Every week on the Lord’s Day, Christians gather into their local churches to worship Christ. Yet what happens on Sunday can vary significantly from church to church. This diversity can be a good thing when it means that the changeless gospel of Christ has been applied to new cultural contexts. But this diversity can be a problem when the prominence of Christ in worship is lost in favor of pragmatism, cultural relevance, or self-expression.
As church leaders try to decide how Sunday mornings will look at their churches, it’s easy for them to get stuck trying to answer 10,000 questions at once. But there is one principal question that needs to be answered first:
What is the Sunday morning service for?
Is it for encouraging Christians? For evangelizing non-Christians? Is it for enjoying powerful music, or for learning from profound sermons? Is it for influencing the culture, or for preserving a remnant? These aren’t bad objectives, but they’re all peripheral to the central purpose of Sunday morning, which is this: the Sunday morning service is for worshipping God.
If the church services of the Lord’s day are first and foremost about worshipping God, this raises the second question that needs to be answered:
How does God desire to be worshipped?
Getting the Right Answers
For sake of simplicity, we’re going to answer this question from the beginning of Acts. The church is in its infancy, and God has just poured out his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Three thousand people have just been cut to the heart by Peter’s first major sermon and have trusted in Christ. What is the “new” normal that God establishes for worship? What are those core aspects of worship that churches should devote themselves to? He gives us a model for Christ-centered worship in Acts 2:42:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Christ-centeredness in worship is the non-negotiable norm given by God to the early church. I’ll briefly make this clear in each of the four practices that the early church was devoted to: 1) the apostle’s teaching, 2) the fellowship, 3) the breaking of bread, and 4) the prayers.
The Apostle’s Teaching: The Gospel of Christ
The central tenet of apostles’ teaching wasn’t morality or humanitarian activism – it was Christ. We get a sample of the apostolic teaching in Peter’s sermon right here in the immediate context of Acts 2. The clear climax of Peter’s sermon is vs. 36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The centrality of Christ in the apostolic sermons of Acts is unmistakable (3:11-26; 4:8-12; 8:5, 35; 9:20; 10:34-43; etc).
The Fellowship: The Community of Christ
“The fellowship” most naturally would have referred to the fellowship that believers have with God and with one another. The apostle John indicates this in 1 John 1, vs. 3: “[T]hat which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” But here’s the great mystery: how can wicked people be enjoying togetherness with God? There are a lot of wrong ideas on how to answer this question, but here’s the right one: through Jesus Christ.
Our offenses against God’s law should have permanently disqualified us from having closeness to Him. But Christ’s sin-bearing and righteousness-crediting work absolves us of our guilt. And by faith, every single believer is united to Christ in an objective, permanent sense. And since “[Jesus] and the Father are one” (John 10:30), believers literally, marvelously, have fellowship with God – through Christ.
The Breaking of Bread: The Covenant of Christ
Though “breaking bread” was a common idiom for sharing a meal, the phrase here in Acts 2:42 – “the breaking of the bread” likely does not refer to a generic mealtime, as some have suggested. For one thing, this expression makes use of the definite article in Greek, which strongly implies a specific practice. Secondly, the breaking of bread referred to in Acts 20:7 seems to clearly indicate the Lord’s Supper. Thirdly, the other three items in the list are clearly elements of worship that believers have remained devoted to through the ages. It makes the most sense, then, to take this to refer to the breaking of bread; that is, the Lord’s Supper.
In the Lord’s Supper, we are permitted to enjoy all that Christ has done and is doing to set us apart for himself. We look back with remembrance on the finished work of Christ to die for our sin. Yet we also taste at the present time that Christ’s work is still efficacious in giving us life. And we look forward to the climactic feast when Christ the bridegroom will come to be with his bride, the church, forever and ever.
The Prayers: The Intercession of Christ
Finally, “the prayers” indicates that the church is to be characterized by regular prayer. And prayer directs our attention to the ongoing intercession of Christ on our behalf. Though Christ’s work of salvation is finished, he has not finished applying that work. And Christ’s unique role as our intercessor guarantees that our petitions are always heard by God the Father.
Though prayer was certainly practiced by Old Testament saints, they had far less reason to believe that God would consider their prayers favorably. In Christ, we have every reason to believe the opposite. For in fact, the voice of the Father has split the heavens to speak concerning our intercessor, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
How Does This Apply to Real Life?
These four things – gospel, fellowship, Lord’s Supper, and prayer – uniquely draw attention to Jesus Christ. So as our churches consider how to structure Sunday mornings, take a tip from the early church and keep it Christ-centered. Exalt the preaching of God’s Word. Foster intimacy between your church and her heavenly Father. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper more than once a year. And delight in your intercessor through prayer.
Once you’ve made sure that you have Christ-centered activities in the worship service, then comes phase two. You’ll want to be just as certain that you’re not adding extra stuff to your Sunday morning services that steal attention from Christ. If you want to have a raffle, a rock concert, or a light show, you can give those to people on some other day of the week. But on Sundays, give them Christ – nothing “more” and nothing less.
Devon Rossman is a Pastoral Assistant at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is currently working toward an M. Div. at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. In his position at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Devon is training to become a prospective church planter.