The Fourfold Pattern for Common Worship

When the people of God gather then for Sunday worship, the “order of service” is not accidental or simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” The structure of common worship should be determined by our very best understanding of who God is, what God is about, what God expects and wants, and who we are in relationship to God. Especially as evangelicals, for answers to those questions, we turn to Scripture. While different circumstances may sometimes mean changes are appropriate, certain elements of common worship will remain constant because God, according to Scripture, never changes: “I the LORD do not change,” declared God through the prophet Malachi (Mal 3:6). Moreover, the various parts of a worship service logically occur in a particular order. When we ask questions about a worship service such as “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are doing this now, and not earlier or later?” we are in fact doing theology of worship. We are asking whether our worship truly reflects what we have come to know about God from the Bible.

Scripture provides a clear, basic, and simple pattern for common worship. This fourfold pattern is sometimes called the “catholic,” the universal, pattern because it has been recognized, understood, and used by Christians since the earliest days of the church. The four elements in order are Awe and Praise, Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, God’s Word, and Our Response.

While it is true that the New Testament does not give us a full description of a worship service, each of the elements in the fourfold pattern can be seen in the glimpses of the early church’s worship that we are given. If Acts 2:42 is a summary description of worship right after the day of Pentecost, two of the four elements—Word (“the apostles’ teaching”) and Response (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”) are present in order. Similarly, John’s revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven’s perfect worship in chapters 4 through 6. There we can distinguish awe and praise (in the singing by the living creatures of God’s holiness, the twenty-four elders prostrating themselves and throwing their crowns before God’s throne), confession of sin (no one is found worthy enough to open the scrolls), and the word (in the form of the same scrolls). One notes that the descriptions of worship in the patristic era—the three hundred years between the resurrection and the politicizing of the church under Constantine—clearly follow this same pattern. It would be imprudent indeed to ignore this reality—even though evangelicals do not consider the writings of the early fathers to have the same level of authority as Scripture—for these believers were much closer to the founding period and the apostolic age than we are.

Not surprisingly, however, given God’s unchanging nature, this fourfold pattern goes back even before the birth of Jesus to the Old Testament. Likely the clearest example of this fourfold pattern is found in Isaiah 6:1-8. Here can be seen, in order, all four elements.

Encountering God Results in Awe and Praise

On entering God’s presence, Isaiah (and we) are awestruck by God’s majesty, power, love, and grace. The only appropriate response is praise.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isa 6:1-4, AV)

Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon

However, as soon as we encounter God, we realize our own sinfulness and our need to ask for forgiveness. Hence Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa 6:5, AV). In accordance with God’s repeated promises, genuine confession and sincere repentance leads to pardon. Thus, Isaiah’s confession of sin leads to words of pardon: “Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips and thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged” (Isa 6:6-7, AV).

The Word of God

Having confessed our sins, we are now ready—and able—to hear God’s word to us. So also Isaiah, after confession and pardon, hears God’s word to him: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa 6:8a, AV)

Of course in the church’s common worship we primarily hear God’s word to us not by means of dramatic visions but through the Scriptures that are first read and then proclaimed/taught by means of the sermon. The point however is the same: God has something to say to his people.

Our Response to God

Once God’s word is heard, we need to respond, to take action. That’s exactly what Isaiah does. Once he hears God’s word, he does not hesitate. He responds at once, saying, “Here am I; send me” (Isa 6:8b). This is where the “activism” that Bebbington described as so prominent among evangelical Christians enters the picture. The word leads to action in the wider world. We go out from common worship to change the world for Christ.

This fourfold pattern does not imply or require a “formal” worship style in a cathedral-like setting, with preaching robes, choir anthems, or only “standard” hymns. It is quite possible, indeed desirable, for worship to be culturally sensitive and to use a variety of kinds of music that may or may not aesthetically agree with the tastes of particular individuals. What may be quite appropriate in a storefront mission in the ghetto of an American city would be culturally inappropriate in a university chapel; what fits well with a small rural church would clash violently with the cultural milieu of a suburban congregation in Toronto or a centre city church in Manhattan. Our model is the incarnation itself. Just as God in Jesus became fully human but without sin, so common worship should be culturally sensitive without being co-opted by a secular worldview. The crucial thing is to ensure that regardless of setting, musical style, or anything else, the worship has theological integrity—and that means it needs clearly to follow the fourfold pattern.

This post originally appeared in Countercultural Worship: A Plea to Evangelicals in a Secular Age by Mark G. McKim.

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