June 28, 2018

Time-Regulated Worship

While few of us spend much time in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, when we do we discover an exciting truth: our God loves to party. In fact, he prescribed three seasonal festivals of worship and remembrance for his people. He prescribed a one-week party in the spring of the year, one which included the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of the First-fruits. In the early summer God prescribed the Feast of Weeks, and in the autumn he prescribed three festivals to mark the end of the calendar year and the beginning of a new year: Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles.

I don’t know about you, but as a person who loves to work, those prescribed festivals encourage me to break away from work to glorify God and enjoy him. But they also teach me something about worship. The divinely ordained festivals prescribe the practice of an annual worship calendar or time-regulated worship. In his excellent book Recalling the Hope of Glory (Kregel, 2006), Allen Ross identifies a handful of benefits of this practice. He states that time-regulated worship:   

  1. Helps people subordinate all the experiences of life to the Lord,
  2. Preserves the heritage of the faith,
  3. Distinguishes the church from the world,
  4. Provides believers with a regular opportunity to fulfill religious duties,
  5. Fosters unity among the people, and
  6. Provides opportunities for greater praise.

To that list I add that time-regulated worship helps us love the Lord. As the Hallmark calendar helps us remember and, then, express celebratory love for significant others in our lives, so time-regulated worship helps us remember and, then, express celebratory love for the Lord through worship. Each year, for example, we walk with Jesus from his humiliation to his ascension, from his birth to his death, from his death to his resurrection. We remember. We love. We celebrate.

If those benefits resonant with our mission as a people of God, how can we adopt or adapt the practice of time-regulated worship? Some choose to follow the Church Year to meet that goal—and that works. Others develop a context-friendly annual calendar built around the celebration of Christmas and Easter—and that works. Casual observation suggests that few congregations simply ignore the calendar and treat every Sunday the same.

On a practical level, the practice of time-regulated worship invites us to distinguish between Ordinary Time and Festival Time. For a variety of reasons, we can’t handle a festival every Sunday! If we try to do so, our festival time becomes ordinary time. Plus, we blow up our budget.

Still we must have Festival Time! There must be seasons throughout the year when we amp it up and we need look no further than the book of Leviticus for biblical support for such a practice. Our God loves a good party and invites us to celebrate our salvation together.

Of course, festival time will look different for every congregation because ordinary time looks different for every congregation. A festival for one congregation may feel pretty ordinary to another congregation. One congregation’s ordinary time is another congregation’s festival time—and that’s OK. The basic question for each congregation is “When do we party?” And the simple word of encouragement from the Lord is, “Party often and well.”

Guest blogger Sam Hamstra Jr. is an affiliate professor of worship and church history at Northern Seminary (Lombard, Illinois), as well as founder and leader of ChapterNext, a Chicagoland-based pastor search firm and church consultancy dedicated to helping congregations open new chapters of dynamic and life-transforming ministry. A veteran pastor, worship leader, and musician, he is also author of Principled Worship: Biblical Guidelines for Emerging Liturgies (Wipf and Stock, 2006) and What’s Love Got to Do with It?: How the Heart of God Shapes Worship (Wipf and Stock, 2016).