Intentional Worship

Each Sunday, Christians all over the world gather for worship. 
Some churches follow ancient liturgies, while others revel in  relevance and spontaneity. The truth is, that even lowest of low churches have a liturgy ("order of service"), even if it's not planned out or written down. It might be as sketchy as "sing some songs" and then "preach a sermon."  

In the Baptist tradition in which I live and pastor, all too often, very little thought is given to the shape of the worship gathering. After all, we Baptists have a healthy suspicion of tradition or anything that smacks of empty formalism. This, I think, is largely commendable. 
Yet, in our distancing from formalism and tradition, we can sometimes lose seriousness in our approach to worship. The solution to formalistic worship shouldn't be thoughtless worship. The solution to the vain repetitions of tradition is not the vain repetitions of un-planned spontaneity, in which you do the same things each week without reason. 

In Scripture, we see repeatedly that God puts a high premium on corporate worship. Old Testament Israel was not to innovate with the elements of worship (see Nadab and Abihu, Uzza), while the New Testament church is called to worship in "spirit and truth." 
Simply put, worship is serious business, and what we do when we gather ought to have Biblical warrant. Innovation regarding the elements of worship is downright dangerous (though creativity can be deeply worshipful). So while the Scripture does not give us an inspired order of service we must follow, it does give us key elements of what we should do when we gather for worship: read the Bible, pray, teach and preach, celebrate the ordinances, sing, give, and fellowship. Of course, while it doesn't tell us what songs to sing or how much we should pray or what time we should gather on the Lord's Day, it does call us to do things "decently and in order" and let the truth of God's character drive our worship. Indeed, under the New Covenant, the very day of worship, the Lord's Day, is a reflection of the gospel victory of Christ in rising from the dead. 

So how should we shape our gatherings? Because worship is a response to God's gracious self-revelation in Scripture and in Christ, we should shape our gatherings by the logic of the gospel. With that backdrop, here's an explanation of a more-or-less typical order of service at Cloverleaf.

The Call To Worship: 
In Scripture, we see that God always initiates worship and relationships with His people. Therefore, we start our gathering with Scripture, as God summons His people to come worship him. We want the first and last word of the service to be God’s Word. We usually have a short reading that focuses our hearts on who God is.

Prayer of Adoration: 
The Scripture models prayers of many different kinds, including prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, lamentation, intercession, and supplication. We seek to include a variety of prayers in our gatherings. In the prayer of adoration, the focus is on exalting and celebrating God’s character. The person leading in prayer is asked to select an attribute of God, meditate on it, and then lead in a thoughtful prayer praising and adoring God’s gracious character. We find examples of this kind of prayer in the book of Psalms. The prayer of adoration should not be generic or perfunctory, but focused and passionate. Even if written out, it should never be offered in a robotic, but heartfelt manner, focusing on the character and glory of God.

Hymns of Praise: 
Typically, our opening hymns focus on God’s character and center on praising Him. By singing together, we confess the truth of God’s Word and put the attention on Him. Our singing should be corporate, passionate, thoughtful, and focused. 

The Scripture puts a premium on corporate singing in verses like Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-21. Our goal as a church is not to have traditional worship, but to have congregational worship. There’s no Bible verse prohibiting drums and guitars in the church’s worship, and no verse commending organs and pianos. Instead, whatever style we choose, we want the songs to be singable and the emphasis on the congregation’s voice—not on a performance on the stage. In truth, both traditional and contemporary styles can turn into empty performance, and both, if done intentionally, can be done congregationally and reverently  

Scripture Reading: 
Usually, we will have a reading from the opposite Testament from which the pastor is preaching. It is often an extended passage or entire chapter of Scripture. Reading God’s Word is a vital part of worship commanded in Scripture (I Timothy 4:13) and therefore should be done with great enthusiasm and energy. When the Bible is read, God is speaking, for the Bible is His very Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). To hear and hearken to God’s voice is as much a part of worship as singing. Psalm 95 bears this out. The first half of the Psalm calls God’s people to sing and worship, and the second half calls them to hear and obey His voice. 

We encourage those who read the Scripture to study the passage beforehand, read it in a few translations, and understand the main focus so they can read with understanding. We encourage a brief introduction (not a mini-sermon) to connect the Scripture reading to the theme of the service. 

When we read the Bible, the focus is on the raw power of God’s Word. Read slowly, loudly, and carefully. Keep the energy up and focus on God’s Word. 

Prayer of Confession: 
Whenever we are confronted with Scripture, we are exposed as sinners. God’s Law reveals our sin, and our sin calls us to confession. By this point in the service, our hymns of praise have shown us a God high and lifted up; the Scripture readings have highlighted our lack of conformity to divine truth. Corporate confession is modeled in places like Psalm 32, 51, Daniel 9:1-19, and Nehemiah 9. The New Testament commands a life of confession in 1 John 1:9. Corporate confession, therefore is a necessary element of public worship. Weekly corporate confession models the gospel and teaches the congregation how we ought to go about confessing sins in our private lives. 

If you lead in this prayer, prepare well. Fill your prayer with Biblical language. Do not use it as personal confession, but corporate confession. Use “us,” “we,” and “our,” not “I, me, my.” In this prayer, you are simply confessing to God sins that we as God’s people are guilty of committing. It is wise to have a narrow focus, one that is connected with the day’s theme and Scripture readings. If, for example, we have been focusing on God’s faithfulness to His promises, you might meditate on the various ways that we are unfaithful to Him or untrusting His promises. 

A prayer of confession need not be long. A brief, well-planned prayer is far more edifying and useful than a windy rambling one. 

Promise of Pardon: 
After we confess sin together, we want to be reminded of God’s promises of forgiveness to His people. The promise of pardon is a verses of Scripture that reminds us that, through Jesus, we are forgiven. Do not let it feel ritualist or robotic, but let the power of God’s promises convey comfort to God’s people. 

Hymns of Christ: 
After the prayer of confession, we will often (though not always) sing hymns that celebrate specifically what Jesus has done for us. Celebrate. Rejoice. The death, burial, and resurrection are the heart and soul of Christianity. These hymns may very well be the high point of the singing. 

Prayer of Supplication: 
Before the sermon, we take time to plead for divine help. We need illumination; we need God’s help as a church. We are commanded to pray for our leaders and needs. We are commanded to pray for God to help our church grow, for the nations to be reached, for disciples to be made. 
The prayer of supplication is usually the longest prayer in our service. We needs we pray for are expansive, including regular prayers for the spiritual growth of the church, the needs of the community, current events in the world, and gospel work among the nations. As the prayer of supplication both expresses and shapes the priorities of the church, we try to be intentional about it. 

We want to hear from God in His Word. We do not want self-help, cute stories, corny jokes, political commentary, but God’s Word. The preaching of the Word is not separate from worship, but integral to it. 2 Corinthians 3:18-4:5 shows that the proclamation of the Word is the means by which we see the glory of Christ in transformative worship. Preaching sets God’s glory before God’s people so that they can be transformed into His likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). Likewise, Psalm 95 links singing and hearing God’s Word together as acts of worship. 

For those who preach, the call is to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:1ff). Preaching means exposing God’s Word to view, boldly heralding its message, teaching its meaning, and exhorting God’s people to apply and obey it. Expositional preaching should always be evangelistic. Insofar as Christ is the focal point of Scripture, every text anticipates His coming, declares it, reasons from it, or shows us why it was necessary.  

For those who listen to preaching, listen attentively, obediently, and humbly. Take notes, follow the Scripture, and ask God to make specific applications to your life. It is worship. 

Hymn of Response: 
Whenever we hear the Word, we must obey. The hymn of response provides an opportunity to do so. It’s not merely a time to pack stuff up; it’s a time to reflect. It is a time of invitation to respond to God’s Word that has been preached. You can pray where you stand, kneel in your pew, or slip out to speak to a pastor. However you physically respond, be sure to spiritually respond. 
I typically make myself available in the back of the church for anyone wishing to have further conversation about any matter that was preached. 

Gospel Ordinances: 
New Testament ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper, together signify our participation in the New Covenant. Both picture the gospel. Baptism pictures both our cleansing from sin and our death and resurrection in union with Christ. The Lord's Supper dramatizes the gospel and our participation in it. It reminds us that the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus for His people is what nourishes us and gives us eternal life. 

We place our celebrations of the ordinances after the preaching of the Word, for neither ordinance has any efficacy in itself. Both are only intelligible and meaningful in connection with faith in the Word. They're signs, while the gospel declared is the thing the signs point to. Both are celebratory and belong only to those who are in Christ. The Lord's Supper, as anticipation of the heavenly banquet, appropriately concludes the gathering and sends us out with "until he comes" on our hearts.

Just as we began with the Word, we end with the word. The benediction is a verse of Scripture either praising God, pronouncing a blessing, or both. The final word to God's people should be God's Word. We go our separate ways with God's truth ringing in our ears, not announcements about upcoming picnics or signup sheets. 

Simply, the order of service reflects and proclaims the gospel. 

We move from God in the opening positions, to man in the prayer of confession, to Christ, to our response—reflecting the pillars of the gospel message. 


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