February 16, 2017

Every component of worship, every week?

by Jesse Johnson

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Last week I listed seven components of worship that should take place when the church is gathered: fellowship, ordinances, Scripture reading, giving, corporate prayer, preaching, and singing. By itself, this list demonstrates the necessity of being part of a church. If a Christian is not part of a church, he separates himself from not only the means of grace, but the means of worship as well.

This week I want to answer this question: should all seven of them be present in every service? Or, to ask it another way, are any of these seven prioritized over the others? Is every form of corporate worship equal, or are some more equal than others? 

Of the seven, fellowship stands out as being the one that cannot really be planned for (while obviously fellowship is aided by the preaching of the word, presumably it cannot be scheduled into the worship service; rather it should take place organically). With the six remaining components, it is also likely that all six cannot be represented in every service.

The reality is that as those six elements are fleshed out, there will be strategic decisions made about how often each takes place, as well as the arraignment of each of them. Hence the question—which of these should be prioritized?

The New Testament repeatedly instructs churches to be devoted to the preaching of the word and the study of the Apostle’s doctrine. For example, Paul says, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God” (Col 1:25). He tells the Romans that they were “established by the preaching of Jesus” (Rom 16:25, and preaching in that context is best understood as a genitive of reference—not source, as the Romans had never heard Jesus preach before).

The book of Acts ends with Paul “preaching the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:31), and when he looked back at his own ministry within the churches, it was always a ministry of “going about and preaching the kingdom” (Acts 20:25; cf. Acts 8:4, 15:35—“preaching the word of the Lord”). After being released from jail, the Apostles “Preached Jesus as the Christ” in every meeting of the church (Acts 5:4). In fact, when his time in Ephesus had come to a close, he said that his ministry was defined by the act of “declaring the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). It is in this light that it is best to see his command to Timothy to be faithful to “preach the word…both in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2).

Thus preaching rightly lies at the heart of every corporate worship service. In fact, if the gift of prophecy is understood as the proclaiming of God’s word (which is how I understand it), then Paul actually commands that it take place every time “the whole church assembles together” for corporate worship (1 Cor 14:23; cf. v. 22).

The same could be said about singing. In fact, in that same passage Paul says that along with the supernatural gifts (which have since ceased—and in fact this is a strong argument for cessationism), every time the church assembles together, there should be teaching as well as “a psalm” (1 Cor 14:26). In light of Ephesians 5:19—“psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord”—it is best to understand the design of the corporate worship service, as well as the implications of 1 Cor 14:26, to include multiple songs. In other words, every time the church gathers they should sing songs and hear the word preached.

Moreover, in 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul says that prayer should take place “in every place.” As with the rest of 1 Timothy, it is obvious that Paul is giving instructions for the congregational worship of the church. Thus, every time the church meets, it should be marked by prayer.

A similar, although not identical, command concerns giving. When the church gathers, each person “must do just as he purposed in his heart” concerning giving to the church (2 Cor 9:7). He encourages people to come “prepared” to give, so that no one is embarrassed (2 Cor 9:2-4, CSB). But taken with the admonition in 1 Corinthians 16:2, which specifies that this preparation should take place on the fist day of the week—it seems that corporate giving is modeled on a weekly basis, more than at an every service basis.

Interestingly, all four of these (singing, giving, praying, and preaching) fit with the pattern of the early church in Acts. We don’t have many glimpses into their worship services, but when Luke does pull the veil back, we see that they were singing, giving, praying and preaching.

The other elements are presented with less frequency. For example, concerning the public reading of Scripture, Paul writes that Timothy should “give attention” to it, and then also links it to “preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). In other words, the act of preaching the text seems to fulfill Paul’s command. It is still wise to do it independently of the preaching (it highlights the authority, perspicuity, and clarity of Scripture while demonstrating that the pastor is under the authority of the Word), but it does not seem to be an essential part of every week’s service.

The same can be said for the instructions on communion and baptism. While certainly you should baptize converts as soon as is practical, if there aren’t people coming to faith every week, then there won’t be baptisms at every worship service. Finally, with communion Paul makes it clear that while the church in Acts 2 celebrated it every time they gathered, that there is liberty there as well. In 1 Corinthians 11:25-26, he says “as often as” you practice it, which would be a strange phrase for him to use if it was celebrated at every corporate gathering.

Taken together, the New Testament models singing, prayer, and preaching at every corporate worship service, with the priority placed on preaching. It instructs for giving every week, regular Scripture reading, and frequent baptism/communion. In other words, our worship should look a lot like it is practiced in most evangelical churches.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jonathan F.

    Good thoughts on corporate worship. I’ve enjoyed both posts in this series.

    I was in one local church that observed the Lord’s Supper every week and some that do it every month/quarter. I agree that there is liberty here. Personally, I enjoy participating each week. The weekly reminder of Christ’s atonement and reflection on my own (weekly) sin that made it necessary was a continually humbling event.

    In this series (or maybe in a new series) it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the ordinary means of grace (since this is basically a neo-Puritan blog after all, ha!).

    • Great idea Jonathan. I’ll file it away, queue it up, and then put it on deck. Or something.

  • bs

    Jesse, I am surprised that we can claim that the Bible is authoritative, perspicuous and clear and yet we place more value on what someone says about it (“priority on preaching”) than on the reading itself (“does not seem to be an essential part of every week’s service”). Is this _really_ the way it should be?

    • Well, as I mentioned above, there are about a dozen (at least) verses in the NT modeling preaching, and really one that models reading. Not that you need the Bible to say something more than one time for it to be true, but in this case there is also a strange word used (“give attention to”) which just stands out as being different than the constant focus on preaching.
      Now dont’ get me wrong. I’m not saying you should ignore BIble reading, or that BIble reading is not important. it is food for the soul, the center of our walk with Christ. But in the corporate context, there is obviously a priority placed on preaching. I mean, I charge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus who will judge the living and the dead, and the elect angels…PREACH!

      Maybe a problem is too few Christians read the BIble except when at church. If that’s the case, I see why its a huge problem.

      • bs

        Jesse, thank you for your reply. I wonder though if you have missed a few things.

        In 1Tim 4:13 arn’t all three (reading, exhortation, teaching) _coordinated_ attributes of “devote yourself to”?

        Are there also other clues about what the practice of public reading of scripture may have been in the early church, for instance Luke 4:16-30, Acts 13:14-15, even Col 4:16? Isn’t it thought that the church followed the practice of the synagogue but added epistle and gospel readings (Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, 39). Note also Dix’ chart of the development of the liturgy to AD 800 where the only common features of the basic liturgy across the churches were Lections (Readings) Sermon and Dismissal.

        The practice then is found throughout church history and for a fairly obvious reason. As you say “too few Christians read the BIble except when in church”. Of course this has always been the case because literacy is a fairly recent (and localised) ability for “ordinary” Christians. The problem which you see has ALWAYS been there. Regular, extensive public reading of scripture was required if people were to ever come to know the scriptures. Or did the NT writers think that knowing the Bible could be gained through sermons alone?

        A recent paper by N.T. Wright (“Sign and Means of New Creation: Public Worship and the Creative Reading of Scripture”) is very helpful in showing why regular public reading of scripture is important, with some hints of how to do it.

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