Our patterns of worship praise our gracious Lord and build up one another for life’s journey.
It’s Sunday morning. What are we going to do?
Most of us will say, “Well, we’ll go to church.”
Great! But what will we do once we get there?
When we look in the Bible, we don’t find a set of rules that dictate what to do when we gather for worship. We do, however, see glimpses of how things worked (or did not work) with Christians in the past. For example, in those first exhilarating days after the Holy Spirit came with power on Pentecost, the believers in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Years later, the Corinthian Christians’ gatherings were wild and woolly. The message about Jesus was getting lost in the noise, and the Lord’s own Supper was being disrespected.
The apostle Paul gave these Christians much needed guidance for their worship: Whatever you do in worship, do it “so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Paul encouraged other Christians to keep the good news about Jesus central in their worship: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).
Guidance for today
But what will we do when we gather for worship? We are free to decide, guided by love for him and for one another. Bible verses like the ones above don’t give us rules, but they do provide wise words for us to think about as we plan what to do on Sunday morning. Whatever we do, let’s make God’s Word and his Supper the center, and let’s think about how to edify—to build up—the people who gather.
These thoughts were on our minds as we began working on the Rites Committee for the new hymnal. “Rites” refer to orders of service, the “front of the hymnal” pages before the hymn section begins. Our committee wrestled with the question, “What patterns will the hymnal provide to help God’s people answer, ‘What will we do when we gather for worship?’ ’’
Our committee could have decided to stick with the patterns in the current hymnal. Surveys revealed that the orders of service in the 1993 hymnal were often used and well liked. We could have decided to compose something totally new —original services that were unlike anything that came before.
A key thought helped us narrow our options. If we recommend a worship pattern that would be shared by people in our church body, why not build on something that was already shared by millions of Christians? A pattern like that was available. This basic framework for worship has developed over hundreds of years. So many people in so many places have used it and modified it that it does not really belong to any one person or group anymore. This pattern provides a solid framework for Christians when they worship, while still offering opportunities for a great deal of variety.
Steppingstones in the liturgy
This pattern for worship is called the liturgy. You likely know it well. The liturgy says, “Let’s focus on two main things when we get together: God coming to us in his Word, and God coming to us in his Sacrament.”
Five main steppingstones mark the path on our Word-and-sacrament journey.
The first is a simple prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” We approach the Lord and ask for blessings, not because we have earned them but because he is full of mercy and love.
The second stone is a song of praise that we borrowed from the Bethlehem angels: “Glory to God in the highest.” We praise our three-in-one God with humble confidence and joy. Then we listen to God’s Word—readings from different parts of the Bible, with plenty of room to mix in some psalms and hymns—culminating in hearing the words and works of Jesus in the gospels. We pause to listen to the pastor preach a message from the Scriptures.
After that is the third steppingstone: the Creed. We join believers around the world and in ages past in confessing our faith in the true God.
The final two steppingstones lead us to meeting Jesus in his Supper. The fourth steppingstone, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” helps us praise the Savior who is present with us. With worshipers of old we sing, “Hosanna,” a word that is both prayer and praise. The fifth is our prayer after we hear the words Jesus spoke when he instituted his special meal: “Lamb of God, have mercy on us . . . grant us peace.”
Christians have carefully placed additional steppingstones over the centuries. Confessing our sins and receiving Jesus’ absolution; singing hymns, songs, and anthems of all kinds; bringing prayers and offerings. All of these help us on our weekly walk with God as we receive his priceless gifts and voice our thanks and praise.
Balance between continuity and variety
In the new hymnal, three settings of the liturgy, called simply “The Service,” will greet worshipers. Each setting has the same basic pattern— the same steppingstones in the same places. What differs is the music. Setting One includes familiar songs from the Common Service. Setting Two features strong but singable tunes used all over the English-speaking world. Setting Three offers a 21st-century musical arrangement of the canticles’ familiar words. Some of The Service’s texts also vary from setting to setting; each includes a unique Prayer of the Church and Prayer of Thanksgiving.
Christian Worship: Service Builder will offer more options for The Service. Among these will be metrical versions of canticles that can be sung to several different hymn tunes. (This is like Divine Service II in the current Christian Worship: Supplement.) Several other musical settings will be available, including a Spanish version of Setting Three.
The goal is to provide a balance between continuity and variety. The basic elements of worship will be in the same places so that worshipers can get to know them. Within that framework, different musical options will add variety and keep things fresh.
What will we do when we gather for worship? The possibilities are too many to count—what freedom our God gives us! Christian Worship: Hymnal will offer a time-tested path, but one that can be walked in different ways.
Let’s keep walking the path of worship with joy!
Author: Jon Micheel
Volume 108, Number 6
Issue: June 2021