Our worship committee is in the middle of a conversation about our order of worship. For less than two years, our worship order has set the sermon in the middle and put the offering and prayers after the sermon. Previously, the sermon fell at the very end of the service, followed only by a hymn and the benediction. Some people have expressed the feeling that their voices were not heard when the worship order was changed. Most of you probably felt or still feel somewhat disoriented by the change in our weekly ritual. Of course, in the long history of the Church, this is neither the first nor the last time worship has changed. In worship planning, there are no strict right or wrong answers, just faithfulness to how this congregation gathers in God’s presence.

The order of worship tells a story of our experience with God. Because we repeat it every week, it teaches us about how to find God and what that encounter means in our lives. Our tradition emphasizes the presence of God in “the Word,” by which we often mean “the Bible.” More correctly, we mean Christ as the Word of God (John 1:14), and the Bible witnesses to Christ. In worship, we practice how to live in the presence of God.

Again, there’s no single right way to do this, but I can tell you why I prefer the current worship order. With the sermon at the end, the story of our worship concludes with the hearing of the Word. Ideally, this should be an encounter with God, because the sermon should reflect God’s voice more than just my own. My problem with this is that it leaves us no time to respond: we just hear the message and take it with us. When offering and prayers follow the sermon, our response to the presence of God becomes the focus of worship. As we hear a call in scripture and the sermon, we respond by committing ourselves to service and offering our resources and talents to God. We might be filled with the Holy Spirit in Baptism or Communion. We participate with Christ in prayer, especially as we join in the prayer he taught his disciples. This order of worship acknowledges that our worship is not complete until we respond to God’s call and go back into the world in service.

Regardless of my preferences, neither approach to worship is inherently better than the other. The question remains, what might our particular worship look like? How might God be incarnate – present in flesh and Spirit – among us on Sunday mornings? We always live in a tension between the structure that gives meaningful shape to our worship and the freedom that makes room for God to do new things among us. Similarly, we live in a tension between our connection to the universal church and our particular roots in this place. Our worship should look something like Christian worship everywhere (and it always has), but at the same time it should look particular to the life of Hope Community Presbyterian Church.

Our particular experience with God emphasizes the presence of Christ in the church community. Central as the Bible is, we worship and experience Christ’s reality by gathering with our neighbors in the church. I think this is why we insist on greeting each other before worship begins each Sunday. The original liturgical function of this greeting was to display the reconciliation of the church after the time of confession, but for us it also displays the connection our church feels as we gather to worship. Maybe we could connect this more explicitly with remembering our Baptism, which is the ritual of being united with the church.

Similarly, I’ve learned well that study groups and meetings don’t begin here until we’ve shared greetings and prayer concerns with each other. Maybe this means we should pray for each other and our community first during worship. Personally, however, I need to enter the space and time of worship before these prayers truly connect me with Christ and the needs we pray for. So there’s a tension between how we operate daily and how we might need to structure our worship time.

More than anything, our worship needs to emphasize an active response to God’s call and involve the kids. We put “real life” into our prayers, and I try to do the same in my sermons. Always, we should find ways to commit ourselves to the larger mission of the church. Our offering in particular extends beyond money to honor other ways of engaging ourselves with the world’s needs. To better involve our youngest members, we’ve started inviting them back from activity time at the end of the sermon. This gives them the most possible time to be involved in the worship service, without asking them to sit quietly through the sermon time.

Of course, we also find our worship in and around food. We share food with each other and with the world. Our worship experience always continues when we gather after the formal service for coffee an’ in the south room; should we honor this by sending the congregation out for coffee before we share our prayer time? Or does this suggest that Communion is the perfect ritual, with food and sharing all at once? If so, should we celebrate that more joyfully and more often?

There are many other questions to ponder, so please let me know what you think. We’re all still discerning together how we’re called to worship as Christ’s church. The most important factor in that discernment is that we’re gathering in God’s presence together.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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