Jack D. Kinneer
Traditionally, Presbyterians have tended to conceptualize worship abstractly as a list of activities. That conception is then applied to various concrete settings, namely, secret, family, and public worship. This is the pattern of the Westminster Confession, Chapter XXI. For Westminster, most of the activities of the public assembly can also take place in the family assembly and in secret. Of the parts of "ordinary religious worship," only the administration of the sacraments is limited to the public assembly.
All the rest, at least in some form, find a place in family and secret worship. Even preaching, understood in its essential nature, namely, as the setting forth of the gospel by the exposition of Scripture, takes place both in secret and in family worship. In secret worship, it takes the form of the individual's study of the Scriptures. In the family setting, it takes the form of the father's catechetical instructions to his family.
So then, what distinguishes public, family, and secret worship is not what is done (excepting the sacraments), but who is present. This conception of worship in the abstract has always produced problems for Presbyterians. From the Puritan era to the present, some have taken the attitude that "why bother with the public assembly when I can worship God just as well at home with my family or alone." It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that every pastor has encountered this attitude in visitors and sometimes even members. The problem existed at the time of the Westminster Assembly. The Confession warns that public assemblies are "not carelessly or willfully to be neglected or forsaken."
The situation has become much more complex with the development of a variety of gatherings that are under the sponsorship of the session (unlike private and family worship), but are not usually considered to be worship services. These include small groups, house churches, special services, Sunday schools, prayer meetings, Bible studies, etc.
Are such meetings worship services? The usual answer is no, since we tend to reserve the title "worship service" for the Lord's Day morning gathering (and maybe an evening service also). Yet such smaller group gatherings are not family gatherings as envisioned by the Westminster Confession. They are ecclesiastical gatherings under the sponsorship of the local session. They include some or even most of the activities of the Sunday morning service.
Consider, for example, a midweek Bible study meeting. It begins with a prayer. Perhaps a hymn or a Scripture chorus is sung. The text to be studied is read aloud. The pastor lectures on the interpretation of the Scripture text (looks like an informal sermon, doesn't it?). The meeting closes with prayer.
How do such gatherings differ from the regular weekly worship service? Why are they not worship services, and the Sunday morning event is? They include the same activities, with the exception of the sacraments. The absence of the sacraments is not a defining difference because the sacraments are only occasionally a part of the Sunday morning service. Although it is uncommon, it is not unheard of for the Lord's Supper to be celebrated in meetings other than the Sunday worship service.
A common retort is to say that such gatherings are informal. Thus, a distinction is made between formal worship (on Sunday morning, with a printed order of worship) and every other meeting (with no printed bulletin). But what about churches that cultivate an informal style for the Sunday morning service?
How do we know what stipulations apply to Sunday morning and what to the other ecclesiastical meetings? Is the pastor the voice of the congregation at all these meetings or just on Sunday morning? Can women ask questions in Sunday school? Should an unordained person teach a Bible study? These are pressing questions that trouble congregations.
Much of the controversy over Scripture choruses, guitars, and hand clapping is rooted in the distinction between formal and informal worship. Many object to such things, not because they are unbiblical, but because they feel too informal for the presumed dignity of the morning service. Some object to Fanny Crosby hymns on the same basis.
This problem of how to distinguish formal worship from informal worship is increased by two additional factors. The first is the tendency in evangelicalism to refer to the singing and praying part of the meeting as "worship." It is not uncommon to divide the service between worship and sermon. The person who leads the worship portion is often called a "worship leader." This has produced a de facto new officer in the church, though no de jure provision exists for such an office in Presbyterianism. It is just the opposite: the de jure worship leader in Presbyterianism is the pastor. This development of a liturgical assistant has some striking parallels to the development of the diaconate into a liturgical office in the second and third centuries.
The second factor is the televising of worship services. Why is watching (and mentally participating in) a televised service not the same thing as attending a service? Can't I worship God just as well at home by watching the Coral Ridge hour?
The problem of distinguishing between formal worship and informal worship is the result of conceptualizing worship as a list of activities. Listing the elements of worship is fine in itself. But it is inadequate as a theology of worship. What is needed in our day is a rediscovery of the concept of the assembly of saints, as that concept develops from the meeting at Mount Sinai through the festal gatherings at the Solomonic temple to the general assembly of the heavenly Jerusalem. Christian worshipthat is, the gathering of the church as churchis the culmination and completion of this ages-long pattern of God calling his people to his dwelling place. This biblical motif of divine-human assemblies has a special character that distinguishes it from other gatherings, such as Bible studies, prayer groups, and Sunday school classes.
There are four essential characteristics of this motif. First, there is the divine call. God comes to his people and summons them to meet with him (Ex. 19:10-11).
Second, the locale of the meeting is God's house, God's mountain, God's city. In the old covenant, the place of meeting was the mobile tent and then the permanent temple on Mount Zion. In the New Testament, it is the heavenly Jerusalem, the temple built without hands, where Christ is the high priest (Heb. 8:1-3).
Third, the gathering is of universal extent. In the old covenant, it was the whole congregation or, after the settlement of the land, at least the males who represented the scattered congregation. In the New Testament, it is the whole church, both locally (1 Cor. 14:23) and, since the locale is also heaven, universally (Heb. 12:23). It is the gathering of the church catholic.
Finally, the meeting was a gathering around the altar of the Lord in the old covenant. It was an assembly both for sacrifice and for feast. This forms the theological background for understanding the nature of the Christian assembly. The theological motifs of the Christian assembly are rooted, not in the synagogue, but in the temple. Now we gather around the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. As the apostle Paul expressed it, "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast" (1 Cor. 5:7-8).
So then, a biblical theology of worship begins with the recognition of the unique role of the assembly of the saints. The gathering of the church as church is to be distinguished from all other gatherings. It is not that other gatherings do not involve worship in the sense of giving homage to God. They do. They may include many of the elements also present in the assembly. But the assembly is not merely a list of elements. It is a conceptual and practical unity of elements, persons, place, and time. It is a reality where the whole is greater than the sum of all the parts. Yet it is a reality grasped in this world only by faith.
The author, an OP minister, is the founder and scholar in residence at Echo Hills Christian Study Center. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2002.