Reformed worship – The introductory elements
Call to worship
One of the clearest injunctions regarding Christian worship is that it will involve the reading of God’s Word. Paul commands Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture...” – and there are many other such passages. A great deal of our worship service, therefore, is going to involve the reading of Scripture. God will speak his Word to us and we in turn also take his Word upon our lips and speak it back to Him.
That brings us to the beginning of the worship service and the question: what is an appropriate way to begin? If our worship is to be structured along the lines of the covenant, should it not reflect the gospel truth that it is God who calls us to Himself? In the covenant of grace, God takes the initiative to come to us and to call us to a meaningful and friendly relationship with Himself. Here we can think not only of God’s call to Adam and Eve in the Garden in Genesis 3, but also of his gracious initiative in calling Abraham and others.
Therefore, it makes good liturgical sense for God to have the first word in the worship service. Through the reading of an appropriate passage of Scripture (often from the Psalms), God graciously calls his people into his presence. With the call to worship, the congregation is reminded that it is God who has authoritatively called us to this place.
It is sad that the call to worship is rare in the Canadian Reformed churches. In most of our churches, God’s people get the first word through the so-called votum, “Our help is in the name...” In some places, there is a “quasi call to worship” with words such as “Let us lift up our hearts to the Lord.” But those words often are more like a signal for the congregation to stand up than a true call to worship being spoken by the minister on God’s behalf. Why not have a short, clear Scripture passage where God is clearly calling the congregation to worship Him? If we take the covenantal structure and character of our worship seriously, this is something we need to carefully reconsider.
The next words in the service also come from Scripture, but they are a confession of faith on the part of God’s people: “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). These words can be considered our response to God’s call for us to worship Him. God puts these beautiful words on our lips at the very beginning so that we recognize our entire dependence on Him. We come to Him as needy people waiting to have our thirst quenched and our hunger satisfied.
We call this the “votum,” which is a word taken over from Latin. It is something like a vow or a confession of faith. The word’s Latin origin reflects the fact that this element of our worship service dates back to far before the Reformation. The reformers recognized its value and simply continued the practice of having Psalm 124:8 at the beginning of the service.
I already mentioned that these words come from the part of the congregation. In most of our churches, however, they are recited by the minister on behalf of the congregation. In those instances, the individual members of the congregation need to be self-consciously saying those words in their hearts with the minister. A better arrangement, however, is to have the congregation itself recite those words. An introduction may be necessary; something like, “Congregation, where does our help come from?” or “Let us confess together...” If the votum is truly something from the side of the people, and if it is practical to do so, why not have the congregation recite it?
So far we’ve looked at two elements: God has spoken the call to worship and the people respond with their confession of faith (the votum). Given the covenantal structure, it makes sense that God would have the next word. He does so through the greeting extended through the minister. The minister lifts up his hands (a traditional liturgical gesture of blessing and greeting) and speaks from God’s Word a salutation or greeting.
Here again, we simply have God’s Word being read and used in a liturgically appropriate way. God has called us into his presence with his Word, we have responded with our confession, and now He greets us in the same manner that the churches of the New Testament were greeted by Him. In all of this, it is amply clear that there are truly two “parties” in the worship service and they are in a relationship with one another.
At the end of the greeting, it is customary for the minister to say “Amen.” As you may recall, “Amen” simply means “it is true and certain.” God puts his seal on the greeting when the minister says “Amen.” But God’s people should also respond with their own “Amen,” either in their hearts or vocally. With their “Amen” they express their confidence that they have truly been welcomed into God’s presence.
The final element of the beginning of the service is the response of God’s people in song. Typically the opening song will be one of praise and adoration for God. It will exalt Him and in so doing, prepare God’s people for the rest of the worship service.
It hardly needs to be argued that the singing of psalms and hymns is a divinely mandated part of Christian worship. Even though passages like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 were not originally written as instructions on how to do public worship, they surely do not mean anything less than that God’s people should be singing when gathered together for worship. More than that, the entire Bible portrays God’s people as singing praise to Him and we would only expect that this would also be done today when we gather for worship. As mentioned, this is not a controversial matter in any Christian circle. We naturally sing because we want to sing and if that desire were not enough, God’s Word commands us to sing.