The following thoughts were originally developed when asked in a class to write a definition of church worship that goes beyond the usual discussions and usages to flesh out further Biblical concepts. I hope you find the discussion encouraging.
Worship in large part our celebration of the fact that we have been brought into covenant relationship with the Holy God of Scripture. Because of all that God has done in Christ to restore us to himself in covenant relationship, we therefore celebrate. Because of who God is, we adore him.
While the New Testament does not lay down a strict form of all worship order and elements, there are several key practices and many broad principles to be found in both in the New Testament, in Old Testament concepts, and the proceeding practices of the early church. In the Old Testament, those who were brought into covenant relationship with God were called on to “remember” the covenant. This is not a remembrance in the sense of nostalgia, but of a reexamination of God’s past covenant faithfulness, examination of personal/communal obedience to the covenant, and celebration of the future hope provided in covenant promises.* Worship is often lamentably individually focused and personally oriented. Proper worship focuses on the Holy God who brings us into a communal covenant relationship with himself.
*Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory
Biblical Emphasis on Covenant Renewal
Two key elements are seen in Scripture as the makeup of covenant remembrance, in turn forming the center of the New Testament worship: First, the reading of the Word, which provides the covenant description to the community of worshipers. Secondly, the community responds with recommitment. In understanding the biblical theology of covenant remembrance (with its past, present, and future focus), we must look to the Old Testament model of covenant description and recommitment throughout the feasts celebrations and the practice of the Passover. These meals served as the mode of responsive recommitment to the covenant in the worship practice. These practices form the theological background of “remembrance” through the Lord’s Supper, which the disciples are told to do “in remembrance”. That is, a “New Covenant…in remembrance of me,” which Paul says we are to continue until he comes. The institution of the Lord’s Supper matches the biblical pattern of worship in covenant renewal in a time of a covenant meal.
This pattern finds precedence in the New Testament, in which the Church gathered together to partake of the Supper in response to the reading and exposition of God’s word. This pattern is also found throughout the foreground of the New Testament, i.e. in the early church (cf. Didache; Justin Martyr), indicating for us that the pattern of remembrance through covenant reading and response is the central and focal point of Christian worship practice. The central elements of communal worship are therefore the Word and the Table. Lamentably, the role of the Lord’s Table is often lost upon us despite the centrality of its biblical role, due largely to its marginalization during the 2nd Great Awakening and the coming of the Charismatic movement, with the social, philosophical, and cultural pressures surrounding them.
Characteristics of Covenant Worship
From a framework of understanding worship as covenant remembrance and celebration, we see several characteristics come to the fore in our worship practice. First, worship is a communal act and assumes communal unity. Therefore, the regular gathering of and commitment to the local church is essential. The unity of all Christians found in the New Covenant indicates that discipline and reconciliation are necessary for honoring and keeping covenant unity. In this same vein, as we examine ourselves to make sure that our present lives align with the covenant, we are expected to respond with knowledge of God’s desires, with sincere obedience, as well as sincere gratefulness.
The Proper Trinitarian Focus
Lest in our understanding of worship we slip again into worshiping because of our own benefit from God, we must remember that the covenant is all about the Triune God. The covenant relationship that we celebrate restores our relationship to God once again so that we can properly worship him for who he is in himself. Thus knowing God, his attributes, and his character, is imperative for worship. All honor and praise are due to him, and the fact that our sin turned our love and adoration from him to other objects that a restoration and redemption through the covenant work of Christ was necessary. Now, through the revelation of the Son and the Scriptures by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we partake in learning who God is as well as what he has done, and we sincerely respond.
The Trinitarian Pattern
Through Christ, we now come to know the Father, and the Holy Spirit renews us in the image of Christ as he is put before us (primarily in the Word and Table). The New Testament indicates that it is only through the Son that we have access to the Father, and by the power of the Holy Spirit that we respond to and seek the Father. Our worship reflects the revelation of the Triune God as we behold the role of the persons of the Godhead in Scripture. Our worship is transformed as we reflect their relationship in our own submission to authority and one another. The unity of the Godhead is reflected in our unity with one another. The Trinity is also reflected in the directing of our elements of worship (such as prayer and singing) to the Father, through the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Biblical worship models, guards, and honors this proper orientation of worship as it is presented to us in biblical revelation.
Worship is the celebration of our relationship with God through the act of remembrance, including remembrance of his past work, reevaluation of our present commitment, and a resting in the hope of his promises. The focal means of remembering the covenant (and the one to whom we are in relationship with) is found in the central elements of the Word and Table, which in turn inform and guide our prayers, singing, fellowship, and good deeds. We come together in worship to remember the covenant relationship we have with the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit.