Church services are a normal part of Christian life. Around the globe, believers gather regularly as local churches. God even commanded us to do so – see Hebrews 10:25. But what exactly happens in a church service?
Some standard elements
There is a lot of variation among church services. Some are very formal and strictly follow a liturgy with much ceremony and rituals. Others are more informal. Some believers might gather in a living room, others in large church buildings. Some congregations just consist of a handful people, others have thousands of members. What a church service looks like, depends – among other things – on the size of the congregation, on local culture and on the church denomination. But there are certain elements that recur in most church services.
Just as prayer is a normal part of a Christian’s personal life, it is a standard element in church services. After all, believers don’t just gather to meet each other, but to meet God Himself as well. Jesus promised in Matthew 18:20: “where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them”. Prayer is a means to express our praise, to thank God for his blessings, and to ask for His help. Since many people are gathered in a church service, it is also an especially good occasion to share our needs with fellow believers and to pray for each other.
God’s Word has a central place in church services. Usually, one or more Scripture portions are read aloud. Which portions are read, might be determined by a reading schedule or chosen by the pastor who will preach the sermon. Those attending may read along in their own Bibles. Reading the Bible is important, since it is the primary means by which God speaks nowadays. “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), and “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
A church service also is a great way to receive teaching from someone who knows a lot about the Bible. In many churches, there are ordained pastors who have studied theology in order to gain a deeper understanding of God and of the Bible. They pass on this knowledge to fellow believers by giving a sermon. In other churches, a sermon is held not by ordained pastors but by church members.
In a sermon, the preacher may explain a Bible portion by providing historical background information, by explaining the linguistic structure of a text, and by making a connection between various Scripture portions and so on. He also tries to apply God’s Word to his audience. After all, the Bible is not just an historical book and the sermon is not just an explanatory lecture. It is the proclamation of the Gospel. God speaks through the sermon as well.
Another standard element of many church services is singing. Sometimes this is done by a choir or a band, but often the whole congregation sings together. They might sing Psalms, old hymns, or modern worship songs, with or without musical accompaniment, with or without dancing – there is a wide variety of options, but these are all meant to worship God and to express people’s praise, thanks or sorrows.
Singing together has old biblical roots, and is encouraged by Bible verses like Psalm 96:1-2: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless His name; tell of His salvation from day to day” and Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God”.
A regularly recurring element of church services, although it might not be done every single week, is the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or Eucharist). This is an ordinance instituted by Jesus Himself (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Believers eat a piece of bread and drink a little wine, representing Jesus’ body and blood. Jesus explicitly commanded: “Do this in remembrance of Me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:25-26).
How exactly the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, may vary. In some churches, believers literally sit around a table – like Jesus and his disciples did when this ordinance was first instituted. In other churches, the cup of wine and the bread are passed on while people remain on their seats. In Roman Catholic services, a priest distributes the bread to the people.
The second important ordinance is baptism. This might be part of a church service as well, carried out within the church building, or somewhere outside in open water. Baptism is commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
Unlike the Lord’s Supper, baptism is a one-time only ordinance. In many churches, people are baptized when they become member of a church for the first time. Some churches baptize young children who belong to the congregation, others baptize adults only. Baptism is an outward sign of God’s forgiveness and of receiving a new life in Jesus Christ.
Many churches collect money or offerings during or after their services. These collections/offerings are used to meet the costs of the local church, such as running the church building, paying the pastors, and so on. Collections may also be used to provide financial help for poor church members, or for evangelistic and charity projects.
When the church service is over, people are usually dismissed with a blessing, for example Aaron’s blessing from Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace”.
Unity in diversity
As said above, there is a lot of variation between church services. But in all this diversity, there is “the unity of the Spirit”. “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
All over the globe, in a wide variety of cultures and church denominations, people gather in Jesus’ name “to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).