The surprising thing about the New Testament is that it gives very few particulars regarding how the early church worshiped. There are important clues, yes. There are key elements, for sure. But the NT is surprisingly light on liturgy. There simply is no simple formula (though churches I’ve been a part of my entire life have followed a very similar one — something like: 2 or 3 songs, communion, offering, sermon, invitation, announcements, closing prayer).
I think this “lack of a liturgy” is intentional, and is an invitation to be creative and culturally relevant in whatever context a church finds itself. So, expressive dance works well in some places, and would be shocking in others. Video is a great communication tool in some parts of the world, but completely inaccessible and unnecessary in others. There are a number of ways to worship, and those who help lead are wise to consider culturally appropriate and creative ways to invite folks into God’s presence.
But the New Testament’s flexibility when it comes to the ways we worship does not mean there isn’t a way to worship. In other words: we can (and should) come up with different styles of worship — but this should not detract from some essential elements that worship should include.
So, when it comes to worship, whether it’s in Louisville or Laos, South Africa or Southampton, Guinea or Guyana, I think it should include these key components.
First is Scripture. When we gather as God’s people, scripture is a vital component. Whether it is sung, spoken, prayed, dramatized, or proclaimed — or, better yet, all of those — it is scripture that most clearly presents the voice and the will of God. Now, I doubt most folks with disagree with this. But what we believe, and what we practice, often don’t seem to be in sync. For example: how often are 80%, 90%, or even more of the words that are spoken and sung and ad-libbed from the stage our words, instead of God’s?
I have been preaching recently at a very small congregation. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them, but, honestly, they don’t really need me. Sure, it’s nice for them to have a preacher each Sunday; and I’m glad they’ve asked me to come. It’s good for them to have someone open the Word. But the simple truth is: they don’t have to have an outside “professional” come in each Sunday. One (or 2 or 3) of them can get up and read some scripture on Sunday, and speak a word or two of encouragement — and they will hear from God (which, apparently, is what happened in the church in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 14).
A second essential element of worship is response. If God speaks through scripture (and whatever words of encouragement we might add), then His speaking demands a response. And so, in most churches I’ve been in, we invite folks to make a first-time decision to follow Jesus and be baptized.
That’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. For the Word of God always demands a response, of every one. Sometimes that response is a first-time decision, but 90% of the people in our churches — a number that is higher in some, lower in others — have already made that decision. So, we shouldn’t just invite the 10% to make a decision; we should invite everyone to respond. Sometimes, that might look like weeping and repentance; other times it might involve arms raised and joyful shouts.
Worship should be a place where confession is included; where repentance is spoken — where prayer isn’t just the words 2 or 3 men pray from the platform. Instead, prayer is the essence of our response. Prayer must be what we invite everyone to speak and to share, to sing and to silently voice.
While I’m on the subject of response: one way the churches I’ve been part of include response is the Lord’s Supper. Communion is an important time to touch and taste the Word of God — and to respond. But in basically every church I’ve been in, communion is almost always a silent, solitary affair. While this is ok, it doesn’t seem to have been the practice of the early church. Again, in the church at Corinth, we see communion as very much a community affair — one where sharing in communion involves looking out for your fellow believers (see 1 Corinthians 11).
Imagine the opportunity we would provide people if we carved out more space for response — through communion, and otherwise. As one example, think about what it would look like to have a worship service where people were invited to go and say “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I pray for you?” — and we then gave worshipers 10 minutes to do just that, during the service, with anyone in the room.
Awkward? For some, sure. Impossible? In some circumstances, yes. But I believe that a core element of worship has to be response — a response that is rarely solitary.
This leads to another element vital to healthy worship: community. Worship as a church must be done as a church. Of course a person can worship God alone on a hike in the woods. But it’s not complete. For worship of God always involves relationship with others. We never worship in isolation, even if we are alone — for worship always changes us; a change that impacts, and involves, others.
It is simply not true, biblical worship if we sneak in the back, talk to no one, and slip out before the final prayer. Sure, some folks need to do that as they figure out the church thing. But for those of us who “get” the church thing — even if just a little bit — then church is simply not about any one of us, but instead is about all of us; coming together to hear from God, and be changed by God to be more like Jesus, empowered and driven by the Spirit of God.
So, dance, or not. Raise your hands, or not. Clap, or don’t. Use instruments, or just a keyboard, or none at all. Meet in a building, or under a bamboo tree. Wear blue jeans or Brooks Brothers. But don’t miss what is essential to worship itself: the Word of God, which calls for a response to God, from all who gather as the people of God.