What is the Divine Service?

word-and-sacramentSo what does the term “Diving Service” mean anyway? Literally it is a “Service of God”, a service where God is the actor and we are the recipients. He calls, he cleanses, he feeds, etc. He calls the church to come to him and be reminded of his goodness. It is a time of the week that is set apart by the command of God wherein the body of Christ is worshipping and being ministered to in the kingdom of God. Reformed worship is different from the contemporary evangelical scene of worship that exists in many (though not all) churches today.

In many contemporary evangelical churches, worship has taken a unique definition. It is the private expression of a person to God. The individual shows their love, respect and honor for God in their singing and their expressions. The personal has taken primacy over the corporate. In fact, it is hard to argue there is much of a corporate aspect in the evangelical scene at all. The result is that many evangelicals are convinced that instead of going to church, they can worship God from their house alone, watching/listening to a sermon on line, or even out in nature spending time alone reflecting on God. In effect they have no need for the church or her ministers. The experience of listening to Christian music in the car can be far more important and appealing than sitting under the preaching of the Word. Worship in the evangelical setting is not so much about what God is doing, it is about what we are doing. It is our work and therefore rightly labelled “man-centered”. 

In the Reformed community worship is not about the individual but about God. It is a Christ-centered service wherein God ministers to us individually as he does corporately. He does so through his Word and sacraments. Both of these are tools in the hands of a loving God who gathers, nourishes, encourages, and edifies his people. Worship is where we come to be ministered to by God. In worship God comes to his people as their King, Savior, and loving Father. The Reformed also differ from contemporary evangelicals in the understanding of the presence of Christ in worship. The Reformed affirm that Christ is actually present in the Word preached and the sacrament received and reject any suggestions that the sacraments are merely “naked signs”. Through these the Holy Spirit is actively working on the recipients according to his purposes.

This is why Reformed worship is organized the way it is with the overall structure of Word and Sacrament. These two parts of Reformed worship are generally known as The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Upper Room. In the Liturgy of the Word, God speaks as he calls his people to him. In the liturgy there is a progression, as God brings his people to him they come singing his praises and sit before God’s law. Before the Law we are reminded of God’s desire of perfect obedience and our short comings and in the Gospel of our savior and God’s love. God restores us to him by forgiving our sin and his people respond in songs of rejoicing and offerings of thanksgiving. Prayers for the congregation and songs of praise are given throughout the service. The Liturgy of the Word continues to progress as the people are edified and encouraged through the preaching of Christ. Even this is preceded by a Prayer of Illumination. A petition for the Holy Spirit to operate through the reading and preaching of the word of Christ.

The Liturgy of the Upper Room is the communion service. Here we have offerings, prayers, recite the Lord’s Prayer or Apostle’s Creed. We hear the words of Institution, the Prayer of Consecration, followed by the Exhortation (warning against unlawful partaking of the sacrament) and witness the Fraction (breaking of the bread). Historically those who would commune would come forward and partake of a common cup and loaf but some churches distribute the elements to the people as they sit. Hymns are sung and then this portion is closed with a blessing of God as he sends his people out into the world.

The elements of Reformed worship are God-centered and rooted in Scripture. The church is a creation of God’s word and therefore God’s word rules over her worship. It is more than finding biblical rationale for what we do in worship, it is the biblical precedent established and confirmed by the earliest and simplest Christian worship practices. Worship is not a place for innovation, imagination, and trends. When we incorporate these into worship we actually are infringing upon the freedom of the Christian. There is a freedom that we have in Christ, and worship that is guided by God preserves that freedom. We are reminded in the Divine Service of the Divine. We are reminded that we are in need of his constant provision in salvation and life.

It is interesting to note a commonality between medieval worship and the contemporary evangelical worship. Medieval worship had degenerated to a level of an emotional experience no longer rooted in Scripture. It was not about God, his proclamation, or his service to the sinner but became about the show and drama that took place before the people. The drama took many different forms and eventually the Word faded in the background. Sometimes sermons were even given in Latin, a language the people and sometimes even the priests didn’t understand. The Reformation was about many things but ultimately about brining the church into conformity with God’s Word. The Divine Service is a wonderful opportunity to hear Christ, be served by him and feed on him.