WHY DO WE DO WHAT WE DO?
(A Users’ Guide to Presbyterian Worship)
by Rev. Lori Patton
Introduction: DON’T PANIC!
According to author Douglas Adams, one of the best things about the fictional handbook The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is that it has the words “Don’t Panic!” written in large, friendly letters on the front cover. I found this such good advice that as an adjunct professor I used to write “Don’t Panic!” in big letters on the blackboard or whiteboard at the front of the classroom before every exam, and now I also say them to you — and you won’t even be graded!
Presbyterian worship may LOOK old-fashioned or rigid at first, but once you understand why every worship service includes certain elements in a particular order, you may find that it’s a lot more liberal and liberating than you’d expect. All you need is some background information.
Part 1: PREPARING THE WAY
Most Presbyterian worship services begin with several elements designed to help us get in the right frame of mind and openness of heart that we need in order to really listen for God’s word to us. It’s all about tuning in to the right mental and emotional wavelength and eliminating some of the background noise that gets in the way.
First, there’s usually a Call to Worship, which can be a few sentences spoken by the worship leader alone, or (more often) some sort of responsive dialogue between leader and people. The Call to Worship is supposed to serve as a welcome and invitation to those present, as well as a reminder of what we’re all there for: getting closer to God. If the language of the Call to Worship seems strangely formal or old-fashioned, rather than strictly conversational, it’s probably adapted from one or more passages in the Bible. Using words from the Bible can serve as a reminder that we don’t have to ‘make Christianity up as we go along,’ since we are part of a long tradition and history of faith going back several millennia. That connection to the past is meant to be comforting, but it may seem a little daunting or overwhelming at first, especially if you’re not all that familiar with the Bible, yet.
Then, there’s something most often called a Confession of Sins or Prayer of Confession. That can seem like a downer or an unnecessary put-down of ourselves, but it’s really not. For one thing, Presbyterians believe (along with most other ‘Reformed’ churches, who are in some way descended from the teachings of John Calvin in the 1500s) that EVERYONE is a sinner in need of forgiveness and that, through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness we need has already been granted. As the Apostle Paul liked to argue, no human being is perfect in God’s sight, no matter how much closer we may think we are than some other folks. EVERYBODY needs help, when it comes to the problem of sin and evil in the world, which is why Christ died FOR everybody, forever paying the price for our mistakes and setting us free to start fresh each day.
For this reason, the Prayer of Confession is always followed by an Assurance of Forgiveness or Declaration of Pardon (or some similar description), reminding us all that we have forgiveness and the promise of eternal life through Christ already, as a free gift of God’s grace.
In turn, that reminder of God’s love for us leads us to want to give thanks and celebrate a bit at this point in the service, usually be singing a very short song known as the Gloria Patri (that’s just Latin for “Glory be to the Father”, the first words of this song which can be traced back to o the second century after Christ’s birth, if not earlier). Just as you’d want to say nice things to someone who gave you the most magnificent Christmas or birthday gift ever, so Christians feel the need to say, or sing, how wonderful God is, and how enduring God’s love is. Plus, the words of the Gloria Patri contain a basic statement of faith, affirming each person of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), or the three distinct ways that the one God relates to us: as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We give glory and thanks to the one God who created us and all that is, who redeemed us from sin and death on the cross, and who is at work in us now, inspiring and sanctifying and strengthening us day by day.
In some churches, the Gloria Patri may be followed by a Passing of the Peace, in which the congregation and worship leader acknowledge one another as grateful, forgiven people who have been commanded to forgive and live in peace with each other, “passing on” the gift we’ve all received. Often, this ritual of mutual peace and well-wishing includes a “meet and greet” component, allowing people to move around and wish each other peace on a one-to-one basis. If you’re a visitor (or an introvert), this shaking of hands and exchange of personal greetings in the middle of the service may seem awkward or off-putting at first, but there IS a good reason behind it.
Presbyterians, like most other Christians, believe that worship shouldn’t be focused solely on “God and me”, on each individual and how they separately relate to God. Rather, we are called to express our gratitude to God through mutual love and support, acting in community with others. For Presbyterians, worship is not supposed to be a ‘spectator sport’ or theatrical production, after which we can all go our separate ways and have no more in common than any crowd leaving an average movie screening. Church is a communal, participatory activity, drawing us closer to one another as well as to God. That’s why we ALL sing the songs and hymns, even if our voices aren’t the best and we may not know much about music; it’s about doing something TOGETHER, rather than spending the whole service merely listening to professional musicians and speakers. For the same reason, communion (the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) in the Presbyterian Church can never involve just the pastor and person receiving the sacrament. Preachers are one kind of “elder” or church leader, but the volunteer leaders elected by the congregation are another kind of ordained elder, and you need BOTH kinds to celebrate a ‘sacrament’ (or ‘sacred act’) of the Church, like baptism or communion. When taking communion to someone unable to come to the church building, the pastor needs a lay elder to come along, so that the elder can stand in for the whole congregation, taking communion alongside the individual being visited in their home or care facility.
Part 2: LISTENING FOR GOD
Having reminded ourselves of our connection to God and to one another, we now move on to Hearing the Word of God, through reading aloud from the Bible and preaching the sermon.
Presbyterians place a high value on education for both clergy and congregation, even going so far as to call their ministers Teaching Elders, to distinguish them from the Ruling Elders elected by the congregation. One of the major ideas of the Protestant Reformation was the priesthood of all believers, or the belief that all baptized Christians should share in the study of God’s word and the prayer and worship life of the church. As a result of this emphasis on having an educated and involved congregation, Presbyterians tend to read aloud a lot of Scripture during worship and expect their preachers to stick pretty close to the scriptures in their preaching.
Some churches and preachers follow the old custom of the lectio continua, or starting at the beginning of a book of the bible and reading and preaching from that one book for as many Sundays as it takes to read it all. But most Presbyterian preachers use a three-year ‘lectionary‘, or schedule of Scripture readings for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year. The ‘revised common lectionary‘ for each day of worship includes at least four blocks of verses from different portions of the Bible, starting with a suggested reading from the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi, the first 3/4 of your bible in terms of length), then a selected Psalm or portion of a Psalm (found right about in the middle of a standard Protestant Bible), followed by a reading from one of the letters found in the New Testament (Romans through Revelation, usually), and then finally a block of verses from one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, found at the beginning of the New Testament). With few exceptions, those suggested readings for the day will be the same passages used by Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, and other Christian denominations, emphasizing that, though we may all worship in different ways and different places, yet we are all part of the same universal Church, one ‘Body of Christ’ made up of different parts with different functions. The pastor or worship leader may choose to read from just one of these selected passages, or from several of them, in preparation for the sermon.
Once upon a time, people thought that most Presbyterian preachers followed a single pattern, of a dryly informative 20-minute Sermon, containing three related points of teaching and ending with a poem. But if that stereotype was ever true, it’s certainly not an accurate reflection of Presbyterian sermons today. The sermon should still be based on a thorough and ongoing study of the Scriptures, and not just on the personal beliefs or ideology of the preacher, but the length of the sermon may vary (though rarely will it last longer than 15 minutes), and it may take the form of an extended story, or an informal conversation, or a pastoral response to some crisis in the world or the local congregation, or a combination of those styles, with a fair amount of biblical teaching and illustrations from popular culture or everyday life thrown in, as well.
Whatever form the sermon takes, it should at some point address a “So, what?” question, such as “What does this mean for my life today?” or “What are we supposed to do in response to God’s Word to us?”
What it should NOT do is tell you what you must think or believe, or pressure you to agree with everything the preacher says. A founding principle of the Presbyterian Church is that God alone is Lord of your human conscience, and that people of good faith may disagree about issues of faith and practice, or about politics and music and art, and still love and work with one another, worshiping side by side with those who hold different opinions on some things.
Saint Augustine of Hippo way back at the turn of the 5th century, famously said that people may interpret scripture differently, but as long as the other person’s interpretation promoted the love of God and neighbor, he couldn’t say they were wrong.
Part 3: PUTTING FAITH INTO ACTION
Everything else in the worship service is designed in one way or another to demonstrate our gratitude for forgiveness AND our resolve to keep on learning and growing in faith, performing some ACTIONS in response to the Word of God that we’ve just heard.
One of the ways we put faith into practice is through our prayers for one another and for the world, usually called something like Prayers of the People, or Prayers of Intercession. The pastor or worship leader may at some point ask the congregation to name concerns or joys which they want included in the Prayers of the People, or they might invite those present to say the names of people or problems at specific points during the prayer. Either way, the idea is to thank God for the good in life, including the gift of Christ and the assurance that God hears and answers when we pray, as well as share our hurts and sorrows and concerns for others near and far with one another and with God.
We don’t expect God to treat our prayers as a “Honey-do” list, things that God needs to change to suit our desires and ideas. Rather, by putting into words and praying aloud about the things that weigh heaviest on our hearts and minds, we are opening ourselves to God, clearing away more of the noise that keeps us from hearing what God wants from us and for us. Rather than changing God’s mind about what’s happening (God already knows far better than we do what’s going on and feels the pain of God’s children most acutely), we’re opening ourselves up to the possibility of being changed BY God, for the better.
The Prayers of Petition or Intercession usually conclude with everyone saying the Lord’s Prayer together, further focusing our will and intent to move closer to God in thought and action (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” etc.).
If you’re already familiar with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, you may also be aware that there are some variations in how people say it. Some people learned “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” while others (including most Presbyterians) learned “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and still others, “…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I was once told (half-seriously) that we used the word “trespasses” to describe our sins when worshiping with Episcopalians, because they were more likely to have been landowners in Scotland and Ireland, while Scots-Irish Presbyterians were often poorer folks, more concerned with “debts.”
Of course, that’s not the reason for the different versions of the prayer at all. Rather, it’s because there’s a slight difference in the meaning of the Greek word used for ‘sins’ in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and in Luke’s version (Luke 11:2-4). One carries more of a sense of trespassing, going where you’re not supposed to and causing harm, and the other comes closer to describing sin as a debt to be paid, something we owe to God and others. When worshiping with Presbyterians, you’re more likely to hear “debts” and “debtors”, but if the words to the Lord’s Prayer aren’t printed in the worship bulletin and you’re feeling shy, it’s okay to wait for the people around you to start that part of the prayer, before joining in!
And if you’re worshiping in a Roman Catholic church, remember to quit speaking at the end of “deliver us from evil”, since the people around you won’t add the extra bit at the end (drawn from a different Bible passage, not found in either Matthew or Luke’s version of the prayer), “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory….” It can become very easy to identify the visiting Protestants at that point in the service, though your Catholic friends will probably be amused rather than offended or embarrassed.
The Offering is another sign of our renewed commitment to God and one another, as we make a gift to help fund the mission of both the local and national church. If you’re just visiting for the first time, or don’t feel you have anything to give that day, it’s perfectly fine to let the collection plate pass you by without putting anything in. Some church members make their contributions in a monthly or quarterly check, and therefore let the plate go by on most Sundays, and other members give their time and skills to the church instead of money, so no one will think it strange if you don’t put something in the offering plate. An offering shouldn’t be made out of guilt or peer pressure, or to keep up appearances, and certainly not out of a desire to buy God’s favor or forgiveness (that’s free, remember!). If you’re not making an offering freely, as part of your commitment to the work of the church and an expression of gratitude for what Christ has freely given, then the church wants you to keep your money in your pocket for now.
When the ushers have finished passing the collection plates around the sanctuary, you’ll probably be invited to stand (if you’re able to do so comfortably) and sing another little song called the Doxology while the ushers bring the filled plates to the front of the church. The title of that piece is again derived from Latin, based on ancient Greek, and literally means “word of praise” or “praise-giving”, so it won’t surprise you when each line of the song starts with “Praise…”! The major purpose of the song at this point in the service is to re-affirm that our gifts are made out of heartfelt gratitude, rather than guilt.
Then there will be a Prayer of Dedication, a very short prayer (usually) to ask God to accept our gifts and use them well, through the work of the Church and other services and missions it supports.
The worship service concludes with a Charge and Benediction, challenging the congregation to try to live according to their beliefs during the coming week, and then blessing the congregation in the name of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
After the service, there should be coffee and cookies, or something of that sort, to give people an excuse (if they need one) to visit with one another, expressing their connection to one another through the sharing of food and drink, even if it’s just a snack before going to Sunday School classes or tackling the rest of the day.