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The Opening of Worship (Bible Study)

We are called into the presence of God. We are exhorted to come with joy, thanksgiving, music and song. We affirm that he is the "great God," our maker and our shepherd. We can expect to be welcomed into his presence because we are the "flock under his care." What a rich spirit in which to begin worship!

Lesson 2                      See all lessons
Scripture: Psalm 95 and Acts 2:42-47


It's really quite an amazing thing when worshipers gather. They come from a wide variety of locations and experiences when they come into the place of worship. They do this in various ways. Some may wander in quite at random. Some are ushered to their usual pew. In some congregations the worshipers gather around a coffee pot in the fellowship area and noisily catch up on the events of the week until they are called in. In still others the gathering takes the form of clergy and choir solemnly processing down the aisle to their respective places.

Stop and take an intentional look at how your congregation gathers.

Those who gather are usually quite a mix. While most congregations are of similar background and culture, it's also true that every congregation has a mix of diversity. People who are strangers are sitting next to each other. We all see a number of other people we probably would not choose to be with in any other setting. Tom Long (in Testimony) says that worship trains us to have a "sort of double vision about other people, to see people, including ourselves, as flawed and broken but also as created, chosen, and beloved by God" (p.45).

As you reflect on Psalm 95, notice the direction in which these exhortations move. We are called into the presence of God. We are exhorted to come with joy, thanksgiving, music and song. We affirm that he is the "great God," our maker and our shepherd. We can expect to be welcomed into his presence because we are the "flock under his care." What a rich spirit in which to begin worship!

The glimpse we receive into the New Testament church in Acts 2 illustrates their practice of what Psalm 95 presented. With awe and faith they came into the presence of God, eager to hear him speak, to speak to him in return, and to enjoy fellowship with each other. The results were seen in deepened commitments to obedience and in warm welcomes to all who came to faith.

Formative Convictions

Basic convictions should always shape our actions. The following beliefs help form our worship practices, and we should intentionally affirm them.

1. The purpose of worship. The opening of worship should clearly establish worship's purpose. The opening actions should make clear that we are here to listen to God and respond in faith.

2. God's identity. God is Trinity, and we worship him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In order to do justice to the way in which God has revealed himself, none of the three should be eclipsed by another. We come to worship all three.

3. Our identity. We gather as the image-bearing creatures of God who bring him honor, but also as the redeemed children of God who bring him our love and needs. We can expect that he is eager to meet us and will respond to us with his gracious blessing.

4. God's gathering act. As worship begins it is vitally important that we are made conscious that we have not gathered ourselves, nor have we as leaders done the gathering. God has gathered us. Worship is not first of all a human activity, but a divine activity. This God-action (the vertical dimension) must be made clear at the beginning of worship.

5. Standard actions. As worship opens nearly all worshipers need certain familiar and standard actions on a weekly basis to reinforce the above convictions. With familiar acts of entrance each week, worshipers will find security and strength in entering the presence of God.

Opening Acts of Worship

Depending on the style of worship and the culture of the congregation, the acts of worship will be quite different from one congregation to another. However, variations in style should always be consistent with the essence of worship and the assumptions mentioned above. Five ingredients usually are necessary for a healthy opening of Christian worship.

1. Prelude/Gathering Music. While it may have different titles, may be with different instruments, and may be played, sung or a combination of both, music is an excellent aid to assist worshipers in making the transition from their daily lives into the worshipful presence of God. The purpose of gathering music is to aid the mind and heart of the worshiper to center into the presence of God, leaving behind distractions and freely bringing along all her/his needs into the welcoming presence of God. Usually a time of centering on God before beginning to sing can be very effective so an instrumental prelude is helpful.

2. The Welcome and Call to Worship. Words that are spoken at the opening of worship are very influential words and should be chosen very carefully. Often the opening words will establish whether the horizontal or the vertical direction of worship is primary. Both are important. Horizontal references make it clear that all are welcomed. They extend a spirit of hospitality regardless of our diversity and give opportunity to welcome strangers and visitors. However, the horizontal is secondary to the vertical. God is the one who welcomes us into his presence. Since worship is at God's gracious invitation, we do well to make sure that the opening words express God's call and welcome to us as even more important than our welcome to each other. This may be expressed in spoken words crafted by the worship leader, Biblical words that are read, or sung words by a choir or the congregation. Often, a physical gesture by the worship leader can enhance this welcome and call.

3. The Greeting. Since we are called to worship first and foremost by God himself, it is appropriate that the primary greeting in worship comes from God expressed through Scriptural words. God's greeting is, after all, even more important than our greeting of one another. In some traditions this was called "The Salutation" and was formulated according to the words of Scripture. The words of greeting found in the opening verses of many New Testament epistles are useful. Posture and gestures can be very expressive. The worship leader may raise a hand in blessing, and worshipers may extend hands to receive it. Some prefer to bow heads with closed eyes to receive it; others prefer to receive it with head lifted and eyes open. It is often meaningful for worshipers to respond with "Amen" or "Thanks be to God" as an act of grateful receipt.

4. Adoration and Praise. Music and congregational song play a large part in the opening of worship. Worshipers enter the presence of God with hearty expressions of their praise, adoration, and awe before God. These expressions may be rich and deep, very reflective, or strong and exuberant. In this action worshipers not only affirm their adoration of the triune God but reject all other "gods" who have clamored for their attention all week. Many Christian songs and hymns of adoration are careful to give praise to God as triune. When you select songs for opening, be careful to look for references to the triune nature of God.

5. Opening Prayer. Sometimes called the Invocation, these words consist of a plea, arising out of both need and faith that God will work powerfully among us during the time of worship. We need not ask that he will be present, for he always is. But we expectantly plead that his work, through the Holy Spirit, will be powerful for all who are present. This invocation may be expressed in a spoken prayer, or it may take the form of a sung prayer by worshipers.

You will find many suggestions and resources for these five opening acts of worship in The Worship Sourcebook, pp. 45-79. You can also find songs that correspond to each action in topical indices or section headings of hymnals. While these five acts of worship should be included in the Opening of Worship, they can be ordered differently from week to week or carried out in different ways.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

As the leader for the discussion in your group, we encourage you to have the intent of this lesson clearly in mind. Avoid letting it become a critique or evaluation of any particular worship leader’s work. Avoid letting it become a debate about the relative merits of your style of worship. Focus instead on the deep meaning and purpose of worship (what worship really is!) and how well that is being communicated in the opening section of your worship services.

Spend some time reviewing and discussing the five "Formative Assumptions" listed above. Be sure that all members of your group are aware of all five.

After you have done that, turn your attention to the specific "Opening Acts of Worship" in your congregation. (It might be helpful to have copies of several recent worship services for each member of your group.) Spend your time together sharing insights and evaluations of how well your congregation focuses on the “Formative Assumptions.”

It may be helpful to look at the pattern of a worship service.

Discussion Starters

1. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" come through most clearly in our worship services? What aids that?

2. Which of the five "Formative Assumptions" do not seem very clear to our congregation? How can we improve that?

3. Try to imagine that you are a visitor to your congregation. Picture yourself arriving for the first time and watch how your congregation gathers. What do you notice? What seems helpful and positive? What might be confusing? How can you make the time of gathering more hospitable? How can you make the time of gathering more clearly illustrate the “Formative Assumptions”?

4. Review and discuss the five "Opening Acts of Worship" cited above. Be sure that all are clear on what is meant by each one. Then review the printed sheets from recent worship services. Ask yourselves questions such as:
              a. Which of these are obviously present here?  
              b. Which are not present?
              c. Which are particularly healthy and helpful to all?
              d. Where could we improve our opening of worship?
              e. How and by whom should that be implemented?

Further Reading

"The Opening of Worship: Trinity," by John Witvliet, Chapter 1 in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, ed. Leanne Van Dyk (Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 1-30.

Lesson 3
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