First Presbyterian Church (PCA)
Jackson, Mississippi, USA
First Presbyterian Publications
Why we worship the way we do
What worship is (and isn’t)
The Goal and Meaning of Public Worship
What our worship looks like: the Elements and Principles
Radically Biblical Worship
Why the manner of congregational worship is important
Worship, culture and reverence
What our worship looks like: the Qualities
Reverent and Joyful
Christ-based (or Mediated)
Active and Passive
What our worship looks like: the Parts
The Greetings and Announcements
The Call to Worship
The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs
The Reading of Scripture
The Presentation of Tithes and Offerings
The Anthem or Offertory
The Sacrament of Baptism
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
The Confession of Faith
The Ten Commandments
The Young Children’s Devotional
The Public Profession of Faith
Preparing for Public Worship
Whole-Life, Personal and Family Worship
Saturday Night Preparation
A Family’s Sunday Morning
After the Service
Comments, Questions and Conclusion
Why we worship the way we do
Why do we worship God in the public services of First Presbyterian Church in the way that we do? People visiting or new to our congregation regularly comment on the form and content of congregational worship of First Presbyterian. There was a time when Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, low-church Episcopal, Methodist and independent Bible church worship services looked very much alike. Today, however, the person who visits among churches is likely to experience as many worship styles as there are churches. Even within the same denomination, there may be a wide variety of worship practices. So it is not surprising that folks new to First Presbyterian Church would have differing impressions of and questions about the public service of worship.
Some come from churches where the public services are much more informal and contemporary. Very often they express appreciation that the service here is Bible-filled (including a regular Scripture reading distinct from the sermon and faithful expository preaching – that is, preaching that explains and applies the Bible), that the tone is serious but joyful, that there are substantive and Scriptural pastoral prayers, as well as rich hymnody and majestic music. Indeed, many are attracted to First Church precisely because of their frustration with what they have encountered in many evangelical churches – the hollow excitement, lack of strong Bible preaching and the triviality of the services. They like the God-centered worship of First Presbyterian in contrast to the more entertainment-oriented worship they’ve experienced, but they aren’t sure of our reasons for doing what we do. They want to understand. Fair enough.
Others who also come from churches with a contemporary “style” occasionally comment that First Church is more “formal” and “traditional” than the churches they’ve been a part of. They like the strong Bible preaching/teaching ministry but will sometimes wonder why First Presbyterian doesn’t use “contemporary music,” sing choruses, and feature a worship team or a praise band. Some of them may secretly wonder if we are a bit stuck in the past, and if we are capable of reaching “this” generation with this “style” of worship. Usually they are too polite to ask, but they really do want to know why public worship is like it is at First Presbyterian Church. Fair question.
Still others come to us from “high church” backgrounds where there is prescribed liturgy strictly adhered to by an officiant. They may be from Lutheran, Anglican (Episcopal), Reformed, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox backgrounds, and First Church has a more “informal” feel to them. Some of them may miss the beauty and structure of those liturgical forms, even if they find public worship at First very edifying and understandable, while others may enjoy the greater freedom and simplicity of public worship here. Nevertheless, they may not know the reasons behind these differences between our practice and what they’ve previously experienced. They’d like to know. Perfectly legitimate.
In the next few pages, we will try to answer these questions (and more) and explain the basic reasons for why we do what we do in public worship here at First Presbyterian Church. We will also provide detailed information about all the elements and parts of our public services.
What Worship is (and isn’t)
What is worship? Well, the Psalmist tells us succinctly. It is giving unto the Lord the glory due his name (Psalm 29:1-2). Jerry Bridges, noted author of The Pursuit of Holiness and Transforming Grace, recently asked this very question and answered as follows: “In Scripture the word worship is used to denote both an overall way of life and a specific activity. When the prophet Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God heaven, who made the sea and the land “(Jonah 1:9), he was speaking about his whole manner of life. In contrast to Jonah’s words, Psalm 100:2 says, “Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” The psalmist there speaks of a specific activity of praising God. This is the sense in which we normally use the word worship today. These two concepts of worship—a broad one and a more narrow, specific one—correspond to the two ways by which we glorify God. We glorify God by ascribing to Him the honor and adoration due to Him because of His excellence—the narrow concept of worship. We also glorify God by reflecting His glory to others—the broader, way-of-life manner of worship.”
To say it a little differently, worship is declaring, with our lips and lives, that God is more important than anything else to us, that he is our deepest desire, that his inherent worth is beyond everything else we hold dear. Lou Giglio has recently, and provocatively, explained: “Think of it this way: Worship is simply about value. The simplest definition I can give is this: Worship is our response to what we value most. That’s why worship is that thing we all do. It’s what we’re all about on any given day. Worship is about saying, ‘This person, this thing, this experience (this whatever) is what matters most to me . . . it’s the thing of highest value in my life.’ That ‘thing’ might be a relationship. A dream. A position. Status. Something you own. A name. A job. Some kind of pleasure. Whatever name you put on it, this ‘thing’ is what you’ve concluded in your heart is worth most to you. And whatever is worth most to you is—you guessed it—what you worship. Worship, in essence, is declaring what we value most. As a result, worship fuels our actions, becoming the driving force of all we do. And we’re not just talking about the religious crowd. The Christian. The churchgoer among us. We’re talking about everybody on planet earth. A multitude of souls proclaiming with every breath what is worthy of their affection, their attention, their allegiance. Proclaiming with every step what it is they worship. Some of us attend the church on the corner, professing to worship the living God above all. Others, who rarely darken the church doors, would say worship isn’t a part of their lives because they aren’t ‘religious.’ But everybody has an altar. And every altar has a throne. So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy: You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your allegiance. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne, and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship. Sure, not too many of us walk around saying; ‘I worship my stuff. I worship my job. I worship this pleasure. I worship her. I worship my body. I worship me!’ But the trail never lies. We may say we value this thing or that thing more than any other, but the volume of our actions speaks louder than our words.”
So worship is rooted in our deepest desires, and reflects those deep desires outwardly. This is important to note because of misconceptions of what constitutes “worship.” It is not uncommon to hear someone distinguish, for instance, between “worship” and the sermon. “We had a great time of worship this morning, and then the pastor gave a really practical message,” someone might say, with utter innocency of spirit, not realizing that the statement reveals that he doesn’t know what worship is. In that sentence, “worship” stands for “experience” and probably for music. The songs and singing leading up to the morning message were moving, made him “feel closer to God” and thus that portion of the service is associated in the heart and mind with “worship.” But this is to confuse the meaning and action of worship with the effects or byproducts of worship. We do not come to a congregational service of worship in order to “experience worship” or to be deeply moved by the time of singing or to have some kind of an emotional catharsis. We come to meet with God and to give to him the glory due his name.
If one has any other goal in worship than engaging with God, coming into the presence of God, to glorify and enjoy him, any other aim than to ascribe his worth, commune with him and receive his favor, then one has yet to worship. For in biblical worship we focus upon God himself and acknowledge his inherent and unique worthiness.
Why do we worship? There is more than one right biblical answer. Surely at the top of the list is “for his own glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31, Psalm 29:1-2). There is no higher answer to “why do we worship?” than because the glory of God is more important than anything else in all creation. The chief end of the church is to glorify and enjoy God together forever, because the chief thing in all the world is God’s glory (Philippians 2:9-11). There are other answers as well: because God said to, because God created us to worship, because God saved us to worship, because it is our natural duty as creatures and joyful duty as Christians to worship, because our worship is a response of gratitude for saving grace, because those with new hearts long to hear his word and express their devotion, because God wants to bless us with himself, because God has chosen us for his own inheritance and seeks to commune with us in his ordinances, and more.
Hughes Old points us to the Psalms and Paul for the answer: “We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being. God created us to be his image—an image that would reflect his glory. In fact, the whole creation was brought into existence to reflect the divine glory. The psalmist tells us that ‘the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1). The apostle Paul in the prayer with which he begins the epistle to the Ephesians makes it clear that God created us to praise him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace . . . (Eph. 1:3-6)
This prayer says much about the worship of the earliest Christians. It shows the consciousness that the first Christians had of the ultimate significance of their worship. They understood themselves to have been destined and appointed to live to the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:12).”
The Goal and Meaning of Public Worship
Our aim, as the congregation gathers to meet with God in public worship on the Lord’s Day, is to glorify and enjoy God, in accordance with his written word. That is, the very purpose of assembling together as the people of God in congregational worship is to give to the Lord the glory due his name and to enjoy the blessing of his promised special presence with his own people, in obedience to his instructions set forth in the Bible.
Corporate worship (so-called because the body or corpus of Christ, that is, the people of God, the Church, is collectively involved in this encounter with God) is sometimes referred to as “gathered,” “assembled” “public,” or “congregational” worship. All of these names are helpful, and bring out different dimensions of this important aspect of biblical worship. Though the Bible indicates that there are, in addition to public worship, other distinct and significant facets of Christian worship (like family worship, private worship and life worship), the importance of public worship is featured in both the Old and New Testaments. When Psalm 100:2 and Hebrews 10:25 speak of “coming before the Lord” and “assembling together” they are both addressing public or gathered worship.
The great distinctive of our whole approach to public worship is that we aim for the form and substance of our corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology. An apt motto for this approach is: “Read the Bible, Preach the Bible, Pray the Bible, Sing the Bible, See the Bible.”
What our worship looks like: the Elements and Principles
At First Presbyterian Church, Bible reading, Bible preaching, Bible praying, Bible singing and biblical observance of the sacraments are at the core of what we do in public worship. This means the following for our services.
We read the Bible in our public worship. Paul told Timothy “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) and so, a worship service influenced by the teaching of Scripture will contain a substantial reading of Scripture (and not just from the sermon text!). The public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. In the reading of God’s word, He speaks most directly to His people.
We preach the Bible in our public worship. Preaching is God’s prime appointed instrument to build up his church. As Paul said “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:14, 17). Faithful biblical preaching is to explain and apply Scripture to the gathered company, believers and unbelievers alike. James Durham put it this way: “This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without, and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord’s side, so should they never be separated on our side.” This means expository and evangelistic preaching, squarely based in the text of the word of God.
People who appreciate the Bible’s teaching on worship will have a high view of preaching, and little time for the personality driven, theologically void, superficially practical, monologues that pass for preaching today. “From the very beginning the sermon was supposed to be an explanation of the Scripture reading,” says Hughes Old. It “is not just a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture.” “Preach the word,” Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). “Expository, sequential, verse by verse, book by book, preaching through the whole Bible, the ‘whole council of God’ (Acts 20:27), was the practice of many of the church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom, Augustine), all the Reformers and the best of their heirs ever since. The preached word is the central feature of Reformed worship.”
We pray the Bible in our public worship. The Father’s house “is a house of prayer” said Jesus (Matthew 21:13). Our prayers ought to be permeated with the language and thought of Scripture. Terry Johnson makes the case thusly: “the pulpit prayers of Reformed churches should be rich in biblical and theological content. Do we not learn the language of Christian devotion from the Bible? Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don’t we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people, for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout.” The call here is not for written and read prayer, but studied free prayer. Our ministers spend time plundering the language of Scripture in preparation for leading in public worship.
We sing the Bible in our public worship (Psalm 98:1, Revelation 5:9, Matthew 26:30, Nehemiah 12:27, 46; Acts 16:25; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). This doesn’t mean that we can only sing Psalms or only sing the language of scripture, though this tremendous doxological resource of the church should not be overlooked. What we mean by “sing the Bible” is that our singing ought to be biblical, shot through with the language, categories and theology of the Bible. It ought to reflect the themes and proportion of the Bible, as well as its substance and weightiness. Terry Johnson, again, provides this counsel: “Our songs should be rich with Biblical and theological content. The current divisions over music are at the heart of our worship wars. Yet some principles should be easy enough to identify. First, what does a Christian worship song look like? Answer, it looks like a Psalm. The Psalms provide the model for Christian hymnody. If the songs we sing in worship look like Psalms, they will develop themes over many lines with minimal repetition. They will be rich in theological and experiential content. They will tell us much about God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. They will express the whole range of human experience and emotion. Second, what does a Christian worship song sound like? Many are quick to point out that God has not given us a book of tunes. No, but He has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words. They will be sophisticated enough to carry substantial content over several lines and stanzas. They will use minimal repetition. They will be appropriate to the emotional mood of the Psalm or Bible-based Christian hymn. Sing the Bible.”
We “see” the Bible in our public worship. That is, we are to observe the appointed visible ordinances or sacraments in public worship. When we say that we are to “see” the Bible, we do so because God’s sacraments are “visible words” (so said Augustine). The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are the only two commanded dramas of Christian worship (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In them we see with our eyes the promise of God. But we could also say that in the sacraments we see/smell/touch/taste the word. In the reading and preaching the word, God addresses our mind and conscience through the hearing. In the sacraments, he uniquely addresses our mind and conscience through the other senses. In, through and to the senses, God’s promise is made tangible. A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to his people. Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the reality of which is received or entered into by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance. And so these “visible symbols of Gospel truths” are to be done as part of our corporate worship. They will be occasional, no matter how frequent, and so we are reminded that they are not essential to every service. This is not to denigrate them in the least. After all, they are by nature supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word, and the grace conveyed in them is the same grace held out via the means of preaching.
Radically Biblical Worship
Our aim then is to have a public worship service that is according to Scripture: that is, a service rooted in the Bible’s teaching about the form and substance of congregational worship. Presbyterians often call this the “regulative principle” in arranging our public worship — the axiom that we ought to worship God in accordance with the Bible’s teaching about the public worship of God. This axiom applied, in turn, helps us with the whole scope of worship. How we go about corporate worship is the business of the second commandment, but it is also a central concern for the New Testament church as well (see, for instance, John 4, 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, and Colossians 2).
For our worship to be biblical in all its aspects means, among other things, (1) that its content, parts and corporateness are all positively in accord with Scripture; (2) that it is simultaneously a communal response of gratitude for grace, an expression of passion for God, the fulfillment of what we were made and redeemed for, a joyful engagement in a delightful obedience, as Scripture teaches; (3) that it is a corporate Christ-provided, Spirit-enabled encounter with the almighty, loving and righteous Father, and thus always has in view the Triune God, again in accord with the Bible’s teaching; and (4) that it aims for and is an expression of God’s own glory, and contemplates the consummation of the eternal covenant in the church triumphant’s everlasting union and communion with God.
Determining that the Bible will guide our worship, helps the church ensure that the elements of worship (like singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments, making solemn vows, confessing the faith and giving offerings) are unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture, and that the forms of worship (how you go about singing, praying, reading Scripture, preaching, administering the sacraments) are in accord with Scripture and serve the elements they are intended to help convey, and that the circumstances of worship (incidentals like whether you sit in pews or chairs or stand, whether you meet in a church building or a storefront, what time you meet, how long you meet, etc.), are maximally helpful in assisting us to do what the Bible calls us to do in worship.
Why the manner of congregational worship is important
Presbyterians have not been concerned with forms and circumstances so much for their own sake as much as for the sake of the elements and substance of worship, and for the sake of the object and aim of worship. The Reformers (from whom Presbyterians have learned much about Scripture) understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message. For example, if you sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (the meter works, but the tune doesn’t – a light, quasi-sea-shanty, with comedic associations, coupled with gravely serious words) it changes the whole tone of what one is doing in singing that text, and easily becomes a sacrilege. Second, they knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.
So Presbyterians care about how we worship not because we think that liturgy (the order of service) is prescribed, mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy can get out of the way of the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the word of God to and from God, from and to His people. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God” (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say: “In true worship men have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness.” That is, in biblical worship we so focus upon God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him, and thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.
Worship, Culture and Reverence
By the way, Presbyterians do not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do. We are against culture-derived worship, and are more concerned to implement to principles of Scripture in our specific culture (and even to emulate the best of the Bible-inspired cultures of Scripture), than we are to reclaim current cultural forms for Christian use. This is precisely one of the areas productive of the greatest controversy in our own age. Many pastors and churches think that, in order to reach people, you must use the church’s worship “style” to position the church for evangelism. Hence, pop-contemporary forms or the distinctive ethnic forms of a particular sub-culture are employed in order to reach an audience that likes that particular “style.” This is exceedingly dangerous and turns the focus of corporate worship on its head, and opens the door to encouraging participants to view themselves as consumers rather than as worshipers. This is a significant problem in our consumer-oriented context.
And we Presbyterians believe that worship ought to be reverent. If worship is meeting with God, how could it be otherwise? It is precisely the reverence and awe of the greatness of God that should characterize worship at its best. We agree with Hughes Oliphant Old who says “The greatest single contribution which the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence, of simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” That’s why we aim for a worship service that is Scriptural, simple, Spiritual, historic, heartfelt, majestic and reverent.
What our worship looks like: the Qualities
So, with these principles in mind, we aspire to the following qualities in our congregational services of worship. We strive to help the congregation offer scriptural, simple, Spiritual, God-centered, historic, reverent and joyful, mediated, corporate, evangelistic, delightful, active and passive, Lord’s Day worship to the living and true God.
We want our worship to be biblical, that is, ordered by God’s own word. One of the distinctives of Presbyterian worship is that it aims to be completely guided by Scripture. It is, in fact, worship that is according to Scripture. This is known as “the Regulative Principle.” This approach to how we worship is aptly summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1: “The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good to all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”
Since our worship is for God, our first question is not, “What do we want to do?” or even “What would others like to do?” but “What does God want us to do?” For direction we look to the Bible where God directs by command or approved example how to worship Him. In the Bible we find God accepting these acts of worship: singing, praying, reading the Bible, preaching, celebrating sacraments, giving offerings, confessing the faith, and making holy vows.
We want to assure that our corporate worship is Bible-filled and Bible-directed, that the substance and structure are biblical, that the content and order are biblical. To put it slightly differently, we want to worship “by the book” in two ways: so that both the marrow and means of worship are according to Scripture. We want the form and substance of corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology.
Christian public worship ought to be simple. It requires no elaborate ritual, no prescribed book of common prayer, on the one hand, nor does it have need for some high-tech, electronic, technologically sophisticated setting on the other. True Christian public worship is merely based on the unadorned and unpretentious principles and order found in the Bible, by precept and example, which supply the substance of new covenant worship. Everything that is claimed to be essential or key or important to thriving Christian congregational worship (whether it be sound and lighting, instruments, clerical vestments, or prescribed liturgy based upon some fixed form of the past) must pass the test of the catacombs. Is this essential to the faithful corporate worship of persecuted Christians huddled away in some hole worshiping God together in Spirit and truth?
Christian congregational worship is Spirit-gathered, Spirit-dependent, Spirit-engendered, and Spirit-empowered, because left to ourselves we will not worship the right object, according to the right standard, for the right motivation and to the right end. It is God the Holy Spirit who creates, enables and energizes our desire and capacity to worship. By his ministry we are ushered into God’s presence and commune with him.
Christian worship is all about God. He is the object of our worship, the focus of our worship. We gather as a congregation, not to seek an experience but to meet with God and give him praise. The whom of worship is central to true worship (see John 4:22, 24). It is what the first commandment is all about. We aim to worship the God of the Bible. Many Christians leave Sunday services asking the “what did worship do for me?” Yet it is more helpful and biblical to think just the opposite. “What did I give to God in worship?” “How did I encourage the brothers and sisters to praise Christ for his grace?” “How did I take advantage of the means of grace in order to glorify God?” Ask not what this service will do for you, but what you will give to God through this service B the rest will take care of itself. Don Carson puts it this way: “Should we not remind ourselves that worship is a TRANSITIVE verb [a verb that requires a direct object]? We do not meet to worship (i.e. to experience worship): we aim to worship GOD. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’: there is the heart of the matter. In this area, one must not confuse what is central with byproducts. If you seek peace, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find peace. If you seek joy, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find joy. If you seek holiness, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find holiness. If you seek experiences of worship, you will not find them; if you worship the living God, you will experience something of what is reflected in the Psalms. Worship is a transitive verb, and the most important thing about it is the direct object.”
Many churches are aspiring, first and foremost, to be “contemporary” and “seeker sensitive” in their worship. Thus sermons, pastoral prayers, hymns and psalms are out, and sharing, skits, talks, videos, technology, praise teams, choruses and “CCM” (contemporary Christian music) are in. The churches who take this approach sincerely see this as the best way to reach people for Christ and as the best way to cater to the preferences of their own congregants. However, at First Presbyterian Church, we don’t share this philosophy of congregational worship. We aim for a worship service that would be recognizable to the Apostles – an historic form of Christian worship.
Interestingly, there is much evidence to suggest that this is more attractive to “seekers” than some of the contemporary forms that are so popular in many churches today. W. Tullian Tchividjian, son-in-law of Billy Graham has observed: “Because the modern world is in a constant state of flux, … people in the modern world are open to, and desirous for, things traditional and historical, ancient and proved. They are up to their necks in ‘up-to-date’ structures and ‘cutting-edge’ methodologies. …Their cry is for something completely unique to this world, something otherworldly, something only the Church can truly offer… We should be encouraged and challenged by the historical reminder that the Church has always served the world best when it has been most counter-cultural, most distinctively different from the world.”
“By historic we do not mean old-fashioned, quaint, or traditional for the sake of tradition. We mean that we do not try to re-invent worship as though we were the first Christians ever to worship. We seek to learn from the church through the ages as it has sought to offer God-centered, Biblical worship.”
Reverent and Joyful
In some churches, there is such an emotional display in worship that reverence is lost completely. In other churches, the congregation appears to have been caught at a stranger’s funeral. Deadpan and flat, they go through the customary motions. Both of these tendencies reflect serious deficiencies in the practice of true Christian worship of God. At First Presbyterian Church, it is our aim to worship God with both reverence and joy.
The Bible makes it clear that when we worship the one true we must come with reverence: “…offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” says Hebrews 12:28-29. But reverent worship does not mean dull, emotionless, boring worship, for God wants us to come also with joy: “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs” (Psalm 100:2). Our worship is to be whole-souled and heartfelt. At some times our hearts and eyes will fill with tears of gladness or contrition, at others we’ll quietly rest in the peace of the Lord, then again we’ll sometimes feel that we can hardly contain our praise and thanksgiving to God. The outward expression of emotion must never be confused, one way or another, with the real state of the heart – but true Christian worship emanates from the heart, and is characterized by the whole range of godly affections and sanctified emotional responses of the soul to the truth and glory of the living God.
It is our desire that corporate worship at First Presbyterian Church will be characterized by true heart-worship of the living God, according to His word, that is reverent, substantial and joyful. Our ideal is not stuffy formality, nor is it a liturgical or “high-church” approach, nor is it to emulate a contemporary or charismatic format, nor is our approach designed to promote emotionalism or to be anti-emotional. We are not interested in emotional manipulation (by either suppressing or producing certain outward effects), but rather aim to promote an environment in which the congregation naturally responds to God in expressions of godly reverence and joy.
Christ-Based (or Mediated)
Sinners (and that’s what we are) are incapable of approaching a Holy God directly. We need a mediator, a stand-between, a reconciler, an advocate who will represent us before God and make us acceptable to God. In the Old Testament, human priests symbolically fulfilled this function, but Jesus Christ is the only real mediator for the people of God. It is he who has paid the penalty for our sins and opened the way to God. Though human priests are no longer necessary for true worship, Jesus’ mediation is absolutely essential. Through him, and him alone, we can approach God with confidence. As the Westminster Divines remind us “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.” By the way, once we have said that worship is God-centered, Spiritual with a capital S, as in Holy Spirit, and Christ-based, we have thereby said that Christian worship is Trinitarian.
We believe that it is importantthat we worship corporately, for God has made us for his worship and for community with other worshipers. Worship is the one thing he “seeks” (John 4:23). Corporate worship is not evangelism, nor is it even mutually edifying fellowship. It is a family meeting with God, it is the covenant community engaging with God, gathering with his people to seek the face of God, to glorify and enjoy him, to hear his word, to revel in the glory of union and communion with him, to respond to his word, to render praise back to him, to give unto him the glory due his name.
The New Testament makes clear that the congregation of Christians, this family, this body, this community, is the place where God is especially present in this world. In the days of the Old Covenant, the place where God manifested his special presence was “the tabernacle” or “the temple” or “Jerusalem.” In the New Covenant, that special “place” is now “wherever the Lord’s house, that is, his people, is gathered.” Jesus stresses this to the Samaritan woman (John 4:21) and to his disciples in addressing congregational discipline (Matthew 18:20, surely a solemn component of the life of the gathered church). The place of new covenant worship is no longer inextricably tied to a geographical location and a physical structure but to a gathered people. This is why in the old Scottish tradition, as the people gathered to enter a church building, it would be said that “the Kirk goes in” rather than as we often say “we are going to church.” The new covenant locus or place of the special presence of God with the church militant is in this gathered body, wherever it might be—whether the catacombs, or a storefront or beautiful colonial church building. This makes corporate worship extremely important.
As we have noted already worship is not evangelism (even though many churches confuse them). Nevertheless, evangelism is one important by-product of true worship. Paul expected that unbelievers would come to the worshiping assembly of Christians and declare that “God is certainly among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25). Consequently, we are always mindful that not all those who attend our worship services are believers. We welcome them, speak in language they can understand, preach the Gospel clearly and boldly, and pray, as did Paul, that they experience the presence of the living God and find the way of salvation in our public worship.
True Christian worship is filled with delight—the delight of the believer’s heart in God himself. The congregation delights in God because he is God. Jonathan Edwards put it this way: “True saints center their attention on Christ, and His beauty transcends all others; His delight is the source of all other delight; He in Himself is the best among ten thousand and altogether lovely. These saints delight in the way of salvation through Christ, because it demonstrates God’s perfection and wonder; they enjoy holiness, wholeness, while they take no pleasure in sin; God’s love is a sweet taste in their mouths, regardless of whether their own interests are met or not. They rejoice over all that Christ has done for them, but that is not the deepest root of their joy. No, they delight merely because God is God, and only then does their delight spill over onto all God’s works, including their own salvation.” John Piper puts it this way: “The authenticating, inner essence of worship is being satisfied with Christ, prizing Christ, cherishing Christ, treasuring Christ. . . . [This] is tremendously relevant for understanding what worship services should be about. They are about ‘going hard after God.’ When we say that what we do on Sunday mornings is to ‘go hard after God,’ what we mean is that we are going hard after satisfaction in God, and going hard after God as our prize, and going hard after God as our treasure, our soul-food, our heart-delight, our spirit’s pleasure. Or to put Christ in His rightful place—it means that we are going hard after all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.”
Active and Passive
Worship is both active and passive, in this sense: we come to bless and to receive God’s blessing (Psalm 134), to give and receive. At First Presbyterian Church, then, we want the congregation to appreciate that Christian worship is both something that we do and something that is enabled by God. And that Christian worship is both something that we give to God and in which God showers his favors and presence upon us. Worship is offered to God by believers but that does not mean that there is “nothing in it for us.” True worship is both God-glorifying and soul-satisfying. Christians who approach it rightly will find that public worship is not only the most important thing they do, but also the happiest and most fulfilling thing they do, as God pours out upon them His blessings – which are abundant, substantial, lasting, and deeply satisfying. Samuel Rutherford once said: “I never run an errand to the throne of grace when I do no fetch back a blessing for myself.” That is true of worship as well.
At First Presbyterian Church we believe that every Lord’s Day (Sunday) worship is God’s discipleship plan for the church, and that Lord’s Day morning and evening worship is vital. If we believe, with the majority of Christians in all ages (and with the Westminster Divines!), that the Old Testament Sabbath command has a weekly new covenant fulfillment in the Christian Lord’s Day, then we will also believe that the whole of that day (following the explicit one-day-in-seven pattern of the old covenant of grace) is to be spent in worship, deeds of mercy, necessity and witness, and rest. If that is the case, then both prudential factors and the testimony of history indicate that the best way to help the Lord’s people keep the Lord’s Day (as opposed to the Lord’s hour or the Lord’s morning, or even the Lord’s Saturday night!) is to frame the first day of the week with gathered praise: morning and evening. And such is not without biblical precedent or justification.
The importance of Lord’s Day corporate worship is established by four tremendous realities set forth in the New Testament: (1) the resurrection of Christ, which is foundational to the re-creative work of Christ in making a people for himself (Mark 16:1-8, cf. verse 9, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, Galatians 6:15-16; Colossians 1:15-22, (2) the eternal rest foreshadowed in the Lord’s Day (Hebrews 4:9); (3) the Lord’s Day language and observance of the New Testament church (Revelation 1:10, cf. Matthew 28:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, 19-23, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2); and (4) the New Testament command to the saints to gather, Christ’s promise of presence with us when we do, the faithful example of the gathering of New Testament Christians and Jesus’ express command that we disciple new converts in the context of the local church (Hebrews 10:24-25, Matthew 18:20, Acts 1:4, Matthew 28:18-20).
Consequently, regular and faithful congregational Sunday morning and evening worship (even in a culture where the latter, especially, is disappearing) is a major emphasis here at First Church. We view the whole Lord’s Day as “the market day of the soul” and aim for the whole congregation to anticipate Lord’s Day worship with relish.
What our worship looks like: the parts
We have now reviewed the principles and elements that guide our practice of public worship, and some of the qualities we aspire to. The biblical principles of worship, however, do not produce a cookie-cutter pattern for the order and parts of worship. There is room for diversity and flexibility within the biblical norms. And so, though there is a flow and logic to the order and parts of our worship services, from beginning to end, there is also some variety in the way we arrange and express them, to the order in which we arrange those parts, and to the amount of time devoted to any particular part in a particular service. The typical parts of our worship service are as follows.
The Greetings and Announcements
We try to make the most of our important verbal announcements to the congregation about ten minutes before the service begins in order not to distract from the flow and focus of worship. The presiding minister also makes preparatory remarks to help the congregation as it makes ready for corporate worship. Sometimes special missions reports or addresses pertaining to matters of congregational life are given at this time during a segment called “The Living Church.”
This instrumental piece, usually played by the organist or an ensemble, provides a contemplative backdrop for our personal preparation for worship. It also serves as a musical dividing point between the profane and the sacred, separating the hour to come from the rest of our week as wholly given over to the corporate praise of the Lord.
Our choir usually prepares us for worship with a musical introit. This short piece, usually drawn directly from Scripture or reflective of a biblical truth, ushers us into the service proper and is designed to evoke from our hearts a spirit and response of praise. By the way, “introit” is simply a Latin word that means “entrance” – thus this musical composition sung by the choir or played on instruments serves to mark the congregation’s entrance into public worship.
The Call to Worship
All our worship services begin with a Scriptural “call to worship” (that is, the content of the “call” comes from God’s own word quoted and pronounced by the minister, often from the Psalms). In this “call” we are reminded that God always takes the initiative. He always comes toward his people first, in grace. Our worship is a reflexive and deliberate response to his gracious call. This is how it is in the Bible. Biblical worship is always our response to God’s revelation. In this “call” we are reminded that God always takes the initiative. Our worship is enabled by his prior grace to us and is a reflexive response to his gracious call.
The evening service “call” here at First Presbyterian Church, whenever I am in the pulpit, comes from the great evening psalm of the Levites, Psalm 134. The psalm is one of the “Ascent Songs” and is both a call to worship (verses 1-2) and a blessing upon the worshipers (verse 3), thus comprehending in brief two important truths about worship. God Himself is to be the sole focus of our worship and we never run an erand to His throne without fetching a blessing for ourselves.
The ministers who lead in prayer during worship here at First Presbyterian seek to fill their prayers with Scripture and assist the congregational prayer to God by praying from the heart to the Lord. We do not write out prayers and read them, or simply re-use set forms, nor is our public prayer without forethought. We practice studied prayer. We usually outline our prayer beforehand and then pray by memory and heart. Through each of the two main prayers today (the opening “Prayer of Adoration and Invocation” and the “Morning Prayer”), the minister will cover the main points of prayer: adoration, confession, assurance of forgiveness, thanksgiving, intercession and supplication.
The opening prayer of the service always focuses upon the praise, exaltation, and adoration of our great God, and “invokes” (thus “invocation”) His presence and communion with us as we come to worship Him (hence it is sometimes called “the Prayer of Adoration and Invocation”). The Pastoral prayer (which is variously called “the Morning Prayer,” “the Evening Prayer,” or colloquially “the long prayer”) focuses on confession, assurance, thanksgiving, and intercession.
At the end of the morning pastoral prayer, the congregation regularly recites the beloved Twenty-third Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. The Twenty-third psalm (in the beautiful and still well-known King James Version) is among the first things children memorize in our Sunday School and so even our youngest will be able to join in this scriptural acknowledgment of who God is and what he has done for us. The Lord’s Prayer is, of course, Jesus’ model prayer for his disciples.
The Prayer of Illumination is usually offered immediately prior to the reading of Scripture before the sermon. It acknowledges the authority of both the word of God read and preached, and asks the Holy Spirit to help us to understand and receive that word.
The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Our congregational singing at First Presbyterian Church is rooted in the rich, historic hymnody of the Christian church. The texts we sing are all soundly in accord with Scripture. They are old and new. Some stretch back three and a half thousand years (as when we sing some rendition of Psalm 90, the psalm of Moses, dating from the second millennium B.C.) and some come from our own lifetime (such as Margaret Clarkson’s wonderful modern hymns). This is as it should be. We should neither turn our backs on the great congregational hymns of the church, nor fail to seek out the best of current hymnody. Furthermore, we always sing psalms along with hymns in our services, for the book of Psalms is God’s divinely inspired hymnbook. On Sunday evenings, we regularly utilize some of the new musical settings of older hymn texts that circulate among our denominational campus ministry Reformed University Fellowship (we refer to these as “RUF tunes”).
When choosing hymns, psalms and songs, the ministers ask these kinds of questions: Is the hymn-text biblical and substantive? Does the hymn-text relate to the theme of the service or the context in which it is being sung? Is the tune well-known, well-sung and well-liked by our congregation, as well as singable for those who don’t know it? Does the tune suit the mood of the hymn-text, as well as the context of the service in which it is being sung? How many times have we sung the hymn recently?
The Reading of Scripture
At virtually every morning service, a minister reads a substantial section of Scripture. The public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. In the New Testament, Paul told Timothy “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13) and thus we aim to make sure that every service is suffused with Scripture. In the reading of God’s word, He speaks most directly to His people. We generally read consecutively though Bible books. If the sermon is based on the New Testament, we usually choose the reading from the Old, and vice versa.
This is not an “element of worship” at First Presbyterian Church, but is a transitional point in the service where we pause to extend a word of welcome and hospitality, in the name of Christ, to all who are worshiping with us. Christians are greeted in the name of our common Lord. Non-Christians are greeted as friends whom we trust will sense the warmth and genuineness of our reception. By the way, we try to present most of our announcements prior to the service in order to avoid interrupting the focus and flow of our worship of God with distractions that take our minds away from our central purpose: giving to the Lord the glory due His name.
The Presentation of Tithes and Offerings
Part of our worship to God is our giving our own material and financial resources for the support of the ministry of the church. We do that at every worship service in presenting to God His tithe (that portion of our total income which He says must be given back to Him for the use of His church) and our offerings (that portion of our total income, beyond the tithe), which we give, in joy and gratitude for His grace to us, for His glory, and the sustenance of ministry. This giving is also a fulfillment of our membership vows in which we say “we promise to support the work and worship of the church to the best of our ability.” We believe that the Bible teaches that Christian giving is an act of worship (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 16:2), and so we give back to God His tithe and our offerings over and above, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day.
The Anthem or The Offertory
An Anthem is a musical composition sung by the choir. It is addressed to God on behalf of the congregation (by way of adoration, confession, thanksgiving or supplication), or to the congregation on behalf of God (by way of Scripture exhortations, promises, commands and comforts), or from one part of the congregation to the other (by way of mutual edification and exhortation to praise, trust and obedience). The text of an anthem is usually derived from a passage of Scripture. When the anthem is sung at the time of the presentation of tithes and offerings it is often called an offertory.
At First Presbyterian Church, almost all of the messages are what is called “expository sermons,” that is, the main idea and application(s) of the sermon are drawn out of one particular text of Scripture. This ensures that God’s wisdom, not man’s, is the centerpiece of our public proclamation. Generally (though not exclusively), we preach straight through Bible books. Our regular approach to preaching at First Presbyterian is to read, explain and apply Scripture as we work consecutively through books of the Bible. This allows God’s ordering and proportion in Scripture to set the agenda for each Lord’s Day message. Rather than permitting the preacher to talk about his favorite hobby-horses Sunday after Sunday or to avoid difficult topics, this pattern forces the preacher to pay attention to every part of the word of God. The Reformers employed this approach in their preaching and it is known as the lectio continua (“consecutive reading”). One advantage of this approach is that it gives the hearer a balanced diet of truth from God’s word, rather than merely listening to the preacher’s idea of what subjects ought to be addressed. The text determines the topic, not the preacher. Our preaching aims for both evangelism and discipleship. As James Durham has said: “This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without, and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord’s side, so should they never be separated on our side.”
As God has the first word in worship, so he has the last and so all of our services conclude with the minister pronouncing the Lord’s benediction upon his people, using a Scriptural word of blessing. Benediction simply means “blessing.” The Lord’s Day is the “market day of the soul” and so it is fitting that it should conclude for all those gathered in his house with a word of blessing from God. My traditional evening benediction is based upon Ephesians 6:23, Hebrews 13:21, and Song of Solomon 2:17. It pronounces God’s saving peace on all believers, and asks for God to add to it love and faith, based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, until that great day when we move “out of the shadows and into the Reality.” When I say “until the day break and the shadows flee away” here, it is an eschatological reference (a spiritualized usage of a phrase from Song of Songs, in good Puritan fashion). It was often used by the great James Philip, longtime Minister of the Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. Proximately, it points to the day of our departure from this life, and ultimately to the day of the coming of the new heavens and the new earth, and thus is a prayer for God’s grace upon believers to persevere to the very end of mortal life and in anticipation of their entrance into the blessedness in which there is no sorrow or tears.
Though public worship technically concludes with the minister’s benediction, this is a musical prayer, responding to the truth of the message preached, often sung by the choir after the benediction in the morning service and by the congregation after the benediction in the evening service.
This instrumental piece, usually played by the organist after the service has been concluded by the benediction and after any choral or congregational response has been sung, provides a contemplative backdrop for our personal reflection on the service and sermon. Some people begin to exit the sanctuary during the postlude, others quietly pray and still others begin to speak of the things of the Lord to their friends.
The Sacrament of Baptism
Baptism is a sign of a covenant promise of God to his people, directly instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, in which Jesus has directed that water is to be applied, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to represent to us and assure us of the glorious realities of union with Christ, forgiveness of sins by his blood, regeneration by his Holy Spirit; our adoption, and our hope of resurrection to everlasting life. By baptism, the recipients are solemnly, publicly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.
At First Presbyterian Church, we baptize the children of believers, as well as adult professing believers who have not been previously baptized, in accordance with Scripture. Infant baptisms are generally scheduled six times a year on the last or second-to-last Sunday of every other month. Adult baptisms are scheduled as needed, and are typically administered on Sunday evenings.
Baptism is a new covenant sign. That is, it points to and confirms the gracious saving promise of God to his people and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. It is to be administered to believers and their children, as can be seen from Genesis 17, Matthew 28, Colossians 2, 1 Corinthians 7 and Acts 16.
To elaborate, Christian baptism is (1) commanded by Christ in Matthew 28 (“God…make disciples…baptizing..and…teaching them”). (2) It is to be applied to believers as we see in Acts 8 (“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning to see from Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him”). (3) It is to be administered to believers and their children, as can be seen from Genesis 17 (“I will establish my covenant between me, and you, and your descendents”) – which shows that the normal order of discipleship in the church is baptism followed by teaching; Colossians 2 ( In Christ “you were also circumcised….having been buried with Him in baptism”) – which shows that NT water baptism replaces OT circumcision as the sign of membership in the church; 1 Corinthians 7 (“your children are…now…holy”) – which confirms the place of children in the new covenant community, the church; and Acts 16 (“Lydia…was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And…she and her household [were] baptized”) – which shows us the pattern of the earliest church in covenant baptism.
Baptism (and especially “infant baptism” or covenant baptism) beautifully points to the initiative of God’s love. He reached out to us, when we could not reach out to him. It is thus a perfect picture of sovereign, saving grace. “Every time we baptize an infant we bear witness that salvation is from God, that we cannot do any good thing to secure it, that we all enter the Kingdom of heaven therefore as little children, who do not do, but are done for.”
We, of course, also baptize adult believers (who have never before been baptized). In this way they are recognized as disciples of Jesus Christ through the means of baptism and confession of faith (see Acts 2:38, 8:35-37, Romans 10:9), and so it is our great joy and privilege from time to time, to hear new Christians profess their trust in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior of sinners, as He is offered in the gospel, and to see them receive the mark of membership in the covenant community.
Furthermore, it is incumbent upon those who have already received this Gospel sign/seal or sacrament or ordinance to meditate on its blessings frequently and especially every time we see it administered. The Larger Catechism says: “The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”
The Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper
At First Presbyterian Church, we follow the old Southern Presbyterian practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper (what some churches call “the Eucharist” or “Holy Communion”) four times a year (since there is no unambiguous testimony or direction in the Scripture as to the frequency of the observance of communion). We believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament (that is, a covenant sign) appointed by God as a means of grace. In it, we feed on Christ, by faith.
You may be interested to know that the members and descendants of one family have been preparing the elements for the service for a century and a half now. The Ruling Elders of our church assist in the distribution of the elements of the Supper as a visible manifestation of their pastoral care of the flock.
The Lord’s table is for those, and those only, who are trusting in Jesus Christ. So we invite to this table, the Lord’s table, all those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation as He is offered in the Gospel and who have joined themselves to the body of Christ, His Church. If you are not a believer in Christ who has identified yourself with His church, don’t come to the table. Rather, wait, think, pray, repent, and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Parents will want to take note that we do not practice paedo-communion (infants or young children who have not yet taken membership vows partaking of the Lord’s Supper) at First Presbyterian Church. Young people, who have answered the five questions of church membership and thus have become communicant members of First Presbyterian Church (or the equivalent at some other Gospel-believing church) are invited to the table.
Since the Lord’s Supper is for professing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have “discerned the body of the Lord” –that is, the Church– (1 Corinthians 11:29), it is appropriate that we confess our faith together before we take it. We often use the Apostles’ Creed in order to publicly declare our whole-hearted embrace of the truth of the faith once-delivered. We also recite the Ten Commandments prior to taking the Lord’s Supper. By recounting the Law directly adjacent to the Gospel ordinance of the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of our need for the forgiveness of sins and the rich provision we have in Jesus Christ’s perfect obedience (see Romans 5:20).
The biblical teaching on the nature of the sacraments may be epitomized as follows: God’s sacraments or covenant signs/seals are “visible words” (Augustine). In them, we see with our eyes the promise of God. Indeed, in the sacraments we see, smell, touch and taste the word. In the public reading and preaching of Scripture, God addresses our mind and conscience through the hearing. In the sacraments, he uniquely addresses our mind and conscience through the other senses. In, through, and to the senses, God’s promise is made tangible. A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to His people. Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign (symbolize) and seal (ratify) a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the reality of which is received or entered into only by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance. The sacraments are by nature supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word, and the grace conveyed by them is the same grace held out via the means of preaching. The sacraments are efficacious for the elect and the elect only, since their benefits are sanctificational and received by faith.
The consensus of Reformed teaching on the way in which Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper may be summarized as follows: there is absolutely no corporeal presence of Christ whatsoever in the Lord’s Supper. The believer does not corporeally partake of Christ in the Supper. Christ is not elementally, spatially, or locally present in the Supper in any way. There is no change or conversion of the elements in the Supper. The believer does indeed receive Christ in the Supper, but not by the mouth, rather by faith. Nor does Christ’s humanity come down to the believer, but by the Spirit the believer is raised in heart to receive Christ in His ascended glory.
To put it in the language of the Westminster Confession, the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper may be summarized as follows: (1) the outward elements of the Lord’s Supper (bread and wine) sustain such an analogy to Christ crucified that they may truly, but only sacramentally, be called by the name of the things they represent, that is, the body and blood of Christ; nevertheless in their substance and nature they are truly and only bread and wine (see Westminster Confession 29.5). (2) Worthy recipients who outwardly partake of the visible elements of Lord Supper also inwardly by faith, really and truly, though not carnally and corporeally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all benefits of His death. (3) The body and blood of Christ are not in any way corporeally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; nevertheless Christ crucified is really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers, in the Supper, just as the elements themselves are to their outward senses (see Westminster Confession 29.7). (4) The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacrament rightly used, is not conferred by any power in the elements or ritual. (5) The efficacy of the sacrament is utterly dependent upon the work of the Spirit, in accordance with the word of covenant promise (and hence the necessity of the word of institution, which contains both the dominical precept authorizing itself and a covenant promise of benefit to worthy receivers) (see Westminster Confession 27.3).
The Confession of Faith
Our congregation regularly confesses our common faith, that is, we publicly state what we believe to be true about God and reality, including the Christian life and salvation. We do this using various historic, orthodox, creedal statements, like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. By the way, the Apostles’ Creed was not composed per se by the Apostles themselves, but its affirmations are “apostolic” in the sense that they are biblical and have been acknowledged by the church since the days of the Apostles. Two phrases in this ancient creed often confuse some Christians. The reference to the “holy catholic church” does not entail a recognition of the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church but rather indicates one’s commitment to the spiritual unity of the visible church, the “society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.” The phrase “he descended into hell” refers to Christ’s bearing of God’s wrath on our behalf on the cross and his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day.”
The Ten Commandments
We recite the Ten Commandments at least four times a year in public worship (and almost always during the administration of the Lord’s Supper). Saying and hearing the Law, reminds us of our sinfulness and thus our need for the Gospel, Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of the Law and the pattern of our sanctification. The first command shows us a Lord who alone is God. The second witnesses to a God who is sovereign even in the way we relate to Him (since there He teaches us that we may neither think about Him nor worship Him according to our own humanly initiated categories and designs, but must rather know Him and glorify Him on His own terms and by His own revelation). The third and fourth words reveal a God not to be trifled with and whose Lordship is to be paramount in our life and worship (as the third command requires that we not treat His reputation lightly, nor claim to be His without actually, practically acknowledging Him as Lord, so the fourth command reminds us that we are to celebrate that Lordship). The fifth through the ninth commands teach us that the one true God takes life, sex and marriage, property, and truth very seriously. And the tenth command discloses a God of providence, who will not tolerate covetousness because it is a denial of His providence.
The Young Children’s Devotional
On Sunday evenings, a minister, elder or intern of the church, sings with, reads Scripture to, recites a Children’s Catechism question, reflects on it and prays with some of our younger covenant children. We hope this will encourage even these younger children actively to participate in and look forward to corporate worship, as well as help provide a good model or pattern for family devotions. Only four components need be present for well-rounded family worship: a good scriptural hymn, song or psalm; the reading of the word of God, brief comment upon the word, and prayer.
There are a number of great resources for family worship. Terry Johnson’s Family Worship Book (Christian Focus Publications) is superb. Sinclair Ferguson’s The Big Book of Questions and Answers about Jesus (Christian Focus Publications) has 34 simple Bible questions and answers to teach us the basics about Jesus and his The Big Book of Questions and Answers covers topics similar to that of a children’s catechism. Parents are encouraged to get copies from the Church bookstore, but especially to help your children memorize the Children’s Catechism and the Shorter Catechism.
The Public Profession of Faith
Six Sundays a year (usually the second Sunday of every other month), those who have met with a minister and/or elder of First Presbyterian Church, professed their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, answered the five questions of church membership before the assembled elders of the church, and then have been received as communicant members of First Church (by either profession of faith, reaffirmation of faith or transfer of letter) are introduced to the congregation. At that time, they make public their profession of faith and their commitment to this local body of believers. They are presented to the congregation and openly confess their trust in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of sinners, as he is offered in the Gospel. Listen closely to the five questions of membership. They beautifully summarize key points of Christian faith and discipleship. And be sure to welcome these brothers and sisters, heartily.Matthew Henry once said: “When we take God for our God, we take His people for our people.” Taking our church membership vows seriously is one way we can show that we understand this truth.
Preparing for Public Worship
Because weekly, Lord’s Day, corporate worship is both our great privilege and responsibility, every mature believer will want to prepare for it. If you were told that you were to be given the privilege of having a personal audience with the President of the United States, you would prepare for it ahead of time. You would make plans for the meeting. You would put thought into what you will wear, how to get to the designated location, what you will say, and you would be sure to have adequate rest so that you are at your very best.
Such preparations would not strike us as strange given the unique honor of meeting the most powerful man in the world. But gathering with God’s people to meet with God Almighty is a far greater privilege. Hence, Christians will joyfully and carefully and expectantly prepare for this.
Whole-Life, Personal and Family Worship
Preparation for public worship begins with worship in all of life. That is, we prepare to bring our praise to God in the company of his people by living a life, 24/7, that says that we exist to glorify and enjoy him. People who live as if God did not exist, who make their own rules, who fail to love their neighbor, who are ruled by their own pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment apart from God are not ready to come into God’s presence with praise. David says: “O LORD, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt and does not change; He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15). So, when we are living in accordance with God’s standards of uprightness, we are worshiping God in all of life, and thus preparing to come into his presence.
Second, we prepare for public worship through our private worship, or devotions (sometimes called “quiet times”). Jesus often withdrew to pray, and rose early to pray. The Psalmist also sought the Lord in solitude. He said: “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). If we are not reading and meditating on the Scriptures, and spending time with God in prayer, daily, you will be ill-equipped to come into his presence in the assembly of the saints.
Third, if the Lord has made you the head of a family, you ready yourself and your family through family religion. As parents teach their children the truth and live it before them, the whole family is readied for public worship. Moses speaks of this responsibility when he says: “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Additionally, daily family worship will prepare you for the corporate worship that takes place on the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people in the Lord’s house. As the head of the family reads Scripture, and leads in prayer and singing, each member of the family is readied for public worship.
Saturday Night Preparation
One key to getting ourselves ready to worship God on Sunday is our Saturday night routine. It is not too much to say that anything we do on Saturday night that negatively effects our active participation in worship should be avoided. Practically speaking, that means we should strive to get enough physical rest. To the best of our abilities, we should arrive in the pew with a sharp mind, ready to be thoughtfully engaged in worship.
We should also set aside some amount of time for biblical meditation on our upcoming involvement in worship. Reflect on and pray through the attributes of God. Consider what makes Him worthy of our worship. Consider yourself, and spend time in confession of sin. Pray that God would prepare your heart to hear the proclamation of His Word. We should pray for the ministers, and for those who will join us in worship. We should pray that God would be honored by the worship at First Presbyterian Church, that the gospel would go forth powerfully, convicting and convincing sinners, and that the people of God would be built up and grown up in grace.
A Family’s Sunday Morning
The Christian’s Sunday morning preparations will be helped by doing what can be done the night before. By limiting the number of activities that have to be accomplished before church, many of the things that lead to stress can be avoided. Prepare the whole family for worship by listening to Christian hymns or some other sacred music. Make a commitment to be at church on time (or even early). Tardiness is not conducive to one’s own participation in public worship, and it also disturbs others. Do your best to have your family in the building with time to spare.
By arriving early for worship, a participant is able to spend a few moments quietly preparing for worship to come. As we walk into the sanctuary before the start of worship, there should be a sense that we are coming to meet with the Almighty God. Members and visitors alike should remember to “show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).
Our Directory for Worship, found in the PCA Book of Church Order, offers a helpful suggestion for us as we gather together. “Let the people upon entering the church take their seats in a decent and reverent manner, and engage in a silent prayer for a blessing upon themselves, the minister, and all present, as well as upon those who are unable to attend worship.”
After the Service
At the close of the service at FPC, there is ordinarily a postlude (some instrumental piece played immediately following the benediction and any choral or congregational response). This is a time for contemplation and meditation on the service and sermon. It is an excellent time to offer up a prayer to God, that He would apply the truths of His Word to your life. And it serves as a transition between gathered worship in which our focus is on the congregation’s communion with God and our resumption of worship in all of life. So, instead of simply gathering your things, you may want to take these few short moments to consider what has happened during the service, to evaluate your own participation, and to pray that the Lord will use his means of grace in your life for his glory and your edification.
Comments, Questions and Conclusion
Now that you have a sense of principles and parts of congregational worship here at First Presbyterian Church, and have reflected on the issue of preparation for it, it may be helpful for you to know some of the “behind the scenes” factors for our weekly worship services. The staff preparation for corporate worship at First takes hours, days and weeks. The ministers plan sermon series months, and sometimes years, in advance. The church musicians are preparing anthems and music weeks and sometimes months in advance. Bulletin preparation alone takes a full week, but work is done on the bulletins sometimes a month in advance. We spend this time and care both to honor God and to help his people praise him.
One of our desires, as we put the services together, is to make connections between various parts of the service – even connections that we don’t draw attention to in the service itself. We want every service to be packed with unexpected blessings and spiritual links that surprise, encourage and help the attentive worshiper. So, sometimes you may notice that the Call to Worship picks up on a phrase from the morning Scripture reading, or an idea from the morning sermon text, or is connected with the benediction. Sometimes you’ll note that each hymn and psalm sung in the service has a connected theme, related to the Scripture readings and message. Or you will notice a flow or logic to the hymns – a movement from adoration to thanksgiving to confession to response. We want our services overflowing with these kinds of hidden morsels for the souls of God’s people – even though we don’t come right out and tell you about them. This is one reason we write the worship guides. We don’t want to clutter up the services with a lot of explanation about what we are doing and why, so we share some of this information in print to hint towards some of the services themes you can look for.
We also want every part of the service to become a blessing to you to which you look forward with anticipation. We want you to learn to love and long for the Scriptural call to worship. We want you to delight in the prayers, especially the “great prayer” or “pastoral prayer.” We want your attitude to be “Lord, if you can just get me to the pastoral prayer on the Lord’s Day, I can make it.” We want the pastoral prayer to be something that you crave and relish. We want you to look forward to the reading of the Word, and we want the public reading of that word to be an event. And we want you to yearn for the Scriptural benediction at the end of the service – precisely because you want God’s blessing on your life more than anything else.
Don’t hesitate to call or write to use with your questions about worship. Dr. Thomas, Dr. Wymond and I have all written and lectured on worship for many years, and so we love to interact, answer questions and spread enthusiasm for biblical worship. There are contact numbers (phone, fax, email, and address) at the end of this little book should you wish to follow up on this offer.
Johnson, Terry, Reformed Worship, Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000.
Old, Hughes Oliphant, Worship – That is Reformed according to Scriptures, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1984.
Ryken, Philip, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan, eds., Give Praise to God, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004.
Bennett, Arthur, The Valley of Vision, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, .
Carson, D.A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Grand Rapids: Baker, .
Henry, Matthew (Ligon Duncan, ed.), A Method for Prayer, Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press/Tain: Christian Focus Publications, 1994.
Watts, Isaac, Guide to Prayer, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001.
Hymns and Psalms
Hymns Triumphant, Vols. 1 and 2 (CD), Sparrow Records, 1981 and 1984.
The Psalms of Scotland (CD), SCS Music Limited, 1988.
Trinity Hymnal, Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1990.
Trinity Psalter, Music Edition, Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2000.
Johnson, Terry, The Family Worship Book, Tain: Christian Focus Publications, .
Spurgeon, C.H., Morning and Evening, Tain: Christian Focus Publications, .
 Bridges, Jerry. I Exalt You, O God: Encountering His Greatness in Your Private Worship. Waterbrook Press, 2001, 3.
 Giglio, Lou. The Air I Breath: Worship as a Way of Life. Multnomah, 2003, ??.
 Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship: Reformed According to Scripture. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002, 1.
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 Johnson, Terry L. Reformed Worship: Worship That is According to Scripture. Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 2000, 37-38.
 Johnson, ibid., 37.
 Lewis, C.S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Harvest Books, 1973, ??.
 Thomas, Geoffrey. ??.
 Old, Worship, 176.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1.
 Carson, D.A. Worship: Adoration and Action. Baker Academic, 1993, 15.
 Tchividjian, W. Tullian. IIIM Magazine online, volume 3 #8, February 19-25, 2001.
 William Smith
 Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.2.
 Edwards, Jonathan.
 Piper, John. Brothers, We are not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. Broadman and Holman, 2002, 236.
 Smith, William.
 Durham, James.
 Warfield, B.B.
 Westminster Larger Catechism 167.
 Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. Old Tappan: Flemming, II:258.