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The Uniqueness of Reformed Worship (Bible Study)

This Bible Study explores the questions: What really is worship? And what is the unique perspective that the Reformed faith can bring to our thinking about worship?

Lesson 3                       See all lessons
In the first lesson we spoke about our reasons for worship as they are shaped by what we observe in the throne room of heaven, according to Revelation 4 and 5. In lesson 2 we used the same passages to observe that while we see one another in worship, we must also remember the unseen participants—the Triune God is present, as are hosts of angels. Review some of those thoughts in your group before moving on to the passage for this lesson.

Scripture: Psalm 95
The words of Psalm 95 are perhaps some of the most commonly heard words in a worship service. They frequently form the Call to Worship and exhortations to congregational singing, and have often been incorporated into litanies.

No wonder. They are inviting words. But they are also words that help us to think clearly about the nature of Christian worship. We've all encountered many different viewpoints on worship. If you gather ten people in a room and ask them to explain what worship is, you'll likely get many different viewpoints. To some, any religious program or concert can be called worship. Others want to call it "teaching." Still others feel that if it's exciting and uplifting, it's worship.

So what really is worship? And what is the unique perspective that the Reformed faith can bring to our thinking about worship?

The Worship Landscape
Perhaps it will be helpful for us to first identify where Reformed worship falls in the spectrum of all Christian worship. Alongside Orthodox worship (the Eastern Orthodox churches, etc.) and Roman Catholic worship, we are part of the family who practice Protestant worship.

Yet Protestant worship has about five different families within its borders too. Anglican/Episcopal worship is perhaps the closest to Roman Catholic worship and has retained much of its ritual. Lutheran worship has been shaped by the teachings and patterns of Martin Luther after the Reformation. Reformed worship has largely followed the teachings and patterns of John Calvin. Free Church worship, found in most Bible churches and Baptist churches generally influenced by Zwingli, prefers not to think of structure or liturgy. Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit, who often leads spontaneously and with emotion.

Those of us who are Reformed find ourselves among these others. We must avoid an arrogance that says ours is the only correct way of worshiping. But we must also avoid embarrassment about believing that we have a particular and valuable contribution to make to the worshiping church world.

Reformed Uniqueness
Perhaps the most unique contribution the Reformed faith makes to our thinking about worship is that we perceive worship to be a conversation with God. When two persons engage in a conversation they both speak and listen at various times. When public worship happens, God and his children both speak and listen at various times. At times we call this a dialog with God, though there are limitations in such a reference because there are also times when worshipers speak to one another.

God speaks to us with his word of invitation, forgiveness, instruction and blessing. We speak to God in our words of confession, prayers, adoration and praise, commitments, and affirmations of faith.

Many Christians have found it helpful to visualize their worship using little arrows to identify what is happening in each part of the worship service. An arrow down (↓) indicates that God is speaking to us (the greeting, words of forgiveness, Scripture reading, sermon, blessing, etc.). An arrow up (↑) indicates that worshipers are speaking to God (in song, confession of sin, affirmations of faith, prayer, etc.). Horizontal arrows (↔) indicate that worshipers are speaking to one another.

This concept of a corporate conversation with God helps to distinguish a worship service from other meetings or concerts that certainly may be religious in tone. It also is important for us to remember that the vertical dialog ("up" and "down" arrows) is the most important one. The horizontal (when we speak to each other) is important but clearly secondary.

Looking at Psalm 95
With those thoughts in mind, read Psalm 95 again. Read the psalm slowly and thoughtfully and try to identify the conversation that is going on between God and his covenantal people. Notice the dimensions of the psalm that point to the character of this conversation.

  1. God is a covenant-keeping God who desires to draw his covenant children close to him and enter into relationships with them (see verse 7).
  2. Hear how the psalm speaks of the greatness of God. Read verses 3-5 very slowly and let it expand your view of God.
  3. In verse 6, "in worship" and "before the Lord our Maker" are parallel phrases that can be used interchangeably. Worship is done in the presence of God.
  4. Everywhere in the Bible, as in this psalm, the assumption is that God is a God who speaks to his people. He spoke through prophets; he speaks through his Word; he speaks by his Spirit. So we can expect to "hear his voice" (verse 7).
  5. The psalmist calls us to speak to God with the confidence that God will be listening. God welcomes hearing our voices. We speak to him in our singing (verse 1) and our thanksgiving (verse 2).

Now think of your weekly worship services. God and his children are gathered; both are ready to speak and to listen. It's a holy conversation.

Looking at the Liturgy
Perhaps you call it an "order of worship," or the "worship sheet," or the "order of service," or the "liturgy." Whatever name you use, the design of your worship should reflect this conversation with God.

When two people have a conversation, there is no need to structure and organize it. The conversation is free-flowing and spontaneous. But when a group engages in a "corporate conversation" some manner of structure and organization becomes necessary to keep everyone on the same track and to keep the dialog flowing. A planned liturgy can accomplish that. Looking back at some of your previous liturgies can be an instructive exercise, one that will help as you plan future worship services. Evaluate these past liturgies in the light of having a conversation with God.

Tips for the Discussion Leader
Since your time for this study is limited (there are other items on the agenda!) keep an eye on the clock so that your time in study is used efficiently and fairly. Be sure that you have a very clear grasp of the central idea of this lesson ("Worship is a corporate conversation between God and his children"), and aim to keep the group focused on that central idea. Carefully steer them away from secondary issues into which the conversation can easily move.

There will likely be some questions that don't have a ready answer, but the overall purpose of this discussion is to think clearly and freshly about this conversation with God and evaluate how well your current worship services reflect that conversation.

Try to draw all the members of the group into the discussion. Attempt to gently steer the discussion away from dominance by one or two individuals. Be free to ask questions of those who are hesitant to participate.

Discussion Starters

1. Look at several of your recent worship services. What do they communicate? Can you sense a conversation going on?

2. The use of arrows (see above) can be helpful. Items that represent God's voice to us receive a down arrow (↓); items that represent our voice to God receive an up arrow (↑). There will be some parts of the worship service where worshipers are speaking to one another for affirmation and encouragement; these times should receive horizontal arrows (↔).

  • Identify the elements in your worship service that deserve an "up" arrow.
  • Identify those which deserve a "down" arrow.
  • Which deserve horizontal arrows?
  • Are there other elements that are left and don't seem to fit? Perhaps these need evaluation.

3. Does there seem to be a healthy balance between the "up" arrows and the "down" arrows?

4. Who should have the first word in a worship service—God or us?

Further Reading
Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture (CRC Publications, 1997), pp. 37-49, 75-78.

Bible Study: Lesson 4
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