by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 4  - Church Services

Any gathering that meets on a regular basis will develop a structure. And when Christians worship God, hear the Bible read and explained, sing and pray, they engage in a form of service. The word suggests that we are servants who have gathered to honor our heavenly King and receive His word for the coming week.

There are many ways of doing this. Some insist on proceeding week by week exactly according to the prayer book. Others try to be as unpredictable and spontaneous as possible. The Quakers used to sit for an hour in total silence. The Salvation Army likes a marching band. There are devotees of awesome Cathedrals with choir boys who sing like angels. Most of us like a friendly gathering with some order but with the agreed permission to change when the day's theme demands it.

A good church service is like a well planned wedding banquet. It is not just the food that counts. Two families are getting to know one another. There are the rituals of dressing up, flowers, welcoming, processing, prayer, story telling, toasting, dancing, meeting friends. And then the couple go away for their honeymoon to begin a new life together..

Sadly there are services that give just the opposite impression. They seem to celebrate nothing. People turn up by habit, go through the ritual, avoid others, and their chief hope is that the proceedings will not go beyond the hour. Being forced to put up with such drabness is certainly a good reason to quit church.  Is there any alternative?

In some cases things can change dramatically when a group in the congregation begins to pray. This is recognized in communion liturgies which include an -epiklesis- a prayer to the Holy Spirit to come and give life to the worshipers. If there is resistance to new life in the congregation's main service, a good solution is to offer a smaller gathering at another time  (see chapter 8 on Music).

Where no improvement seems possible, we are free to move to another gathering of Christians in the city. We could meet in a home, as did many of the early house churches forty years ago in Britain. And they were immediately free to experiment with innovative forms of service. These groupings will in turn grow into organized congregations with an order of service of their own. But meanwhile the Holy Spirit has been freed to express his creativity in new ways. And we have noted that joining such a new group is not leaving the one church of Jesus the Messiah in our city.

If we meet with any group of Christians week by week we are still part of the church.  Quitting to make a clean break with the church is a much more radical step.  It would be a decision not to meet with any group of Christians on a regular basis for any purpose whatever. And inevitably some things are no longer possible for those who choose that path.

When a congregation is alive and well, it becomes a loving family. They gather week by week at the family table. People are prayed for, visited in hospital, included in social occasions. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, young and old all feel they belong to one another. Such a gathering helps to assure us that we are part of God's eternal family.

The problem arises when a congregation can hardly be called a family.  If we experience rudeness, petty jealousies, mean gossip, being ignored, cut dead, the sense of being excluded from the clique that runs things, the easy answer is to say: "Better make my own friends, stick to my own family circle, and good neighbors who visit on the street." But that can also have hazards. Family and friends and neighbors move, get sick and die. A quarrel about their inheritance can trigger a feud among brothers and sisters. Suddenly the links we treasured can wither away, and we are on our own. That is why many older people enjoy a weekly service with a congregation that cares about us as members of the family.

What are the ingredients that work together into a satisfying service? We have seen the need for good preaching that explains how the love of God works. But preaching alone becomes a lecture. We need some kind of introduction to remind us that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are at work among us. For most Christians acceptable music is supremely important, as we will consider in chapter 8.  There are many possibilities for how the remainder of the service can proceed.
Readers from the congregation help us hear the old words in new ways. The Old Testament reading reminds us that we belong to a long history.

Prophets warned of the bad consequences of certain kinds of national behavior. Jesus said "But I say unto you" concerning many of the Jewish interpretations of their criminal law, and that helps us see how we can question the rules and assumptions of our own nation in the light of the love of God..  We also need food for our emotions. The Psalms connect us with the experiences of suffering and joy of God's people three thousand years ago.  The Acts and Epistles take us back to our early church roots. The Gospels supremely bring us to faith in the good news of the Son of God himself.   It used to be common for services to have a strong penitential element.  This was on the assumption that the most important thing about Christian faith is being conscious of one's extreme sinfulness and accepting God's forgiveness. Modern forms of service stress the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us, overcome our addictions, and fill us with the love of God.  They also give us that sense of belonging to a new family.

Having heard the Word of God read and explained a natural response is to give thanks and pray . Ministers used to imagine that the sermon must be followed by a monologue of interminable prayer. At their worst these became "horizontal prayers directed at the congregation." These days there are pauses for silence, responses, opportunities for other topics to be included. Members of the congregation are invited to lead "the prayers of the people." Admittedly some find these distracting, and insist the properly trained minister should pray. But others enjoy the concerns and longings of ordinary members of the congregation. You suddenly understand someone when you hear her pray. The ideal is that prayer should feel more like a conversation with God than a tedious recitation.

Many congregations have been transformed by having an opportunity to greet one another in "The Peace." Five of the New Testament epistles tell us that this was the common practice among the early Christians (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14).

It was a very visible expression of the fact that in each congregation Jews and Greeks, masters and slaves, men and women were united in one body. In our day it can express the fact that black and white Christians, people from different tribes in Africa, or castes in India, rich and poor, professors and students, inmates and jail guards, children and very old people can accept one another as one family in the Lord.

Many believe that the early Christians met weekly at the family table on the Lord's Day. The bread and wine was the focus of the many aspects of God's love working among us. It should be a joyous family occasion. More and more of us feel that children should not be excluded. An adopted child is not told to eat in the doghouse until it has learned all the family traditions. It is little children who are most easily members of the kingdom of God. If they can never remember a time when they were not welcome at the Lord's table, it is much easier for them to come home and retain their faith through the traumas of their teens.

These aspects of a service are not rules to be obeyed but rather ingredients that seem to work together for joyful worship. There will still be hurts when people reject us, but looking forward week by week to joyful worship reduces the temptation to quit church and do something more creative on our own. And in public worship God can suggest to us alternatives to the constant brainwashing of the media and the world around us.

It is possible to sing praises, give thanks, pray, and even take bread and wine alone. Jesus said "When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20), which suggests that even a couple praying together are in some sense a church gathering. But two or three persons obviously cannot share in the joys of a bigger church congregation.

The art is in looking  to the Holy Spirit to heal the inevitable hurts, and give life to what can so easily lose its vitality. As Jesus said : "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" But he immediately added the positive values of congregational church life : "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid" (Matthew 5:13-14).

Chapter 5 ......