A worship service is the name given to a gathering of the church community where we give special attention to recognising and affirming the presence of God.
A typical worship service occurs in a church building, but faith communities can gather just about anywhere—at the beach, in a coffee shop, or in people’s homes. Worship services also usually involve the following: community singing and praying; reading from the Bible and seeking to understand its message; breaking bread together through the ritual of Holy Communion; and offering our collective gifts and resources in order to help others in the community.
The Uniting Church is a very diverse collective of worshipping congregations and faith communities. Each congregation will have its own culture and customs. The old adage of wearing your “Sunday best” to church tends to belong to a by-gone era.
For the most part, people tend to dress for church in much the same way they would for a family restaurant. For some people this might mean the informality of jeans and a t-shirt, for other people it might mean dressing up with a shirt and tie. Uniting Churches are welcoming communities who will accept you no matter what you are wearing.
Communication theorists tell us that we express ourselves more through body language than we do with our words. In a church service this might mean that at different times people bow their heads and close their eyes as an act of reverence and respect. At other times people might clap their hands in jubilation and appreciation. Sometime people kneel in order to convey humility, or raise their hands to signal honour and praise to God.
For some church communities, the lively way they express themselves in a worship service reflects the energy and joy they bring to their understanding of faith. For other communities, they may seem more sombre and reflective because their understanding of faith is more contemplative.
The Uniting Church in Australia is part of a church tradition that dates back 500 years to a period called the Reformation. Historic documents from this time are still revered within the Uniting Church and are considered of great importance. So too are some of the songs that are sung. Music has a way of helping us remember our history in ways that are community forming and not just cognitive.
When we go to the football we may sing our team song—something that is quite dated—and yet something that reminds us about who we are as a community of supporters. Not all songs that are sung in church are hymns, and not all hymns are old or traditional. Most Uniting Churches use a variety of music and songs to shape our worship and enliven our faith.
Some ministers and leaders in the Uniting Church choose to wear a special white robe (called an alb) and a special sash (or stole). These special items of clothing are part of the Christian tradition of ordered worship and date back to the birth of the Christian church.
The alb is a simple garment that represents anonymity on behalf of the wearer. The idea is that people in the congregation will not be distracted by the clothing style of the leader. It is a white colour in order to represent Baptism in Christ: purity and grace.
Anyone who leads a service of worship in the Uniting Church is welcome to wear an alb, but it is entirely up to the individual whether they choose to do so. There are three special sashes that can also be worn by those leading worship. There is a Blue Scarf for people who are pastors or leaders who are not ordained.
There is a Stole for ordained Ministers of the Word (ministers who predominantly work in congregational and church settings), and there is a Sash for those who are ordained Deacons (ministers who predominantly work in community contexts). These too are optional and are representative of the role that the leader plays in the life of the faith community.
In a worship service, the word liturgy is given to the order or structure of the worship proceedings. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek “leitourgia” and means “work of the people”. In ancient times a work of liturgy was a public work, by or for, the people.
When a rich benefactor dug a well for the townspeople—that was considered a liturgical act. With this in mind, liturgy is considered a gift for the people of the gathered community. And, as people participate together in liturgy, it is also considered their gift to and for one another. Every worship service has a liturgy—some are more formal and traditional, others are more contemporary and informal.
Some liturgies involve people reciting words in an ordered response to special promptings from the worship leader. This can feel a little bit like a wedding service, or an ANZAC Day service where the gathered community recites words together that are considered of great importance (lest we forget). Moments like these remind us that we are not alone in what we believe, or what we hope for. At the end of a corporate prayer when people respond with the word Amen, they are declaring their affirmation of what has been prayed.
Different Uniting Churches will have different customs and practices in their worship services. Most Uniting Churches who use a responsive liturgy will either have a written handout for people to read, or will use an overhead projector with a PowerPoint presentation.
Your level of participation in worship is entirely up to you. Some people are quite vocal in their responses—others are quiet and reflective. The first time you go to a cricket match or a netball game can also be a bit confusing if you are not familiar with the rules.
Church can seem a bit like that too at first. But the more you participate—the greater sense of belonging you will feel. In the end, liturgy is all about belonging. As we participate, even if we don’t fully understand what is going on, we will begin to be shaped by the worshipping life of the community around us.
Just like knowing “what to say and when to say it”—“sitting down and standing up” are simply part of the worshipping customs and practices of the local congregation. Most congregations will probably stand up to sing—but not all congregations will do this.
If you are unsure it’s probably best just to watch what others are doing and join in. In the end, if you end up standing when others are sitting, or vice versa, no one is going to make a big deal of it. We have all been there at one time or another.
A sermon is a special kind of proclamation that directly relates to the scripture reading that has taken place during the service. At first it can seem like a time of teaching or sharing or reflecting—but it is more than that.
Just like it is a different experience to see a live musical performance rather than listen to a recording, or it is a different experience to stand before Uluru, rather than looking at a picture, so too, a special transaction takes place during a sermon between the one who is speaking and the people who are listening.
Christians believe that Christ is present in a special way when the Word is preached. This can be a time of encouragement or correction for the faith community; it can be a time of healing or hope. It is usually the minister or leader of the congregation who preaches, but others may also be invited to share in this special ministry.
The sermon is not above reproach—it should always be critically reflected upon. In this way the congregation has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the sermons that are shared, and to keep preachers accountable for what they say.
The Christian tradition has a special ritual or sacrament whereby a meal of bread and wine/juice is shared among believers. This is a way of remembering the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples before he died. In doing so, we also remember Jesus’ promise that he is always with us.
This meal is known by a number of different names: Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist (meaning thanksgiving). This is a special ritual that holds great significance for Christians. In some denominations, only Baptised believers or church members are allowed to participate.
The Uniting Church respects these different traditions but chooses to practice what is called an “open table”. This means that even though we recognise that traditionally this meal is understood as a sacrament for those who are Baptised, in the Uniting Church all are invited to participate, and it is up to each individual how they respond.
The Uniting Church believes that Holy Communion is a meal that does not belong to the church. We believe that it is Jesus Christ who invites us to join together around His table. This can be done in a variety of different ways and each church will direct its congregation according to their local practice. But no one will ever be refused communion. If you are unsure of what to do when Holy Communion is celebrated, talk to a minister or one of the church leaders and ask for their advice.
The free-will offering of money for the mission and work of the church is an important tradition within the Christian faith. Much good is done in the wider community, and much work is able to be accomplished in the life of the church due to the generosity and faithful giving of people who gather together for weekly worship services.
Some churches have facilities for people to give electronically, and others incorporate giving into the liturgy of the gathered people. Giving to the church is purely voluntary. It is our faithful response to God’s grace, and our desire to resource the work of the church.
The word “tithe” comes from an ancient tradition in the Old Testament whereby people would give 10 per cent of their income and resources to help maintain the temple and its services for the poor. The figure of 10 per cent remains a helpful guide for many people as they try and determine how much they wish to give.
The worshipping life of a community is very important. Worship helps to shape who we are. How we worship, when we worship, who we worship with, these things matter because God created us to be in community with one another.
Regular worship is important for Christians because it helps to integrate us into God’s story. It reminds us that we are not the architects of our own destinies. Rather, as people of faith, we are told by the story of God.
In the end, whether you prefer organ music or guitars and drums, whether you prefer a more formal liturgy or a more contemporary style of worship—these things can come down to personal taste. What is important is that we turn up, that we participate, that we commit ourselves to the communities of which we are a part.
Belonging to a regular worshipping community in this way intentionally connects us with the mission of God in the world.