Once upon a time. . . .
a young blues artist wanted his guitar to sound as gritty as his voice so he invented electric distortion. Blues music was the music of the devil back then and it followed that distortion was a demonic tool. Since then a small but firm group has crusaded against loud guitars in the name of decency and the Lord. For them, electric guitars in church is the abomination of desolation. Over the years their numbers grew and the current worship debate—hymns or choruses—takes its cue largely from the ruckus they caused.
Most Christians equate worship with music. Worship debates are preference wars between those who want heart-felt choruses and those who want reverent hymns. As far as we're concerned, Paul told us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and various Psalms instruct us to praise the Lord with a variety of instruments (which doesn't automatically preclude electric guitar).
But worship is about far more than singing. Reformed Christians refer to the "regulative principle" of worship which states that only what is specifically commanded in Scripture should inform our worship practice. They assume the worship practices of the Church have biblical precedent and that its congregational nature implies a measured formality—it isn't just a casual gathering.
True worship is interaction between God and man. Typically we talk about a worship service, assuming worship is a form of service we offer God. While worship does require something of us, it seems more accurate to describe it as a form of service God offers us. We are God's weak children, and in corporate worship He feeds and renews us. Without the Lord's service we would die from spiritual exhaustion.
Because the New Testament is largely silent on the form a Christian worship service should take it is easy to assume there are no rules. Paul tells us to sing songs (Col. 3:16) and to be orderly (1 Cor. 14:39-40), but he doesn't give us a songbook or an order of worship. He doesn't show us what an early church service looked like. Since most Christians see a gaping hole between the Old and New Testaments, looking in the Old Testament for a guide to Christian worship is unthinkable. But in the absence of a New Testament model, where else can we go?
Faith doesn't preclude Law (Rom. 3:31). Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17). To fulfill something is to bring it to completion, not to destroy or replace it. After Christ's resurrection the sacrificial system was abolished because He was the final and ultimate sacrifice, the propitiation for our sins before God (Heb. 9:26). Jesus Himself said this to the Samaritan woman when He told her that worship was no longer bound by place (the Temple) and that all who wanted to worship God would have to do so in spirit and truth (John 4:22-24). The only place to properly conduct animal sacrifice was at the Temple in Jerusalem; if worship was no longer centered there, it would be impossible to continue the practice.
When we say the Law offers the model for Christian worship we aren't saying Christians should build a temple, kill animals and wade in their blood, wear weird outfits or continue any other practical vestige of Old Testament worship. Christian worship looks very different from Old Testament worship, but it is conducted for the same purpose—to reestablish the bond between God and His people—and should retain the same structural elements. God is orderly and He wants us to be orderly—He wouldn't leave us without a liturgy of any kind.
I can already hear the gnashing of teeth. Liturgy? The "L" word? Unfortunately the word "liturgy" often makes Protestants uncomfortable. It smacks of Rome, or conjures images of staid congregations dully chanting psalms while the dust settles around their feet. In reality all church services operate under some kind of liturgy. Many are informal, but even lack of structure is a type of liturgy. Liturgy simply refers to the order of a service. What happens first? Should we pray? How should we pray? What should we pray? Should we sing? Is there a sermon? Does the Bible have anything to say about any of this? These are all questions of liturgy.
Central to our understanding of worship is a recognition of Christ as our King. He has established a kingdom of which He is head, and we are His subjects. As with any king, there are rules of conduct in His throneroom. How we behave there depends on what we are doing and what guidelines He has provided. The liturgy of any congregation is simply their interpretation of those guidlines.
Old Covenant worship services were composed of five basic parts, the central element being a series of three sacrifices (Lev. 9). The priest formally called the people to worship at the beginning of the ceremony, the sacrifices were performed and the priest finished by telling the people to live by what they had just seen and done until they were gathered again in the Lord's presence. In Christian services these five parts of the service are known as the "5 C's" of worship: Call, Confession, Consecration, Communion and Commission. (The sixth C, Candy, is bad for the teeth and therefore suspect in some circles.) Below is a brief description of each.
Call: God calls His people to worship Him. It's a dangerous attitude that encourages us to come to God when and how we please. There is always protocol for approaching the throne of a king. To ignore it in the courts of earthly kings is foolish and dangerous; it's spiritual suicide to disregard God's rules. The call is issued by God through the minister, who is His earthly representative.
Confession: In regular Old Testament worship, the first sacrifice was a sin offering, given on behalf of the peoples' sins. In order to enter God's presence it is necessary to be cleansed. Since God calls, we must come, and since we must come, we must be purified. In Christian worship, the sin offering is the confession of sin; the congregation publicly admits to its sinfulness, and the minister proclaims to them God's words of forgiveness.
Consecration: Next in the temple ceremony was the ascension offering. This ushered the people into God's presence in His throne room in heaven. To worship God we must be in His presence. The sacrificed animal in Old Testament worship was burned, and his flesh turned to smoke which rose to heaven. The animal represented the people, and so in effect they were taken to God's presence. We are now consecrated by the Word (Heb. 9:26), so in Christian services this element of the liturgy focuses on Scripture reading and the sermon.
Communion: This is the focus of worship—God invites us to His table to commune with us. In Temple worship this was the peace offering. God has forgiven and cleansed His people and invites them to be with Him. As Christians we observe this in the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist. It is a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb. Through the eating of the elements we become spiritually bonded to the Father and the Son and to the whole Body of Christ, His Church.
Commission: There is a practical purpose to worship. After receiving the Lord's blessings we are strengthened to live for Him throughout the week. The minister recites the Lord's blessing (usually the benediction of Deut. 6:5) and dismisses the congregation with a command to service and holiness.
We are instructed to worship together with other Christians(Heb. 10:25). Ignoring or avoiding congregational worship is detrimental to our spiritual health—we are saved into a covenant body, not as individual free agents. God would not instruct us to worship together and then leave no guidelines for what it should look like.
Corporate worship serves as a renewal of the covenant between God and the Church. This covenant renewal isn't so much a reinstitution as a reiteration of the terms of the covenant, God's continuing promise to protect and bless His people. We do not renew the covenant through our own actions of worship, God renews it. One way to think about covenant renewal is in terms of remembrance—God is "remembering" His covenant before His people (Luke 1:72) and we respond in worship.
Worship is central to the life of the Church. It is one of the most visible acts of faith for Christians, and the way we worship is more descriptive than any defense we might offer in words. It is vital that we worship, and it is vital that we do so biblically. We pray that the Church will gradually grow to a more unified understanding and practice of worship through prayer and careful study of Scripture.