Ever since I became a pastor I have put a lot of thought into the first words of the worship service at our church, and I have also begun paying attention to the first words of church services that I attend. There are, to be sure, many important words in a worship service, but the first words are arguably the most important. The first words set the stage for all that is to come, the first words are the conduit through which the community enters the worship experience. Just as first impressions are so very important, the first words in the worship service are very important.
One way that is often done, and was done here at my arrival was to start the worship with, “Good morning. Welcome to ____________”. This is, of course, a fine way to start. Welcoming people and greeting people is certainly a good thing to do. However, I’m not sure if this is the best way to begin a worship service. You can place anything in that blank, be it a church, a school, a football game and it would be appropriate. While there is nothing wrong with these words being the first words in the worship service, I don’t think that they are sufficient for what we are doing.
Another popular way to begin a worship service, and one that I thought about is, “This is the day that the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This is very clearly a theological statement, as our joy and gladness is rooted in the fact that God made this day, rather than the fact that the sun is shining or it is not snowing or whatever. However, my concern with this declaration is that our church may be confused with prosperity type Christians. Those who think that you have to be happy all the time, those who think that if you’re faithful God will cause you to prosper and not have troubles and hardships. Many people aren’t happy when they go to church for many reasons. Some may have just had a big fight with their partner, others may have pulled their hair out trying to get their children ready, others are wondering how their empty cupboards will get filled, others slept on the floor last night because they do not have a mattress or bed, still others may be mourning the death of a loved one. The last thing that I want to do is to ask people to put on a fake smile, and I certainly do not want to make those who are not happy feel as though there is no place for their mourning or pain.
Finally, I have settled for the Votum, which are the first words given in the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America (the worship book for my denomination). The votum is simple, but very complex: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
The votum is peculiar because it is neither a greeting, nor a prayer, nor a call to worship. The votum is a declaration of faith which comes from Psalm 124:8. This is something that is thoroughly theological, and appropriately sets the stage for Christian worship. This is something that we can all enter into regardless of what is going on in our lives. For those who are suffering, it declares that God is our help, and it calls to mind the promises of God that God will never abandon us in the midst of our dark places. For those who have been delivered from suffering, it provides a reminder that our deliverance, or our help, comes from God.
This is fitting for the first words of worship because it reminds us who God is, and what God is about. God visits us in our distress, and provides aid. The God who gives us aid is the same God who created everything. This is why we can trust that God will visit us and provide assistance to us when we are in distress, because the God who created all is still involved in the world, and is still working out God’s purposes.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” This is what I want people to remember, and this is how I invite people into worship. These are words that I take with me everywhere I go, and my hope is that my parishioners would do the same. These are words which form us into a community. The words are not, “my help” but “our help”. God is not just my help, but everyone’s help. The only help that we have in times of distress is God, and this is what we all share together.
I trust that these words have a power and a life of their own, and I trust that God makes these words effectual. In worship I don’t explain the votum, I allow it to speak for itself. I don’t tell people what to do with it, I allow it to work on them.
These are some of the reasons that the first words of our worship service are “Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” This is before a greeting, a welcome, or the call to worship. The way our service begins every week is with this short declarative phrase which invites people to worship the God who created heaven and earth, and to worship the God who helps us in our distress. It reminds people why we gather, and it reminds people that God is in our midst. This is a statement that is the result of faith, and it is a statement that creates faith. Worship, after all, is not just an expression of faith, but it is to create faith as well.