In my first foray into public ministry, I was met with what I deemed to be a highly unusual request. One of the elders of the church in which I was serving asked me to refer to the printed order of worship as a “playbill” rather than as a bulletin. This struck me as strange for a number of reasons–not least of which is that I couldn’t wrap my mind around how doing such would appeal to those visiting. However, a deeper concern revolved around my suspicion that this man considered worship to be a spectator sport–a baptized version of the theatre. Though our elements of worship were reflective of a historic Reformed liturgy, the telos of what we were doing in worship was not as clearly defined. This is, no doubt, a common issue among churches throughout the Western world. We live in an entertainment driven culture, and, as such, see many seeking to cater to such a mindset. Turning worship into a spectator event is to miss the rich participatory nature of corporate worship.
In the section on “The Parts of Public Worship,” the OPC Directory of Public Worship rightly notes that worship is not a spectator sport. It says,
“The triune God is not a passive spectator in public worship, but actively works in each element of the service of worship. Neither are the people of God to be passive spectators in public worship, but by faith are to participate actively in each element of the service of worship” (DPW 1.C.2.).
In the gathered assembly, there are multi-directional dimensions to the various elements of worship. We gather together on the Lord’s Day to look vertically, horizontally, outwardly, inwardly, backwardly, and forwardly in the elements that guide a biblical and God-honoring worship service.
There is first a vertical dimension at work. The people of God come together to lift up their hearts and voices to the God who is enthroned above. Christians gather to listen to the God who speaks through His Son in the Scriptures, as He sends His word out to accomplish His purposes. At the same time, we respond to the word coming down from the triune God by listening to Him, singing His praises, confessing our sins to Him, and receiving from Him assurance of His pardoning grace as well as His benediction.
There is also a horizontal dimension to worship. The people of God are to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). There are 59 “one another” passages in the New Testament that can only be understood in light of the relationship each believer has to other believers in the same worshiping community.
Gathered worship also carries with it a backwards dimension to worship. We gather to remember all that God has done in salvation history. We are reminded of His powerful works that He has shown toward His people (Ps. 111:2–4). We remember especially what He did in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Redemption accomplished is the theme of our songs, the basis of our prayers, and the central message of our teaching and preaching. It is also the basis for the Supper and for the benediction.
All that we do in worship is focused on the eschatological Christ. In this way, we can say that all of worship has a forward focused dimension to it. The people of God are gathering as pilgrims sojourning through the wilderness of this world. As such, believers are hoping in the coming of Christ and to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). They acknowledge that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). Everything we do in corporate worship is a confession that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
Then, there is then an inward dimension to worship–in that believers are to examine themselves when they come into the presence of God. As the author of Ecclesiastes explains,
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil” (Eccl. 5:1).
Jesus also teaches us that we are to consider ways in which we may have offended a brother or sister, and that we are to make every effort to be reconciled to them prior to coming into gathered worship:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23–24).
The Apostle Paul calls believers to examine ourselves as we come to the Supper: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). So, gathered worship has an inward aspect to it. The preaching and the benediction also bring with them an outward dimension to our worship. The Apostle also explains the evangelistic nature of preaching in the gathered assembly, when he writes,
“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:23–25).
Additionally, the people of God are to be equipped to carry out the Great Commission in the teaching and preaching of the word of God. When the ministry sends the people out of the worship service with the divine benediction, he is sending them with the blessing of God into the world to be witnesses to the crucified and risen Christ.
The Lord’s Supper contains all of these directions. The Supper is a sort of culmination to the worship of the people of God–taking the previous elements and bringing them into a concentrated focus on the central message of Scripture. When we come to the table to feed on the bread and the wine, we are look vertically to God to spiritually feed us with the flesh and blood of Christ (John 6:51). We then look horizontally at our brothers and sisters, members of the same body (1 Cor. 11:17–22). As we come to partake, we glance inward to examine ourselves as to whether we are partaking by faith and with love for the saints (1 Cor. 11:27–32). Then, we gaze backward to remember the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins (1 Cor. 11:24–26). We also look forward to the hope of the coming of Christ, and to the great Supper of the Lamb in glory (1 Cor. 11:26). Jesus told His disciples at the first Supper (which was ironically also the last Supper) that He would not eat it again with them until all was fulfilled in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:16). Finally, we are looking outward to the evangelistic mission God has given His people. He is feeding us to make us fruitful in the service of His kingdom.
When we come together in worship, we should do so aware of the multi-dimensional aspect of what we are gathering to do. The God who fills the heavens and the earth, directs our attention to everything that He is does outside of us, around us, and inside us. In this way, no event is more participatory than what believers do Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. May God enable us to enter into it was thoughtfulness, preparation, awareness, and joy.