Church leaders propose all kinds of reasons for having a congregational worship service. Sometimes it is helpful to be reminded that worship is about God and for God (and that the emphasis must be on God and not on ourselves); but we do not have to organize a formal gathering in order to worship God, so why do we have weekly congregational services? I am of the same mind as Robert Webber who wrote,
The underlying conviction of Christian worship is that we are all in a state of dislocation. We are dislocated from God, from self, from neighbor, and from nature. But God has entered into our history in Jesus Christ to bring relocation. (Planning Blended Worship, 41).
As a result, one of the important purposes of our gatherings is to help relocate us into God and out of the dislocations we experience in our life in the world. Another way of saying that is that our gatherings should offer us a counter-narrative to the one in which the world drowns us. Webber strongly believed that even as we worship, we also experience a way of life that God has for us over and against the life we were living when we walked into the worship space. A way I like to explain that is that our worship services need to be accessible to everyone who gathers with us, no matter the life they live, but they also need to be clearly different from our experience in the world, and they need to call us to a new and better way of life in God. In other words, worship is for God, but it is of huge benefit for Christians.
So, how do we create that buffer between the dislocations of life and the relocation in God in worship? And how do we do that while still being accessible to those who gather with us who might not have much experience in a church culture? How do we help folks know that the time we spend in worship is different from any other gathering they will have this week, that it is entirely for God’s glory and yet of incredible value to them?
Obviously, I’m talking about the “call to worship,” that catch-all phrase we use for whatever happens at the beginning of the service. Some churches have a very thorough and even extravagant call to worship involving a procession or choral invocation. Some churches have announcements followed by a prayer leading into the first song. Some churches use a meet-and-greet to create this buffer. Some church leaders feel a bit awkward about this time because they’re not sure what to do but don’t want to do anything elaborate. Let me offer a very simple step that can be integrated into any call to worship, and let me explain exactly why I recommend it so you can be intentional about putting it to use.
Use the words of Scripture to call your people to worship.
I know that sounds simple, but let me give some background. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and thus it is the power of God. The Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16); it is at work in all believers (1 Thess 2:13); and through its message Christians have been born again (1 Pet 1:23); indeed it is the power of God that does not return to Him void (1 Cor 1:18, Isa 55:11). One of my focal passages is Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (ESV). In other words, if we desire God to move among us and hearts to be set on Him, we should use His words to start that process, not our own (no matter how clever), and not someone else’s (no matter how inspiring).
Beautifully, God has given us a number of greetings that we can use just for that purpose. They are found in most of the letters of the New Testament. For example
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 1:2).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:2).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:2).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col 1:2).
“Grace to you and peace” (1 Thess 1:1).
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 1:2).
“Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim 1:2).
“Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (2 Tim 1:2).
“Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4)
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philem 3).
“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet 1:2).
“Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love” (2 John 3).
Have you ever noticed how strong that pattern is? The fantastic thing about it is that the letter writers then include introductory thoughts after the above verse; between all of them, they cover a wealth of emphases. You could use just one verse as above, or you could use an entire greeting based on the emphasis of your service.
This is how we use the greeting. Our church has verbal announcements at the beginning of the service. No matter how exciting and engaging they are, they’re still announcements, and people only half-listen. But then, at the end of the announcements, the speaker says something to the effect of, “It’s good to be a part of [Church Name]. Now, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then he says another verse or two of greeting and encouraging, and we launch into our call to worship (sung or prayed). We have found that that deep breath followed by those words of Scripture wash over our congregation with a calming and refreshing power.
Here’s why I believe it “works” and what I believe it accomplishes. First, it is the words of God. The Word of God, read well, has that effect on God’s people. Second, it sets a clear break with the world outside. People get greeted most places they go, but this greeting is different. It is not simply a welcome, it is an offer of grace and peace from God Himself. Third, it is simple. It is not based on the impressiveness of a band or orchestra; it does not require an elaborate procession. Those things are good and can still be used, but this type of greeting tells the congregation that our worship service is not rooted in our efforts but in God’s presence which He freely shares with His people.
Use the greetings of Scripture at the beginning of your next worship service. See if that doesn’t set the tone you have been looking for.
Matthew Ward is the Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church Thomson, GA after 14 years of music ministry in Missouri and Texas. He has a PhD in Baptist and Free Church Studies and is the author of Pure Worship (Pickwick, 2014). He is married to Shelly, and they have two kids, Micah and Sarah.