In Christianity, worship is the central act of Christian identity, the purpose of which is to ascribe honor or worth to God.
Throughout most of Christianity's history, corporate Christian worship has been primarily liturgical, characterized by prayers and hymns , with texts rooted in, or closely related to, the Scripture, particularly the Psalter; this form of sacramental and ceremonial worship is still practiced by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, as well as some Protestant denominations such as Lutheranism and Methodism. The very term liturgy is derived from the Greek leitourgia meaning "public service" and is formed by two words: "laos" (people) and "urgos" (work), literally "work of the people". Responsorial prayers are a series of petitions read or sung by a leader with responses made by the congregation. Set times for prayer during the day were established (based substantially on Jewish models), and a festal cycle throughout the Church year governed the celebration of feasts and holy days pertaining to the events in the life of Jesus, the lives of the saints, and aspects of the Church's perception of God.
A great deal of emphasis was placed on the forms of worship, as they were seen in terms of the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi ("the rule of prayer is the rule of belief")—that is, the specifics of one's worship express, teach, and govern the doctrinal beliefs of the community. To alter the patterns and content of worship were to change the faith itself. Thus even though there was always some amount of variety in the early Church's liturgical worship, there was also a great deal of unity. Each time a heresy arose in the Church, it was typically accompanied by a shift in worship for the heretical group. Orthodoxy in faith also meant orthodoxy in worship, and vice versa. Thus, unity in Christian worship was understood to be a fulfilment of Jesus' words that the time was at hand when true worshippers would worship "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23). This unity is still present today in Eastern Orthodoxy and to a lesser degree in Roman Catholicism.
In the New Testament
The earliest development of Christian worship is documented in the New Testament. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles present the very early Christians, then still very much a part of the Jewish scene, as frequenting both the Temple and synagogues, as well as meeting in private homes, frequently to "break bread," a term that connotes both the sharing of an agape meal, and celebrating the Eucharist. A number of these gatherings of the early Christians are seen to include such components as "the apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer" (Acts 2:42). Interestingly, however, the New Testament text never actually refers to such gatherings or activity as "worship", but consistently rather applies worship vocabulary to how Christians may honour God with their whole lives (e.g. Romans 12:1).
Early Church Fathers
Subsequently the theme of worship is taken up by many of the Church Fathers including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236), and seems to be liturgical. The Holy Eucharist was the central act of worship in early Christianity. Activities in the synagogues continued into the early Catholic Church. The early Christian use of incense in worship seemed first to originate in Christian funeral rites, and later used during regular worship services. Incense was also used in the Bible to worship God and symbolize prayer, in both the Old Testament and New Testament; one of the three Magi offered Christ frankincense, and in the Book of Revelation, angels and saints appear in Heaven offering incense to God.
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Worship as singing underwent great changes for some Christians with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, a music lover, composed hymns that are still sung today, and expected congregations to be active participants in the service, singing along.
John Calvin, in Geneva, argued that while instrumental music had its time with the Levites of the Old Testament, it was no longer a proper expression for the church. This was expanded upon by John Knox (see Presbyterian worship); only Psalms were sung, and they were sung a cappella. Furthermore, in the Genevan and Scottish Reformed tradition, man-made hymns are not sung, being seen inferior to the God-inspired psalms of the Bible. The Calvinist Regulative Principle of Worship distinguishes traditional Presbyterian and Reformed churches from the Lutheran or other Protestant churches.
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Current Christian worship practices are diverse and reflect the fragmented nature of modern Christianity, with a range of customs and theological views. Three broad groupings can be identified, and whilst some elements are universal, style and content varies greatly due to the history and differing emphases of the various branches of Christianity.
In many Christian traditions, regular public worship is complemented by other forms of worship, such as individual meditation, prayer and study, small group prayer (often linked with Bible study), and formal ceremonies on special occasions, including weddings, funerals, baptisms and events of Church or state.
While differing considerably in form, the following items characterise the worship of virtually all Christian churches.
- Meeting on Sunday (Sabbath in Christianity; Sabbath in seventh-day churches is an exception)
- Bible readings
- Communion or the Eucharist
- Music, either choral or congregational, either with or without instrumental accompaniment
- Teaching in the form of a sermon or homily
- A collection or offering
This grouping can also be referred to as the Eucharistic or Catholic tradition, but it is important to note that it is not limited to the Catholic Church. It includes the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church and most branches of the Anglican Church. Worship (variously known as the Mass, Divine Liturgy, Divine Service, Eucharist, or Communion) is formal and centres on the offering of thanks and praise for the death and resurrection of Christ over the people's offerings of bread and wine, breaking the bread, and the receiving of the Eucharist, seen as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Churches in this group understand worship as a mystic participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, through which they are united with him and with each other. Services are structured according to a liturgy and typically include other elements such as prayers, recitations, hymns, choral music, the reading of scripture, and some form of teaching or sermon. The service is usually led by a priest who wears vestments.
In many other Protestant traditions, particularly non-conformist groups such as the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, but also some parts of the Anglican Church, corporate worship is shaped by the legacy of the Reformation. The emphasis is on the Bible as the ultimate authority in all matters and services therefore focus on a sermon, which is frequently an exposition of part of the Bible or an exhortation on morality or faith. Worship in such a context also generally features spoken prayer (either unscripted or prepared), Scripture readings, and congregational singing of hymns. Some liturgy is normally used but may not be described as such. The Eucharist is celebrated less frequently (intervals vary from once a week to annually according to the denomination or local church), although a small number of groups such as the Salvation Army do not celebrate the Eucharist. Vestments are less elaborate or absent, and in some traditions services may be led by laity.
The Charismatic Movement
Since the late 1960s, there have been significant changes to Protestant worship practices, resulting from both the theological and musical influences of the charismatic movement.
Firstly, contemporary worship music is now widespread and can be found in many churches, including those that do not subscribe to a charismatic theology. This music is written in the style of popular music or folk music and therefore differs considerably from traditional hymns. It is frequently played on a range of instruments that would not have previously been used in churches such as guitars (including electric) and drum kits. Use of the pipe organ is therefore less prevalent.
Secondly, a new music-centred approach to worship, known as contemporary worship, is now commonplace. The replaces the traditional order of worship based around liturgy or a "hymn-prayer sandwich" with extended periods of congregational singing sometimes referred to as "block worship". A contributing factor to this, again resulting from the charismatic movement, is the creation of numerous new churches (such as the Vineyard churches), which have experienced significant growth and dramatically altered the composition of Protestant Christianity. These new churches are outside of established denominations and adopted charismatic theology and contemporary forms of worship from the outset.
Within the Catholic Church, the charismatic movement has had much less influence on the structure of regular worship, although contemporary worship music is sometimes used in some parishes, particularly those affected by a movement known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Worship practices in the Eastern Churches have largely remained unaffected.
Types of Christian worship
Sacraments, Ordinances, Holy Mysteries
- Sacraments/Holy Mysteries Common to the East and to Roman Catholicism
- Sacraments/ Ordinances of In the View of Protestants
Other Liturgical Traditions: Non-Sacraments
See also: Christian liturgy
- Traditions common to Eastern Christianity and to Roman Catholicism
- Eastern Christianity
- Divine Liturgy
Profession of Faith
Classical & Baroque
- Stevens, James H. S. (2002), Worship In The Spirit - Charismatic Worship In The Church of England, Paternoster, ISBN 1842271032.
- Ward, Pete (2005), Selling Worship - How What We Sing Has Changed The Church, Paternoster, ISBN 1842272705
- Warner, Rob (2007), Reinventing English Evangelicalism 1966-2001 - A Theological And Sociological Study, Paternoster, ISBN 9781842275702. Chapter 2 includes a study of changing worship styles.
- Lupia, John N., (1995) "Censer," The New Grove's Dictionary of Art (MacMillan Publishers, London)