Understanding Worship


In the last three studies we have surveyed the various types of liturgical material found in the New Testament. Of course, there are elements of NT worship, such as prophecy, or preaching, that we have not considered. This is not because they are unimportant, or played a lesser role in early Christian worship. Rather, it arises from the fact that we don’t actually have examples of them in the NT. The liturgical material we have does not extend to these forms. Whilst a number of sermons are recorded in the NT, they were all preached in evangelistic settings; there is no example of a sermon preached to the church gathered for worship.
The NT is, then, extremely limited in the liturgical material it contains. It gives us merely a glimpse here and a hint there of how the earliest generations of Christians expressed their worship. We have already seen, however, that, sparse as it is, the material is very instructive. In some cases, liturgical forms and formulas established then have persisted to the present day (the most obvious and frequently-used example is the word ‘Amen’ –see the earlier studies for other examples). These form a direct line of continuity running through the centuries of Christian worship.
Two further matters are worth underlining in relation to this liturgical material. The first concerns the substance or content of the material; the second its use. What is particularly striking about the pieces of liturgy that we find in the NT, in terms of their substance, is the extent to which they focus on the person and work of Christ. Not only are they Christo-centric, but they also represent a very high Christology, consistently offering worship to Jesus Christ as God. We have previously noted this at various points in our survey of the material, but it bears repetition. For this is a – perhaps the – key feature of NT worship. Of course, NT worship is truly trinitarian. Jesus is not worshipped apart from, or in contrast to the Father and the Spirit, but together with them. Indeed, rightly understood, to worship one is to worship all three, for they are one! This mystery of a God who is one, yet three, is a topic to which we shall return in a future study, since it lies at the heart of the Christian worship expressed in the NT.
All this leads to two observations. Firstly, there is an intrinsic link between worship and theology. The link is two-way, in that on the one hand the theology gives rise to the worship (so, for example, the understanding the early Christians had of who Jesus was, their theology, caused them to worship him), whilst on the other hand the worship expresses and shapes the theology: it comes through in the liturgy, both spoken and sung. Secondly, following on from the last point, a hall-mark of NT worship, as reflected in its liturgical expressions, is genuine substance. This is not an argument for turgid, cerebral worship. The early Christians can hardly be accused of that! But it does serve as a reminder of the need to work at our theology (or understanding of our faith, if you prefer, since that is essentially what theology is) and to ensure that adequate levels of substance are present in our worship, underpinning the forms, whether they be fixed or free, lively or subdued, traditional or contemporary, creative, multi-sensory, or whatever. For, ultimately, form should be secondary to substance. Within the NT there is some evidence of different styles of worship; the liturgical material itself represents different forms. Yet substance never appears to be sacrificed, Note, for example, Paul’s concerns, and his instructions, in 1 Corinthians (see especially chh, 11 – 14).
If we want to be serious about our worship, and to be biblical in our approach and practice, we perhaps need to take time to review afresh the NT liturgical material, in its varied forms, and to reflect on its content. Note its depth of substance. Take stock, also, of just how strongly Jesus-centred it is. In NT expressions of worship, the Jesus factor, to which we have made reference in previous studies, predominates. Not only is worship made possible by him, but he is also its centre and focus. He is its content. It is primarily about him. A contrast, perhaps, with some of the more ‘me-centred’ worship of our day?
The second point to note with regard to the NT liturgical material is the evident use of set liturgy. Admittedly, other than a few hymns, this is mostly relatively short pieces, in the form of doxologies, benedictions, creedal statements etc. Some of these are fuller, however, and some may be fragments of longer pieces. [Once again, may I refer you to earlier studies for the details.] All things considered, there is, even by the most conservative reading of the relevant data, evidence that some set forms of wording were in use from very early on in the church’s worship experience. At the same time, it is indisputable that free expression had a place. A prime example would be within the strongly charismatic worship of the Corinthian church (see e.g. 1 Cor 14:26ff.). It is also the most natural reading of such passages as Acts 2:42-47; 4:31 etc. What this means is that Christian worship has, from the beginning, been expressed with both set forms of words (what we commonly refer to as ‘liturgy’) and with free, spontaneous speech. The NT does not validate one over against the other. Nor does it anywhere suggest that one is superior to the other. They both have their place in Christian worship. The practical fact, of course, is that each has its particular strengths and limitations. The ideal would appear to be to use each in its appropriate way, drawing on their respective strengths, giving each its place, as we strive in our worship to offer to God not the better, but the best.
In concluding this subject, it is worth reminding ourselves that the NT –and this is true not only of the NT in general, but also of the the liturgical material it contains– does not give us a definitive pattern for worship. It does not authenticate any one form, style, or approach. It reflects diversity. It also reflects change.
‘…worship in the early church was a dynamic and living phenomenon rather than a static one. Hence different patterns of worship emerged as churches responded to pressures and needs in different geographical regions. Diversity or “pluriformity” rather than uniformity characterises early Christian worship.’ Arthur Patzia, The Emergence of the Church (IVP, 2001), 185.
We have freedom, then, to adjust, to adapt, to be flexible, to be creative, to ensure that our worship genuinely engages with our culture, responds to differing ‘pressures and needs’. Yet this is not a free-for-all. For as we juggle with the forms, we must ensure that we preserve the substance (or that we preserve substance?). And the core of that substance is Jesus Christ. He is the constant of NT worship, as he must be of ours.

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