The Church Service – Part 4 (Final)

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The Church Service

(part four – final)

 

In previous instalments attention has been given to what a church service is all about and how this is already reflected at the commencement of the church service. Attention will now be given to how this official meeting of God with His covenant children is evident throughout the entire duration of the service. When doing so, keep in mind that a church service is not a meeting of two equal partners but a meeting of the Lord as God and King over all creation with us as His people who depend entirely on His mercy. Our focus is therefore much more on what the Lord says to us than on what we might have to say to Him. Therefore the central part of the church service is the preaching of God’s Word, something that has received special emphasis since the Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church.

The Preaching of the Word

 

During the time of the Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church it was recognised that the Lord grants salvation through faith. He gives us this faith through the preaching of the gospel[1].  Preaching is the instrument by which He also sustains faith.[2] Therefore, even though in the preaching the minister does not speak God’s word directly, he is to speak what God says in His Word; he has no business saying anything else.

As has previously been pointed out, in a church service the Lord meets with His people through His servants. Since this is not a meeting of two equal parties, but of the Lord God meeting with His covenant people whom He redeemed through Christ’s blood, the Lord God therefore has priority. It is especially He who speaks, albeit through servants who themselves are weak vessels. Hence those who are there and hear must show due reverence, humility and thankfulness for the message of salvation that is proclaimed. In their listening they recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd[3]. They are to test what they hear according to what He has revealed[4] and when hearing His word apply themselves to it. When the Word is preached, it is not open to opinions because it does not become a matter of what we think about it but rather of what the Lord says to His people[5].  Still today the gospel message is the light that shines into a world that is dark due to sin[6].

In view of this pre-eminence of God speaking through His servants, there are some who suggest that the sermon should be the first part of the church service. There has therefore been a tendency in some churches to put the reading of the law and the confession of faith more towards the end of the service. However, while I agree that the preaching of God’s Word has priority, it does not necessary follow that it need therefore be first in order. Are there not times when it may be better to leave that what is most important as the climax of the entire gathering? Therefore I agree with the decision ofSynod Middelberg to leave the preaching near the end of the service so that the entire service concludes with singing as a thankfulresponse to hearing God’s Word, a short prayer expressing gratitude for what is heard and then a closing song followed by the benediction after which everyone goes home. In this way, when everyone goes home, God’s Word that was proclaimed is still in everyone’s mind. If it is put the other way around, as has been suggested by some, and as is found in Order B in the Book of Praise, the sacraments, confession of faith, prayers for all needs, and the offertory all come after the sermon. When leaving the church building, everyone then has all these things much more freshly in mind rather than the Lord’s Word given in the preaching.

All these other elements in the church service have their place and are important as well. However, when asked what a church service is all about, the answer must be: it is the Lord meeting with His people and there His speaking remains central.

The proclamation of the Ten Words of the Covenant and the Public Confession of faith

 

The ten covenant words, also known as the ten commandments, are customarily read near the beginning of the first church service every Sunday straight after the first singing. This practice has, at times, been questioned. It has been said that most of us can recite them, so why do these commandments need to be repeated every Sunday.

There are several reasons. First, the origin of the church service today can be traced back to the Lord speaking to His people from Mount Sinai. These Ten Words were central to what the Lord proclaimed to His people at the time and needed to be kept in mind by God’s people through the generations. That’s why they were inscribed on stone and carefully placed in the Ark of the Covenant. This ark was placed in the most holy place of the tabernacle and later the temple.

Second, the commandments were a sign of God’s covenant. There was no image of a God in the temple, but from how the Lord had given instruction concerning these two tables it is evident that these Ten Words, which also became known as the Ten Words of the Covenant, are an expression of the (covenant) bond between God and His people[7].

At times  His covenant bond with His people is compared to a marriage bond. The Ten Covenant Words can then be compared to the marriage vows. Thus, for example, the Lord’s insistence in the first commandment that we have no other gods before Him shows His desire to be our God alone. We may not breach that bond by having other gods. When in the past the children of Israel worshipped other gods besides Him, they were accused of committing adultery.

Thus the Ten Covenant Words express the bond which God has made with us as His people. One can therefore also compare it to a constitution of a country or the foundation of an organisation. Our bond with the Lord God rests on keeping these covenant words. The Lord has granted that while we have breached these commandments in many ways and therefore ought to be rejected, this breaking of the covenant has been restored through Christ. He took the punishment we deserved for breaking these covenant words upon Himself and rendered the perfect obedience to these commandments in our place[8].

Thus they also remain a declaration of what Christ has done for us. These Words are to be in our hearts – and therefore even though we might know them by rote, it is good to hear them every Lord’s Day again[9]. Those who know Christ and what He has done will therefore never tire of hearing these words again and again. They will embrace them with great gratitude[10].

In the afternoon church service these commandments could be, but are not, repeated. Instead, we as the flock of Christ together declare what the Lord teaches about His work for our salvation. This is usually done by confessing the Apostles’ Creed, although at times one of the other Creeds are confessed as well.

Unlike those who depict a church service as a speaking back and forth between God and His people, and include the confession of the Apostles’ Creed as our speaking to God, we as churches summarise what God says. In effect we are saying: the Lord has spoken and therefore I believe… It is not something that we have from ourselves. It is not simply us speaking.  It is us expressing trust in what the Lord has declared to us. Thus it makes little difference whether the minister as the servant of God reads or whether we recite or sing it. This is what we believe because this is what the Lord has told us in His Word.[11] We speak because God has spoken first.

In analogy to the reading of the Ten Covenant Words in the morning church service, one may likewise say: this is our covenant bond with the Lord God who has now fully revealed His secret council and will concerning our salvation[12]. This is what we, the sheep of Christ’s flock, believe and embrace. This summing up of God’s Word therefore never becomes a vain repetition but remains a living confession and way of embracing the Lord our God in true faith.

The calling on the Name of the Lord

 

When officially gathered together as the Lord’s people we also call on His Name. There was no evidence of prayer at Mount Sinai. But when the people witnessed the thundering, lightening flashes, the sound of the trumpet and so forth, they trembled and stood afar off. They sought Moses rather than God to speak directly to them[13]. However, later, in the tabernacle and temple services, prayer was certainly an important integral part, though itwas more the priests who would bring the sacrifices and intercede for the people. Now that we have Christ as High Priest, however, we are directed and encouraged to call on the Lord through Him[14] and in His Name[15].

As was mentioned earlier, listening to God’s Word, the preaching, remains central, and for this reason it was suggested that it be kept near the end of the church service so everyone goes home with that message fresh in his heart. Therefore it remains, as was suggested in the order of liturgy adopted by Synod Middelburg, that the prayer for the needs of the church and congregation is best made before the preaching of the Word. Keeping in mind the importance of hearing God’s Word, it is helpful to first unload our burdens and then hear what the Lord has to say.

The alternative B order suggested in the Book of Praise, on the other hand, would mean that references to a member is seriously ill, has passed away, is blessed with the birth of a child and so forth nothing would be mentioned after the preaching. One is then left with this unmentioned burden or joy on one’s mind during the preaching and when one hears it right after then it is with that matter in mind that one goes home rather than what the Lord said in His Word.

Hence, in order to maintain the priority of the Lord speaking, my suggestion is, in agreement with the A order in the Book of Praise, that Scripture be read first, followed by prayer for particular  needs and for the faithful proclamation of God’s Word in the church service. To be sure that prayer does not become an announcement of various things it is also appropriate, before prayer, to name the things to be mentioned in prayer – or even better, to have them printed on the liturgy sheet for everyone to see beforehand[16].

Care is to be taken that this prayer remains a congregational prayer. It is not necessary for everything to be mentioned in this prayer. At times there are things which we bring to the Lord without the congregation’s involvement. The warning giving in Matthew 6 is to be taken to heart. Sometimes in our speaking it is made to appear as if things prayed in a congregational prayer are more effective than personal or family prayers, as if there is greater possibility that the Lord will hear the plea for the sick to be healed if it is mentioned in the congregational prayer. The point of Matthew 6 is that we do not show off and that the Lord will hear what we ask in secret…[17] The blessing is that we therefore never need become anxious about what is said or not said in a congregational prayer. If we think something is missed, feel free to still ask the Lord when you are home. He will hear you just as well there. This does not mean that no care needs be taken concerning what is asked in prayer during the church service. However, while congregational prayer is included, our speaking to the Lord is not the main reason for being gathered; the main purpose remains to officially hear the preaching of God’s Word.

The Congregational Singing in the Church Service 

 

Just as there is a place for prayer in the church service, so too there is a place for congregational singing. It is a form of prayer. It may also be compared to singing a national anthem. The Lord granted us a hundred and fifty such anthems where we as citizens of the kingdom of God may sing of His mighty and wondrous deeds. Most counties only have one! Why would we look for more? There is no objection to some additional hymns but there is really no need to increase this number. Should, beside the Psalms, hymns be used they should flow directly from God’s Word so that they never detract from the holiness of this official assembly. While care must always be taken concerning the words we take on our lips, and in particular when mentioning God’s holy Name, we can sing other songs outside of the church services. It’s worth remembering, however, that history has also demonstrated that the choice of Hymns could reflect a deviating direction[18].

When speaking about congregational singing during the church service, the progression of God’s work for our salvation should be kept in mind. In the past, before Christ came, priestly choirs were appointed. Sometimes this singing was done back and forth between two different parts. It should also be kept in mind that in the past there were more restrictions: the leper could not enter the temple and those with blemishes could not serve as priests. However, all these restrictions were put aside through Christ’s superior priestly work. Now that He is priest no such restrictions remain and therefore the church service has become much simpler than the temple service in the past. There are no such restrictions and ever since the reformation from the Roman Catholic heresy the entire congregation has been involved in singing from God’s Word during the church service. There is no good reason whatsoever to restrict this singing to only part of the congregation, whether it be men in distinction from women, older members in distinction from younger, or the left section of the congregation from the right. Leave that up to choir performances; but leave the church service for what it is: the Lord officially meeting with His people.

Some people believe that there should be no place for musical instruments in the church service. Apparently John Calvin was one. To be sure, John Calvin knew very well that there was a Psalm 150 in which cymbals are mentioned, but he made a distinction between what happens in the church service and what happens outside of these services[19]. He had no objection to praising the Lord with musical instruments but questioned their use in the church service as the place where God’s Word is proclaimed. While agreeing with Calvin and others along with him that in the church service God’s Word should come to the fore, a modest musical instrument could help the singing. It should never become more than that. It was in view of this that among most Reformed Churches the organ became the instrument of choice. It is meant to stay in the background, to assist and that is all. A church service is no place for a musical performance. That can be done elsewhere.

The offertory

 

When speaking about a church service, the offertory must be mentioned too. That there is a collection in the church service stems from the instruction given in 1 Corinthians 16:1–2 where we are directed to set something aside for the needy believers. In view of this instruction the offerings, at times, have been limited to the work of the deacons. However, when there were other needs, such as maintaining the minister of the Word or for mission work, collections were also put aside for these things. This has been compared to the collection for the repair of the temple in the days of Joash[20].

Today debate continues about just what should properly be collected for in the church service. There are some who defend that in view of the instruction given in 1 Corinthians 16 it should be restricted to deacon work alone. It would be beyond this article to examine this point closely except to suggest that a church service and the official gathering of God’s people to hear His word should not become a collection organisation for all kinds of charities. There are amplyeother opportunities to give to other charities. People are called to attend church services primarily to hear God’s Word and they should not be distracted by all kinds of other noble purposes. Those who are faithful to the Lord receive many opportunities to support the schools, the needy aging members, and the care needed for those with various handicaps; but let us keep the church service for what it is – God meeting with His people.

How blessed we are that the Lord calls us through His office-bearers to hear the official proclamation of His Word. This proclamation is like a life-line between the Lord and His people. Let us from our side cherish it and be gathered every Sunday with great gratitude, knowing the privilege of belonging to Him!



[1] See Lord’s Day 25 and Belgic Confession Article 24

[2] See Also Canons of Dort Chapter 3/4 Article 17 and Chapter 5 Article 14

[3] John 10:4 – 5

[4] 1 John 4:1ff.

[5] 2 Peter 1:19 – 21

[6] John 1:4, 5, 9 and 2 Peter 1:19

[7] Exodus 34:28

[8] Matthew 5:17 – 20

[9] Deuteronomy 6:6 – 9

[10] Psalm 1:2 – 3 and all of Psalm 119

[11] Thus in Lord’s Day 7 Q.A. 22 we rightly refer to these Articles as a summary of all that is promised us in the gospel.

[12] Lord’s Day 12 Q.A. 31

[13] Exodus 20:18 – 19

[14] Hebrews 4:14 – 16

[15] John 15:16

[16] This refers in a particular way to such things as birth of children, sicknesses, etc. so that no long explanation needs be given. Just before prayer would also be a good time to announce coming celebration of the Lord’s Supper, intended profession of faith, office-bearers to be ordained etc. as well as specific announcements that should not be published, such as the agreed upon discipline announcements. Any matter that is appropriate to be mentioned in congregational prayer would also be appropriate as an announcement with the church service. Any other announcement should not be necessary and thereby eliminate, as was mentioned earlier, announcements just before the beginning of the church service.

[17] See especially Matthew 6:5 – 9

[18] In mind here are the events leading up to the Session of 1834. Much more could be written about what we sing, but this article concentrates on the church service.

[19] Dr. A.J. de Visser spoke about this at the 35th Convocation of the Theological College at Hamilton

[20] 2 Chronicles 24