What do you call the table in front of the pulpit & why?
This table is the table from which the pastor and elders serve the Lord’s Supper. We call it the Communion Table. Many churches and denominations (such as the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans/Episcopals, Methodists, etc) refer to this table as “the altar,” but Reformed churches abandoned this nomenclature at the time of the Reformation. Why? An altar is a table of sacrifice. In the Medieval Churches (today called Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), the idea became common to think that during the Lord’s Supper (or “Mass”) the pastor (“priest”) was offering a sacrifice to God. At the risk of oversimplifying things, in the Latin West (in particular) this became a belief that the priest was actually re-sacrificing Christ. Looking to the Old Testament pattern, it was believed that every time someone sinned, there had to be a new atonement. As a result, it was believed that a new sacrifice had to be made on a daily basis in order that people might be forgiven.
But the great Scriptural breakthrough of Reformation was the wonderful Gospel truth that Jesus’ death & sacrificial atonement was a once-for-all event. As He said on the cross just before He died, “It is finished.” There remains no more need for any sacrifices for sin, for Jesus has made an end of all of our guilt and shame!
Instead of the idea of the Table being a place of sacrifice, in the Reformed tradition we understand that at the Lord’s Table we receive a sacrament, a memorial, a New Testament Passover, and a foretaste of the great Banquet at the End of Time when Jesus comes again. Thus, it is “the Lord’s Table,” where we dine with Him and He with us.
Why is the pulpit in the center of the chancel (i.e., “the stage”)?
Prior to the Reformation, the altar was at the center of the chancel. This emphasized the fact that the sacrifice of the mass was the heart of the service. But in a Reformed church, the pulpit is in the center of the chancel to remind us that the very center of all of Christian worship is the Word of God. The centerpiece and high point of the Protestant worship service is the reading and the preaching of the Word of God.
Why do the elders serve the elements when the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper? (And why do the elders serve the pastor the Lord’s Supper?)
In our understanding of the proper governance of the Church, we believe that the Lord governs His Church through a plurality of elders. He also shepherds, teaches, and leads His people in this same way. As a result, when we come to celebrate the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), it is not the pastor who administers them of his own authority, but rather the minister acts as a representative of the session as a whole who in turn represent the mind Christ to His people. Also, all elders- both “ruling” and “teaching” -share the same office of “presbyter.” But they only exercise their authority jointly. Thus, the elders act together to serve the Lord’s Supper to His people.
The reason the pastor does not serve himself is because all of us come to the Lord’s Table in the same manner—as beggars who have found the Bread of Life. The minister must be served just as he serves, for the only One who serves Himself at the Lord’s Table is the Lord Jesus Himself.
Do you observe any kind of liturgical calendar? (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter…)
Yes we do. While we don’t slavishly adhere to the traditional “Church Calendar,” every year we celebrate several of the cardinal Christian holidays. Specifically, we observe:
- Advent—The four weeks before Christmas in which we remember the Old Testament promises of the coming of Christ & the story of the Nativity. Each week we have a different reading, light a candle in the Advent Wreath, and sing Christmas hymns.
- Christmas Eve– Every year we have a special evening worship service in which we retell the Christmas Story through the reading of some of the key Old Testament prophecies, the Nativity story, and a whole lot of singing of Christmas carols.
- Lent– The forty days leading up to Easter is a time of prayer and reflection on the reason why Jesus went to the cross to die—namely, our many sins. This is a time both to examine ourselves that we might remind ourselves how sinful we are as well as a time to rejoice that our God loves us enough that He would willingly choose to send his one and only Son to die that we might be forgiven and accepted.
- Holy Week– The week before Easter is a time to remember the great love of Jesus for us as well as the awesome culmination of prophecy that climaxed in Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. One major aspect of this week’s celebration (aside from Palm Sunday and Easter, of course!) is Maundy Thursday. This is a special church fellowship dinner in which we walk through the Jewish Passover in order that we might see how Jesus fulfilled the hope of Passover in the Last Supper, and how he reinterpreted it to create the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
How do you live out or emphasize your core values?
There are a variety of ways that we do this. Generally speaking, it is our desire that everything we do fits clearly into and advances one of these four categories. More specifically, when we are not preaching through a book of the Bible we often arrange our monthly worship services such that one week each month somehow emphasizes one of the four core values.
Why do you say, “One holy catholic Church” in the creeds?
Many Protestant churches have decided to replace the original wording (“catholic”) with some other wording. Usually they say “one holy Christian church.” However, this fundamentally changes the meaning of the phrase as defined by the early ecumenical councils. He word “catholic” is a Latin word which means “universal.” After the Reformation the part of the church that was not reformed and which remained loyal to the Pope in Rome claimed to be the only true Church, and adopted the name “Roman Catholic Church.” However, we would assert that every church that can affirm the “ecumenical creeds” (the Apostles’, the Nicene, the Athanasian, etc) is a part of the “one, holy, universal Church.” It is not necessary to be a part of the Roman church in order to be a part of the catholic Church. (Note that we use a little “c.”) When we affirm that we believe in “one, holy, catholic Church,” we are affirming the same faith using the same creeds that have been used by Christians for at least 1800 years.
What’s a typical order of worship?
The Order of Worship:
In our service we follow an order that was more or less settled upon during the time of the Reformation, particularly as it came to be expressed in the Reformed family of churches. These are, for the most part, churches whose roots come down from the Protestant churches of Switzerland, France, Holland, England & Scotland. While various Presbyterian and Reformed churches flesh it out differently, the main elements are all there. What’s interesting is that these elements and this order of worship all have a Biblical & Gospel-focused reason for their existence. Much of what we do arises from Paul’s letters & from the patterns we see in the scenes of God’s throne room in Isaiah ch.6 & throughout the Book of Revelation.
At Stonebridge, here’s how it looks:
- Announcements: Because every aspect of the called worship of God is supposed to be directly worshipful, we do all of these before the actual call to worship.
- Prelude: The 4th Commandment states that on the Sabbath Day, or Lord’s Day, God’s people are to rest from their worldly affairs of the rest of the week in order to clear their minds of other distractions so as to focus on worship. In order to help us do this, we have a brief musical prelude to allow us to settle in, calm the children, and take a deep breath in order to prepare ourselves for the coming service.
- Call to Worship: While some churches begin their service with an “invocation,” in Reformed churches we begin with a call to worship. The reason for this is subtle but important. To begin the service with an invocation implies that we are gathering together & then asking the Lord to come be with us. But the Good News is that just the reverse is the case. You see, the Gospel tells us that when we were far from God, He drew us to Himself through the death of Jesus on our behalf. The Holy Spirit then invites & commands God’s people to come into God’s presence to receive the Lord’s blessings. The Call to Worship reflects this truth, as the church session, in the name of the Lord, commands & invites God’s beloved people to come into His presence & worship Him.
- Opening Song(s): We generally begin with an upbeat hymn of adoration & joy, as we respond to God’s gracious invitation to come before Him with thanksgiving.
- Confession of Faith: Having come into His presence without fear, we recall why that is, namely because of the faith that He has given us. We do so in response to a question, usually along the lines of “Christian, what is it that you believe?” It is a question directed at each individual, because we must individually come to embrace the faith, but we reply corporately. This is because though we are saved individually, we are never saved alone, but rather are saved as one Body of Christ, the Church. The response to the question posed is usually (but not always) the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed. These are statements of faith that all Christians hold in common. The Apostles’ Creed’s origins are uncertain, but it is generally accepted that it dates to the earliest days of the Church. The Nicene Creed in its present form was set by a council of the whole Church in AD 381.
- Gloria Patri: This is an ancient & very brief song whose title means, “Glory be to the Father” in Latin. The whole text is: “Glory be to the Father, & to the Son, & to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, & ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.” We sing this at this point by way of giving glory to God for His great mercy in giving us new life in Christ, which is evidenced in the fact that He has caused us to believe the faith which we have just confessed.
- Prayer of Confession: In the Book of Isaiah (as well in other places) we see that the typical response that people have when encountering God & His Word is to realize just how far from God we are by nature, & how often we fail to do what He requires & how often we do what He forbids. As a result, at this point we take a few moments to confess our sins to God.
But here’s the great thing: Because God has already forgiven all of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus in our place, we don’t come to confess with fear or a sense that we’re pleading with God to forgive us. Rather, we come knowing that Christ has made an end of our sin, as He said on the cross, when He cried out, “It is finished,” just before He died. As John says in I John 1:8-9, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful & just to forgive us our sins, & cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
So we come into God’s presence confessing sins that have already been forgiven 2000 years ago on the cross! This gives us great confidence as we confess, because we are simply acknowledging what Jesus not only knows that we did, but that He has already died for!
- Assurance of Pardon: Here we read a verse or two from Scripture to remind us that indeed we are forgiven & that God accepts us because of Christ.
- Song: Again, we respond to this great hope & sure forgiveness by praising the Lord in song.
- Scripture Readings: Normally corresponding Old Testament and New Testament readings are made, one of which is the sermon text of the day. We remain standing for the Scripture reading because we are the subjects of the Kingdom of Heaven, the people of the King of kings & Lord of lords. As such, it is appropriate for us to stand as the King’s Word is read.
The preacher generally begin the reading by reminding ourselves of this by prefacing the reading with the words, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and by concluding it with some of the words of the Prophet Isaiah, saying, “Thus far this reading of God’s Holy Word. The grass withers & the flowers fade, but the Word of our Lord endures forever.” He says this to remind us that what we are reading is not merely the words or religious opinions of men in ancient times, but is indeed the very Word of God. As such, this Word (the Bible) is infallible (wholly trustworthy), inerrant (without error as originally penned), and will endure eternally.
- Sermon: This is the place in the service where we hear the Good News about Jesus Christ! It is our conviction that all of Scripture is Good News when we rightly understand it. All of it, from the beginning of the Old Testament to the end of the New, is a unified witness to Jesus. As a result, it is our desire that every message at Stonebridge should point us to Christ & the hope that we have in Him.
In our tradition, the preaching of the Word of God is a very weighty and serious matter. One Reformed confession states that “the Word of God rightly preached is the Word of God.” It isn’t to be a matter of personal opinion or a time for the preacher to ride a hobby horse. Rather, it is a time for God’s people to hear what Scripture has to say. In the sermon, we come to learn about the Good News of Jesus Christ & discover what it means for us.
- Song: We respond to God’s blessing of giving us His Word by again praising Him in song. Weeks when we do not have communion or a baptism, this is the final song.
- Prayers of God’s People: Having been invited into God’s presence, having confessed both our faith & our sin, and having been assured that we are right with God through Christ, we now spend some time to pray. We pray, adoring & praising God for Who He is & for what He has done. We also pray, casting our needs, worries, hopes, & concerns at God’s feet, trusting His promise that He will do far more than we can ever ask or imagine. (And that a great promise because we can ask & imagine a lot!) Often we will conclude this time of prayer using the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
- Tithes & Offerings: At this point we respond to God’s salvation & gracious provision by reminding ourselves of the fact that all that we are & have belongs to Him. We are merely stewards of His blessings. And so we collect the offering at this time. This offering is used to support the ministry of the church & to support missionaries at home & abroad.
Doxology: Like the Gloria Patri, this is again an ancient short song. We sing: “Praise God from whom all blessing flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, & Holy Ghost. Amen.” But interestingly, we don’t just sing the Doxology to God! This may sound odd at first, but if you look carefully at the words, you’ll see that the opening line speaks praise to God (“Praise God from whom all blessings low”). But the next two have us summoning and singing to God’s creation, to call them to worship God as well. The Doxology, then, reminds us that when we worship, we join in with worshipers outside our walls whom we cannot see. Worshiping with us are all of creation and all of the heavenly host (see Psalm 8). In fact, when we are worshiping God, we are not just worshiping with the angels & the creation, we are leading them in worship. God so delights in the worship of His people! We stand at the beginning of the Doxology out of respect & honor for the Lord.
- Prayer of Dedication: This is a very brief prayer in which the preacher gives thanks for the offering we made.
- Communion: Once a month we celebrate the sacrament of Communion. This sacrament is also sometimes known as the “Eucharist” (from a Greek word meaning “to give thanks”) or the “Lord’s Supper” (because it is a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper). The name “Communion” refers to the fact that in this sacrament we commune with God as we celebrate it. All persons who have sincerely repented of their sins & entrusted their lives to Christ are welcome to celebrate the sacrament with us. We must remember that the sacrament is not for the righteous (people who think that they have it all together), but the unrighteous (people who see their sinfulness & trusted Jesus to forgive them). That’s the Good News after all—that Jesus came for people who are broken down, worn out, hurting, and far from God! It’s that kind of person that He wants to come to His Table, where He reminds us of His promise that He loves us, has forgiven us, & accepts us just as we are!
- Baptism: Whenever we have a baptism, it comes at this point as well. (If a baptism is scheduled for a Communion Sunday, we will ordinarily postpone Communion to the next Sunday.)
- Closing song: Once again we praise our great & loving God for all of His blessings to us. From beginning to end, our whole service is a time to celebrate Jesus Christ.
- Benediction: Finally, just before the congregation is dismissed, the pastor pronounces a benediction upon the congregation. “Benediction” is a Latin term, meaning “a good word,” & is God’s verdict or promise to His people. As such, we don’t bow our heads or treat it as a prayer. Rather, as a promise or verdict, it is God’s blessing on his people.