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What is the Main Thing in Worship?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Lately I've been asking our members a question about our Sunday morning worship service: What is the main thing that happens there? I've received a variety of interesting answers.

For instance, I asked my children this question one night after supper. Pensive looking Amanda answered first: "Church is a quiet place where I can learn more about God's Word." Samuel stressed the songs and the pictures he draws. For others, the main thing is the worship we give God via prayer, praise, and thanks. Still others put the emphasis on the fellowship between members.

The two most popular answers were (1) learning God's Word as it comes to us through sermon and Scripture reading; and (2) worship: praising, thanking, singing, and praying to God.

View #1 sees Christian education as the main thing of the worship service. Christians in this group leave church saying things like, "That was an interesting sermon the Pastor gave today." For them, church is a sort of holy school. Learning something from the sermon is the main reason they come to church; the rest of the service is seen as filler that doesn't really interest them. View #2 sees the main thing as the worship we bring to God. Christians in this group come to church primarily to sing and say "thank you" to God for all His blessings. For them the main thing in the worship service is what we do for God.

You might be surprised to hear that neither of these views is God's view nor the view of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The main thing of the worship service is not Christian education nor is it our worship of God. Then what is it? To answer this we must clarify our terms.

"Worship Service"

I've already used the expression "worship service" several times to describe what we do together on Sunday mornings. Both of these words are used to describe what Christians do when they gather.

The dictionary definition of worship is honoring or revering a supernatural being or power. This revering is normally done with sacred ceremonies. This is the common understanding of the word "worship." Clearly, though, the emphasis in this definition is on what we do for God. We honor God. We adore Him. We praise Him through appropriate ceremonies.

The problem is, this dictionary definition is opposed to the Biblical and historic Lutheran understanding of worship. The usual definition makes worship primarily our action. Certainly it is our action in part. We do praise and adore Him through prayer and song. But that is not the main thing of worship, nor the first thing. The main thing and the first thing of worship is what God gives to us.

'The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them" (from the introduction to Lutheran Worship, p. 6). Worship is first and foremost God speaking His Word to us. It is God's action and not ours. Then we respond in faith and devotion. But even our responding is His action: our faith and praise is possible only by His grace (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:17; Ps. 51:15).

This understanding of worship is very different than the usual one. That is why the Lutheran Church has shown a preference over the centuries for the word service. We call the chief gathering of Christians on Sunday morning the Divine Service. Not because (as is commonly thought) we are serving God. But because God is serving us. In the Divine Service on Sunday morning God serves us through His Word and Sacraments. Only after first receiving these treasures through faith, do we then respond with our sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise (Heb. 13).

So there, in the very name we have given to worship, i.e., Service, is the answer to the question I've been asking. The main thing happening in worship is God serving us! Sounds nice, even logical. What is the evidence?

The Heart of our Liturgy

Our liturgy (from a Greek word that means service) contains many parts. But at the heart of our liturgy is the preaching of the Gospel and the Lord's Supper. The other parts grew out of these two.

This is not just some "Lutheran" idea. It was this way from the very beginning. After the mass conversion on Pentecost, the 3000+ disciples devoted themselves to "the apostle's teaching [preaching] and fellowship, the breaking of bread [the Lord's Supper] and prayer" (Acts 2:42). Notice how these pair off: God's action (apostle's teaching ... breaking of bread) and the Christian response (fellowship ... prayer).

In Acts 20:7, Luke describes a worship service in Troas thus: "Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight." Notice the two elements mentioned. The purpose of their coming together was to break bread (eat the Lord's Supper) and to hear Paul speak (an obvious reference to preaching).

Other relevant passages are 1 Cor. 11:18ff. and 1 Cor. 14 where Paul repeatedly asserts that prophesy (the preaching of God's Word) is the most important thing in any gathering of God's people. An even casual study of early Church history can show that this remained the pattern for centuries. Preaching the Gospel and the Lord's Supper were always at the heart of the liturgy. And they still are.

The Real Presence

And it is through this heart of the liturgy that God comes among us to serve us. Let us consider these two. What is a Gospel sermon? Too often even good Lutherans fall into the trap of thinking of a sermon as preaching about God's Word, preaching about Jesus. The sermon then becomes a lecture of abstract truths about God. How awful!

A Gospel sermon is not merely the Word of God in the sense that God spoke it thousands of years ago. It is the Word of God in the sense that God is speaking it now to us. A Gospel sermon is the living and powerful voice of God (Heb 4:12; Rom. 1:16). Through it the Spirit of Jesus speaks to us good news of pardon from death, forgiveness, and eternal life. Don't let the plainness of the preacher fool you. Jesus says, "He who hears you, hears Me" (Luke 10: 16). Jesus is the one talking. He is here!

What is the Lord's Supper? We confess and believe that it is the true body and blood of Jesus crucified and raised for our sins. It is the visible, tangible Gospel that beautifully compliments the preached Gospel. But if this is true, it is awesome!

In the Lord's Supper we meet the crucified and risen Jesus. He comes to us individually assuring us that we are fully forgiven. He comes to us through His body and blood, assuring us that we are fully forgiven. The risen Christ is here! just as he was to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, so He is revealed to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24).

That is the main thing happening in our worship services! God Himself comes among us to serve us.

As we gather in His name, according to His promise, there He is in the midst of us (Mt. 18:20). When the Gospel is preached, it is Jesus Himself preaching through that powerful Goospel. He is here to change us, to forgive us, to renew us. When the Lord's Supper is eaten, Christ is here profoundly assuring us through His crucified and risen body and blood that not a single sin stands against us.

I agree with what Dr. Art Just recently wrote that what we need is a real presence vision of worship ("Liturgical Renewal in the Parish" Lutheran Worship: History and Practice; pp. 26-27). We need to be restored in our belief that the main thing happening in our worship service is that Jesus Christ is present among us to serve us through the Gospel.

When this is believed, it is a magnet that draws. When this is believed, the people of God gladly, joyfully come to the house of God with reverence and awe. They willingly come, for Jesus is there. In the hour of worship heaven touches the earth and eternity touches time as Jesus comes to serve us. Who would not run to experience this?!