If Our Religion is New to You ...
... You may wonder why we do what we do in the worship service; A word of explanation...
The centre-piece of our service is the Word of God, which refers primarily to the Bible or Scripture. We read at least one passage from the Bible as part of every service. In the "order of service" or "bulletin" you will find the particular passage named, and also some explanation of the background of that passage.
Usually a sermon will be preached based on that passage. The purpose of the sermon is to explain what the passage meant in its own time and place, and to offer examples of what that passage might mean today, depending on what is happening in your life. Sometimes the sermon will speak to a major social issue of the day and offer the Scripture passage as sort of a "lens" through which to examine it from the Christian point of view.
What is the Bible & Why do we call it the Word of God?
The largest portion, the Old Testament, is a collection of stories and prophecies handed down orally over long periods of time, and eventually written and organized. The oldest materials date from at least 4,000 years ago but may be older, although our earliest written versions are only half that old.
We believe that those stories and teachings were inspired by God, not in the sense of God's dictating them word-for-word, but in this sense: that in everyday experience and some extraordinary experiences, in good times and in bad, in prayer, people found God surprisingly active in their lives. As they shared their experience with others, they learned that their perceptions of God were confirmed by others', and they handed down the stories and teaching to be built upon by generations after. These experiences were not only individual, but were known by an entire people, as in the Israelites' Exodus from slavery in Egypt around 3,300 years ago.
The teaching are found primarily in two groups of "books"; the Law, the code of ethics and morality found in the first five "books" and the prophets. The prophets were inspired individuals set aside by God to critique the moral quality of the social policies of the State, the society, and the religion. They insisted that all three must give primary concern to protection of the poor and the oppressed, and justice for everyone.
The second but smaller half of the Bible, the New Testament, consists of basically two kinds of materials. One is the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which are written collections of orally transmitted stories about the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth.
We believe that Jesus was "God become flesh," a human who became the best example of how God wants people to treat each other. It is difficult to describe the One because we cannot imagine that all of God, Creator and Sustainer of the universe, was to be found in one human, yet we believe that Jesus, a fully human person, was at the same time divine.
We use the term "Son of God" as a convenience, a unique term to describe this very unusual situation. The Gospels tell not only of Jesus' actions and teachings, but also of his being executed by the State, his death, and his resurrection, i.e., his moving on past death to a different form of existence which we call "eternal life". We believe that eternal life is offered to us as well.
The second kind of material in the New Testament is the history of the Church in its earliest stages, probably from Jesus' time (death roughly 33 AD) until the end of th first century. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles contains much of that history. The letters of Paul contain the rest. Like us, Paul did not know Jesus in person - he met the resurrected Jesus and his life was changed. He began to preach about Jesus to many parts of the world, establishing churches wherever he went. As he moved from place to place, the new churches would write questions and he would answer. It is those answers which we have in his letters, and they provide some of our earliest statements of belief.
These books in the Old and New Testaments provide our oldest testimonies about how God works in peoples' lives, and in history. We preserve them and present them to every new generation of believers so that you can compare your experience of God with that of those who have gone before and know if we are talking about the same God.
If we needed to encapsulate the teachings of our religion we might do it in the following way: All existence is because of God, and there is purpose in it. We live in the "Kingdom of God," as Jesus called it. By that we mean that God is effective to be part of our lives, is accessible through prayer, and is directly concerned with each of us.
God wishes us to commit our actions toward the betterment of life for all, and when we are working in the right direction accomplishes things wildly beyond our own powers. We are to be as concerned about others as we are about ourselves. By "others" we mean not only family, friends, and neighbours who we know, but all of God's creation. If we are willing to accept it, we are offered eternal live, i.e., life in the Kingdom of God on this side of death, and the other.
What about the rest of the worship service? Those things we do together as companions in the Kingdom of God, whither we are gathered in the same place, or scattered throughout our daily lives' activities, make us, the people, the church.
The term "church" refers to the building and its people. The worship service is the most important time when we gather as the people of God to pray together, to hear and consider and discuss the Word of God, and to praise God in song, prayer and meditation.
We also consider our life together, i.e., those things we do as a church, our outreach programmes, our education programmes, or social activities, and so our announcement time is used to welcome newcomers, and to acquaint us all with the activities which make the life of the church.
Our offerings are gifts to God which provide for outreach work, the costs of our building and programmes, and specific appeals.
Special ceremonies Many times during the year we have special ceremonies. One group of ceremonies has to do with bringing people into membership, and one has to do with remembering Jesus' death and resurrection.
Bringing people into membership The historic means of coming into membership is called "baptism." It is a ceremony in which a person publicly declares his or her faith in God as shown in Jesus and as experience in the Holy Spirit, and his or her promise to support the mission and ministry of the Church (presumably through this church).
In baptism we sprinkle water over the person, as a symbol of washing away the old person who had lived with other values and priorities. Paul referred to this experience as "dying and rising again," in symbolic imitation of Jesus' death and resurrection. We then mark the sign of the cross on the person's forehead and lay the right hand of blessing on the head and pray for the giving of the Spirit of God as an individual experience.
When children are baptized, they do so on the basis of their parents' faith, and are offered in later years the opportunity to re-affirm or confirm their parents' faith for themselves. Thus the grown person takes on the privileges and responsibilities of membership in adult fashion.
When a person has been a member in one congregation and has now moved to another, the membership is transferred. This helps each congregation keep track of who is really present to carry out the church's work.
The Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, or The Eucharist As his last supper with his disciples, Jesus served them bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, i.e., he anticipated his undeserved execution, and instructed them to re-enact this meal often in remembrance of him. We have this meal often.
Over the centuries it has become a very powerful experience and symbol for us. It reminds us of Jesus; it reminds us that Christians all over the world celebrate this meal as a symbol of our unity in Jesus; we experience it almost as if it were an extra presence of God in our lives.
We call it sacred, or holy, because it is a meal which we have in common (communion) with the Divine. We have these several ceremonies often during the year, and you may find that one or more of them will be part of the service when you attend.