When we gather on Sundays for worship, why do we often call that a “worship service”? This language has a long history. In 1526, Martin Luther published a plan to reform corporate worship in German-speaking churches, and he titled it “An Order of God’s Service.” To this day, many Lutheran churches still call their worship gathering the “Divine Service,” and it has become extremely common for many Christians to speak of assembling for worship services.
But what does that terminology mean? Is corporate worship really “service,” and, if so, who is serving whom?
If we ponder the actions that the Bible teaches us to do in public worship, we can see that worship has two primary directions. In some of these actions, God is the primary actor, and we receive from God as he moves toward us. For example, we enter the service by hearing God call us to worship. After we confess our sins, we happily receive God’s declaration of our forgiveness. God is the one who speaks to us in the reading and preaching of his word, and God is the table host who serves us his own life by the Spirit in the Lord’s Supper. Finally, God blesses us to send us forth into the week. Thus, in much of our worship gathering, God is the one who serves us.
In other types of actions, we are the primary actors, and God receives our response as his Spirit leads us to move toward him through Christ. For example, we respond to God’s call to worship and to God’s forgiveness with words of praise and thanks (spoken and sung) and with greetings of peace that we extend to each other. In light of God’s call to be honest about our sin and to respond to his promises of mercy, we confess our sins to him. We respond to God’s teaching and exhortation by offering ourselves in renewed love and loyalty as we give gifts in the offering. Sometimes we profess our faith and loyalty to God with a creed. And we intercede with God, asking God to establish his kingdom more fully in us, in the church as a whole, and in the rest of the world. In much of a worship service, we actively respond to God to serve him together.
Seeing this two-way interaction that occurs in worship helps us realize that a worship service is an act of God’s communion with us. The rhythm of the liturgy is the rhythm of relationship, of the Father enjoying fellowship with his family, of Jesus the bridegroom enjoying face-to-face time with his bride. God gives himself to us, and we give ourselves to God in many different ways.
Realizing that worship is a back-and-forth exchange of relationship also helps us see that some popular debates about worship arise from only focusing on one half of what is happening. Is worship for God or for us? Yes! Do we come to worship to give to God or to get from God? Yes! Is worship about meeting our needs or giving glory to God? Yes! We come both to receive and to respond. The great wonder of worship is that God Almighty, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things, draws us near to give himself to us through many astounding gifts of love that serve our truest and deepest needs (as defined by God and not our culture). And he also gives us the astounding dignity and privilege to speak back to him, to give ourselves to him in a variety of ways, and thus to become active participants in the mission of his kingdom. Because God asks us to come with open hands and hearts to receive from him, worship makes us aware both that we are utterly dependent and needy. And because God asks us to respond to him actively with our whole being, worship also makes us aware that we are responsible and empowered by the grace of God in Christ and by his Spirit to live faithfully as image bearers of Christ in pursuing God’s calling to holiness and service in his kingdom.
I pray that worship at Central will always be a rich experience of the rhythm of relationships in action as God serves us and we serve him and one another.