What Is Worship? Why Do We Worship?
In worship we affirm our relationship with our Creator through acts of praise, song, thanksgiving and storytelling. We celebrate together what God has done and is doing to create and renew the world. In worship, we reset our compasses toward that which is truly ultimate amidst a culture cluttered with distractions. In a stressed and harried world, we enter sacred time, when we are refreshed in the company of God and one another. In worship God nourishes us through Word and Sacrament and strengthens us for service.
The term “worship” comes from an Old English root “worthship.” We worship that which is truly worthy of our ultimate allegiance and devotion—God alone. Another term for worship is liturgy, from an ancient Greek word meaning “the work of the people.” We understand liturgy and worship as public, communal practices done by the whole gathered congregation. They are not a performance put on by a few for the entertainment of the many.
From the earliest days of the church, Christians gathered together on the first day of the week to tell the story of Jesus, share a meal, pray and sing. We continue this tradition in celebrating the Eucharist (from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) every week. The Eucharist is a feast in which God offers us a foretaste of heaven. Jesus described God’s reign (or kingdom) as a great banquet, around which people from every tribe and nation are reconciled in love and peace. The Eucharist points toward God’s ultimate vision for human community and helps us live into that vision in our time and place.
What We Do Together in Worship
Worship begins with a time for centering ourselves, quieting down and opening our hearts to God’s presence. Some people prefer to kneel in prayer – others sit quietly. Music may be played during this time; members of the community offer gifts of music to enhance the meditative mood. We then stand and sing an opening song of praise as the leaders of the celebration take their places. In the Episcopal Church, we tend to stand to sing, pray or hear the Gospel and sit to listen. Sometimes we also kneel to pray or confess our sins in recognition of our dependence upon God.
At the end of the opening hymn, the celebrant (presiding leader of the service) says an opening acclamation that echoes ancient Jewish prayers: “Blessed be God….” The liturgy is a dialogue, and so the people respond in turn. One frequent word is “Amen”—Hebrew for “So be it!”
Some people find it meaningful to make the sign of the cross over their chests at this point in the liturgy (as at a few other points) to recall the sign of the cross traced on their forehead at baptism, the entrance rite into the Christian community. In the Episcopal Church, these practices of personal devotion vary quite a bit—there is no one correct way that everyone must follow. Please do what is comfortable and enriching for you.
We next pray the Collect for Purity, in which we ask God to cleanse us from all the distracting thoughts that can break our attentiveness to God and one another. Collect is an old term that refers to prayers said by a leader who “collects” all the thoughts and prayers of the people into one unified voice.
Then, depending on the time of year, we sing the Gloria (Latin for “glory”), an ancient song of praise to God, or the Kyrie (Greek for “Lord”), an ancient prayer for mercy.
The people are invited to sit to listen to the readings and the psalm. The lessons we read in church are from a lectionary, or selection of Bible lessons shared by churches across many denominations. They rotate every three years. At the end of the reading we give thanks together for the gift of God’s Word (in the Bible, and in the person of Jesus): “Thanks be to God.”
The Psalms are a collection of songs from the worship of ancient Israel. Sometimes we sing them together with the choir; other times we say them. Pausing at the asterisk (*) in the psalms is a practice from monastic communities that helps us meditate on the words.
The Gospel lesson is generally read in the midst of the people. We stand in reverence for the special place these stories about Jesus have in our lives and in the life of the church. Some people make the sign of the cross over their forehead, lips and chest with their thumb as the Gospel is introduced as a way of expressing their intention that the words enter their mind, speak through their lips and fill their heart.
We sit for the sermon, an opportunity for God’s Word to be proclaimed, reflected upon and applied to our particular time and place.
After the sermon, most Sundays we rise and stand together to say the Nicene Creed, an ancient confession of the church’s beliefs. The Creed is a sign of our unity with Christians throughout all times and places. Though written in language that can seem very foreign, it expresses key insights into the nature of God and the world.
After the Creed, we remain standing for the prayers of the people, a time in which we name specific things for which we are thankful and about which we are concerned, including the church, the poor, sick and needy, and those who have died. At St. Matthew’s, we remember the names of members of the church who have died over the years this week as a sign of the communion of saints, or community of followers of Jesus from every generation in which we participate. Since the Eucharist symbolically represents a taste of the heavenly banquet, it is appropriate that we keep in mind not just the living, but also those who have gone before us.
At the end of the prayers of the people, we sometimes kneel together in a confession of sin as a way of recognizing our own estrangement from God, one another and the earth that God has made. The celebrant stands and pronounces God’s forgiveness on us as the face of Christ’s accepting love in the story we are telling together.
Following the prayers and confession, we share in the ancient practice of passing the peace with one another. Since the Eucharist is an enactment of our unity and reconciliation in God, the early Christians allowed a time for those in the congregation who had disagreements or conflicts to be reconciled before the celebration continued. We share not just a greeting, but the peace of the Lord—a peace that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility.
At this point in the service, we shift from focusing on the Word to the sacrament of Holy Communion. This begins with the gathering and presentation of the people’s offerings—bread, wine, money and other gifts—in recognition that all that we have and all that we are comes from God. The ancient practice of tithing (giving 10% of one’s income back to God) is one important way in which we recognize God’s abundant provision for our lives and the church. In the Eucharist, we offer our whole selves to God to be transformed and renewed as signs of the new creation in Christ.
The Great Thanksgiving (Eucharist) begins with a prayer in the form of a dialogue between the celebrant and the people. The celebrant retells the story of creation, human alienation and God’s sending of Jesus to reconcile the world. While the words used each week may differ, the celebrant always says what Jesus said at the Last Supper with his friends before he was betrayed. In the bread and wine that we share and the story we reenact, we believe that Christ is present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We then say together the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught to his followers. The bread is broken as a symbol of Christ’s offering of himself for us, even to death. We respond with songs of praise and gratitude.
The congregation is invited to come forward to receive the bread and wine (follow the direction of the ushers). All people who seek to follow Jesus are welcome to partake in communion at St. Matthew’s; God is the host at this table. Please cup your hands together and hold them up to receive the bread. You may either dip the bread into the wine or guide the cup to your lips and drink from it. Children are welcome to receive communion. If you prefer not to receive bread and wine but would like a blessing, please come forward with your hands crossed over your chest.
After all have shared in communion, we say together a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Some Sundays, we call forward members of the congregation who will take bread and wine from the celebration out to homebound members. The celebrant pronounces God’s blessing upon us, and we sing a final hymn. At the end of the hymn, a leader sends us forth into the world, charging us to bear the peace and love of Christ to all whom we meet. We respond, “Thanks be to God!”
Children and Worship
Children are an integral part of Christ’s church (especially at St. Matthew’s!). One of our large stained glass windows (on the far right wall) features Jesus inviting the children to him. Children of all ages are always welcome in the service. We aren’t too bothered when children make their own special sounds and noises of praise to God!
A few tips: Children like to see what is happening. Often, children are restless because they can only see the backs of the people in the pew in front of them. We encourage you to sit where children can see and participate as fully as possible. Bags of drawing materials and toys are also available just outside the sanctuary door for children to use. A nursery is located just down the stairs (staffed September-May); children are brought up during the passing of the peace for communion.
The second Sunday of each month, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a special children’s altar made by one of our members. All children (of whatever age) and their caretakers are invited to gather around the altar. This practice reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God belongs especially to children (Matthew 19:14).
About the Worship Leaders
In the Episcopal Church, there are four orders (or types) of ministers: lay people, bishops, priests and deacons. All have active roles in the liturgy. Lay people, ordained to ministry through their baptism (yes, if you’ve been baptized, you’re a minister!), share vocally in the responses throughout the service, read the lessons and the prayers, lead the music, help distribute communion, and at times offer prayers for healing with the laying on of hands (an ancient Christian practice). The bishop, when present, celebrates the Eucharist, baptizes, confirms and represents the church universal. Priests (a shortened version of the Greek word, presbyter, or elder) serve as celebrant in the Eucharist and Baptism, preach the Word and bring a special focus in the liturgy to the priesthood of all believers. Deacons read the Gospel, set the table and dismiss the people into the world. All priests in the Episcopal Church are also ordained deacons. Worship is a collaborative, communal effort, reflecting our belief in a Triune God—a God who exists as a community of three interdependent, loving persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Want to Learn More?
If you would like further reading about liturgy and worship in the Episcopal Church, try the following books, which can be found in our church library:
Welcome to Sunday: An Introduction to Worship in the Episcopal Church, by Christopher Webber (Morehouse Publishing, 2003)
Opening the Prayer Book, by Jeffrey Lee (Cowley Press, 1999).