Why we Worship the way we do at First Baptist Church

An Essay by Rev. Dr. Mark G. McKim

Some folk, particularly visitors, may be a bit puzzled about what is happening, and why, when they first come to morning worship. I hope this explanation will help answer some of your questions!

When we gather for Sunday worship, the “order of service” is not accidental, or simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”

The structure of our worship should be determined by our understanding of who God is and what He is about (in other words by our theology).

While different circumstances may sometimes mean changes are appropriate, certain elements of the church’s worship remain constant because God never changes, and the various parts of a worship service logically occur in a particular order. When we ask questions about a worship service such as “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are doing this now, and not earlier, or later?” we are in fact doing a theology of worship. We are asking whether our worship truly reflects what we have come to know about God from the Bible.

The Fourfold Pattern of Worship

At First Baptist Church the order of service for morning worship is a fourfold pattern, sometimes called the “catholic,” that is, universal, pattern because it has been used by Christians since the very earliest days of the church.  In fact this pattern goes back even before the birth of Jesus to the Old Testament! Perhaps the clearest example of this fourfold pattern is found in Isaiah 6.1-8:

Encountering God Results in Awe and Praise

When we enter God’s presence we are awestruck by his majesty, his power, his love and grace, and the only appropriate response is praise.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

Confession of Sin – Assurance of Pardon

However, as soon as we encounter God, we realize our own sinfulness and our need for to ask for forgiveness. Hence Isaiah’s cries out:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

9In accordance with God’s promise (“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1.9), genuine confession and sincere repentance leads to pardon. Thus, Isaiah’s confession of sin leads to words of pardon:

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8

 The Word of God

Having confessed our sins, we are now ready and able to hear God’s word to us. So, Isaiah hears God’s word to him:

8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

In the church’s worship, we hear God’s word to us primarily through the Scriptures which are first read and then proclaimed/taught (through the sermon).

Our Response to God

Once we hear God’s word to us, we need to respond, to take action. That’s exactly what we see Isaiah doing. Once he hears God’s word, he responds at once, saying:

And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

How the Fourfold Pattern Is Seen at First Baptist

This fourfold pattern can be seen clearly during morning worship on most Sundays at First Baptist Church. Let’s see how:

Encountering God Results in Awe and Praise

The first thing we do having entered together into God’s awesome presence is to acknowledge God’s worth with praise. Thus the “introit” is the opening act of worship, a song of praise, sung as the clergy and others leading worship enter the sanctuary.  (In some churches this is always a psalm set to words.) As we gather we greet one another. We are coming apart from the wider society which does not share our commitment to Christ as Lord. Surely we ought to be glad to be here with others who do! Morning worship is our weekly family “get together!”

Since we gather for the purpose of worship, it is appropriate for the person presiding to call those present to order for just that purpose and remind all of us that purpose with a Call to Worship. Then, trusting Christ’s promise of presence where two or three gather in his name, by means of a prayer of invocation or collect, we ask for God to be present among us in power. (“Invocation” means “to call upon” while “Collect” refers to the “collecting” of the prayers of those assembled in a short, summary form.) This prayer will often introduce the theme which those who have planned the worship service intend to weave throughout it.

Since the focus of the church’s worship is to be on God, and acknowledging his worth, then, logically an act of praise to God, such as a hymn, chorus or psalm of praise follows.  (Remember, that in genuine worship the focus is on God, not the worshipper!) There may follow an affirmation of the congregation’s being part of God’s people – in the reciting of a creed or confession of faith, or perhaps we may read together our church covenant. At this time, the children of the congregation have their own opportunity specifically to hear of God’s word to them.

Confession of Sin – Assurance of Pardon

As we enter God’s presence together, we very quickly realize our sinfulness. We need his forgiveness. We have not consistently or fully acknowledged God’s worth and lordship. Almost as soon as praise begins, we realize this and we sense our need to pray for forgiveness. Most of us also need to be reassured regularly that God is merciful and really will forgive us, and so we hear words from Scripture which remind us of God’s promises to forgive the repentant.

The Word of God – Read and Proclaimed

The movement is then, naturally, toward what God would have his forgiven people do and think, believe and say.  Therefore, we turn to the hearing of God’s word, in Scripture. As Protestant Christians we hold that Scripture is the final authority in matters of faith and practice, and as evangelical Protestants in particular, we place great emphasis on the importance of the Bible. Not surprisingly then we want to hear a substantial amount of the Bible read given this high view of Scripture’s authority. (It needs to be said that the widespread practice in many churches of reading only a verse or two of Scripture, if that, and almost never any Old Testament reading, is completely at odds with the conviction that the entire Bible is God’s very word to us.)

A very old and useful pattern is for there to be a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm (which we usually read responsively here at FBC), a reading from one of the letters (“epistles”) of the New Testament and finally a reading from one of the gospels. The gospel, as the record of the life of Jesus, God’s ultimate self-revelation, is normally read last – in the place of honour. At the very least the pattern includes both an Old Testament and a New Testament lesson.

Here at FBC we frequently use the Scripture lessons appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary. A lectionary is simply a list of Scripture verses listed in order for the different Sundays of the year. The Revised Common Lectionary is now the most widespread lectionary in use, with literally hundreds of thousands of churches using it around the world. The use of the lectionary has several advantages, perhaps the chief being that by using it we hear, over a three year cycle, the majority of the entire Bible being read. Of course, since we are part of the free church tradition, we are not somehow obligated to use the lectionary! We freely choose to do so because it can be helpful, and at times our pastors choose to deviate from it in order to preach on other Scripture texts, as the needs of our congregation and the situation may dictate.

Having heard God’s word read, the congregation now listens to hear it explained by that one in their midst whom they have recognized as gifted by God to explain his word. This person, usually one of the ministers of the congregation, explains the Scripture texts which have been read and tries to show their application to day-to-day life. Among Protestant Christians, the long standing expectation is that the minister has spent many years in the formal study of Scripture and theology, and that the congregation, by providing him or her with a salary makes it possible for him or her to devote himself or herself to ongoing intensive study of Scripture. The reading of Scripture and the sermon normally follow close together. This reminds us of close relationship of the two.The sermon is not the pastor’s “sounding off” on any subject he or she chooses. The sermon is to be directly controlled by the Scripture which came just before it.

Our Response to God

If one of the sacraments – Baptism or the Lord’s Supper – is to be observed, this logically follows after the Scriptures have been read and explained. One of the things to which the Protestant Reformers objected was the church in their time would frequently observe these rites with little or no explanation of what they meant. The Reformers insisted that without the Scriptures, the sacraments could have no meaning – they became meaningless rituals. Since both baptism and the Lord’s Supper have an element of human response to God, they are normally placed at this point, as the service begins to move toward response after having heard God’s word.

Now it is time for us to respond to God, to prepare to go back out into the wider society where our faith must be lived out. We have come to a place of sanctuary, a place of refuge, and retreat, but not just so that we can merely enjoy a time of renewal! We are to be renewed and restored so that we can go back out into ministry, into service – back to work! And what is our work? Very simply we are expected to employ our energies and talents to see the Kingdom of God, that is God’s will accomplished, in our own lives, in our homes, at our places of work, in the community and the world.

Notices of the work of the church are given at this point. This is understood as part of the response to God’s word – the notices are opportunities for response and action.

Prayers of the people are offered. These prayers inevitably include praise and thanksgiving in response to God’s word and promises. But, moved by the word we have heard, we also pray for those in need and for the wider world – in other words, our petitions. In the deepest sense we are here praying for the coming of the Kingdom.

An offering for the ongoing work of the church is received – an act of both worship, and response. Sometimes a statement of faith or covenant may be read together at this point (as opposed to the beginning of the service) as part of the movement of response. This depends on the particular worship service.

The minister then usually, commissions or charges all present to live out their faith as we return to the wider world.

Finally, he or she invokes God’s blessing, in benediction, upon the people of God. The benediction is not a “closing prayer,” nor is it the minister blessing the people. It is intended to be God’s blessing of his people, through the words of the pastor. Giving the benediction is one of the greatest privileges any pastor has. These are his or her well loved people, for whose spiritual well being the pastor will be held accountable by God. The pastor has the astonishing privilege of having God speak words of blessing and love to God’s people, through the pastor’s voice.

It should be clear that worship is to carry into the new week, and that it is in the context of the home, classroom, office, workshop, and locker room that faith is to be lived out. We leave morning worship to love and serve the Lord Jesus with joy and thanksgiving in the new week, and to make him known by our words and deeds.

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