Worship at Grace Heritage ChurchPaul Stith and Stan Reeves
What we do in worship at Grace Heritage Church has come together over three years of discussion and is still, in some senses, in process as we grow both in numbers and in resources. Some involved in this process have known the traditional aspects of a “church service” in Southern Baptist life, while others are more recently converted and bring little or no baggage to the table. All have a desire to jettison certain aspects of church life that have emerged in recent years, while embracing a renewed fervor for genuine worship that engages both the mind and the heart. Springing forth from these desires is a commitment to worship that is:
Everyone is looking for answers to their brokenness and all that comes as a result of being fallen people living in a fallen world, although not necessarily with the light of the Scriptures. Therefore, the church is not to be driven by the likes and opinions of the world, but neither is it to be a closed society of secret handshakes and confusing terminology. Without compromising one word of truth we have endeavored to explain what we do and why we do it in language that communicates.
One method of doing this is found in the structure of our worship guide or bulletin. We borrowed the format of this bulletin from another church and modified it for our own purposes. We do not have hymnals or a projector, so we print song lyrics in our bulletin. The wide-page format gives us room to put marginal comments about different aspects of worship. When we celebrate communion, the bulletin explains in writing what the supper is for and who may participate. Marginal notes allow us to explain potentially confusing lyrics. Since the bulletin contains lyrics as well as catechism questions and Scripture readings, it also becomes a useful resource in family worship.
Secondly, we try to think carefully about the “glue” that holds different parts of worship together and how we might express those things in language that anyone can understand. Rather than simply starting at the appointed time, we begin by reminding those gathered that God has initiated a relationship with us and our appropriate response is to worship Him. Therefore we are not gathered to witness an elaborate performance but to participate in an encounter with the living God.
Our emphasis upon simplicity began from necessity. We did not have facilities, instruments, or equipment. We sang together from basic printed lyrics accompanied by a guitar.
Today, sound equipment allows us to communicate with a larger group and a keyboard provides expanded instrumental options, but simplicity is still the guide for what we do. There is no attempt to lure a crowd with bigger and better music. While we want to do what we do with excellence, we resist cluttering simple elements of worship with something more complex for the sake of appealing to the high-tech appetites of this generation. Our hope is that meaningful content will lead us to an experience that complex media can only simulate.
This emphasis also allows for parents of small children to worship together and to teach their children about corporate worship. Since there is no elaborate production to interrupt, parents feel welcome to keep their children with them. Wiggly or crying children can, however, be a distraction. To accommodate this reality, we have an adjacent room that allows space for moving about and correcting children in a non-distracting way while still hearing and participating in every aspect of the worship time.
While we provide child-care for infants and preschoolers, we do not provide a separate children’s church during worship. We believe that making Sunday “the most exciting day of the week for your child” is a miracle we simply cannot perform. Neither is this the task to which we have been called. We are called to proclaim Christ; “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28 ESV). We admit that children do not always understand every word that we use, nor do they comprehend every concept that is presented from the Bible. At the same time, we believe this philosophy sends a critical message to both parents and children alike. Since the preaching of the Bible is a primary means of grace to bring people to maturity in Christ, we hope to engender a confidence in the Scriptures by having everyone gather under this transforming influence. This is not to imply that children cannot be taught or exhorted separately in other contexts. It is, however, a significant way to say that Bible-saturated worship is critical to spiritual health, regardless of age.
Finally, we believe simple worship is more transferable to other contexts and cultures. Because we live in a university context we have a tremendous opportunity to model healthy worship and church life to international students and other international scholars. Simple worship focuses on essentials rather than trappings that require a large investment in equipment and infrastructure and avoids bringing along needless cultural baggage. Visiting missionaries and other international workers have observed to us that our approach to worship can be implemented anywhere.
No one would disagree that our content should be biblical. We are not allowed to do what merely seems right or what satisfies our personal whims. The distance between God and His creatures is so great that the only acceptable way of approaching God in worship must be revealed to us by God Himself. This principle protects us from idolatrous worship and focuses our energies on those activities through which God has called us to draw near. But this simple reality is often overlooked today, so we make a tremendous effort to ensure that the form of our worship is biblically defined and that our songs, readings, and prayers are soaked in biblical truth. These principles lead us to shape our worship with the following four-fold structure:
- The Lord calls us into His presence;
- The Lord cleanses us from our sins;
- The Lord consecrates us by His Word;
- The Lord blesses us and sends us out.
1. The Lord calls us into His presence
We begin and end worship with Scripture, so as to give tangible reminders that God has the first and the last word in this event. The call also declares that God has initiated this relationship with us and we have come together solely to respond to Him in ways that He has commanded. He has the right to tell us how to worship, and we desire not only to please Him in our obedience but also to benefit in every possible way from worshipping Him rightly.
Singing is an important part of worship because we are commanded to sing to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Songs are chosen in this part of worship because they teach us of the character, worth, or glory of God. One admitted weakness in our singing is a notable lack of singing the Psalms. Thankfully, as noted earlier, we are still in process!
Another important aspect of worship is public prayer. We are attempting to model biblical prayers throughout the different aspects of worship. This particular portion includes a prayer of adoration that recognizes the greatness and majesty of God.
2. The Lord cleanses us from our sins
Having come into the presence of God at His invitation can only leave us in recognition of the stark contrast between His holiness and our sinfulness. In this portion of worship we sing songs and read Scripture that remind us of the gospel and its provision for our needs. This provides another opportunity to speak in a comprehensible way to all present. Many of us have heard the popular demand that worship should leave the participant “feeling better.” But on what basis are they to feel better? What is the remedy for sin and its consequences?
Our goal in considering sin is not to drive people to morbid introspection and leave them there, as if feeling badly about sin somehow takes it away. But neither is the goal to pretend that sin does not exist or to teach management techniques, as if an hour of upbeat singing and moralistic teaching will somehow help us survive the brokenness of the coming week.
We hope to teach everyone present that the remedy for sin and all its consequences is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every week we are encouraged to run to Christ in repentance and faith, believing the gospel again and again. Sometimes a pastoral prayer that models confession helps others to understand this part of worship. From time to time we will read a prayer of confession found in Valley of Vision. More often we spend time in silent confession of sins. We hope this part of worship provides a model and calls individuals to do this in private worship on a regular basis. It also calls us to deal with our sin in a biblical way, as opposed to the man-made methods and strategies that pour forth from man-centered philosophies.
3. The Lord consecrates us by His Word
Paul calls us in 1 Timothy 4:13 to give attention to the public reading of Scripture, so this section begins with a reading from a larger passage of Scripture. The choice of these passages is based upon multiple purposes. In the weeks before we began a series of sermons in the gospel of Mark, we read through Mark as a congregation. While preaching through Mark, we are reading through large sections of Isaiah, which Mark often quotes, alludes to, or presents as fulfilled prophecy.
This section of worship also allows for an extended time of prayer revolving around thanksgiving and intercession. We do not have a mid-week prayer service as a church, so this gives us an opportunity to pray at length for needs in our congregation and to model thankfulness to God.
So far in worship we have participated in prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. We have also sung songs that teach, encourage, confess truth, and rejoice in the truth of the gospel. We then come to what we see as the center of worship: the proclamation of the Word of God. We believe this because the Bible places so much emphasis upon the Word of God proclaimed.
Someone once said that they attend such and such a church when they feel the need to worship but another church across town when they want to hear the Bible preached. This false dichotomy between singing as worship and preaching as something else must be resisted. One way we do this is through printed statements in the bulletin. We also emphasize from the pulpit that we continue in worship by gathering around the Word of God to hear it proclaimed. Participation at this point is no less active than when praying or singing. At the end of the sermon we press this point again by having a time of quiet meditation, during which the congregation may reflect on what they have heard and how they might be responsible to respond.
We also include the offering at this point because it is a response to God and recognition of His provision and a confession of our dependence upon Him. We often explain that the offering is more than a means of financing the church; it is an act of worship and submission to God. After the offering, we include songs of response to punctuate truths we have been learning.
4. The Lord blesses us and sends us out
We do not have a traditional “invitation” at Grace Heritage Church. We see no precedent for it in the Scriptures, and we do not want to confuse conversion with walking to the front of a room. At the same time we do not want to remove the sense of urgency from God’s command that all men everywhere should repent and believe the gospel. Consequently, we see the entire sermon as an invitation to respond to Christ and encourage all present to do so. We also make our elders available at the end of worship to answer questions or provide counsel to any who may have need.
As mentioned above, God has the first and last word in worship. Therefore we end with a benediction, usually quoted directly from Scripture. This reminds us of God’s claim upon our lives as well as His provision for us to “walk worthy of the calling” with which we have been called. Lord willing, we will proceed into the rest of the day and the coming week both experiencing and holding forth the hope of the gospel.
In conclusion, our deep hope is that our worship is God-centered. We understand that we were created through Him and for Him. He is the center of all things. Consequently we are charged to resist the temptation to make worship about what people are feeling at the end of the day.
However, we reformed folk can have the tendency to be so structurally orthodox that at the end of the day people are feeling nothing. This does not seem to be the doxological pattern of the Scriptures. Both testaments reveal great emotion in worship; David repeatedly expresses rapturous delight in God, and Paul can barely speak of the work of Christ without breaking forth in praise charged with emotion. And we are quite familiar with the command to worship in both spirit and truth. Certainly, emotion for emotion’s sake is not the goal. But when God is truly at the center of worship, both our heads and our hearts will be enflamed with no extra-biblical stimulus necessary.