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Worship in the Church

Pastors' Roundtable

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We're not talking about an ecstatic, overwhelming sense of God's majesty and my smallness, his grace and my need; but acknowledging afresh God's word of judgment and justification in Christ. Isn't that what takes place in worship?

Michael Horton talks with pastors from three denominations - Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian - about what it means to give glory to God through worship in the church, and in turn receive God's gifts of peace, righteousness, and satisfaction.

HORTON: Welcome to a special roundtable discussion about worship. We're taking up this topic not because we like controversy or because we like to stir things up, but because we believe that worship is the reason we were created. We were created to love God and to enjoy him, and to receive the benefits of his being our creator. As those who have been redeemed by Christ as fallen creatures, we have a marvelous privilege to be in God's presence and to worship him, so it's out of concern for what worship is, what we're actually doing in the presence of God that we're raising these issues. We have a terrific panel here to take up this topic: John Bombaro is a minister at Grace Lutheran Church, with a congregation of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; Danny Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church; and Eric Landry, who is known to most of you as the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. Eric is also the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, a church plant with the PCA in Temecula, California. It's a pleasure to have you guys with us as we talk about these challenging issues. First of all, what is worship? Some say that the era of the church is over. You can satisfy your own spiritual needs on the Internet, or in just getting together with other Christians informally. You don't need to go to church. Why do we get dressed on Sunday and go to church?

BOMBARO: I think this first part, namely 'the definition,' is where we begin to go astray. There is the dictionary definition: "Worship is a reverence, adoration, homage paid to a divine being in a formal or perhaps informal setting." Though that's true, it's only half the story; and if we only take that as "worship is what we do," then yes, we could stay at home. But worship also entails service. Service is what God does when God comes to meet with us, imparting his grace and bolstering our faith through the means of grace. This requires the assembly of believers being in the environment in which God has attached his "for you" promises. That doesn't happen when I'm in my car listening to Amy Grant at the red light; it does happen when I'm sitting under preaching and when I attend to the sacrament at the altar.

LANDRY: I think that's a definition the four of us can agree with. It's what marks a reformational church apart from an evangelical church, that it's not just something that we're doing for our own benefit. The way I explain it to my congregation is that we gather together to converse with God; that God has called us to his assembly to give us his words of life. We respond with prayer and praise, but these truly are the words of life; we need them just as much as we need to eat, to drink, to breathe.

HYDE: I've always found it so amazing how most evangelical Christians talk about 'grace,' but when it comes to their worship they treat worship simply as their work. In our church-planting setting, we have had many visitors who've expressed that very thing. They'll say, "The difference between your church and what we're used to is that you believe that worship is about God, Word, and sacrament, as opposed to us bringing our best on Sunday and dressing up appropriately."

HORTON: Doesn't it seem like in a lot of the 'worship wars,' as they've been called, the traditionalists and the progressives are really in basic agreement? They agree that worship is our work. Worship isn't about us and our needs, worship is about God and his glory-we are the actors, and he is the one receiving our praise. It's not about us and what this modern, man-centered worship is trying to make it as.

BOMBARO: Yes, and I think it principally begins when the conversation focuses on style of worship. Styles are always going to run their course, and they're always going to be man centered. When we start talking about a theology of worship, then we understand that worship is what we do in response to God's gifts. Lutherans understand that what takes place in the Divine Liturgy and the divine service, from the Augsburg Confession onwards, is always going to emphasize that what God does is primary; he is the principal actor, and we respond to his gracious gifts. The gospel is the power of God not only to save, but to sanctify; and when we gather together in the worship service on Sunday, God has a message for his kingdom people: For those who have sinned not only against his law all week long, but for those who are Christians, we also bear the guilt of sinning against his grace. When we walk in, we're kind of scratching our heads saying, "I wonder where I stand with the great King this week"; but his message to us is always good news.

HYDE: I think that's where the Reformed emphasis on the covenant brings all this together. It is the great suzerain-king, who comes to his vassal servants, and he not only comes as Lord, but he comes as Savior.

HORTON: And Father.

LANDRY: He also tenderly speaks to us his gospel. The idea of the covenant brings together that primary aspect of grace where God condescends to us. As we're there meeting with him, God comes and raises us up; we are enabled by the power of grace to respond appropriately. And that's why our liturgy has to reflect that reality. I tell my congregation: "It doesn't matter that you planned on attending worship this morning. You are a called people, you're here because your Shepherd has called you by name." From the very beginning to the very end, worship is a reflexive action of God's people; it is always in response. God has the first word in the call to worship; he has the last word in the benediction. We are always engaged in that 'call-and-response' with our Father.

HYDE: When I utter the opening words of our liturgy-"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit"-something happens; we are set apart from the world at that moment, we are distinct, we have been called out of the world, and we've actually been ushered into heaven itself into the presence of God, into his holy assembly.

HORTON: There are a lot of people who'll say, "I understand that the covenant of grace is based on God's faithfulness to his people even though they are faithless." But when you say something like that, Danny, when you introduce the service with the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, something happens and people are set apart. Aren't they set apart on Tuesday as well as Sunday? Does something happen that makes them something that they're not in relation to God on other days of the week?

HYDE: There's obviously a pretty clear distinction, in my understanding, in Scripture of Christians being members of the body of Christ, living their lives in the world; but yet there's something different when the Old Testament speaks of 'the holy assembly,' or when Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians as "when you come together as the church." Yes, we are living a life of gratitude, laying our lives down (Romans 12), our whole life; but there's something special, something particular that God says he's going to do when we show up at his beck and call.

LANDRY: God doesn't attach certain promises to our getting together with our Christian next-door neighbors over a beer and a barbecue; God does attach certain promises to the preaching of the Word, to the words of absolution, to baptism, to the Lord's Supper; those are where the promises of God are located. That's where God's people then have a certain responsibility to come and to receive those words of life from the hands of the ministers.

HORTON: Isn't that a completely different motivation than, "Where were you last Sunday?"

BOMBARO: I often say that there are 'musts' in going to church. "I must go to church because if I don't go, then Tony / Betty / Sally's going to think I've fallen off the wagon, and of course I must make a good showing there." The second must could be, "I must to go because the law is driving me." So I'm going out of servile fear. We need to go because we have a need to hear God's word and to receive his gifts; we need to go because we love our Father; we love the Son and we love the Holy Spirit, and God wants to meet with us and give us good gifts. That's what worship means-that we ascribe worth to God.

LANDRY: Somebody here once wrote that in the worship service all of our individual strands of life, all of the individual stories that we're following Monday through Saturday get rewritten back into the grand narrative of redemption by our Father on Sunday. That, I think, is so encouraging to people who are wondering where they are in their relationship to God, wondering about the fact that they have sinned against God's grace. Every Sunday they're reminded, not only of the good news of God's gospel for them as Christians, but that what is going on in their life is part of the grand story of redemption that God is authoring.

BOMBARO: God's invocation, in his own Triune name, the name into which we are baptized (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). I find that as sort of a jolt for people: "Snap out of it! Here is the greater reality!" When I hear those words, what I think about it is God's speech-action; he is doing something, he is establishing and creating a reality with his Word.

HORTON: Both of our traditions here refer to the church as the 'creation of the Word.' We talk a lot about the Word in broader evangelical circles, but there's often a sense that the Bible is a dead letter that we have to make relevant rather than seeing it as Scripture describes itself, as living and active. It's not just talking about the Bible, or the Bible talking about God and this 'new world' that might happen if you let it, but rather it is itself creating that world.

BOMBARO: Our Reformation tradition stands upon going back to the original biblical definition of what the church is, which is the manifestation of the body of Christ. Luther tells us in Augsburg 7 that the church is the assembly of all and any believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and where the sacraments are administered according to the gospel. Our Reformation tradition says that if you want to see the church, come gather around God's Word, gather around his table, and you will see the head of Christ manifest with his body.

HORTON: The invisible becoming visible. It sounds grand, but you're not describing the average worship of probably even our denominations. What do you do if it just seems like there's a greeting from God at the beginning, there's a sermon, there are prayers, confession, absolution, a creed, an offering and a Lord's Supper, and then you're out of there?

HYDE: That's what it is. It seems mundane; it seems completely of this world, but it is. I've told my congregation many times that what we experience in worship, in terms of the ordinariness of it, is a picture of the incarnation of Christ. The Son of God himself became human with all the infirmities that we have. We see this ordinary bread that we just bought at a store, we have wine that was just in a bottle that we uncorked, we have water that came out of the tap. Yet when those sacred words are uttered and when those prayers are offered, they're set apart. The same thing happens with us as a people-we come with all our anxieties and our stress and our burdens and our sins, but yet God is declaring to us that we are now his people.

HORTON: It's really fascinating to me how often John 6 has been appealed to: "The Spirit gives life, the flesh profits but nothing." Down through the ages, many sects have emphasized this and said, "See, it's not external things like preaching, that's just some man up front; it's not external things like formal ways of teaching, called catechism, or formal ways of confessing, called confessions, or formal liturgies; it's not the external stuff, certainly not bread, wine and water; it's the exciting, extraordinary, direct, immediate work of the Spirit!" And yet Jesus says immediately after that sentence, "The words that I am speaking to you right now are Spirit, and they are life."

HYDE: We see this also in Hebrews 6 where Paul describes those who have been enlightened, which we would take as a reference of baptism, or those who have tasted the powers of the age to come, or the goodness of the Word of God. Those outside-of-us, ordinary, mundane 'things' are those things.

BOMBARO: But isn't that what our incarnational theology is all about? Our God was squeezed through a birth canal; he was hanging from an umbilical cord at one point and breast-fed to sustain himself. Our eternal salvation was carried out in grossly physical terms and categories that are too easy for us to kind of look over and disregard. But this is what God has done to redeem humanity.

LANDRY: And I think when that is expressed to people who are tired of the spiritual rat-race found in other churches, they latch on to it like there's no tomorrow. They want to know that it is through these ordinary, mundane things that God comes to meet with them, because frankly, their lives are not exciting; their lives are not filled with spiritual signs and wonders. So it's a great comfort to them to know that it is in the simple gifts that God comes and is present with them. People who come to our church from a non-church background would not be impressed by any kind of entertainment that our little group could muster up; but when they come here they know that something special is going on, even if it's not flashy; it's something that is still very important to them.

BOMBARO: And it's not all mundane; the story itself is absolutely extraordinary. If you can't get passionate about the idea that God has come down to rescue humanity by taking on human flesh, by being born of a virgin, crucified, raised up in a human body and taken up into the midmost mysteries of the Holy Trinity-if you can't get excited about that, then I don't know what! The drama itself has the passion and the charisma.

LANDRY: And that word had better be expressed in our sermons. The liturgy might be perfect, but if our sermons don't express that reality-if all we're doing is giving them helpful tips for being a better parent, a better husband, a better wife-then everything we structure our liturgy to accomplish we take away with just a pallid sermon.

HORTON: Now, we're not anti-law; we believe that the law has an important function to drive us to Christ, to keep on driving us to Christ. We do give God glory, we do respond in the worship service, and so forth, but aren't we saying here that once we get the priority of God's action front and center, that response will follow from the gospel rather than be manufactured by human manipulation?

BOMBARO: Michael, you said it yourself that we were created for worship. We do worship, we ascribe worth to him and we pay him honor and respect. It comes quite naturally, and the setting for doing that is one in which there is fear and awe, appreciation, love commingled with fear. Hearing the great King's message, sensing his presence as his Word grasps the water, grasps the bread and wine, grasps me in holy absolution-then I worship and I do it naturally.

HORTON: I think of Isaiah 6 where the prophet has received a commission to declare God's judgment on the nations and on Israel. What's really interesting is he has this vision of God in all of his glory and majesty, and he pronounces a judgment on himself: "Woe to me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips and I have seen the Holy One of heaven." Isn't that exactly what should happen in worship? We're not talking about an ecstatic, overwhelming sense of God's majesty and my smallness, his grace and my need; but acknowledging afresh God's word of judgment and justification in Christ. Isn't that what takes place in worship?

BOMBARO: Absolutely. I think back to the traditions of the church: in holy absolution we gather before the great King and finally speak honestly to God: "I, a poor, miserable sinner." We confess to God all the sins that we have committed; sins of omission, sins of commission.

LANDRY: Dealing with the guilt that's present is a psychiatrist's dream. As our Reformed and Presbyterian church liturgies place it, the first thing we do as a gathered people is to hear the words of law and of gospel, and then God's words of peace as absolution. It's only in that point that I think we can honestly turn to our people and say, "You can worship God in peace this morning."

HORTON: Charles Wesley couldn't help but expose the wonder of the gospel as the reformers understood it in his hymn, And Can it Be ?: "My chains fell off. My heart was free." He was dead and then he was suddenly made alive, and now his tongue is loosened to be able to sing God's praises.

HYDE: I think of texts like Hebrews 12, which uses the illustration of Mount Sinai, describing the fact that the mountain was blazing with fire, thunder, trumpets. They would be put to death if they touched it. Then the text says, "But you have come to the heavenly Mount Zion, the new Jerusalem, an assembly which is filled with an innumerable amount of saints to those whose spirits have been made just, and to Jesus." It seems like a lot of the worship that many of us have grown up in is a worship that takes us back to Sinai; a worship that might be very tangible, very exciting and very outward. Yet at the same time it puts us back under law. In the Reformation tradition of worship we have already moved beyond Sinai; let's not go back. Here we have the gospel and Christ himself is actually speaking from the top of that heavenly mountain to his people, welcoming us up in there. It is, again, the primacy of grace.

HORTON: So we need to gently take our parishioners aside when they tell us, "I didn't get anything out of that this morning," and say, "What do you mean when you say you didn't get anything out of that this morning?" Nine times out of ten, it's going to be, "It wasn't about how to fix my life this week," and we have to gently tell them, "Something greater has happened this morning, and it's not even the level of your excitement about it. I'm going to tell you what you got: you got a promise that is greater than any fix-it book or manual of life that you've ever looked at. It's not about you; it's about God and about what he has done for us." And that, ironically, is the only way of generating love, good works, praise, thanksgiving, and that's what God desires-genuine praise.

BOMBARO: I think the greatest act of worship and the most God-honoring is receiving the Lord's promise-gifts in Christ through faith. So, what is it that God ultimately wants from us? Is it prayer, is it praise, is it thanksgiving? I say ultimately, no; but rather that we receive his gifts. This is what faith is all about, this is the foundation of worship, namely receiving him, receiving his promises, his benefits in belief.

HORTON: The first part of a lot of psalms start out like this, "This is who God is, this is what he has done for us, this is what we did in return (basically slapping him in the face), and yet he forgave us. We will therefore worship him, we will therefore bring an offering, we will therefore celebrate his grace" and so forth. Or as Paul writes in his letters: "Here is our sin and misery, this is what God has done for us in Christ, and here is the way a life of praise and thanksgiving ought to look."

BOMBARO: I think a big issue for a lot of the churches is this, "Is God having his say during the worship event?" The liturgy, and I mean liturgy in the broadest sense, allows God to have his say. It also does two other things: it protects the minister from the whims of the congregation and it protects the congregation from the whims of the minister.

HYDE: And we as pastors need to reorient our parishioners to thinking in those terms; to think that when they come to worship, when they come with an eagerness, because they know that they're going to be meeting with God, and to expect that God is going to meet them in grace, then we can respond. To reorient the way we think. It ought to be, "Show up. Hear, listen, believe."

BOMBARO: We say to our parishioners, "Brothers, come up higher." We need to preach and teach the drama and have the preaching spill over into the sacramental culmination of the divine presence-God coming to meet with us in his self-giving act of forgiving our sins through Word and sacrament.

HORTON: Obviously, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have different interpretations at some points regarding the Supper, but we can all agree here with the Apostle Paul when he says, "This bread that we break, is this not a participation in the body of Christ? This cup that we bless, is this not a sharing in the blood of Christ?" This is for the forgiveness of sins. If you don't get it in God's greeting, if you don't get it in the absolution, you got the sermon around the corner, you get it in the Supper. To summarize: we believe the biblical approach to worship is that God directs our worship, not because he's a cosmic legalist (although he could because he's the lawgiver of all the earth), but he directs our worship primarily so that it will lead us to salvation rather than judgment. Saving us from ourselves again.

BOMBARO: Bringing glory to himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.

HORTON: And that's how he brings glory to himself. All we can do is celebrate and thank God for his grace.

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Issue: "Using God" Nov./Dec. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 6 Page number(s): 29-33

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