Imagine walking into a church you’ve never been to. Step into the main room before the service starts – what are your expectations? Preaching? A rock band? An organist? Readings in Latin? Prayers spoken in unison from a lectionary? Suits and ties? Flip flops? Will you be be a participant? A spectator? A leader?
Every element of a service reflects, intentionally or unintentionally, the culture of a church. And just as a reminder: the word church means a gathered group of Christ followers. A service is just another name for one of the moments when the church does what it is: it gathers.
It’s common to call the gathering of the church by another name: worship. “Worship starts at 9am!” In fact, we call the room where Providence has its main services the Worship Center. Sometimes we just call it church – “see you at church tomorrow!” Some traditions call it Meeting, or Mass. Interesting.
Now, go back to that first question: What do you expect when you walk into a church service? With so many different names for the key gathering of the church, it would be no surprise if you answered, “I need more information.” And that’s fair. Some church traditions follow a longstanding liturgy – a word that means order of worship. The whole year of Sundays might be written out in a book, complete with scripture readings, hymns, and prayers to be recited together. On the other end of the spectrum, some traditions just show up and see what happens – no plan, just the Holy Spirit and a bunch of bodies in the room. Most churches worldwide fall somewhere in between.
What about Providence Church? We are made up of folks from a wide variety of church traditions, or no church tradition at all. How do we decide on the shape of our gatherings? Glad you asked.
We think that gathering every week is a vital and central part of the identity and mission of any church. We are still the church when we’re not gathered, but we’re not really a church if we never gather face to face. The first Christians – who were all first century Mediterranean jews – were used to the weekly rhythm of gathering in Synagogues on Shabbat (Saturday). They offered prayers, sang songs, and heard reading and teaching from the scrolls of the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. This weekly rhythm and the practice of sharing teaching, singing, and prayer (not to mention eating) together carried over into the new community that believed Jesus was the Messiah – the God/human who fulfilled God’s promise to redeem humanity and creation from sin. They gathered not on the Seventh day of the week, but on the first day – the day Jesus was resurrected. Every single week was Easter. And now, it wasn’t just the Old Testament they were reading and learning from; it was also the Apostles teaching – Jesus’ teaching passed on to his authoritative representatives. This teaching came to be recorded in the Gospels – the stories of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection – and the letters written to various churches by some of the Apostles. As these documents were written, distributed, and collected, they became the central authoritative teaching of the church – and now, we call them the New Testament.
So why this history lesson? Because this history is what informs our choices when we gather for worship today.
At Providence, we keep the scriptures at the center of our practices. It’s our number one core value: the absolute authority of God’s word. We know him through his scriptures and his Spirit, and we do it in community with each other. That’s the starting point for our worship services – the text of the Bible. Most of the time, we study whole books of the Bible from start to finish, taking anywhere from a few months to a few years, because we want the Bible to be able to speak unhindered to us. If God gave us these inspired scriptures, we need to let them say what they say, and we had better pay attention.
So every week, the section of scripture we’re going to study becomes the jumping off point for everything else that happens in the service. Our goal is to structure our gatherings so that the message of the text is reinforced at every point, and so that we can not only learn, but respond and experience heart change.
This is the main reason that we break the mold of a typical American Evangelical service when it comes to our singing. More often than not, most of the singing in an Evangelical church service happens at the beginning. It’s designed to take people on an emotional journey: starting with celebration, moving toward meditation, preparing people for the main event: the sermon. We have flipped that model very intentionally at Providence.
Our typical liturgy begins with prayer and a welcome led by one of our elders. These are the guys entrusted with the primary shepherding of our church, equipping people for ministry. Then, we usually sing one song – or maybe two – to join ourselves together as active participants in what’s happening. The literal spotlight may be on the stage, but the real event isn’t the band playing – it’s the church singing. Every voice in the room is meant to be raised to God as one big voice. From there, we quickly move into a teaching time – led by our main teaching elder or one of several other gifted preachers. The goal of this time is to be educated in the scriptures, to be awakened to and reminded of God’s truth and where we fit into it, and to be challenged to ongoing surrender to Jesus and his claim on our lives. That’s why our messages often end with points we like to call “So Whats.” Ok, great, the Bible says all this stuff. So what? This leads us into our main time of singing – and please, don’t call the singing time “worship,” as if the rest of the time isn’t also worship. In these songs, we respond as a gathered community to what God has said to us in the scriptures and by his Spirit. These songs are chosen specifically to reinforce, extend, or revisit the themes of the Bible text in ways that apply to our hearts and that allow us to grapple with how Jesus is inviting us to surrender to him. Again, this is never meant to be a performance for spectators, but rather a participatory event. We usually leave on a moment of prayer or sending – a reminder that we have gathered to be equipped, and that we are now taking what have learned to apply it in our daily lives. This is how our services drive discipleship – the process of becoming more like our Master, Jesus.
So next time you walk into a worship service – at Providence, or anywhere – take a second to remember that this is an intentional moment for God to work, and ask him how he wants to form you to be more like Jesus in the next hour and twenty minutes. It’s a prayer he loves to answer!