Since the night before Jesus died, his followers have always sung. Christian worship around the world is extremely varied, but very often involves music.
Church services in different centuries and continents have often featured music in praise of God, Bible readings, prayer for the needs of the world and those who are ill, statements of faith and prayers seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing. A frequent feature is a sermon that explains the Bible and relates it to the present day. The style of these activities matches the local culture, although some people find it most appropriate to worship God in ways echoing those that their ancestors of former Christian centuries used.
Eating bread and wine together is a distinctive part of Christian worship because this is the way that Jesus asked his followers to remember him. For many Christians a service involving bread and wine (known as mass, communion, eucharist or a number of other names) is central to the way they are spiritually sustained.
Silence, which is particularly compelling when people experience it together, also features often in Christian worship. It is used to contemplate God and seek his guidance through life. The worship of the Society of Friends (Quakers) is almost entirely silent, and there is a long tradition of meditation in monasteries.
Charismatic worship is common in some churches, but occasionally regarded with suspicion in others. It involves a direct sense of the Holy Spirit alongside the other features of worship. It is spontaneous and informal. It includes periods during which people say or sing words in languages unknown to them. This is known as ‘speaking in tongues’ and is recognised to be a gift given by God. It is usually exciting and compelling. Sometimes an entire congregation takes part at once, and sometimes one individual will speak unfamiliar words while someone else translates them. This kind of worship also includes intense prayer for healing and words of challenge or encouragement that seem to come directly from God. Sometimes worshippers sit or lay down and seem aware solely of the enriching love of Jesus.
Christians also have a longstanding tradition of meeting in each others’ homes. They study the Bible in small groups, pray for each other as they share what God is doing in their lives, and organise charitable work to help vulnerable people. Eating meals together is often the context in which practical help and encouragement is given, which is why Christians speak positively of how they lives are improved by being part of a Christian community.
Of course, churches are also places in which people mark rites of passage such as funerals and weddings. This is true both for those who have a nominal faith and for those who have the kind of faith that transforms their lives. Vast numbers of people in countries whose decency has been shaped by Christian heritage feel that it is right to seek God’s blessing whenever they make vows or at times of particular joy or sadness. Times of national significance, meetings of councils and parliaments, and remembrance of the sacrifices involved in war regularly take place in Christian settings.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord.
Where to find it:
About these words:
The shortest of the psalms, a hymn book of the Jewish people dating from about one thousand years before Jesus, and now the basis of much Christian worship.
And they said…
Judi Dench, actress:
My faith is everything, but I don’t generally talk about it. [I feel] in the right place in the [Quaker] Meeting House. The discipline you have to use in the Meeting is very good for the restless soul.
Anne Lamott, novelist:
The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think he’s you.
Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first female bishop:
My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. I was invited to a youth group by a friend when I was eleven, to the church in the next village along from where I lived. I was absolutely captivated from the first time I went. They welcomed me into the extended family of that church and included me as an adolescent. They loved me into faith.
Sinead O’Connor’s 2014 song:
Oh, take me to church,
I’ve done so many bad things it hurts,
Yeah, take me to church,
But not the ones that hurt,
‘Cause that ain’t the truth,
And that’s not what it’s for,
Yeah, take me to church.
Elton John, singer:
Jesus was all about love and compassion and forgiveness and trying to bring people together. That’s what the church should be about.
Matthew McConaughey, actor:
God has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand.
Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century nun and composer:
Be not lax in celebrating. Be not lazy in the festive service of God. Be ablaze with enthusiasm. Let us be an alive, burning offering before the altar of God.
Graham Kendrick, musician:
Worship is first and foremost for [God’s] benefit, not ours, though it is marvellous to discover that in giving him pleasure, we ourselves enter into what can become our richest and most wholesome experience in life.
Boy George, musician:
The church badly needs a facelift, because it is God’s theatre on earth and he should be packing them in.