Assemblies that move us to a more profound alleluia!
Everyone has assemblies. Even non-religious people have assemblies. The Moose Club on 5th Avenue has assemblies. Football lovers have assemblies. Art guilds have assemblies. Assemblies define who we are. We choose which assemblies are primary for us.
Christians have assemblies. God has gathered us together to be God’s people. As God’s people, we gather each week in joyful assembly.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words, so that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken…But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first born, whose names are written heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood … Therefore, … let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:18-24, 28-29).
Christians have always followed a pattern in their worship. Though there were variations in local custom, the usual worship service included reading of scriptures, preaching, several kinds of prayers, singing, and the Lord’s Supper. Worship is a time for praise and adoration, confession and restitution, commemoration and offering response. Within these contexts, Scripture speaks little about the formal aspects of the assembly leaving us the freedom to decide for ourselves.
Worship is three dimensional. Worship has a vertical relationship with the Father. Worship is an encounter with God. Worship renewal only comes when we know who God is. During worship we know and experience the presence of God. Worship enables us to experience God’s transcendence and intimacy. We honor, bless, and praise the Lord. Here, worship is a celebration and a memorial. Worship is our response to God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. We worship a present and a living God. Where there is no passion for God there is no power in worship. Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ (Col 2:16-17). Rituals, sacrifices, and ceremonies are replaced by Christ. The ultimate worship given to God was offered by Christ in his self-giving on the cross. Our worship is this same sacrificial existence living in us (Rom 12:1). Worship is a participation with Christ’s sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. When the death, burial, and resurrection becomes reality in each of our lives as a present and ongoing part of our existence, then we truly worship. Worship through Christ is an encounter with God.
Although often neglected, worship also has an evangelistic dimension.
So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:23-25).
Orderly worship is evangelistic. Let us expect the power of the Word to change lives. Allow the presence of God to manifest itself through us to others. People will respond by meeting Jesus through our worship.
Furthermore, worship has a horizontal dimension as we relate to one another. We come together as lonely people of faith, united in an assembly where we give each other a reaffirming message of who we are as opposed to who we are not. We gather together to encourage each other.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. . . .Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. . . . Be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hear to the Lord. . . . v 3 for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort…v 5 so that the church may be edified…v 12 excel in gifts that build up the church…v 17 the other one is not edified…v 19 in the church…words to instruct others…v 26 All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church…v 31 so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged…v 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace…v 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way (Heb 10:19-25; Col 3:16; Eph 5:19; 1 Cor 14:3, 5, 17, 19, 26, 31, 33, 40].
Services that are vital, relevant, and exciting are: (1) Carefully planned. Even the most informal and spontaneous services have order even if it is unwritten and unstated. Even if you attended a loosly organized gathering but were to say the wrong thing or act the wrong way, most would know you are out of place. Formlessness in a worship community destroys community. (2) The persons who lead vital worship assemblies have learned to work together effectively as a team. (3) Services that are vital speak the language of the congregation. They have ownership of what takes place.
Some want change for change sake. Some want change because of their own personal growth walk with God. Some want change reacting against bad past experiences. Some want change too quickly. Some don’t want change at all. Change takes careful planning. What took twenty-five years in developing will not be abandoned in one year. Observe where people are now. Not only understand what they do but why they do it. Most people don’t resist the introduction of a new song because they’re sticks in the mud. They resist it because it doesn’t speak their “heart language.” If we want to introduce a responsive reading of a Psalm, plan that introduction in such a way that the congregation can worship. If you are considering change, ask these questions: “Does this change deepen reverence in worship? Does this change help focus us on the presence of the living God? Will this change enhance mutual edification?
Liturgy: the work of the people. Liturgy is the work of the people, of the congregation as their unified response to God. As autonomous churches, we must decide for ourselves, using spiritual discernment, as to what is best for our local situations. Some congregations may choose a formal style; while others informal. There’s no ideal model of Christian order of worship which we must discover and to which we must return. Rather, it is up to each generation to do what the apostolic church did: apply the mystery of Christ to today’s situation. We need discernment in what Scriptures teach about worship. We need discernment about what it means to worship. I believe part of that discernment will lead us to incorporate worship rituals and practices into our assemblies. Whether we use the term or not, we all have liturgy and we all need liturgy.
It has been stated that rituals in a family are vital in developing healthy families. Rituals are important not so much for whatever is actually said or done, but for the results they yield—the sense of “we-ness” that grows out of shared experience, and the feeling of “rightness” that comes from its repetition. More than anything, the ritual is a symbol of how family members feel about one another.
From: “Rituals are Family Keepsakes That Live In Your Heart.” Jay Schvaneldt, Sociologist at Utah State University. McCalls, Dec. 1981.
- Rituals reinforce family closeness.
- Rituals enhance a family’s sense of stability and emotional security.
- For the young children, bedtime rituals are a source of comfort and reassurance.
- Rituals put a special stamp on family milestones.
- Rituals forge a link between generations.
- Rituals are a way of maintaining family values.
- Rituals set forth appropriate behavior for special occasions.
There is value in sameness. Each of the family members will feel welcome and comfortable as they are invited to participate. Renewal does not come by innovation alone or change for change sake. Any over emphasis on mechanics or the externals of worship will leave the gathering of saints malnourished. Renewal comes by enriching what we do with an awareness of the presence of God (which requires innovation at times).
Ritual (patterned, purposeful, predictable, public behavior) is an integral part of all public worship. Even if we changed everything tomorrow, we will create new patterns, rituals, and traditions. Human beings in groups will do things in prescribed patterned ways. We need traditions in order to exist as community. It is a hectic and ever changing world out there. We need someplace that is stable. A gathering of people who will remind us who we are and tell us the stories of our faith again and again. The assembly must provide safe boundaries from the world where the people of God have freedom for growth. A place where the church can be the church and not look like the world. Liturgy helps form that Christian identity. Liturgy creates a world for the Christian. During the gathering of the people of God we can see with eyes of faith the realities of God.
Planning includes what we do this week to get ready for next Sunday. No one will accept an unorganized sermon or an unprepared preacher. We do not appreciate the song leader thumbing through the index to select the next hymn. Whether it be the sermon, communion comments, songs, or prayers, those involved with the worship leadership on any given Sunday should prepare themselves. Primarily, in their own personal walk with God so that when they lead in worship they worship themselves. Then, and only then, should attention be given to the mechanics of worship.
We all do some planning. We have a set order of worship that we usually follow every week. Maybe we have a deacon in charge of worship assignments—who does what and when. The preacher usually selects the text to be read and sermon to preach. The song leader usually selects songs ahead of time. I believe, that greater attention should be given to the coordinating of all our aspects of worship into a unified whole. That way if the sermon is from John 1, the prayers and songs all work together for the glory of God. Our assemblies move us to a more profound alleluia.
Planning also involves long-term direction setting. We desire to grow and be transform into the image of God. Leadership should intentionally plan a dynamic future for the congregation to enter into the presence of God each week. This involves assigning specific responsibilities for the ongoing planning, coordination, and evaluation of the services. It involves educating the congregation to what worship is. It involves planning time and space that complements your congregation’s personality and understanding of worship.
I see planning like watching a movie rather than looking at slides. Worship needs movement. Worship ought not be disjointed. Hymns of praise move toward memorial as the scene shifts to the Lord’s Table. Mood and the tone of the service is planned as well as theme. From the Call to Worship to the Benediction, the service is a unified whole. Our assemblies move us to a more profound alleluia.
We should also plan variety. Variety is necessary for relevance. Due to the diversity in the body, what is needed most for edifying assemblies is acceptance of one another. Variety meets different people’s differing needs and personal preferences. And when we experience a worship style that does not conform to our preferences, then we know we are serving the others who do fancy that style. Next week, the shoe will be on the other foot, as they say. Variety is worthless without authenticity. Therefore, it requires intentional planning to maintain the balance of variety, relevance, and ritual.
Now let me contradict myself. We need to plan in our assemblies intentional spontaneous moments. We need to keep the paradox in tension. These times of spontaneous worship can be planned with excellence. For example, a time for prayer requests. We need to be open to the Spirit’s leading. Expect the sudden inbreak of the eternal God. If worship can be compared to a theatrical performance, then the entire congregation is in the cast while God sits in the audience. Yet, for me, God’s presence is more than that. God is actively participating with me. One way this happens is recognizing that Jesus functions as the host during the service of the table. I want to remain open to being surprised by God in unexpected moments. Even if the songs are dragging, the reading stuttered, and the sermon read word for word from a manuscript, by the power of God the community can still know the sweet presence of God. The awareness of the holy and the intimacy we have with God is beyond the reach of mechanics.
Harry owned a store for most of his life. He went out to lunch every day with the other “boys” downtown in New York. They sat at the same table and they had the same waiter. At twelve o’clock sharp, the waiter knew that they would arrive and knew what to bring them. Every day the same jokes were passed back and forth. “Harry, you’re losing more hair.” “It’s okay, Joe, you’re putting on weight.” And so on. Well, the years went by, the restaurant was bought out by somebody new. The waiter died. The table was shoved into a corner and another table was put in next to it, so that the new management could make more money. In and out: that was the new policy. Harry and the boys stopped going. In fact, one of the boys already had died. And even Harry, now in his late sixties, decided that business was harder than ever and maybe he would retire.
Even now you can visit my friend Harry, but he sits at home all day. If you visit him, he will usher you into his study with its old worn chair where Harry likes to read at night, and a little desk where he keeps the books. On the desk you will see Harry’s most prized possession: an ash tray. Now Harry doesn’t smoke. And so you may ask him, as I ask him, “Harry, why the ash tray?” To this, Harry smiles and says, “Well, you see, the happiest moments of my life were spent in a little restaurant near work. And when we had to leave and the old gang departed, I thought, well, I’ll just take an ash tray home with me to remember those days. And when I feel sad, I come in here and I just look at the ash tray and remember the boys.” —Lawrence A. Hoffman
We will know we have succeeded in our assembly when the Harrys, Joes, and Sallys—all the people who make up the group which we are a part, no longer have ash trays from restaurants on their desks, but have tattered pages from a Bible instead. And they shall say of their lives, “I’ve worked and I’ve played. I’ve been around. But my most meaningful moments were spent in fellowship with the saints.” May it be God’s will that we succeed in this holy task.
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_______. “What Does Liturgy Do? Toward a Soteriology of Liturgical Celebration: Some Theses.” Worship 66 (May 1992): 194-211.
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