The Story

The word of God is the Story—the metanarrative that is missing in our Postmodern culture. Without the intentional, abundant, meticulous, prepared, prayerful, and respectful reading of the scriptures in worship, we are living outside of the Story of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ—the magnificent work of God in creation, redemption, and re-creation of all things.

—Constance Cherry, “My House Shall Be Called
 a House of . . . Announcements,” 13 

Luther on Worship and the Word

As God at first gives faith through the Word, so He thereafter also exercises, increases, confirms, and perfects it through the Word. Therefore the worship of God at its best and the finest keeping of the Sabbath consist in exercising oneself in piety and in dealing with the Word and hearing it. On the other hand, nothing is more dangerous than a dislike of the Word.

Luther on the Immanence of God

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German for the first time, he made a profound theological point along these lines, simply by his choice of pronouns.  The German language has two different pronouns for the second-person singular (“you” in English): an informal/familiar one (Du) and a formal/polite one (Sie).  The polite form is used in addressing everyone but one’s own family members and closest friends.  Yet Luther used the familiar form in his translation when God was being addressed!!  There is a world of New Testament theology embedded in that single grammatical decision.  (Even the “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” of the King James Version, while some find them a little stilted and stuffy today, were actually the familiar second-person pronouns in the English of its day.)

Worship and the Word

To ensure that God’s voice is heard, we might consider the following suggestions:

  1. Devote more time to reading the Scriptures—not just a verse or two from the Psalms as a quick call to worship, or a short text from Paul as a preface to the sermon.
  2. Read large blocks of Scripture at a time. While chapter and verse divisions help us navigate the Scriptures, they are a supreme hindrance to reading holistically and comprehensively.  Chapter and verse divisions encourage treatment of the Scriptures as fragments loosely strung together.  For practical reasons we may want to break up larger books into smaller parts, but this should not blind us to the fact that Deuteronomy 5:1b-26:19 and 28:1-68, for example, were preached as a single, coherent whole.  Paul wrote his Epistles so believers might hear the entire letter in one reading; the same is true of the Gospels and the book of Revelation.  The Psalms and Lamentations, and perhaps some prophetic books, may be read piecemeal, because they are collections of independently delivered and composed utterances, but even then we should be sensitive to the coherence exhibited by the canonical forms of these books
  3. Promote an atmosphere of reverence when reading the Scriptures.  In the First Testament the Israelites stood in awe when God spoke (Exod. 19:17).  It is appropriate to prostrate ourselves in homage before God when we enter his presence, but when he speaks, he calls us to rise (Ezek. 1:28-2:1).  The people’s response to Ezra’s reading the Torah in Nehemiah 8:5 may be paradigmatic for our worship.
  4. Promote the expository reading of Scripture.  Expository reading means reading the Scriptures so that their literary qualities are appreciated, their message understood, and their transformative power experienced.
  5. Prepare spiritually for the ministry of reading.  Reading Scripture in public worship is a sacred task, for the reader serves as the mouthpiece of God.  Ezra exhibited the qualities of a model reader: “He had determined to study the Torah of YHWH, to apply it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
  6. Subordinate the sermon to the Scripture.  Let the voice of God be clear, and let the voice of the human mouthpiece be suppressed.

—Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 190-191

God’s Initiative

Of course, where people do not understand the gospel, it is always perfectly possible for them to suppose that by going to church, singing hymns, saying prayers, or putting money into the collection they have earned favor with God.  This is the risk that the Pauline language of “pleasing God” is bound to run.  But Christian worship from the very beginning has attempted, at the level of structure as well as content, to rule this out, to make it clear that such a thing would be a shallow misunderstanding.  The main point here is the priority given, in Christian worship, to the Bible.

The Bible is not simply read aloud in order to convey information, to teach doctrine or ethics or history, though of course it does that too.  It is read aloud as the effective sign that all that we do is done as a response to God’s living and active word, the word which, as Isaiah says, accomplishes God’s purpose in the world, abiding for ever while all flesh withers like the grass.  The place of scripture in Christian worship means that both in structure and content God’s initiative remains primary, and all that we do remains a matter of response.

—N. T. Wright, “Freedom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Recovering Biblical Worship” (lecture delivered at Calvin College January 11, 2002), 11

The Word Read

Part of what we need is simply to recover the idea that reading of Scripture is itself a powerful act of worship.  Rather than thinking of Scripture reading in worship as a short preface to the sermon, try thinking of the sermon as an extended footnote to the reading of scripture.

—John D. Witvliet, “Isaiah in Christian Liturgy: Recovering Textual Contrasts and Correcting Theological Astigmatism,” Calvin Theological Journal 39 (2004):150

Scripture-Based Worship

A worship service in which all words spoken, from first to last, are words from Scripture—such a service will be rigged and ready to sail into the waters that flow from the throne room of God (Rev. 22). God has chosen, in mysterious divine wisdom, this collection of documents that comprise our Bible to be the means by which we are formed to be the people of faith. God has chosen, in mysterious divine wisdom, this Bible to be one of the means by which Christ is presented to us in our gathered worship. God has chosen, in mysterious divine wisdom, this Bible to be the means of our comfort, judgment, instruction, hope, lament, and vision. It would be a great folly for us to fill our worship service with words—mountains of words—that do not find their source in this God-appointed well.

—Leanne Van Dyk, “Proclamation: Revelation, Christology,” A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony, 69-70.

The Stewardship of Worship Leading (2)

As worship leaders . . . we also have the holy task of being stewards of God’s Word. Our choices of Scripture and themes for worship represent a degree of control over people’s spiritual diets, over how they feed on the bread of life.

—John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding, 282

Sing the Word!

It is often said that Luther restored congregational singing.  This is true, but he did more than that—Luther restored preaching to the congregation—a most appropriate activity for lay priests. “If, now, the congregation is to proclaim the divine truth, it must have a sermon worth preaching. This is the reason for the substantial…doctrinal content in many of the Reformation hymns.” (O.C.Rupprecht)

—P.J. Janson, “A Reason to Sing,” Reformation and Revival Vo. 4, nr. 4 (Fall 1995), 19