How do your church services start? I mean, after the congregation has finished their conversations (coffee?), shuffled in from the lobby and sung the first song (during the first song?), what starts the worship service? Do you have something that really calls the people together, out of the everyday, to worship? Historically, there is an action called ‘the call to worship’ and there are good reasons to recover its use in the contemporary church.
What it’s not
1. A welcome – It is important to indicate to people that you are glad that they are present. It may even be appropriate in your context to invite the congregation to shake hands and greet one another. That’s not though a call to worship; it’s simply a greeting.
2. A time-filler – I’ve been in churches where the service more or less starts with ‘as we wait for people to come in, let’s sing together.’ Not a call to worship. (Incidentally, this is a point that church leadership teams would do well to discuss. Why do our people think that it’s okay to wander into the presence of God late? Would you show up to a job interview late? Would you meet with the President or Prime Minister ‘when you got there’? Worship leaders will benefit from church cultures that encourage people to be in the place of corporate worship on time).
3. An overview – Sometimes worship leaders begin with an overview of the service or a mini-sermon outlining the Scripture text for the day. This is information. Rather than information, we need calls to worship to be invitation.
What it is
The action of a call to worship is based on at least two biblical truths:
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Mat 18:20 ESV).
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him (Joh 4:23 ESV).
1. God is present in the midst of His people when they are gathered to honor Him and
2. God is seeking people to worship Him – He invites us to worship!
A call to worship then is a formal invitation – God calls us to worship Him. The worship leader, on God’s behalf, invites people to worship in God’s presence.
1. Let God speak: Given that the call to worship is a reorienting call from God (“come out of the ‘everyday’ as My people”), we would do well to limit our own words. This is a pastoral opportunity and we do need to feel freedom to speak to the hearts of the people, but we need to remember that God, who is present, is really doing the inviting.
2. Let God’s Word speak: The Bible is full to calls for God’s people to worship Him. Many of them can be used directly in services (eg. 1 Chr 16:34-36; Ps 33, 118, 105, 136; Rom 15:9-12; Rev 15:3-4) and don’t need further commentary.
3. Let the people speak: If you use responsive readings, you can allow the congregation to do the calling. Scripture presented responsively can give the congregation the opportunity to effectively invite one another to worship in God’s presence.
4. Don’t be afraid of formality. I know that one of the ideals of the modern church seems to be ‘informality’ – we shy away from formal language and actions. In some ways this is a Protestant habit – I’ve heard it said that ‘Catholics worship God in His throne room; Protestants worship God in His living room.’ This ‘living room’ setting is great for intimacy, but it can also breed familiarity and complacency. (I wonder if the congregational habit of showing up late is related to this institutional informality?) All that to say: it’s ok for there to be something formal in your services. My worship prof said “There’s nothing like standing before a congregation and saying ‘Let us stand and worship God’” and that has stuck with me. For more than a decade, I have always presented a brief call to worship and concluded with those powerful words: ‘Let us stand together and worship our God.’
As worship leaders, we have a great privilege. We invite God’s people on His behalf, reminding them that He is with us – we are in the very presence of the gracious God of the universe! – and He delights in His people and in their praise! (Ps 149:1-4).
Graham is an M.Div. holding, long-time worship leader with a passion for seeing the God of the Bible exalted as He deserves. He is now the preaching pastor at Langford Community Church in Southwestern Ontario. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.