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A church service (also called a service of worship, or simply a service) is a formalized period of communal worship in Christian tradition. It often but not exclusively occurs on Sunday, or Saturday in the case of those churches practicing seventh-day Sabbatarianism. The church service is the gathering together of Christians to be taught the 'Word of God' (the Christian Bible) and encouraged in their faith. Technically, the "church" in "church service" refers to the gathering of the faithful rather than to the building in which it takes place. In most Christian traditions, services are presided over by clergy wherever possible.
Styles of service vary greatly, from the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran traditions of liturgical worship to the evangelical Protestant style, that often combines worship with teaching for the believers, which may also have an evangelistic component appealing to the non-Christians and/or skeptics in the congregation. Quakers and some other groups have no formal outline to their services, but allow the worship to develop as the participants present feel moved.
From Jewish to Christian services
The first miracle of the Apostles, the healing of the crippled man on the temple steps, occurred because Peter and John went to the Temple to pray (Acts 3:1). Since the Apostles were originally Jews, see Jewish Christians, the concept of fixed hours for services, and services therefore which differed from weekday to Sabbath to holy day, were familiar to them. Pliny the Younger (63 - ca. 113), who was not a Christian himself, mentions not only fixed times of prayer by believers, but also specific services—other than the Eucharist—assigned to those times: "They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity ... after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal."
The real evolution of the Christian service in the first century is shrouded in mystery. By the second and third centuries, such Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian wrote of formalised, regular services: the practice of Morning and Evening Prayer, and prayers at the third hour of the day (terce), the sixth hour of the day (sext), and the ninth hour of the day (none). With reference to the Jewish practices, it is surely no coincidence that these major hours of prayer correspond to the first and last hour of the conventional day, and that on Sundays (corresponding to the Sabbath in Christianity), the services are more complex and longer (involving twice as many services if one counts the Eucharist and the afternoon service). Similarly, the liturgical year from Christmas via Easter to Pentecost covers roughly five months, the other seven having no major services linked to the work of Christ. However, this is not to say that the Jewish services were copied or deliberately substituted, see Supersessionism.
Contemporary church service
Today a wide variety of church services exist, from the long and elaborate services of Eastern Christianity to the very basic Evangelistic sermon. Though the majority of services are still conducted in church buildings designed specifically for that purpose, some services take place in "store front" or temporary settings. For those unable to attend a service in a church building a burgeoning televangelism and radio ministry provides broadcasts of services. A number of Websites have been set up as "cyber-churches" to provide a virtual worship space free to anyone on the Internet.
Church services are often planned and led by a single pastor or a small group of elders or may follow a format laid out by the dictates of the denomination. Some churches are "lay led" with members of the congregation taking turns guiding the service or simply following format that has evolved over time between the active members.
A few begin their church services with the ringing of a bell (or a number of bells). The service usually involves the singing of hymns, reading of scripture verses and possibly a psalm, and a sermon. If the church follows a lectionary, the sermon will often be about the scripture lections assigned to that day. Eucharistic churches have usually Holy Communion either every Sunday or several Sundays a month. Less liturgical congregations tend to place a greater emphasis on the sermon.
Vocal music is traditionally sung by a choir or the congregation (or a mixture of the two), usually accompanied by an organ. Sometimes other instruments such as piano, classical instruments, or modern band instruments may be part of the service, especially in churches influenced by the contemporary worship movement. Some churches are equipped with state-of-the-art multi-media equipment to add to the worship experience. The congregation may sing along in hymnals or words to hymns and worship songs may be displayed on a screen. More liturgical denominations may have the words to specific prayers written in a missalette or prayer book, which the congregation follows.
Many churches will take up a collection during the service. The rationale for this is taken from 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, 1 Corinthians 9:9-11, and 1 Timothy 5:16-18. But some churches eschew this practice in favor of voluntary anonymous donations for which a box or plate may be set up by the entrance, or return-address envelopes may be provided that worshippers may take with them.
Some churches offer Sunday school classes. These will often be for younger children, and may take place during the whole of the service (while the adults are in church), or the children may be present for the beginning of the service and at a prearranged point leave the service to go to Sunday school. Some churches have adult Sunday school either before or after the main worship service.
Following the service, there will often be an opportunity for fellowship in the church hall or other convenient place. This provides the members of the congregation a chance to socialize with each other and to greet visitors or new members. Coffee or other refreshments may be served.
Types of church service
Church services take many forms, and set liturgies may have different names. Services typically include:
- Regular Sunday services. These are a part of most traditions. Holy Communion may be celebrated at some or all of these; Often it is included either once a month or once a quarter. A few denominations have their main weekly services on Saturday rather than Sunday. Larger churches often tend to have several services each Sunday; often two or three in the morning and one or two in the late afternoon or evening.
- Midweek services. Again, Holy Communion can be part of these, either on every occasion or on a regular basis.
- Holiday services. Treated like a regular Sunday service, but made more specific for the day.
- Marriages. These are normally separate services, rather than being incorporated into a regular service, but may be either.
- Funerals. These are always separate services.
- Baptisms. These may be incorporated into a regular service, or separate.
- Confirmation. This is normally incorporated into a regular Sunday service, which will also include communion. It was traditionally the first Communion of the confirmee, but more recently children whether confirmed or not are invited to communion in some denominations.
- Ordination of clergy.
- First Communion. Children may celebrate Communion for the first time.
- Opening of new churches or church buildings.
- Dedication of new missionaries or those about to be sent on new missions.
- Canonical hours
- Divine Liturgy
- Divine Service (Lutheran)
- Evening Prayer (Anglican)
- Easter Vigil
- Mass (liturgy)
- Morning Prayer (Anglican)
- Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, Book X, Letter xcvii.
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