Becoming a member of Emmaus was a foreign experience compared to the church context I grew up in. Before coming to Kansas City and Emmaus, I was previously a member of three different churches, and at all three becoming a member worked exactly the same way. On a Sunday morning, I walked down the aisle and said I wanted to join the church. The pastor asked me if I was a believer and if I had been baptized. If the answer was yes, then I was presented as a member of the church. Not a ton of hassle.
Emmaus was different. Becoming a member of Emmaus is a process. At the time, membership applicants had to attend six new members’ classes held on Sunday after the service. Then (as is still the case) new members had to have interviews with the pastors (our interview was at Panera Bread, which made up for the six membership classes). Finally, after going through both the classes and the interview, we were allowed to sign the church covenant, making us official members of Emmaus!
The process of becoming a member of Emmaus was surreal, but that is only the start. What is truly foreign to my church context is what was expected of us after we became members. When I signed the Emmaus Church Covenant, I was covenanting to a myriad of responsibilities. I was covenanting to be at church, to be a member of a community group, to love and serve the church, and to love and pray for my pastors. I was promising to abstain from sin, and to pursue holiness, and lead my wife well. Church members covenanting to responsibilities on the front end is a far cry from the membership that I grew up accustomed to.
Many of my fellow Emmaus members can identify with how strange that process can feel. This is because many of us grew up in churches that did not practice meaningful church membership.
Meaningful Membership vs. Casual Membership
The term “meaningful church membership” is, to an extent, biblically redundant. It’s like saying “a Christian who loves Christ,” or, “a non-believer who is not a believer.” Of course a Christian loves Christ, and of course a non-believer is not a believer. The same is true of a church with meaningful membership: of course membership in a local church is meaningful and committed.
The distinction is needed, though, because many churches do not practice meaningful membership. Instead, they practice a “casual membership.” Across America, church membership rolls are littered with the names of people who joined the church on a whim and never returned, or who have long since moved across the country, or who died in 1987. They are filled with the names of people who are only casually associated with that church. They are not membership rolls so much as guest books, signed by whomever decides that walking down in front of a crowd is not too large a price.
We Americans are particularly prone to casual membership. Church becomes a place that is frequented as we see fit, not a place (and a people) that demands priority in our lives. It becomes a place where we are entertained. It becomes a place that makes us feel good. It becomes a place that primarily exists to be our social club, or daycare, or self-help seminar. It is a place where we want all of the benefits – or what we think are the benefits – without any of the hassle, and in so doing we misconstrue the true benefits of membership.
That is not the portrait of membership the Bible paints.
A Portrait of Meaningful Membership
How does “meaningful membership” differ with “casual membership?” In short, meaningful membership means accepting equally both the responsibilities and the benefits of church membership.
To understand what these responsibilities and benefits are, we must look at how the Bible describes membership. So, what does meaningful membership look like in the Bible?
1. Meaningful membership places a priority on church. Believe it or not, Christians are actually commanded to go to church. In Hebrews 10:23-24, the author says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Church members are not merely given good advice to go to church, or told to go to church when they can, but are instructed to not neglect meeting together.
Unfortunately, our generation has swung the pendulum from a legalistic, “go to church or the devil may get you” mindset that was pervasive during our grandparents’ generation to a “church is optional” mindset. However, we must remember that going to church is not only mandated by Scripture, but it reaps unimaginable benefits for the church member. Paul says that Christ is present with us in a special way when we gather together (1 Cor. 5:4), Again in 1 Cor., Paul says that unbelievers will recognize God’s presence in an assembled church worshipping (1 Cor. 14:24-25), and as we will discuss shortly, gathered church members are able to bring spiritual maturity (Christlikeness) in a unique way – but only if they first gather.
Of course, nowhere does the Bible say how much absence constitutes “neglecting to meet together,” but the point is not that we know just how much we can skip before we sin, but that church should take priority in our lives and schedules. I knew families growing up that missed most church services due to travel ball (spoiler: none of those kids even made it to play in college). I know couples that seem to be out of town half of the weekends of the year for one reason or another. How do these members navigate around the command to not neglect the church? They can’t. They run their ships right smack dab into that iceberg. Not going to church isn’t necessarily a sin, but it absolutely can be.
2. Church members are to live for one another. The phrase “one another” appears over 100 times in the New Testament for dozens of reasons. Church members are to be united to one another (Phil. 2:2, 1 Pt. 3:8, 1 Cor. 1:10), they are to love one another (Rom. 13:8, 1 Thes. 3:12, 1 Pt. 1:22), they are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), they are to encourage one another (1 Thes. 5:11), and they are to stir one another up in faith and good works (Heb. 10:24). There are so many examples to give, but the point is this: Church members live with the well-being of the whole church in mind. They don’t show up to church when it is convenient. They don’t expect to be catered to every waking second. They don’t suck the life out of others but instead pour themselves out for one another.
This is impossible when membership is reduced to an individual selfishly looking for what they can get out of church. If members live on the peripherals of the church rather than throwing themselves headfirst into the church, then it is impossible to fully obey the “one-another” commands of the New Testament, and equally impossible to receive the benefits of those commands!
3. Church members share in the responsibility of maintaining the holiness of the church. Along with the pastors, the church members are called to protect the holiness of the church from the poison of sin. Hebrews 12:15 states, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Hebrews 10:23-24 again says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” It is the responsibility of the church members, then, to help pull up any weed of dissention and to stir one another to faith and good works (i.e, holiness) so that “no one misses the grace of God.”
Not only do the church members actively press each other to faith and good works, but they are also tasked with pushing out unholiness. It is the church members who are tasked with enacting discipline on members who have fallen into sin (Matt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:12-13). The idea of a church actively punishing sin seems harsh, but as F. F. Bruce argues, “If some incipient sin manifests itself in [the church’s] midst, it must be eradicated at once; if it is tolerated, this is a sure way of falling short of God’s grace, for the whole community will then be contaminated.” Church discipline is necessary to protect and remedy the members from the poison of sin.
How does it benefit church members to have a church body keep watch over each other’s souls and enact discipline when necessary? After all, the thought of dozens of other believers having a vested interest in your spiritual life could set anyone’s teeth on edge. But the church is not your 11th grade civics teacher who hides behind corners to see if he can catch you with gum in your mouth. The church functions as a parent, helping to guide, correct, push, and sometimes discipline us so that we may purse Christ and holiness. The goal of watchful care and discipline is for the church member to grow in Christlikeness.
With casual membership, how does the church keep up with “members” enough to know the state of their spiritual life? How can a church discipline a member in sin (with the goal of repentance and grace) if that member only shows up to church every so often? On a more personal note, how can you help your brother and sisters in Christ be more Christlike if you don’t even know their last name? How can the church help you to be more Christlike if you are not willing to help the church be Christlike?
4. Church Members are to care for their pastors. Lastly for our list, the church members have a special responsibility to care for and honor their pastors. Paul instructs church members to respect their leaders and hold them to high esteem (1 Thess. 5:12-13), to be slow to bring charges against elders (1 Tim. 5:19), to imitate the faith of their elders (Heb. 13:7), to provide material support for their elders (1 Cor. 9:14, Gal. 6:6), to pray for their pastors (Eph. 6:19, Col. 3:4), and to obey and submit to their authority (Heb. 13:17). Church members do not just sacrificially love and serve other church members, but they love and serve the pastors whom God has appointed to shepherd over them (1 Pet. 5:2).
Again, how can a shepherd care for a sheep that refuses to actually be a part of the flock? If the members of the church are only casually associated with the church as a whole, who is standing in the gap for our pastors? Who is providing for our pastors as they set about the ministry of the world? How will we be fed with the gospel if we do not listen to our pastors? How will we be pushed into holiness if we recoil at any guidance from our pastors? Casual church members must be convinced that they are sheep who need no shepherd, since they are not committed to loving and being loved by the undershepherd that God has appointed to protect us until he returns or calls us home.
Meaningful Membership at Emmaus
This is the portrait that the Bible paints of Biblical, meaningful church membership. It is our conviction at Emmaus that we are to carefully hang this portrait in our own house, taking the principles that the Bible requires of members and applying it to our own context.
So, what does meaningful membership look like at Emmaus?
1. Emmaus members are expected to come to church. We take serious the charge to not neglect meeting together. When new members sign our church covenant, they sign to commit to “pursue spiritual growth…through worship gatherings.” Obviously we do not have a running ledger of who comes how many times, but if it is noticed that a member has missed either several weeks in a row or regularly over a noticeable length of time, the church will reach out to them to find out if there are needs that need to be met, or sin to be dealt with.
2. Emmaus members are expected to live sacrificially for one another. At Emmaus, one of the primary ways that we serve one another is the context of a community group. By joining a community group, members are able to pray for one another, serve one another, bear one another’s burdens, and fulfill many of the other “one another” commands in small, intimate settings which serve as microcosms of the whole church.
Another way that members serve one another is by volunteering. Every member of Emmaus is expected to serve on a team that helps to make our Sunday morning gatherings successful, whether it’s in the band, as a barista, or serving in the kids ministry.
3. Emmaus members are expected to watch out for one another. Unlike the church contexts that many of us grew up in, members of Emmaus are expected to take a vested interest in the lives of their fellow church members – especially in the lives of their small group members. Emmaus members are expected to pray for one another, confess sin to one another, love one another, and, if needed, correct one another. Correcting one another is often awkward and painful, but the end result is so beautiful that it makes the awkwardness and pain worth the while, because there is a special beauty in a believer becoming aware of sin, repenting of that sin, and enjoying anew the grace of Jesus.
4. Emmaus members are expected to be easy sheep to shepherd. New Emmaus members also covenant to obey and submit to our elders. Again, this may seem weird or scary, but it’s important to remember that our pastors are ordained by God to care for us until Jesus returns. We are commanded to honor, respect, care for, and pray for them while being easy sheep to shepherded – and lest the idea of being an easy sheep seems daunting, if you are committed to coming to church, loving your fellow church members, watching out over your fellow church members, and loving and obeying your pastors then rest assured, you will be an easy sheep.
At Emmaus we wish to cultivate an understanding of membership that does justice to both the actual benefits and the responsibilities that are inherent with church membership. Membership is neither casual nor selfish, but is instead an intentional, selfless giving of oneself to a church family. May we consider membership to Emmaus with the same consideration that Christ considers Emmaus, and the whole church, when he gave himself up for her.
Jake Rainwater is the Director of Membership and a pastoral resident at Emmaus. He attends Midwestern Seminary where he is pursuing a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages. Jake is married to his high school sweet heart, Tabitha. They have a Great Dane named Scotland. Follow him on Twitter at @JakeRainwater
If you did not see our announcement on Monday, Emmaus Church is moving to North Kansas City (NKC) this summer! We are incredibly excited about this opportunity. I’ve had several people ask me why we are moving, so I thought I would take the opportunity to share that with you briefly.
Emmaus is a Growing Church
We planted Emmaus in 2015 with a few dozen people. Today, Emmaus is averaging just under a couple hundred. The last two years have seen growth, and one thing keeping us from continued growth at this point is space. This move allows us to double our worship capacity and remain in one service at this time! We have considered remaining where we are and moving to two services, and we have looked at other options as well. At the end of the day though, those options continued to have closed doors for either logistical or philosophical reasons. NKC, however, continues to have an ever-wider open door. We are excited to double our space and continue to reach people in the Northland.
Emmaus is a Church for the Northland
When we planted, we planted in the community of Parkville. Our desire was to reach the people of Parkville with the gospel. That is still our desire! We can say that because when we planted we were not only planting to reach Parkville, but the Northland. If you are not familiar with that term, the Northland is everything north of the Missouri River in Kansas City). Parkville is part of the Northland, and so is NKC. God has brought Emmaus members from every corner of the Northland, and by moving to NKC we are centrally locating our gathering location for all of the Northland. With 5 interstates and highways flowing through NKC, we will be under an 18 minute drive from anywhere in the northland. Our members will gather together in the center of our region to worship Jesus each Sunday and then will be sent back out to their corner of our region with the gospel to be missionaries in their communities throughout the week.
Screenland Theatre is a Unique Gathering Space
Our new location is the Screenland Armour Theatre building on Armour Road in NKC. The Screenland is not going out of business. In fact, their business is doing very well. We will be renting the theatre from them on Sunday mornings. This is costing us less money than renting a school, requires less setup and provides a great gathering space for our church.
In addition to the Screenland theatre, our kids and office space is located in the same building. This will be permanent space to meet in throughout the week, and we do not have to leave the building for our kids ministry on Sundays. This unique blend of permanent and mobile setup fits our church well.
One of the most confirming aspects of this move is that we were able to secure all of this space for less money than we have currently be paying for half the space.
North Kansas City is a Unique Community for our Church
Emmaus is a young church organizationally and individually. We often joke that if you are 30-35 you are middle age and if you are 35+ you are a senior adult at our church. That makes yours truly a senior adult. (I’d like my discount please). Our people are a people who care greatly about social needs, community investment, racial reconciliation, refugee relocation and sharing the gospel with those who are not believers in Jesus. NKC is a community that offers a plethora of opportunity for our people to engage in these issues. NKC is becoming the urban hub of the Northland. With restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and more opening up almost weekly, it is an area that is gaining the attention and presence of people from all walks of life. The racial diversity is greater than in many Northland communities and the socio-economic diversity is even greater. I believe that God has uniquely gifted Emmaus members with the ability and the desire to immerse themselves in a community like NKC in order to see it flourish while also reaching their own communities throughout the week.
This is Part 4 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week, we looked at the Corporate and Private Confession, the Assurance of Pardon and the Song of Thanksgiving. This week we conclude our study by turning our attention to the Sermon, Communion, the final Song of Response and the Benediction.
Since the bulk of our time gathered is actually spent here, I hardly think it’s necessary to elaborate extensively on the purpose and centrality of the preaching event. I do think it’s important, however, to point out that the sermon is not just an act of worship for the preacher, it is an active demonstration of worship from the congregation as well. We are not merely passively listening while the pastor worships in front of us, we are actively submitting ourselves to the Word preached, and as such, are performing an act of worship. In this event, the pastor is reading, preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and in the act, he is standing as an ambassador of God, stewarding his message for his church. This means that to the degree the pastor is faithfully expositing the text, and to the degree he is faithfully communicating God’s will and God’s heart with his explanations and exhortations, God is speaking through him. As such, a tremendous amount of humility and reverence is required by the pastor (can you imagine a weightier responsibility than heralding God’s Word? There isn’t one!), but also by the congregation.
Communion is one of the clearest acts of obedience a Christian can participate in (1 Cor. 11:23-26, Matt. 26:26-28), and is one of two central signs a Christian can identify with as a Christian (baptism being the other). Communion is also a potent reenactment of the gospel; every broken piece of bread testifies to the broken body of Jesus, and every drop from the cup testifies to the shed blood of Jesus, and every person who consumes the bread and drink is a testimony to the saving work that Jesus accomplished at the cross.
So the essential elements of communion visually demonstrate the gospel, but also, the corporate act of communion depicts what the gospel does—namely, it creates the Church. Every time we take communion as an entire body, we are uniting ourselves around the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. Such a unifying act is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ; it declares, “This is what Christ’s body was broken for, this what Christ’s costly blood purchased; it purchased a Church.” Try to keep this in mind when you take communion next week. Often we’re tempted to make communion an ultra-personal time of introspection, but it’s a command that can only be carried out by a corporate body. You can’t take communion by yourself. So rather than going introspective, try to look up, and take note at what communion represents: each of those people who tear and dip and consume are trophies of God’s grace—each having his or her own distinct story—and they all collectively make a masterfully crafted mosaic. Often you will find individuals who may have nothing in common to speak of, save Jesus Christ, taking communion side-by-side, thereby testifying to the divine engineering; only God could build the Church, and when we take communion, we testify of this.
Lastly, when we take communion as a body, we are not only looking back at what Christ has done on the cross, and we are not only looking to the present at the Church God is building, we are also looking forward to heaven. This world, as it now stands, is not our home. We are looking forward to our heavenly homeland. Yet every local Church is like a heavenly embassy; gathering together on Sunday morning rightly feels a little bit like coming home. Yet such a gathering is marked with a hint of longing. We long for the day when our communion with one another isn’t merely a weekly visit on a heavenly embassy which exists in an alien country. Right now we gather weekly, but in that day we will worship in the presence of God forever. Right now we offer prayers and thanksgiving and intercession, and all of our rejoicing is co-opted with sorrow, but in that day King Jesus will wipe away every tear. Right now we eat (sometimes) stale bread and drink store-bought grape juice, but in that day we will celebrate the massive, cosmic, wedding feast of the Lamb! Communion aids us in this worshipful longing, in which we simultaneously enjoy God for what he has done, and look longingly and confidently for what God has promised to do.
Song of Response
The song of response is again, a logical step. Remember in my second post, I explained how worship is comprised of revelation and response. At this point of the service, we have just finished basking in the revelation of several Scripture readings, Scripture-filled songs, an exposition and proclamation of Scripture, and the visual proclamation of Scripture’s central message (the gospel, as seen in the act of taking communion); in other words, we are fat from gorging ourselves on revelation. Response, at this point, is almost demanded by our souls! So, in this last song, we gladly oblige that impulse.
In this last element, we conclude our services with an act of at least prayer and teaching (and often, if the benediction is directly from Scripture, we also fulfill the command for public Scripture reading). The benediction is both a challenge to obey the Word that has just been preached, and a petition to God for blessing in that endeavor. In the benediction, we ask for the grace of God to pursue godliness in in the coming week.
At Emmaus, we believe that the central message of the entire Bible is the Gospel. Thus, if we are truly subscribing to the Regulative Principle (the principle that insists on only including only that which Scripture commands for corporate worship) we will not only ensure that our services consist of prayer, song, reading Scripture, teaching/preaching Scripture and the ordinances (communion and baptism), if we are truly subscribing the Regulative Principle, we will do all of these things with a distinct emphasis on the centrality of the Gospel—a Gospel-tone will permeate; such an emphasis is what biblical fidelity looks like.
Thus, as you may have even noticed already, our liturgy loosely mirrors the gospel itself!
- Creation—in the beginning, God (call to worship)
- Fall—enter sin and its devastating effects (confession)
- Redemption—Christ comes, nailing sin to the cross and burying it in the grave! (assurance of pardon)
- Restoration—Christ is making all things new (song of thanksgiving/sermon)
- Consummation—we eagerly await the return of our Lord (communion)
In all of this, we want every person who participates in our liturgy to walk away deeply impressed by Jesus. This is why we say every week, “We want you to leave this place more in love with Jesus than when you walked in.” Those comments are simply cheap platitudes, they are the heartbeat of our Church, and the proof is in the why and how of our corporate worship.
This is Part 3 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week we looked at the Call to Worship, the Song of Praise, the Scripture Reading and the Songs of Response. This week we will look at Corporate and Private Confession, the Assurance of Pardon and the Song of Response.
Simply put, we confess corporately for at least three primary reasons:
(1) after reading about, and singing about, the glorious, holy, Triune God, and all that he has accomplished in the gospel, we are compelled to confess our sins. The gospel works itself out in our lives, and as we meditate on what God has done in Christ to interrupt our sin and rebellion and helpless, to die the death we should have died, and to bring us into his Father’s family as brothers and sisters, one of the works of the gospel is ongoing repentance. There is a contrast between who God is and who we are, and with the clearest view of that contrast—with a full awareness of the fact that we often persist in faithlessness despite God’s unshakable faithfulness—we repent. However, this kind of repentance isn’t a shame-filled, guilt-ridden kind which leaves groveling criminals trembling for fear of what the judge’s verdict might be, but a hopeful and genuinely sorrowful kind of repentance, which leaves a child humbly heart-broken over the fact that he has disobeyed his father.
(2) the whole of a Christian’s life is marked by continued repentance. We want for our corporate gatherings to, in a way, be a microcosm of the Christian life. Confessing and repenting corporately is a way for us to set a precedence and an expectation for what we do as a Church. We are teaching one another what kind of people we are—namely, that we are a confessing people; a people who bear their sins to one another and to God; a people who do not hide their sin but rather search for it, bring it out into clear daylight, and execute it in public; a people who never despise weakness and neediness on the one hand, and who never minimize the sinfulness of sin on the other. In confessing corporately, not only are we praying corporately (one of the necessary biblical mandates you will recall from a previous post), we are teaching each other what to do with sin—i.e., we shamelessly bring it to Jesus, the only one who can actually deal with it.
And (3) when we corporately confess our sins to God, with one mind and heart, we are owning the fact that we are not the hero of the story. Don’t miss the counterintuitive irony about the situation: after three songs of singing with hands in the air, bellowing with loud triumphant-sounding voices, we decide to corporately admit our failures and our neediness, and confess our sins to God. Our community is an oxymoron. It is an army of soldiers who fight by dying. We proudly come together to sing about how weak and desperate we are. With boldness and shameless enthusiasm, we are united by our utter allegiance to—and dependence upon—a King who conquers by being conquered. This is the folly of the cross, the power of God unto salvation, and it is helpful to be reminded of this fact week after week. Corporate confession is thus a corporate exercise in humility.
After we confess our sins corporately, we allow for such an act to set in and do the work on us at the individual level. This extended period of private, silent meditation is intended to be a period of unearthing. Week after week, we come together as a people who have been battered and bruised by sin (be it sins we see, sins committed against us, or sins we commit ourselves), and this period of the service is an opportunity—within the context of corporate worship—to do business with God. I fully expect that through the course of the preceding liturgical elements (call to worship, Scripture reading, corporate songs, corporate confession), God has been at work convicting his people and revealing idols. Because of this, it is important that we have the opportunity to respond to such conviction and revelation. So in private confession, we do just that.
Assurance of Pardon
The assurance of pardon is even more important than the confession itself, for it is the outright promise that those in Christ have a rock-solid justification. Despite the subjective reality of what we may be feeling when we confess our sins, the assurance of pardon reminds us that an objective reality has been holding us secure throughout—if we are in Christ, we are forgiven. In this way, the person who is leading the liturgy is speaking as an ambassador of Christ to administer priestly comfort and peace, and it is not presumptuous either, for the entire declaration is predicated not on the speaker, but on Christ and his atoning work. In this way, the assurance of pardon fits both under the command to read the Scripture, but also to teach/preach the Scripture; the speaker not only reads the text, he goes on to apply its various implications to the believers present (“your sins are forgiven through Christ!”).
Recently, I had a member ask me why we typically don’t give any warning with the assurance of pardon. “When you start reading Scripture, I’m not really sure what the procedure is,” he said, “like, are we still praying or not?” The abruptness of the assurance of pardon is, as you might expect, intentional. Why do we not say “amen” before administering the assurance of pardon? Simply this: we want for you to be interrupted by grace. We want for the very first thing you hear, almost in a disruptive sort of way, to be God’s gracious words of assurance for those who have been united to Christ by faith. This is, in and of itself, an opportunity for us to demonstrate the gospel once more; God did not wait for us to clean ourselves up and make ourselves presentable before taking it upon himself to redeem us, rather he came while we were still weak and enemies. Likewise, I have no intention of waiting to administer the assurance of pardon until after the congregation has divulged all of its sins to God. I want the congregation to hear the grace of God drowning out their sins like a bear-horn while their confessions are still on their lips. This why the assurance of pardon will often include something like, “those sins that you have just confessed, are already forgiven in Christ. They have been nailed to the cross and buried in the grave, and you are one with the resurrected Christ!”
Song of Thanksgiving
Does anything make more sense than this? I mean honestly, when we’ve just been interrupted with such grace—when we’ve had such a declaration of God’s kindness showered upon us as a people—singing a song of thanksgiving is just about the most logical thing we could do. So this song is typically one of the most explicitly gospel-rich songs we sing.
Next week we will continue our exploration of Emmaus’ liturgy by looking at the Sermon, Communion, the final Song of Response, and the Benediction.
This is Part 2 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week, I wrote a piece in which I developed our rationale, as a Church, for the primary elements of our corporate worship service. In this article, we’ll begin dissect each element in our actual liturgy.
Having looked at the governing principle behind our corporate worship services last week, I now want to shift our focus to address each of the particular elements in our weekly service. If you’ve spent any time at Emmaus, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that there’s a very predictable routine we go through every week. All of our services begin and end the exact same way, and there are a handful of things we do that are never absent. This routine is what we mean when we say liturgy, and every element matters. In reality, even “non-liturgical” Churches have liturgies—more times than not, it’s merely a liturgy that is absent-mindedly adopted. Opening song. Announcements. Greet your “neighbor.” Pass the bucket for tithe offerings. Two more songs. Sermon. Response song.
At Emmaus, we don’t want to do anything absent-mindedly; we want to have an explicitly biblical, gospel-drenched reason for everything that we do. In fact, when Pastor Josh, Pastor Ronni and Pastor Kevin were originally crafting the liturgical structure of our services, long before we began to even worship on a regular basis, they were pushed back to the drawing board on several occasions for the same resounding impulse: we need more gospel.
So at present, our services follow the following liturgical format:
• Call to Worship
• Song of Praise
• Scripture Reading
• Songs of Response
• Corporate Confession
• Private Confession
• Assurance of Pardon
• Song of Thanksgiving
• Song of Response
Below, I’ve broken down each element of our liturgy to explain we repeat such an activity week by week, and how it is intended to adorn the gospel.
Call to Worship
This is what begins our service. Of course, we often arrive before the call to worship to enjoy the company of one another, and on most weeks one of our pastors will make announcements, but the formal service doesn’t start until the call to worship. Why do we start this way? Because worship is essentially comprised of two elements: revelation and response. Worship is the act of responding to that which has been revealed. So if we truly gather together with the intention of worshiping our Triune God, we need see Him first! This is why the call to worship is always a Scripture reading. God has revealed himself through his Word, and if we intend to see Him—so that we can respond appropriately—we must look there.
The call to worship is also an act of mutual upbuilding. We are calling ourselves, and each other, to fix our eyes on God to see how glorious he is! It’s us saying to one another, “God is glorious and worthy of praise! Look at him! Isn’t he glorious and worthy of praise?! Yes! He is glorious and worthy of praise, so let’s praise him for his glory!” This is why the person leading in the call to worship will begin the call as an address to the congregation, and then the congregation will join the call as an address to the congregation and to God. We are starting with God, and unifying our voices around him in such a way that we are corporately affirming his worth to be the center of our attention.
So in the call to worship, we are simultaneously declaring to God that we consider Him worthy of the praise we are about to ascribe to Him, and we are asking for him to “incline [our hearts] to [his] testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” (Psalm 119:36). The call to worship is intrinsically a de-centering act; we are communicating from the outset that our gathering is about ascribing worth to God, not merely pleasing ourselves.
Song of Praise
After a call to worship, how could we not respond with a song of praise? This song is typically a song that intentionally focuses on the bigness of God. We are praising him for one of his divine attributes; his holiness, his power to create the cosmos or deliver his people, his unfathomable love, etc. It is a massive, unimaginably glorious God we have just been called to worship, so we gladly do just that. I’m tempted to go off into a tangent here about reverence, but I’ll simply say this: there is a reason why we rage against “glibness” in our services. You will find zero vanity in our songs. Joy? Yes. Exuberance? Absolutely. Cheesiness, presumption, or triviality? God forbid it! Why? Because we are worshiping God. If our songs aren’t marked by a palpable gravity, we may not be worshipping God. He has told us that acceptable worship in his sight is packaged in “reverence and awe,” (Heb. 12:28-29) so we dare not offer him anything less.
Again, this is supposed to be a central element for the gathered Church, so we want to do it often. Why read an extended package here, after the first song and before the second? Simply this: we want for Scripture to actually, functionally direct our service. It would be easy to read a passage of Scripture at the beginning, take credit for having a “biblically-based” service, and then run off and do whatever we please with the remainder of our time. But that’s not what we want. Rather, we want to sandwich our Scripture-filled songs with Scripture readings, Scriptural preaching and Scriptural obeying. In other words, we read right here in the service to indicate that Scripture isn’t merely the foundation of our service, it comprises the content of our service.
Song(s) of Response
Again, after we’ve read about this glorious God and what he has done, we are compelled to express his worth through song, so we’ll typically sing two more songs here. These songs may be songs of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, or just meditations on the gospel. In any case, we want for all of our services to be marked by bloody songs that adorn Jesus, and this is often a great place to embody such a commitment.
Next week we will continue our exploration of Emmaus’ liturgy by looking at Corporate and Private Confession, Assurance of Pardon, and the Song of Thanksgiving.
This is Part 1 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. This article will consist of our rationale, as a Church, for the primary elements of our corporate worship service, and Parts 2 through 4 will dissect each element in our actual liturgy.
In a recent sermon that Pastor Josh preached on Leviticus, I was reminded afresh why we worship the way that we do here at Emmaus. In this sermon, Josh summarized the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10—the story of Aaron’s two sons who tried to worship God in an unauthorized way and were immediately struck dead for their presumptuous thinking. How arrogant is was for them to think that they were entitled to innovate ways of approaching God distinct from the meticulous prescription God had graciously given. “I told you how I desire to be worshipped,” God was saying, “if you truly desire to express your love and adoration for me in worship, you would simply obey my commands.” In this story we are given a stark picture of the holiness of God—we dare not approach him flippantly by any means other than those which he has provided.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with how we conduct our worship gatherings at Emmaus? Could Sam really be saying that if we were to change the way we order our services, fire would come down from heaven and consume the Church? No, I am not saying that at all. In fact, the most relevant application of this story for 21st century Christians has to do not with our corporate gatherings, but with the exclusivity of Christ. This story tells us that God provides the means for communing with him, and a healthy fear of his holiness ought to compel us to stick to those means. In Leviticus 10, the means were the preceding (and proceeding) instructions for animal blood-sacrifices and ritualistic cleansings. Today, the means is the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:19-25). The primary application, therefore, is this: don’t you dare try to commune with God by virtue of anything but the blood of Jesus Christ—if you try to predicate your intimacy with this God on anything but the blood of the Lamb (your works, your sincerity, your piety, etc.), you are committing the same sin as Nadab and Abihu.
This is why we exhort one another so often to come to Christ with empty hands; to self-justify your hearing before God with your own works is not only foolish (you could never do enough to justify a hearing before such a holy God), it’s also blasphemous. It’s tantamount to saying that what you offer is better than (or improves upon) the blood of Jesus.
However, there is a secondary application to this story, which goes along with the first. At the very least, Leviticus 10 tells us that God cares about how people worship him. This is why we, as a church, generally identify with what theologians call the “Regulative Principle” of worship. This simply means that we want for Scripture to regulate not just the who of corporate worship, but the how of corporate worship. And by “regulate,” I don’t simply mean, “define what’s off limits.” Rather, I’m saying that Scripture has told us what Christians are to do when they gather together to worship, and as a principle, we are committed to doing only what Scripture commands.
And what does Scripture command for New Testament believers to do corporately? We are commanded to:
- Read the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13)
- Teach/Preach the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13, 2 Tim. 4:1-2)
- Pray (1 Tim. 2:1, Acts 2:42, 4:23-31)
- Sing (Col. 3:12-17)
- Participate in Communion/Baptism (1 Cor. 11:23-34, Acts 2:38, Matt. 28:19)
That’s it. That’s what we should be doing when we gather together corporately. Our liturgy should not include anything that doesn’t fit comfortably inside those five corporate commands. And by “comfortably,” I mean that we shouldn’t try to squeeze movie clips, dance routines, or that guy who throws paint on a canvas to depict what looks like nothing at all until he flips it right-side-up to reveal he was actually painting a very Caucasian Jesus, into the category of “teaching/preaching Scripture.” There’s not a single quote from The Office, for example, that could ever be followed up with “thus sayeth the Lord!”; a clip of The Office would be totally out of step with the purpose of the corporate worship gathering
Now, some churches may venture outside of these five elements that the New Testament explicitly commands. They may even do so without shifting from the gospel as their central point of emphasis. Should such churches anticipate facing a similar fate as Nadab and Abihu? I don’t think so. But I do think they are wrong not to subscribe to the Regulative Principle for three reasons.
This Is God’s Church
The Regulative Principle fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to God, while the alternative fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to the congregation (or, more often, the leadership of the congregation). God purchased the church with his own blood, and has subsequently placed her under the stewardship of elders (Acts 20:28). This means that church leaders cannot do with their flocks as they please, they do not own their churches. Emmaus does not belong to our pastors, she belongs to Jesus Christ. The regulative principle establishes an impulse among our Church leaders to ask, “What would the owner of this Church like for us to do?” I do not think the same could be said of the alternative principle, which merely looks to Scripture for prohibitions and then leaves the church to operate according to the whims of popular opinion or the fleeting charisma of personalities.
God’s Church Is Governed By God’s Word
The Regulative Principle reinforces the conviction that Christians live their lives positively directed by the Word of God, rather than merely guarded by the prohibitions of God’s Word. The alternative principle, in my estimation, inherently reinforces the natural sinful perspective that Christianity can be defined by what people are not allowed to do, and that life is ultimately to be governed according the autonomous whims of the individual. Conversely, the Regulative Principle is an object lesson in and of itself, teaching that Scripture does not merely set boundaries for how Christians should not live, but also directs Christians positively for how they should live. In other words, the Regulative Principle aids in the command to “let the word of Christ dwell richly in [the corporate midst].” (Colossians 1:16)
God Cares about How We Worship
The regulative principle assumes that God actually cares about how he is worshiped. Though our means of approaching God (the shed blood of Jesus) and Nadab and Abihu’s means of approaching God (the Levitical priestly offerings) are different, the God we are worshiping is one and the same, and thus the manner in which we worship him should be the same (i.e., with reverence and special attention to what he has said about proper worship). Further, Leviticus tells us what kind of God he is. He is a gracious God who provides what he requires (a means), and he is a holy God who cares about how he is worshiped.
On the cusp of the New Covenant’s arrival, Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23) Notice, he does not say that the Father is seeking worshipers who worship him “however they see fit.” We want to look to the Word of God to see what Christ means when he says “in truth.” If we begin with self, and then merely look to Scripture for approval or disapproval, we do not cast the appropriate shroud of suspicion on the preferences of sinners—even if we are sinners who are saved by grace.
For these reasons, we have structured our service to hang only on that which Scripture commands. Next week, we’ll carefully dissect each element of our liturgy and explore the various purposes of our liturgical format.