When we come together in worship, we should do so aware of the multi-dimensional aspect of what we are gathering to do. The God who fills the heavens and the earth, directs our attention to everything that He is does outside of us, around us, and inside us. In this way, no event is more participatory than what believers do Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. May God enable us to enter into it was thoughtfulness, preparation, awareness, and joy.
In my first foray into public ministry, I was met with what I deemed to be a highly unusual request. One of the elders of the church in which I was serving asked me to refer to the printed order of worship as a “playbill” rather than as a bulletin. This struck me as strange for a number of reasons–not least of which is that I couldn’t wrap my mind around how doing such would appeal to those visiting. However, a deeper concern revolved around my suspicion that this man considered worship to be a spectator sport–a baptized version of the theatre. Though our elements of worship were reflective of a historic Reformed liturgy, the telos of what we were doing in worship was not as clearly defined. This is, no doubt, a common issue among churches throughout the Western world. We live in an entertainment driven culture, and, as such, see many seeking to cater to such a mindset. Turning worship into a spectator event is to miss the rich participatory nature of corporate worship.
In the section on “The Parts of Public Worship,” the OPC Directory of Public Worship rightly notes that worship is not a spectator sport. It says,
“The triune God is not a passive spectator in public worship, but actively works in each element of the service of worship. Neither are the people of God to be passive spectators in public worship, but by faith are to participate actively in each element of the service of worship” (DPW 1.C.2.).
In the gathered assembly, there are multi-directional dimensions to the various elements of worship. We gather together on the Lord’s Day to look vertically, horizontally, outwardly, inwardly, backwardly, and forwardly in the elements that guide a biblical and God-honoring worship service.
There is first a vertical dimension at work. The people of God come together to lift up their hearts and voices to the God who is enthroned above. Christians gather to listen to the God who speaks through His Son in the Scriptures, as He sends His word out to accomplish His purposes. At the same time, we respond to the word coming down from the triune God by listening to Him, singing His praises, confessing our sins to Him, and receiving from Him assurance of His pardoning grace as well as His benediction.
There is also a horizontal dimension to worship. The people of God are to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). There are 59 “one another” passages in the New Testament that can only be understood in light of the relationship each believer has to other believers in the same worshiping community.
Gathered worship also carries with it a backwards dimension to worship. We gather to remember all that God has done in salvation history. We are reminded of His powerful works that He has shown toward His people (Ps. 111:2–4). We remember especially what He did in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Redemption accomplished is the theme of our songs, the basis of our prayers, and the central message of our teaching and preaching. It is also the basis for the Supper and for the benediction.
All that we do in worship is focused on the eschatological Christ. In this way, we can say that all of worship has a forward focused dimension to it. The people of God are gathering as pilgrims sojourning through the wilderness of this world. As such, believers are hoping in the coming of Christ and to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). They acknowledge that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). Everything we do in corporate worship is a confession that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
Then, there is then an inward dimension to worship–in that believers are to examine themselves when they come into the presence of God. As the author of Ecclesiastes explains,
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil” (Eccl. 5:1).
Jesus also teaches us that we are to consider ways in which we may have offended a brother or sister, and that we are to make every effort to be reconciled to them prior to coming into gathered worship:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23–24).