The Significance of the Salutation and Call to Worship
Congregants are slowly trickling into the worship hall as the service is about to begin. The fog machine and stage lighting begin to work their magic as the instrumentalists in the praise band begin to softly crank out their introductory notes. The atmosphere is thick with anticipation and excitement. Suddenly the worship leader proclaims in a loud, lively voice, “OK folks, it’s time to worship our awesome God!” Then the band thunderously launches into its first worship song as hands fly into the air, eyes are strained shut, facial expressions appear to display an almost orgasmic delight, and congregants belt out with gusto the familiar words to the worship song being performed, straining their voices to match the decibal level of the praise band.
Something similar to the above scenario of the beginning of a worship service is played out every week in numerous contemporary churches which dot the landscape of modern America. But if you have ever been to a worship service at Lake OPC, or in a similar Reformed worship service, you know that the beginning of our worship services is much different from the scenario painted above.
In the case of Lake OPC, our worship services begin, not with loud fanfare or ostentatious pageantry or emotional intensity, but with the clear declaration of the apostolic salutation (“Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ”) and a call to worship (usually taken from one of the Psalms), addressed by the minister to the congregation.
Why is this the case? What is the significance of the apostolic benediction and the call to worship in a biblically-reformed worship service? Is it because Reformed churches are just hopelessly chained to the traditions of the past and stubbornly unwilling to get with the program of contemporary worship trends? Or is there a biblical and theological rationale for this practice?
First of all, beginning a Reformed service of Christian worship with the apostolic benediction and a call to worship taken from the Scriptures is a biblically-appropriate way to begin a corporate service of Christian worship because it underscores God’s grace and Divine initiative.
The Word of God teaches that the only way for us sinners to approach God with acceptable worship is by His grace and mercy alone, and through the mediation of Christ alone (for example, see First Timothy 2:5; also John 14:6). The apostolic salutation and call to worship remind us that we come before God in holy worship only at His Divine initiative and command, and through His grace alone, not by our own works or merits or worthiness.
Secondly, beginning a Reformed service of Christian worship with the apostolic benediction and call to worship emphasizes the biblical truth that, in the Divine service of worship, God descends to us in His grace. We don’t ascend to God with our praise. It is only after God has called us into His presence and assured us of His grace and peace that we offer up our praises and prayers as a “sacrifice of praise” in response to His Divine initiative and grace.
Churches which begin their worship services with a lengthy period of praise prior to any Scripture readings or preaching — a period of praise officially called by the worship leader and not by God’s Word — implicitly send the wrong message. The contents of the worship songs may be biblical and edifying, and the preaching may be faithful to the Word. But the liturgical flow and structure of the worship service unintentionally pictures human initiative rather than Divine initiative. It pictures us ascending to God with our acts of praise rather than God in Christ descending to us in grace to welcome us into His special presence.
In Reformed worship services, such as you will find at Lake OPC, the worship service begins and ends with God, as God welcomes us into His presence through the apostolic salutation and Scriptural call to worship, and as God sends us forth at the end of the service with His blessing in the words of the benediction.
Finally, the apostolic salutation and call to worship highlight the fact that Christian worship is dialogical. In other words, a corporate Christian worship service involves a dialogue between God and His covenant people. God speaks to us in His Word as the Scriptures are read and proclaimed, and as the Word is sealed to us in the sacrament. We respond to His gracious Word with gratitude in our hearts through our prayers, our praises and our offerings.
Sometimes we hear it said in Reformed circles that “God is the audience in our worship.” Actually, that is not quite accurate. We are the ones who are primarily served in the Divine service of worship. We are the primary audience that God comes to address. God is the primary Addressor while we are the primary addressees. God comes to us to feed our souls in the Word and sacrament. Only in a secondary sense is God the Audience, as we offer to Him our prayers and praises in response to His amazing grace that is offered to us in His Word. By beginning our worship services with the apostolic salutation and call to worship, our worship services emphasize that God is the Initiator and main Speaker in this Divine-human dialogue known as Christian worship.
I hope this reflection on the significance of the apostolic salutation and call to worship in our Reformed liturgical practice has been helpful, and has deepened your understanding of and appreciation for the biblical and theological reasons why we begin our worship services with these acts of Divine speech from the Holy Scriptures.