Douglas Wilson touches on some themes about corporate worship that Presbyterians should resonate with as he describes the what and why of their worship services.
This is the point of divergence from which the ‘all of life is worship, except for when we gather on Sundays (or whatever other time of the week we feel like) which is more like TAFE for Christians idea’ will fail to sustain a historically recogisable Presbyterian theology and body life.
It should be recognised that this is not a ‘traditional’ model, it is a theological model.
While the structure of a typical CREC worship service has a lot in common with what visitors might call a “traditional worship service”—enough so as to simply be a variation on such services—there are certain elements about that stand out, and which probably will draw some questions.
The first is the common practice of identifying our worship services with the phrase “covenant renewal.” By this we do not mean that our covenant with God has only a set amount of time on it, and that it might expire like a lease if we do not renew it. Our covenant with God is eternal and will not expire. But it is also alive, and is designed to grow and flourish. As sexual communion renews marriage, or as a meal renews the body, so also the worship of God renews our covenant with Him.
The second element of covenant renewal that calls for explanation is the pattern or structure of worship. Our services are “bookended” by the opening and closing. When the minister declares the “call to worship,” the service is convened or established. At the conclusion of the service, when he commissions the congregation by means of the benediction, the people of God are sent out into the world to be salt and light, having been renewed in their walk with God.
The “innards” of the service follow a three-fold structure, which are confession, consecration, and communion. In the Old Testament, there were three distinct kinds of sacrifices—the guilt offering, the ascension offering (often translated as whole burnt offering), and the peace offering. The guilt offering was intended to address a particular sin on the part of the worshipper. The ascension offering was an offering of “entire dedication.” The whole sacrificed animal ascended to God in the column of smoke as an offering to Him. The peace offering was one which the worshipper was privileged to partake of, as a covenant meal. Whenever those three offerings are mentioned together in the Old Testament, they are listed in that order, which makes good sense. You deal with the guilt first, you dedicate all to God, and then you have communion with God. This is why our covenant renewal services follow the structure they do, absent the sacrificed animals. Jesus Christ died once for all, in order to be the fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system—He was not just the guilt offering.
So this is why our worship services, once God is invoked, contain these three elements. First we confess our sins, and receive the assurance of pardon. Second, we dedicate ourselves to God (Scripture reading, sermon, offertory, etc.). And then last, we observe the Lord’s Supper. Once that is all done, we receive the benediction, we go out into a lost world that needs to hear about Jesus Christ.