What should churches do when they gather? What should Christians expect to find in an order of service?
If one surveys evangelical congregations, the answer to that question may seem fuzzy at best. Some take a pragmatic approach to their Sunday morning agenda: if it works, it’s good. Others are more seeker-sensitive and blend traditional practices with contemporary trends. But the answer is actually quite simple: the Bible tells us.
This is not to say that everyone agrees with the finer details. But God’s Word tells us how to worship as surely as it tells us what to believe and how to live. Worship practices are not like ice cream toppings; we do not whip up a sundae to our own liking. We have neither the authority nor the wisdom to ignore or supplant what God has commanded.
The New Testament instructs us to do at least six things when we gather: (1) preach the Word, (2) sing together, (3) pray together, (4) read the Bible, (5) lift offerings, and (6) share the Lord’s Supper.
Preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2)
Paul instructed Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
During the Reformation, pulpits were moved to the center of the church. Since then, Protestants have largely agreed that the preaching of God’s Word is the most important thing that happens when the saints gather. But preachers may not proclaim whatever they please. Those who wait for a spark of inspiration (usually attributed to the Holy Spirit) are a law unto themselves; they should preach the word.
Paul instructed Timothy that in order to be an unashamed worker who is approved of God, he would need to accurately handle or divide the the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). When the church gathers, preachers must proclaim Christ through a careful division of the Scriptures. Paul set the example when preaching “the whole counsel of God” while in Ephesus (Acts 20:27)—a church that he pastored for three years. Systematic exposition of the word is essential to a healthy church.
Sing Together (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16), “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
When the church gathers, Christians must sing to one another. During a church service, we do not focus on God with such laser intensity that we forget those in the neighboring pews. We need to be much alone with God in private, but the activity of the assembled church is corporate through-and-through. We lift up our hearts to the Lord together. And we do this by singing hymns, spiritual songs, and psalms.
Hymns: The Christian church has a rich heritage of hymnody, and the Bible itself contains hymns (e.g. the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11). We should sing hymns that are theologically robust and Christ-centered. If your church has abandoned hymns for worship choruses that are unsuitable for congregational singing, it is not too late to go back.
Spiritual songs: It is not clear how spiritual songs differ from hymns, but Paul may have been referring to spontaneous words of praise inspired by the Spirit (1 Cor. 4:15). Some consider these to be comparable to a special song in which one member addresses the whole body.
Psalms: This refers to the Old Testament Psalms. Sadly, few churches obey this instruction and thereby omit the only church music that is infallible. If your church has never sang the Psalms, consider Seedbed’s Psalter; each Biblical psalm is rewritten in metrical form and set to familiar tunes.
Pray Together (1 Tim. 2:8)
“I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8).
Corporate prayer, led by holy men, is essential for the flourishing of the church. In Revelation 8:3-5, an angel “was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” God hears the prayers of all his people. John Owen encourages us that “the prayers of the meanest saints may be useful to the greatest apostle.”
However uncomfortable it may be at first, every Christian should be encouraged to pray aloud. A church may need to be instructed in the language of prayer from the Psalms before they are confident enough to pray aloud. But there is great value in doing so. The church that is weak in corporate prayer will inevitably lack spiritual power (Ja. 5:16). The church that lifts its voice together as one voice will be edified.
Read the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13)
“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
One of the few descriptions of early Christian worship comes from Justin Martyr in the second century: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”
Twenty centuries later, we should be embarrassed by the lack of Bible reading in most evangelical churches. Many do not bring their Bibles to church because they do not expect to open them for more than one or two verses—usually before their pastor’s topical talk.
If your church does not regularly incorporate Scripture reading into its worship, start now. Appoint an elder to select a passage for Sunday morning worship. Read through whole books of the Bible over several weeks. On occasion, set aside an entire service to read a book from start to finish.
Lift Offerings (1 Cor. 16:2)
“On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” (1 Cor. 16:2)
Pastors should delineate (as did Paul) the specific purposes for which collected funds will be used. But every Christian should understand that it is God’s will for freewill offerings to be lifted and that God will reward a cheerful giver.
Share the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:26)
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
Paul was intentional to deliver to the Corinthians what he had learned from Jesus (1 Cor. 11:23): churches should remember Christ’s death by observing his Supper. In the Corinthian church, this seemed to be a weekly occurrence. Paul did not question their frequency; he addressed other issues surrounding their practice. This is not to say that we must practice it weekly, but most churches should practice it more often than they do.
John Wesley practiced the Supper nearly every week. He explained that the sacrament was “daily received in the beginning by the whole Church of Christ, and highly esteemed, till the love of many waxed cold, as the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (emphasis added).
Churches that share the sacrament only once or twice a year are neglecting one of God’s primary means for the remembering and proclaiming of his Son’s death. To suggest that it will “get old” or “lose its significance” is to take a very low view of the Supper.