The Marks of True Worship

This article was previously published in Different Voices magazine.

Peter Donald takes us to the heart of the Church.

What happens when we worship together? With the offering of worship to God one of the most distinctive features of Christian life, we not only 'live and move and have our being' in God, we consciously own it.  We gather expressly to make something of it. Where there are Christians, there will be worship.

But how will God be worshipped? There are all sorts of possibilities suggested through Scripture and Christian history. All of worship takes on a structure, but there is great variation in the shaping of that structure.

The first marker of worship - whatever our tradition – is that it is liturgical, not so much in there being agreed set forms but in that it requires participation. (The word derives from a public 'work' promoted in classical times by a benefactor and shared by the community.) As prayers are led - and they may be led spontaneously or from a prepared text, by minister or by member(s) of a congregation - the shared work is to join in with these prayers. God is to be praised by all who have gathered; God is to be petitioned by all who are present. The introductory word, "Let us pray", is entirely deliberate. Prayer is not, so to speak, a spectator activity, to be watched, or listened to, from the sidelines. It is inclusive.

Sometimes, as an expression of this, texts are provided for everyone to follow and perhaps join in aloud. Whatever the form, properly there will be attention paid to issues or inclusivity of language - prayers, that is, which enhance the sense of there being a common work between young and old, male and female. Prayer thus is both culturally conditioned and culturally responsive. When Christians gather for worship, prayer is a corporate act.

Closely alongside this, a second marker of worship is its lyrical nature, in the sense that there is an offering of song. The associations of music with prayer are of course both ancient and rich and there is much lively exploration of possibilities within today's Church. As with spoken prayers, the variety of forms which may be adopted are numerous, though it is true that the most common practice is to join voices together rather than to have soloists to the fore. When solos, choirs and bands are given a role, it matters that they give an enabling lead and not merely a performance for the sake of those who listen in. Music is a gift to the soul in its capacity to open up emotion and commitment which words alone will not satisfy. By music "God is glorified" - and the Church blessed.

The last marker, most substantial through being uttely anchored in Christ, is preaching and Sacraments. With the former, there is again a multiplicity of possible patterns, with different schools of thought on how to select readings from Scripture, and a very broad range of both theological and presentational decisions underpinning the drawing out of its contemporary relevance. The upholding of certain educational standards and procedures of authorisation guard the significance of the core preaching task. Likewise, the place of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion is anchored with reference to who may lawfully act and confessional traditions on the meanings to be upheld and the forms to be practised. This does not make for a strict uniformity, and has never been intended to do so - and, arguably, the range of variation within the Church nowadays may be as great as it has ever been - but there is at the heart a belief in unity and therefore accountability. Within the Church, and in dialogue both with ecumenical partners and questioning outsiders, Sacraments, like the preached Word, bear witness to the one Lord and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and as Churches we both help one another and at times need to challenge one another about our faithfulness in that regard. It is to be insisted upon that, in the Sunday gathering and in daily life, true worship is a "chief aim and end".

Rev Peter Donald is minister of Inverness: Crown.