A Walk Through the Worship Service: Preaching

Many people question how effective preaching is today. More and more studies show simple lecture style learning is not as effective as other learning methods. So why would we continue to have a person get up each week and talk to us for 30-40 minutes? Surely there are more effective ways to communicate! 

Such reasoning, though, misses the point of preaching. It’s not first and foremost about passing on information about God. Indeed, if that were the goal there might be better ways of doing that. But preaching is a God-ordained act that accomplishes his work of new creation; therefore, it is not primarily about passing on information or even teaching. Preaching must do that, but it is about more than that. 

One passage that makes this clear is Romans 10:14-17, 

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

To summarize, we could say saving faith (which is God’s gift) comes through the preaching of God’s word. Christian preaching is miraculous. It brings a new life of faith; it plays a vital role in God’s work of making a new creation, one where the world is made as it ought to be. This seems like a tall order for the person who gets up each week to speak. The good news is that the power of preaching doesn’t come from the speaker; it comes from God and his word.

These days we don’t like to think words have power, but the Bible shows the incredible power of words in Genesis one. God speaks, and darkness gives way to light. God speaks, and deserts become lush gardens. God speaks, and stuff happens! 

Not long after the creation of the world, sin entered the picture. It messed up life as it was supposed to be. It broke the relationship between God his people. But God promised that he would make all things new again. He would begin a work of new creation, to restore and redeem everything that was broken. 

How then does this work of making all things new spread throughout the world? It’s by preaching. God takes the preacher’s ordinary words and imbues them with his holy power (1 Cor 2:1–5). Ezekiel 37 gives us an incredible picture of this power. God takes the prophet Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones. The vultures had gotten their fill. Maggots and worms finished the job. And now the desert sun had bleached the remaining bones until they started to crack. God then asked Ezekiel if these bones could live. Ezekiel responds by saying, “O Lord God, you know.” God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” As Ezekiel did so, the bones started coming together, flesh appeared, oxygen filled their lungs, and suddenly from the dry bones sprang up an army of living people! That is the power of God’s word. Preaching in this biblical sense matters because it’s how God works in the world to bring life out of death. Preaching can occur behind a pulpit or in a valley of dry bones. The location doesn't matter. Preaching is what God uses to restore life to what has died. Each week we get to experience the miraculous work of God in our lives through hearing God speak through the preaching of his word. 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

A Walk Through the Worship Service: Singing

A few years back, in 2014, I remember hearing a story about a fellowship of people in California, that describes itself as a “god-free community that meets monthly...to celebrate life.” During the gatherings, the community listens to lectures, plays games, and sings songs. Although they would shy away from being described in religious terms, some have appropriately tagged it as “atheist church.” Furthermore, I found out that this was just an offshoot (church-plant) of a larger group (denomination) founded by two comedians near London who wanted to do something like church, even though they were atheists.  Called “Sunday Assembly,” the group now has over 70 chapters (congregations). 

When I first heard about Sunday Assembly, it did not surprise me that there was a community of do-gooders meeting together who want nothing to do with god-based religion. What was strange to me is that they always sang songs together as part of their service, but I guess this should not have been surprising either. People love to sing together. Whether it is belting out a good song on the radio with your friends, singing along at your favorite concert, or getting together with a bunch of people on a Sunday morning, the joy of song seems to be woven into the fabric of humanity, spanning cultures and generations.

Of course, God is the one who invented songs and the human voice, he is the one who made music enjoyable, and singing is not something that we should shy away from. Quite the opposite, in fact, Scripture commands singing as part of regular worship: “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name” (Psalm 30:4). “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.” (Colossians 3:16). 

Still, as with so many other things that God has created, there can be a tendency to use songs for purposes other than glorifying God. In the book of Exodus, this is poignantly displayed. After God brings his people through the Red Sea, Moses and the people sing a song to the Lord about his great deliverance (Exodus 15:1-21). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the people were worshiping an idol, and it was their loud singing and dancing that gave them away as having broken God’s law. This caused Moses to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32:15-19). The prophet Amos talks a lot about singing, especially singing in church, but never in a positive light. Indeed, God was repulsed by the fact that his people had turned away from him in almost every way, except for their church services, which seem to have been as vibrant and joyous as ever. So he says to them, “Take away from me the noise of your songs...I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation” (Amos 5:23; 8:10). 

Knowing this, we want to be mindful of how we sing in church. We don’t gather together to be enraptured by song and swept away by melodies, with only a passing glance at the words that come out of our mouths. We are instructed in Scripture to be both emotionally and rationally engaged in singing — to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). So Paul says, “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). The songs we sing in church should make our hearts leap for joy, bring us to deep contemplation, and even to humble repentance, but not because they are beautiful and mindless melodies, nor because they are crafted with brilliantly poetical verse. Instead, they should instruct our hearts with the gospel truth of Scripture, that the word of Christ might thrive in our souls (Colossians 3:16). While this doesn’t mean that in order for a song to be a “good church song” it must be boring, it does mean that everything we sing must be uncompromisingly true. 

Finally, you need to realize that God doesn’t care if you sing well. The widow who gave out of her poverty gave much more than those who gave out of their abundance (Luke 21:1-4). You might have the vocal equivalent of two copper coins, but God is happier to hear you sing to him in reverence and worship of Jesus Christ, than an entire professional choir singing Handel’s Messiah with no regard to the person of Christ. Self-conscious as you may be, the psalms repeatedly instruct us to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” (Psalm 95:1-2; 98:4,6; 100:1). It is my hope and prayer for you that you can take these words to heart, looking forward to that day when we will all sing the song of Moses in heaven:  “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” (Revelation 15:3). 

In Christ,

Pastor Bryan

Walk Through the Worship Service: Corporate Reading

I struggle to spell the word “ridiculous.” I messed it up on the first try, but thankfully I have spell check. Another option would have been to ask any one of my three girls. Each of them can spell it just fine. I have Disney’s Descendants movie to thank for this. It includes a song that spells out ridiculous. R-I-D-I-C-U-L-O-U-S, It’s (ridiculous), Just (ridiculous) and so they go a-singing and surpass me in their spelling abilities.

Children are natural learners, especially learning through imitation. And kids have a remarkable ability to mimic the thing we don’t want! While our inclination to imitation isn’t as strong as we get older, people still are social creatures and learn through seeing and hearing others. 

Catechesis is not some relic of a bygone era, but something that happens every day through what we hear and read. The word catechism comes from the Greek word katekhizein, which means to teach or instruct. So it’s not so much a question of whether or not you are being catechised, (you are) but what is catechising you? 

Each week in our service we participate in a corporate reading that often comes from a catechism (we are currently going through the New City Catechism) or some historic creed or confession of the faith. Congregational participation has been part of worship for several thousand years. In the Old Testament, God’s people gathered on two opposing mountains and would shout God’s words to each other from across the valley. (Deut 27:12-13) This practice continued in the early church, where there are records of reciting an early form of the Apostles creed when someone was baptized. 

One reason we do this is because it reminds us of what we have in common with other believers. People often accuse Christians of being divided, or wonder why there are so many different churches if there is just one God. While various churches may differ on less important matters, most of these churches are united around the basics of the faith, as described in the historic creeds of the church. For instance, while we are a Presbyterian Church, we only ask one hold to the basics of the faith to be a member.

Fuzzy notions about God and superficial understanding of biblical truth are unfortunate marks of too many congregations today. A lack of theological foundation has left many unanchored and pulled by the currents of whatever water one is swimming in. When Paul speaks to the church leaders in Ephesus, he warns them of those who would act like believers, but promote false beliefs. (Acts 20:29-31) In other words, sometimes the greatest threats are not from the secular culture, but from those claiming to serve God. When you are in an unfamiliar place your senses are heightened to danger, but when you are in your own home your are at ease. Unfortunately, too many books, movies, and speakers roam freely in the Evangelical community, yet (often unknowingly) teach about God, Jesus and salvation in ways that are contrary to Scripture. While this may seem innocent, the danger is that it leaves a groups of people who are, in the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:14, “tossed and blown about by every... new teaching.” A faith built upon such teachings leaves one always thirsty, but never satisfied, because one is not actually drinking from the rich truths of Christ. A Christianity based upon a Jesus who is a few degrees off from the Jesus in the Bible robs people of the Christ who holds all joy. A catechism and other statements of the faith provide teachings that are easy enough for children to memorize, yet robust enough to capture the essence of biblical teaching. What is taught in these statements isn’t what just one person has come up with; they have been affirmed by believers across time and throughout the world. When we recite these corporate readings in worship we stand with a great cloud of witnesses! 

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

A Walk Through the Worship Service: Prayers

In this newsletter series, Pastor Bryan and I are explaining the purpose behind the elements of our worship service. Our service is not just based on what we’ve done in the past (although it is influenced by our Reformed and Presbyterian heritage), nor is it simply based on what will attract the most people (although we do want our service to be inviting). More importantly, our worship is based on how God instructs us to worship. We want to worship God in a way that pleases him. A well intentioned gift of peanut brittle to someone with a severe peanut allergy does not bring joy. In a similar way, even if our intentions are good, we want to ensure our gifts of worship are the type God actually desires.

This month we are examining the role of prayer in our worship service. One of the instructions the Apostle Paul leaves for the church is to pray when we gather for worship. (1 Tim 2:8) Thus prayer is a necessary part of our worship service, but the particulars of the prayers in the service will vary church by church. Let’s look at some of the prayers we offer in our service:

Invocation: This is the prayer that comes near the beginning of our service. This prayer is our response to the call to worship where God initiates a conversation with us. The invocation reminder us that unless God is at work, our worship will fall flat. This is important because people often think worship is effective if there is a great band or impassioned preaching. But such things–apart from God’s Spirit–are like the flash of a match that is lit but soon dies out. Worship’s effectiveness is found in God who fuels our (sometimes feeble) efforts to praise him. 

Prayers of the People: As a child I was always curious which elder would be doing this prayer, so that I could prepare myself for long how it would take! However, our purpose isn’t to bore children (or adults), but to pray for God to work on behalf of others. At our church we usually pray for people in the world, our state and our church. We try to model our prayers on the things we are told to pray for in Scripture. This certainly includes physical needs (Matt 6:11), but many of the prayers in Scripture focus on growth in godliness. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Church is a good example:

“I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God.” (Eph 1:16-17)

Prayer for Illumination: God’s Spirit takes the words of Scripture and brings them to life.  The power of preaching is not in one’s speaking ability, but in God’s Spirit working through the preacher and through the minds of the hearers. 

Prayer as Discipleship

One other reason we pray in our service is to help teach others to pray. We have the blessing of having a number of people visit our church who have never been part of a Christian church. If I get the chance to talk with them I will often ask what they thought about the worship service. I frequently hear things like, “The prayers are different than other prayers I’ve heard... in a good way,” or, “When you pray you sound like you are talking to someone you know.” The prayers in our worship service have made people curious about our relationship with God. 

I was recently talking with someone who had no Christian background but through the ministry of our church is coming to know Jesus. She has struggled to pray, in part because she’s never done it out loud. But as we were talking I noticed that she listens to the prayers during the service. Our prayers are helping teach her how to speak to God in a way she never has before. This makes sense; children learn to speak by hearing others speak. Christians learn to pray by hearing others pray. This underscores the importance of prayer in our worship service, but even more, it shows us how important it is for Christians to be willing to model, through prayer, what a conversation with God looks like.

In Christ,
Pastor Jon

A Walk Through the Worship Service

The other day I saw an advertisement for a certain brand of apple cider, and I learned that there are over 600 varieties of apples, each with its own characteristics that can influence the taste of cider, favorably or unfavorably. In order to get the best tasting cider one has to pay close attention to the varied qualities of the apples used. 

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Christian churches, you might feel sometimes like you are choosing from a wide variety of ciders. A worship service might be sweet (enjoyable), bitter (legalistic), bitter-sweet (good sermon, bad music), bursting with flavor (exciting and exuberant), or complex (reverent). Of course, the “flavor” of any individual worship service has as much to do with the attendee’s preferences as it does the service itself. In much the same way that you might prefer Granny Smith over Fuji apples, you might have acquired a taste for a certain “flavor” of worship. 

Scripture, however, does not treat worship as a matter of personal taste, but of spirit and truth (John 4:23). Even if there is room for variety, judging any particular worship service based purely on our personal preferences over-against those of others reduces worship to interactions between people, rather than seeing it as a meeting between God and his people. With this in mind, we’re going to spend some time over the next several months talking about our worship service — what we do, and why we do it — so that we can begin to see worship for what it is: God meeting with us by means of his word and sacraments, drawing attention to the worthiness of Christ our Lord and Savior, and our responding in thanksgiving and adoration.

The Call to Worship — God Invites His People to Glorify and Enjoy Him

When speaking of the Lord’s Day, puritan theologian John Owen said, “All duties proper and peculiar to this day are duties of communion with God. Everlasting, uninterrupted, immediate communion with God is heaven.” Although we often think of being in the presence of God as something that we only truly get to experience in heaven, nearly everything that is true of God’s relationship with his people in heaven is true of God’s relationship with his people today. This means that heavenly worship can happen today (Hebrews 12:22-23). 

Communion with God is and always has been something that he initiates and carries out through his speech. It was the case with Adam (Genesis 1:26-28), Abraham (Genesis 12:1), Moses (Exodus 3:4; 20:1), and culminated in God speaking to his people in his living Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:2). The consistent pattern in Scripture is that when people try to initiate a relationship with God apart from his word, it results in idolatry and confusion, but when God initiates a relationship with his people by his word, fellowship with him is established and blossoms.

With this in mind, our worship service on Sunday mornings begins with a call to worship from Scripture. Through his word, God invites his people to glorify and enjoy him. The selected passage will always be one which draws attention to the magnificent attributes of God, the benefits he offers to his people, or the honor that is due his name, and will sometimes instruct God's people to draw near to him accordingly. Often, this passage will come from the Psalms, like Psalm 95, “Come let us worship and bow down.” As easily, it might be a New Testament scripture like 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Since worship is always responsive — God speaks to us and we return praise to him — we will often read portions of these passages aloud together. 

The Benediction — God Blesses His People With His Continual Presence and Power

In a similar manner, when we conclude worship on the Lord’s Day, we go with a word of blessing from God. He is the beginning and the end, and he has the first and final word in the Call to Worship and Benediction. “Benediction” just means “good word,” or “blessing.” Although you will often see people closing their eyes during the Benediction, it is not intended to be a prayer of the people to God. Rather the Benediction recognizes God as the final gift giver. So being, the minister will often lift his hands as way of signifying that God pours his blessing out on his people. There are many benedictions in Scripture (Romans 15:13, Hebrews 13:20-21), but they all share the common sentiment of Numbers 6:24:26: “The Lord bless you and keep you…” He blesses, and we are blessed. 

One could say that worship is about seeking what tastes the sweetest to us, but not in the same sense as choosing red apples over green ones. Rather, it is an invitation from God to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). To realize that we are not blessed by what we bring to God in our variety of worship, but by what he gives to us as he speaks to us in and through his word.

I hope this helps as you think about why we do what we do at JVC, and that you will have a sense of God’s presence as he meets with us every week. 

In Christ,

Pastor Bryan