For most of the thirty three years I’ve been involved with Sovereign Grace churches we’ve had a fairly free and simple liturgy. Singing, welcome/announcements/offering, sermon, ministry time.
While simple liturgies have some advantages, there are good reasons to consider including liturgical elements that have been used in church gatherings for centuries. One of those is the call to worship.
I remember being less inclined to use a call to worship after reading Harold Best’s thoughts years ago in his insightful book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith:
There can only be one call to worship, and this comes at conversion, when in complete repentance we admit to worshiping falsely, trapped by the inversion and enslaved to false gods before whom we have been dying sacrifices. This call to true worship comes but once, not every Sunday, in spite of the repeated calls to worship that begin most liturgies and orders of worship. These should not be labeled calls to worship but calls to continuation of worship. We do not go to church to worship, but, already at worship, we join our brothers and sisters in continuing those actions that should have been going on – privately, familially, or even corporately – all week long. (p. 147)
Yes, there is only one call to worship. But since we planted Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville nearly two years ago, we’ve begun each meeting with a call to worship. Why? Here’s the way we’ve thought through it as a pastoral team.
Every Beginning Says Something
There are different ways of letting people know the meeting is starting. Some churches run a countdown video. Others have the band kick in to the first song (our practice for decades). Some churches find it effective to have some kind of warm up song before the meeting actually starts. They may or may not invite the congregation to sing along. Some churches begin with a friendly welcome by a leader, and other churches open with announcements. But every beginning communicates meaning, sets an atmosphere and leads people to expect something.
The church is the ekklesia, the “called out ones.” When we gather as God’s people we are being called away from other pursuits to worship God together in a specific place and time. We can worship God indirectly as we play soccer through good sportsmanship and serving others. But we worship him more directly on Sunday mornings as we gather to sing, pray, hear God’s Word preached, and share the Lord’s supper.
A call to worship tells us the meeting has begun, but it communicates much more than that. It emphasizes the primacy of God’s Word, who has called us together, and what we’ve come to do.
The call to worship God can only come from God himself. Few things make that clearer than starting our meeting with Scripture. While we can certainly read it from our phone or iPad, it communicates something more focused and lasting when we read from a physical Bible we hold in our hands.
A call to worship reminds us that coming together isn’t our initiative. We didn’t think this up. God is the one who has called us out of the world to rehearse the gospel in his presence for his glory and our good through the power of his Spirit. That should encourage us to engage fully with God because we come by invitation, not presumption, through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ.
Finally, we come together for a specific purpose. After a week when we’ve been tempted to worship money, relationships, control, sensuality, and ourselves, a call to worship God wakes us up to the fact that we are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:11), that there is one true God, that he deserves to be exalted in our minds, hearts and wills, that he calls us together so that we might build each other up, and that that’s what we’ve gathered to do. As Bryan Chapell writes in his excellent book, Christ-Centered Worship:
With a scriptural Call to Worship, God invites us by his Word to join the worship of the ages and angels. God does not simply invite us to a party of friends, or a lecture on religion, or a concert of sacred music – he invites us into the presence of the King of the Universe before whom all creation will bow and for whom all heaven now sings. (p. 160)
Finding the Right Scriptures
We typically use verses that are brief and immediately understandable, like Ps. 111:1-2 or Ps. 95:1-3. The Psalms are a common source for a call to worship, but we use other passages as well, including Is. 55:1; Phil. 2:9-11; Is. 35:3-6; and Lam. 3:22-23. It’s wise to use Scriptures that not only exhort us to worship God, but give a reason why. It can be helpful to briefly comment on the call to worship but it shouldn’t require a teaching. And psalms calling for judgment on the wicked may not stir your congregation to faith. The topic of the call to worship can be drawn from the previous week’s sermon/theme, point towards the message that’s going to be preached that day, or simply be a broader exhortation. We always make sure that the first song flows thematically out of the call to worship.
A Place for Variety
The call to worship can be done by a senior pastor, another pastor, or the lead musician. This past Sunday we had the whole congregation read Psalm 33:1-5. Whoever does it, it should be done confidently, passionately, and audibly. Projecting the call to worship or printing it in the bulletin can emphasize its importance. At times we’ve also had a musical call to worship, using songs like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, 10,000 Reasons, or Praise to the Lord the Almighty that are rooted in Scripture.
What if No One is There?
A typical church has about half its members there when the meeting actually starts. We want to do everything we can to help people see that both the church and they themselves are affected negatively when they’re not present at the call to worship. Regular reminders can help, whether from the lead musician, service leader, or pastor. We’ll also typically have the band play briefly before the actual call to worship, just to alert people that the meeting is about to start.
It can take time to help people see the importance of being there at the start of the meeting, but it’s worth the effort. Every moment God’s people gather together in his presence can be of eternal significance. Let’s not waste them.