Responding in Praise and Thanks (Bible Study)
In corporate worship we are expected to give a response to what God has said and done. So we talk about the "service of response" of a worship liturgy, and it always follows the proclamation of God's word in the sermon. When God has spoken his word of hope and grace, it is unthinkable that we would leave church without a response. The dialogue of worship always includes the assumption that God waits for some response to his word.
Lesson 9 See all lessons
Scripture: Exodus 15:1-21 and Revelation 5:6-14
"Therefore" is a very common word in the Bible. And it's a very strategic word. Sometimes it is clearly stated, sometimes it takes the form of "then," and sometimes it is assumed.
It draws a direct tie between what came before and what comes after. It's a word that says, "because this happened, now this must happen!" Or, "because God did this, now we must do this!" This one word indicates that a certain response is expected to what has just been said or done.
Our worship also includes this step. In corporate worship we are expected to give a response to what God has said and done. So we talk about the "service of response" of a worship liturgy, and it always follows the proclamation of God's word in the sermon. When God has spoken his word of hope and grace, it is unthinkable that we would leave church without a response. The dialog of worship always includes the assumption that God waits for some response to his word. (Most worship services also include a prior response when God provides his assurance of pardon after our confession of sin. At that point worshipers usually respond with thanks through a song or prayer and a commitment to grateful living.)
The story of Moses and the song of the Israelites in Exodus 15 is an example that shows response to God. After God had mightily delivered the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt and had miraculously led them through the Red Sea on dry ground, Exodus 15 begins with "then." It means that the song of Exodus 15 not only occurred after crossing the sea (in terms of time sequence), but that they sang this song because of and as a response to God's acts in delivering them. Read through this stirring song of praise in verses 1-18. The song is a familiar one that Christians often sing (cf. "I Will Sing Unto the Lord" [PsH 152], an Israeli folk hymn, or "Psalm 136: We Give Thanks unto You" [SNC 26]), and it is sung most meaningfully when we understand that the song was a direct and personal response of overwhelming praise and thanks to God for his spectacular deliverance. Behind this event is the fact that the God who had divided the Sea and led them through is waiting to hear their response to his gracious acts.
A similar event occurs in Revelation 4 and 5. Throughout these two chapters the scene in heaven gradually unfolds. We see the throne room of heaven with the Lord on the throne, surrounded by his angels and saints from all ages. After this it became clear that the Lamb, "looking as if it had been slain" (see 5:6), is in the center of the throne. John, who is perplexed that he cannot unlock the mystery and plan of God for history (see 5:1-4), is told that the Lamb alone can "open the scroll" (see 5:5). There is hope for the world! The Lamb has the victory! What follows is a response that cannot be restrained or contained. The archangels and the church offer prayers and sing praises (5:8-10). Then the whole host of angels join them in praise (5:11-12). Finally all creatures in heaven and earth joined in the response (5:13-14). It was a response that could not be contained!
A Double Response
The response to God is to take place both within and outside of worship. The first response (and the one we are most interested in here) is to be a corporate one within the worship encounter with God. It would be unthinkable that after gathering before God to hear his voice proclaiming the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ with the call to follow him, we have no audible or visible response. How incomplete that the gospel is proclaimed and the congregation silently leaves! How inconsiderate that God speaks and his people say nothing back! The uniqueness of Reformed worship is that we understand we are engaged in a dialog with God. The worship liturgy needs to provide adequate time and means for our hearts and mouths to express our response to his voice. Otherwise, the dialog of worship is left unfinished.
A more comprehensive response, of course, is to occur in our daily lives after we have left worship. At this point the corporate response within worship becomes the personal response of continued worship in daily living. Paul, in his epistles, uses the same powerful "therefore" in this matter. After explaining God's delivering grace in the first eleven chapters of Romans, he goes on to say, "Therefore…offer your bodies as living sacrifices…." (Romans 12:1). In Ephesians he spends three chapters explaining salvation by grace through faith for those previously dead in sin, and then says, "…then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received." (Ephesians 4:1)
Varieties of Responses
Once we see clearly how important a response section is for our worship liturgies, we can begin considering the different ways to give responses. As you will see, there is a variety of ways to do this. As a matter of fact, our worship is usually most vital when our responses take different forms each week.
Many ideas for worship responses can be found in The Worship Sourcebook (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Baker Books, 2004). The first half of the book deals with the "Elements of the Worship Service." Sections 1-3 treat the Opening of Worship, Confession and Assurance, and Proclaiming the Word. Sections 4-8 contain resources for responses to God: Prayers of the People, Offering, Baptism, Profession of Faith and Remembrance of Baptism, and the Lord's Supper.
Here are a few options to consider for a response to God:
1. Prayers. We speak our words of gratitude, praise and commitment directly to God in prayer, but there are different types of prayer. The Prayer of Application is found directly after the sermon and is specialized as a response to the sermon. The Prayers of the People (or Pastoral Prayer) is a broader prayer for the needs of the worshipers, the community and the world at large. It also can be placed after the sermon so it becomes responsive intercessions to the God who has bent down to speak to us. It may be led by the pastor, by a lay person, or by several persons. In such a prayer the leader attempts to verbalize the thoughts, intentions and needs of worshipers.
2. Songs. While some songs are prayers for God's help and care, many are intended to be the expression of the worshiper's heart. The coupling of words with music provides the worshiper an excellent method of letting her/his heart speak. Sometimes songs become a specific response to the message of the sermon. While some of our songs express our praise, others sing our thanks. While some profess our faith, others express our commitment to obedience. Some express awe, and others security and comfort. The theme of the service and the sermon will determine which is needed. Generally, these should be songs on the lips of the whole congregation; if choirs, ensembles, or vocalists sing a response, it should be clear that they are singing for the body, not to them.
3. Professions. When a body of worshipers professes, they are corporately speaking to God and before the world of their united response to him. The words of the historic ecumenical creeds (Apostles' Creed or Nicene Creed, for example), selections from other confessions of the church, or formulated litanies give us opportunity to declare our unity with the church of all ages and speak of our convictions. Many passages of Scripture also serve well as our professions.
4. Offering. Many worship planners often wrestle with how to include the offering meaningfully within the liturgy of worship. Sometimes it can easily seem to be an interruption to worship. The word "offering" implies giving freely and presenting something as a token of dedication and devotion. Therefore, it is sometimes wise to present information about the needs and service opportunities. If it is understood as an expression of our response to God and included in the post-sermon part of the liturgy, it takes on new significance. We generously give for God's work in the world as our response to his acts and word. When we can combine the giving of money with the giving of ourselves in times of service or other forms of gifts, such as food for a food pantry, it can represent a presentation of our daily living to God and can become even more meaningful.
5. Sacraments. Both Baptism and the Lord's Supper are fitting responses to God's word. However, the church does not often view baptism in this light. When baptism is celebrated for adults, it is easily recognized as a response. When infant baptism is celebrated, we usually put it early in the service—not for liturgical reasons, but to ease parents' anxiety about the uncertainty of their child's behavior. The Lord's Supper also has historically been recognized as a fitting celebratory response to the proclamation of the gospel and follows the sermon. What more fitting response can there be than taking the bread and the cup in grateful remembrance and celebration of his mighty redeeming acts! Many churches have traditionally celebrated the Lord's Supper quarterly, but today many are rethinking this and moving in the direction of more frequent celebrations.
Passive people don't do much responding. Therefore, in both our worship planning and our liturgy, we want to discourage passivity. We may also need to consider educating worshipers on the importance of such vital responses. Those who are accustomed to leaving church after only a closing hymn may need some explanations of why more extended responses are appropriate.
Tips for Discussion Leaders
Take a good look at three recent worship services. Keep the theme of this lesson in mind, and remind yourself that worship is essentially a group conversation between God and his people. Then zero in on the activities of worshipers in these orders of worship as they respond to God. The aim of the discussion this month is to gain a better understanding of how we respond to God and how it could be improved.
Please note that some of the discussion starters that follow could involve a significant amount of time if the group is willing to enter the discussion. Don't feel pressure to cover all the questions. Select what you think is most valuable. Go for quality discussion rather than covering all the questions.
1. Begin with a personal conversation in which each member of the group shares some of their thoughts on these matters:
- Give a positive example of a recent worship service (either here or somewhere else) where you had a very meaningful opportunity to respond to God like you needed and wanted to. Describe the opportunity given.
- Give an example of a worship service where you felt you needed more opportunity to respond to God and didn't get it. What response would you have needed?
2. Examine the worship sheets of three recent and typical worship services of your congregation. Then spend some time discussing questions, such as these:
- Identify which elements in the worship service are clearly response elements.
- Did the theme of the service and the sermon help shape the focus the response? Where and how do you see that?
- Do you think your worshipers were provided adequate ways to respond?
- How could/would you improve it?
3. Think about this case, and evaluate it together.
Harbor Church usually has about 300 worshipers at each service. After a time of songs and prayers, the pastor presents his sermon. He usually preaches directly through a book of the Bible in successive weeks. His message was biblical, interesting, and easy to follow. He concluded the message with a challenge to be faithful in obeying God. At the end of the message he led the congregation in prayer. When the prayer was finished, he said, "Thank you so much for coming. May God bless you, and we'll continue in the next chapter next Sunday morning." Worshipers left while the accompanist played the postlude.
What do you think?
4. Review the five suggestions for responses to God (Prayers, Songs, Professions, Offering, and Sacraments) as explained above. Then discuss these or similar questions:
- In which of these five are we the strongest?
- Which of the five do we neglect? What suggestions do you have for strengthening them?
- Which of the five are absent? Is this a serious lack? What can and should we do about that?
Hymnal Key: PsH = Psalter Hymnal; SNC = Sing! A New Creation
Further Reading: "The Enduring Themes of Biblical Worship," in Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture, CRC Publications, 1997, pp. 37-49.