How to come to church

Am I wearing the right clothes (too smart? too casual?)? Will they care if I am late? What’s for lunch later?

church-pew-with-worshippers

These are the questions that occupy many minds as we set out for church. In this second article of our series, I will suggest two much better questions to be asking as I walk into church, expanding on our church’s “Book of the Term”, “How To Walk Into Church” (Tony Payne).

1. How should I respond to God?

The word “worship” comes from Old English “weorthescipe” – ascribing value or “worth” to something. So a good house could be a “place of worship” and a leading town like London a “city of worship”. The Prayer Book marriage service expects the groom to say to his bride, “With my body I thee worship”! None of these instances mean that we regard the house, city or bride as divine!

“Worship” translates the Greek word proskynēo in (eg) Matthew 2:2 (the wise men came to worship the one born) but could just mean “fall on our knees”, as the servant does in Jesus’ story in Matthew 18:26. Thus our English word “worship” has a wider meaning than the Greek one (we take it to include singing and praying, not just kneeling) but also a narrower one (we tend to think only of worship in ‘church’, not in common life as well).

Even in ‘church’, worship is bigger than just my experience of God: I am gathered physically with the people in my ‘pew’ but also spiritually with “all the saints”, living and deceased, of every tribe and tongue, and with the holy angels. Worship is a spectacular privilege.

So here’s a definition (with acknowledgement of DA Carson’s much longer equivalent):

Worship is the proper and delighted response to God’s majesty in creation and redemption in Christ, both in all of life and when we gather as ‘church’.

So worship is above all God-centred: a joyful response to who God is. See for example Revelation 4:11, “you alone are worthy to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things”.

What makes worship delightful is not the novelty of the style, or the beauty of the music, but the object at its centre. Worship is not creating something new but responding to the already-present majesty and mercy of God. And Christ is central as the One who shares the throne of God, and who redeemed us by his blood. This God-centredness is vital for churches to recover in a world where so many things (eg career, self, possessions) call us to worship them instead.

The New Testament continues but transforms Old Testament worship. Where Israel had priests, the church has the priesthood of all believers. The covenant sacrifice of bulls and goats is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. The tabernacle and the temple which symbolised God’s dwelling on earth are fulfilled in the body of Jesus (John 2:21), or of the Church (Ephesians 2:22), or of the believer (1 Corinthians 6:19). Hebrews 12 reminds us that we worship God not on a physical mountain but on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, along with angels and saints, and through Jesus’ blood.

Romans 12:1-3 is a key Bible verse in understanding worship: “in view of God’s mercy, offer your souls and bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is your reasonable act of worship.” This is in part a reflection of the other Biblical words for “worship” (Hebrew abodah, Greek latreia) which mean “work/service/activity”.

Worship is action, as much what we do the rest of the week with our souls and bodies, as what we do when we gather. Worship is both adoration and action. What we do shows what we delight in. So I can’t worship on Sunday if I have not served God during the week. To come and sing when I have not considered how I can serve God in my personal, family or work life is at best inconsistent; and at worst impossible. My weekday worship prepares me for that on Sunday (and vice versa).

A good way to prepare for Sunday is to pray for the preacher to be faithful and inspired in what they teach. Pray for the congregation and any newcomers to be attentive and have open hearts for God’s message. Pray for any particular people we know who are anxious, or doubting, or discouraged. Another practical way to come prepared is to read the passage that is being taught about in the sermon if your church publicises what it is in advance.

So come to church ready to respond to God.

2. How can I help to build each other up?

Is gathered worship for God, or for the people? Of course, it’s both. But David Peterson argues (from eg 1 Corinthians 14, see v26) that the New Testament’s emphasis in gathered  worship is upon encouraging each other. Sunday best clothing should be hard hats and boots, because we are to “build” each other up. Perhaps he overstates his case, as gathered worship is clearly for responding to God too, yet I can sing songs at home, or pray at work, but I cannot encourage and edify you except when we gather.

Anglican worship is historically strong at ‘building up’ the faith of the congregation. This is largely thanks to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, who reformed medieval English Catholic worship’s focus on ritual and mystery. Although change and innovation is also vital and refreshing, Cranmer saw three things that gathered worship must be:

 Biblical – our gathered ‘church’ should be drenched in Scripture, not just in the reading and sermon, but in the content of songs and prayers. Even the plan of the service comes from Scripture, including the elements of worship listed in the Biblical accounts: invitation to praise and prayer, songs of praise, confession, reading of Scripture and explanation of it, sharing of food and of gifts for the poor, sacraments of baptism and communion. In all these moments of ‘church’, the common feature is faith responding to the Word of God.

 Balanced – churches today tend to either cut loose from the past, missing the wisdom and durability of the best prayers and music, or to cut out ideas from the present, missing out on new ideas which could enhance our worship. Thomas Cranmer followed the principle of emphasising what the Bible emphasises (God’s grace, Word and gospel signs; the people’s repentance, responsiveness and obedience) and being silent where the Bible is silent (eg the kind of music, or whether to stand, sit or kneel). He kept the best prayers from the past, but rewrote the Roman Catholic service. He included the congregation much more in singing and saying the Bible and prayers, where before the priest said everything. He took out ceremonies which undermine faith in Christ, but allowed those which promote it.

Intelligible – Cranmer put the words of the services into English, from a Latin which even many priests leading the medieval services did not understand. He adapted or wrote many new prayers or Collects, especially his excellent “Collect for Bible Sunday” (Last Sunday after Trinity) . He simplified gathered worship for the congregation by putting it all in one book, where before there were half a dozen to juggle. Were he here today he would doubtless have put prayers online and in apps!

So what does it mean to come to church ready to build each other up, as Cranmer saw so clearly? I need to come ready to sing enthusiastically and to join in loudly with the prayers which the congregation says together: the point is that we are all joining in! I need to come ready to listen to the words of the whole service thoughtfully, as the words of songs, hymns and prayers may carry gospel truths as important to me as those of the sermon. And I need to encourage the people around me by joining in at all points, including listening to and taking notes on the sermon. As Tony Payne puts it, don’t be a “dipping duck” nodding off in the pew, or drift off looking for invisible fairies in the ceiling! As I respond to God with enthusiasm, I build up those around me too.

Are you ready to come to church?

Further reading

DA Carson (Editor) Worship by the Book (Zondervan, 2002)

John M Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996)

David Peterson, Engaging with God (IVP/Apollos, 1992)

Thomas Cranmer’s Collects can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, or the modern adapted versions of them online. They are delightfully presented with commentary in

C Frederick Barbee & Paul F M Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (William B Eerdmans, 1999)

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