PsH 228, SFL 230, TWC 606

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture: Philippians (6)

Message: "The Letter of Joy that We Need to Hear and Heed" (7)

Prayer That We May Apply God's Message to Our Lives

Closing Hymn of Praise and Testimony: "He Is Lord" PsH 633, SFL 178, TWC 97 (8)

God's Parting Blessing

Moment of Meditation

We Leave to Serve Joyfully in Our Daily Lives


1 We sang from memory to the traditional tune CONVERSE. I started it (a little too low the first time!). After that, our designated song leader was our starter. The congregation sat close together to enhance the singing and sense of "we're in this together."

2 I made a few reflective statements about providence, then read the Q&A's from the Heidelberg Catechism. The congregation responded with the a capella singing of "Father, We Love You."

3 I invited a member of the congregation to read Psalm 139, indicating that it was an honor to be asked. (He had not been asked ahead of time.)

4 The song leader knew ahead of time what was happening and led us in singing "He's Got the Whole World" and "Amazing Grace" while the offering was taken.

5 I asked for prayer requests from the group and then led them in prayer. Before inviting the group to sing the song that followed, I explained that it is based on the text from Philippians.

6 Prior to the reading of the book, I asked the congregation what they knew about the church in Philippi. The story of the Paul and Silas singing in jail came up; so did the baptism of the jailer and his family. I then mentioned some reasons for Paul's writing the letter.

7 After the introduction, our minister of youth came hurrying down the aisle with a scroll. "It's arrived. It's here ... Paul's letter came!" He then read the letter from the scroll. During the reading the lights in the sanctuary were off or dimmed so that people had to rely on their hearing to get the message. After the reading, I closed with prayer.

8 We sang, "He Is Lord" twice, softly first and then more triumphantly. After the blessing, the people were encouraged to greet fellow worshipers as they left, once again without music.

I hope these notes have given you some idea of what happened. Paul's letter contains "joy" in various forms—more than any other letter—and the service reflected it. As we thought about the service, more possibilities came to mind. For example, wouldn't a testimonial from the jailer have been powerful?

After the service, some members of the congregation commented that they were eager for some further study of Philippians at home. Let the Spirit work!

George Vink is a pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Visalia, California.


Reformed Worship 47 © March 1998 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.