Furthermore, in secular society, people worship (ascribe “worth” to) all kinds of things: from celebrities to wealth to sports teams. These affections, however misplaced, reveal the truth that human beings were created to worship. We simply cannot not worship.
Christian worship is an encounter with and response to the living God who revealed himself fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s promised Messiah. Therefore, worship that is distinctly Christian should include elements that make clear who the God we worship is, and what this God has done. In Christian worship, Christ is central. The Church is engaged in retelling God’s redemption story week after week. Furthermore, Christians worship the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Christian worship will not neglect the Holy W Spirit and will seek to reflect the trinitarian nature of God.
Christian worship is both personal and corporate; this article specifically addresses corporate worship, the action of the Church gathered. Worship helps us, as the Church and as individuals, understand who God is, who we are, and who God is calling us to be. One must enter into relationship with God before one can rightly worship God. Christian worship, therefore, is only possible for believers. And while the primary purpose of Christian worship is not evangelism, worship services should not be exclusive; all are invited to participate.
In what follows, we will outline some of the most common features of Christian worship: we are gathered, we celebrate, we proclaim, we respond, and we are sent. This guide is not meant to be a complete list to tell you exactly what to do, but we hope it will be a helpful reference for those who want to understand what we do in worship and why.
WE ARE GATHERED
Our God calls us together as the body of Christ. This portion of the service should help us transition from our separate, everyday lives into our shared life in Christ.
Why is this important? As leaders, we do not know what our people have experienced throughout the past week and what they bring into worship with them. The reality is that most of us do not walk through the doors ready to encounter and listen to the living God. In these moments of the gathering, we invite our people into worship, focus on God’s presence, calm our hearts and minds, and prepare to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS WE ARE GATHERED:
- Opening prayer – Sometimes called an invocation (because it invokes or acknowledges God’s presence), names the God we worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Call to Worship – A song, scripture, or statement that ushers us into God’s presence.
- Greeting – May be used as an opportunity for the congregation to welcome one another, especially those who are new to the fellowship.
- Creeds – Historical statements of the Church that affirm our basic beliefs; traditionally, Nazarenes use the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
Early Nazarenes were known for loud and boisterous singing, but this did not start with us. Christian worship has been celebratory from the beginning. The first Christians re-examined the Jewish festivals through the lens of Jesus the Messiah. Even the day of worship was moved from Saturday (the Sabbath) to Sunday (the “Lord’s day”) to celebrate Christ’s resurrection! When we think about who God is and what God has done, how can we not celebrate?
Why is this important? We are called to live a victorious Christian life. When bad things happen, we are called to celebrate the victory that is ours. Paul and Silas sang songs of faith in their jail cell (Acts 16). Jehosaphat put the choir out in front of the army as they marched into a hopeless battle (2 Chronicles 20). In both instances, the celebration of God preceded a mighty move of God. As we gather and celebrate our Creator, God’s Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in Heaven.”
HERE ARE SOME WAYS THAT WE CELEBRATE:
- Singing – Songs about God and to God provide our congregations with an opportunity to rejoice in who God is: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Provider, Healer, and so on (e.g., “Your Great Name”; “All Creatures of Our God and King”).
- Testimonies – Stories of how God works in our lives always have a place within worship; find creative ways to incorporate current stories from people within the church family.
- Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Communion or the Eucharist) allow us to participate in Jesus’ story and celebrate Christ’s healing presence. The sacraments often take the form of response at the end of a service but may also be part of celebration.
- Prayers – Thanksgiving, intercession, pastoral prayers of blessing, prayers of adoration: all of these remind us whom we celebrate and why.
After we have been gathered together as the body of Christ, we are prepared to listen closely for God speaking into our lives individually and corporately. The primary way that God speaks to God’s people is through the proclamation of the Word.
Why is this important? We believe that God is actively engaged with God’s people. When the gospel is proclaimed, God is revealed. When God is revealed in new ways, the community of faith is challenged to listen closely for ways that God is speaking. We must never be complacent in our faith, but instead seek avenues through which God continues to shape and form us as disciples.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS THAT THE WORD IS PROCLAIMED:
- Preaching – As Protestants, preaching is often central in our worship services and is understood as the primary way that God communicates with the Church. The sermon should always move people toward a response to how God is working in the lives of God’s people.
- Scripture Readings – We believe that God is revealed in the words of the Bible. The worship leader should be intentional not only in using Scripture in the worship service but also in allowing the biblical text to shape the service.
- Songs of Proclamation – God is not only revealed in the spoken and read Word but also through words set to music. Songs of proclamation may be used to teach doctrine and to present biblical narratives (e.g., “We Come, O Christ, to You”; “In Christ Alone”).
- Creeds (see above) – Not only declare our unity in the gathering but proclaim who God is and what God has done, is doing, and is going to do.
- Testimonies / Stories – The Word of God is often powerfully proclaimed through stories that illustrate a biblical truth and inspire the congregation to faithful living.
Any time the Word of God is proclaimed, it calls for a response. The response for us is either to be transformed more fully into the image of Christ or to not accept the Word and remain unchanged.
Why is this important? A time of response in a worship service makes room for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of those gathered. Their response to the Spirit will be the transformational work of God in their lives.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS THAT WE RESPOND:
- Prayers (e.g., confession, repentance) – Often the natural response to the Word is confession of sin as we admit our insufficiency and need for a Savior.
- Altar call – A significant feature of the Nazarene heritage, many times this refers to calling sinners to repent of their sins and asking Christ to be Lord of their lives.
- Giving – When Christ is Lord of our lives, we freely give our tithes and offerings as an act of trust in God’s faithfulness to provide for our every need. We give with willing hearts in response to the grace and generosity of God.
- Songs of Response – Songs that express our testimony (e.g., “It Is Well With My Soul”; “Redeemed” by Mike Weaver), our surrender (e.g. “Be Everything to Me” by Regi Stone; “Just As I Am”), our need for God (e.g., “I Need Thee Every Hour”), and so on.
- Sacraments (see above) – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are always appropriate responses to the proclamation of the Word; while baptism is often celebrated only periodically after sufficient teaching and preparation, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated more frequently, even weekly in many churches.
- Creative Acts of Response – For instance, in response to a sermon about forgiveness, worshipers may be invited to write a letter to someone asking forgiveness; in response to a message about service and working together as the body of Christ, worshipers may be given a puzzle piece as a reminder that they are part of a larger picture. The ways worshipers may be encouraged to respond is only limited by our imaginations.
- Passing of the Peace - Only after we receive grace and peace from our Lord can we truly pass the peace to one another. This is not simply greeting each other but an act of extending the grace and peace of Christ to others gathered for worship.
WE ARE SENT
At the close of our service, it is now time to be sent into the world to carry out what God has asked us to do, and what we have said we will do.
Why is this important? As Christians, we are not given the gift of salvation merely for ourselves, but we are called to go into our world carrying with us the grace, love, and mercy that we have received from Christ. During the sending, we should remind our congregation of the call to missional living.
HERE ARE SOME WAYS THAT WE ARE SENT:
- Songs of Dismissal – Songs that send us from our formal gathering and remind us that we are being sent by God to participate in God’s work in the world (e.g., “We are Called to be God’s People”; “Forth in the Peace of Christ We Go”).
- Closing Prayer – An opportunity for the congregation to speak with God, thanking God for what has happened during worship, petitioning God to go with us this week as we seek to live out the call of God on our lives to be salt and light in the world.
- Benediction/Blessing – “Good words” are spoken to the congregation on behalf of God, reminding the congregation that we serve a God who can and will work on behalf of God’s people. For great scriptural benedictions, look at the closing of Paul’s letters (see esp. 1 Thess. 5:23-24).
- Challenge – Most often follows the benediction and tells the congregation to “Go!” into the world to do something. We are not just walking out the door, but we are walking out the door with a mission to carry out as the people of God, going into the world to live out the call of the gospel.
In addition to these primary “actions” of worship, here are some miscellaneous thoughts on some of the other items and forms that appear in services of Christian worship:
Church Life Milestones – from time to time, pastors are called upon to help parishioners mark certain significant life events within the context of a worship service. Baby dedications provide an opportunity to celebrate new life and name God as Creator and Life-giver. Special times of prayer gathered around teachers and students at the beginning of a school year, or for graduates at the end of a school year, can be a great blessing to these members of the congregation and serve as a meaningful reminder that God wants to work through us in our places of influence. While the church should seek to make space for such needs, it is important to keep the focus on locating our lives within the life of God, rather than the converse: trying to carve out space for God within our lives. Also, pastors and worship leaders should be cautious about allowing “civil” rituals and observances to encroach into our services and potentially crowd out the essential elements of Christian worship.
Diversity in Art Forms – we are created in the image of a creative Creator; therefore, all human creativity has the potential to bring glory to God. However, as the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, while all things may be permissible, not all things are beneficial! If your church is blessed with a wonderful dancer who can use that gift in worship in appropriate, meaningful ways, by all means dance. If you have a great visual artist (e.g., photographer, painter) and can find a way to incorporate their art into your services, by all means do so. But do not feel pressure to incorporate art forms into worship that are not “indigenous” to the culture of your local church. A rockin’ praise band may be a great thing, but if you do not have any drummers or guitar players and are blessed with a wonderful pianist and/or organist, stick with what works.
Contextualized Concerns – It is challenging but essential for pastors and worship leaders to remember that the congregation that we serve is unique. Things will look different from one context to another, primarily because they are different places with different people, and different understandings of how we communicate with God and answer God’s call on our lives. We should never try to make our congregation fit the mold of another congregation that is successful or that we “like” better. Instead, our job as leaders is to understand our people and where God might be leading us as a community; and then, in light of those things, begin to faithfully shape our worship services.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Brent Peterson, Created to Worship: God’s Invitation to Become Fully Human (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2012).
- Dan Boone, The Worship Plot: Finding Unity in Our Common Story (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2007).
- Constance Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).
- Dave Ferguson, Jon Ferguson, and Eric Bramlett, The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of Your Church through Creative Collaboration (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
- Todd Keller, “Fishers of Men – Worship Evangelism in the 21st Century” (article), in Worship Leader Magazine, 22:3 (May 2013).
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS:
- BRANNON HANCOCK is worship pastor, Xenia Church of the Nazarene.
- CLARK HOWE is Worship Arts Pastor, Chicago First Church of the Nazarene.
- DAVE CLARK is Director of Creative Development and Publishing for Lillenas Music.
- DAVID DIEHL is Worship Ministries Director, Nashville First Church.
- DEAN DIEHL is Director of the Music Business Program, Trevecca Nazarene University.
- HARLAN MOORE is Minister of Worship Arts, Bethany First Church of the Nazarene.
- HEATHER DAUGHERTY is director of the Center for Worship Arts, Trevecca Nazarene University.
- SAM GREEN is worship pastor, Hermitage Church of the Nazarene.
Editor’s note: This article partially resulted from discussions held during and after a worship summit which took place June 4-6, 2012, on the campus of Trevecca Nazarene University. Look Look for future worships summits to be held by TNU.