What to expect
You will probably notice that the church service at First Reformed Church is quite different than what you may have experienced before. The word that is used to describe what churches do in their services is “liturgy”. Liturgy simply means the things that we do and the order in which we do them.
First Reformed Church, like all Reformed churches, has a distinctive liturgy. We believe that the purpose of church service is for God’s people to meet with God. This is what worship is, and we do it together as an assembly of God’s people. Worship is meeting with God.
We are not evangelizing – although we pray that God will use our worship to draw other worshipers and convert the lost.
We are not having an emotional experience – although at times meeting with God can arouse very strong emotion.
We are not engaging in self-promotion, therapy, or motivational exercises – although meeting with God can be therapeutic and should certainly motivate one to holiness in life.
These things are not primarily what we are doing on Sunday morning. We are meeting with God. From the very beginning of history, God has ordained special times and special places to meet with his people. In the Old Covenant, these were called the “Assemblies”. The people of God gathered in the presence of God to hear his words and to respond in faith.
Joshua 24 is an example of this kind of meeting with God. In verses 1-15, Joshua gathers the assembly at Shechem and declares God’s word to them. In verses 16-18, the whole congregation “answers”. The language indicates that they responded in song in some way. The importance is not the song, but the answering together.
From there, a dialogue between God (through Joshua) and the people takes place. We have a small blueprint of what the Church does each Sunday morning.
We see a similar pattern in Isaiah 6. It is a little different because it is only one man meeting with God rather than the assembly. But it is still instructive. Isaiah’s worship of God teaches us something about what worship is. Isaiah meets with God. He sees Jesus Christ on the throne, high and lifted up (compare with John 12:41). When Isaiah sees God in his holy splendor, he is aware of his sinful nature and cries out, “Woe is me!”
God responds with the coal from the altar and cleanses Isaiah’s lips, pointing forward to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross which cleanses us from all sin. When Isaiah is cleansed for service, God calls, “Who shall go for us?”
Isaiah answers God. “Here am I. Send me!”
Following these patterns, when we gather together on Sunday morning we are gathering as the people of God in his chosen place, organized according to the scripture, to meet with God. We confess God’s holiness. We acknowledge our sinfulness. We receive the forgiveness of sins by the blood of Christ. We hear God’s words and we resolve to follow him as is fitting for those who bear his name.
Call to worship, Salutation, Gloria Patri
Our God calls us to worship. God does not speak in feelings, visions or intuitions, but by his word (see Isaiah 8:19-20). Through his word we are called to worship. The Apostles greet their readers as ambassadors of God, and we repeat that apostolic greeting, welcoming all who enter into God’s presence cleansed by the blood of Jesus. The congregation responds with an ancient doxology, the Gloria Patri. The name is taken from the first two words in the original Latin – Glory to the Father.
And invocation is a prayer to God asking for his help in our worship of him. Our help is in the name of the Lord. If he does not meet with us, if he does not send his Spirit, if he does not open our eyes and our lips, we are blind and speechless. So we call upon him through the representation of the elder or minister to send his spirit and open our lips.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise. (Ps. 51:15)
Confession of Faith
Jesus said that if we confess him before men, he will confess us before his father in heaven (Luke 12:8). We confess the one faith that was delivered once to the saints, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We confess the holy catholic church, not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but because there is only one Church in all ages, from every nation, from the beginning to the end of the world. This Church exists in the unity of the one true faith and it is gathered together by the word and Spirit of the Son of God.
Song of Praise
At God’s invitation, we enter his presence with songs of praise, as he has commanded. “Enter into his courts with praise” (Psalm 100). The whole congregation sings the praises of the Lord together.
The Reading of God’s Holy Law
By the law comes the knowledge of sin. God calls us to confess our sins, promising that he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). Without the forgiveness of sins, there is no fellowship with God. In God’s presence we are confronted with our sinfulness, as Isaiah was. We are called to confess that sin and receive the forgiveness that God freely gives us for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
As Joshua did at Shechem, so also we do – the reading of the law calls forth a response from the people of God.
God gave the Psalms to the church as a guide to worship. Voicing the Psalms together is an act of speaking to God in the words that he has given to us.
In the reading of the scripture, the Minister of the Word represents God to the congregation. In the pastoral prayer, the Minister represents the congregation before God. “It is written, my father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).
The free-will offering of the church in the Old Testament often took the form of vows. Offerings were brought into God’s presence as an act of thanksgiving and joy. It is God’s will that the ministry of the word be maintained through the free-will offerings of his people, and it is fitting to do it in the assembly of God’s people.
“My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.” (Ps. 22:25)
Reading of Scripture
The public reading of the word has been a crucial part of worship since the very beginning. In the reading of Scripture, God speaks most directly to his people. As the people of God, we are to reverently and prayerfully give attention to God’s word.
The sermon is the heart of Reformed Worship. Worship does not consist only of those things that are done before the sermon, but worship centers around the sermon.
In the sermon, the minister of the word explains a portion of scripture known as the text. It is not his task to give his opinions or ideas, but to painstakingly explain what the text means.
The scripture says,
O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker.
For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. (Psalm. 95:6-9)
When our hearts are softened by the Holy Spirit, and we humbly resolve to hear and obey the word of God as it is preached, we are offering to God the acceptable worship due to his name.
God is not interested in rituals, emotional experiences, empty words, or even impressive show. He desires that we believe him when he speaks, that we trust him and his promises and that we render to him obedience in thankful response to his salvation.
For this reason, a heart humbly receiving the word of God and responding in faith, hope and joy is a treasure of great value to our God.
Hymn of response
It is fitting to sing an answer in response to the preaching of God’s word, joining our hearts with our tongues and grateful devotion to him.
The Lord’s Prayer, Benediction, Doxology
We conclude the service praying together the prayer taught to us by our Lord, reminding ourselves of our great need and dependence upon him for all things necessary for body and soul. Then, after receiving the blessing of God’s word from the minister, we depart with a final song of praise.