By Chaplain Mike
Part two of a four-part series.
The most important issue to us in our journey from evangelicalism has been that of corporate worship.
For thirty years now, this theme has always been at or near the center of our thinking and practice in ministry. In the last post, I summarized my critique of what passes for worship in many evangelical congregations today, especially in the pacesetting megachurches, where in my opinion worship has become more of a stage show than a corporate gathering around Christ and the Gospel.
Today, I give my own definition of worship, as I have come to understand it through Biblical study, reading, leading worship as a senior pastor and as an associate pastor entrusted with planning and leading worship in congregations.
People who have been most influential on my thinking over the years? Gordon MacDonald and the ministry of Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA; Richard Dinwiddie and Jim Westbrook at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School from whom I took one of the few official classes on worship that were available at that time; and Robert Webber (may his tribe increase), whose books and teachings still teach me new things all the time. I have read widely beyond these mentors as well, and plan to be a lifelong learner in this area.
I have participated in and/or appreciated virtually all styles and forms of worship music. Saved in the midst of the Jesus Movement, I witnessed the birth of contemporary Christian music, followed it for years, have written my own praise and worship songs, and led services with my guitar. But I also treasure Bach cantatas, and listen to them regularly to follow the Church Year. Many nights I go to sleep with Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Eastern Orthodox) leading me to the throne. My wife and I now sing in a traditional church choir, and we have led them often in the past. I taught worship seminars to those who participated in leading worship in our church as musicians, instrumentalists, and readers.
Needless to say, this aspect of church life has been a huge part of our life and ministry.
My Definition of Worship
Of course, worship can be defined or described in various ways. In its broadest sense, we worship God whenever we faithfully respond to his grace and live for his glory (1Cor 10.31). Paul also uses worship language to describe our total response of faith to the Gospel (Rom 12.1-3). However, we are talking about something more specific hereâ€”corporate worshipâ€”when God’s people gather for what we call a “worship service.”
Here is how I define worship…
Worship is a meeting with God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in which a congregation of believers, in response to Godâ€™s revealed character and acts, presents offerings of…
- confessions of faith
- confessions of sin
- prayers of petition and intercession
- vows of obedience
- readiness to hear and respond to Godâ€™s Word.
For his part, when his people gather to meet with him, God applies the benefits of his saving grace in Christ to them through…
- the living Word, by which the Holy Spirit renews and transforms his people
- his Sacraments, by which the Holy Spirit reassures and sustains his people
- the koinonia of the Holy Spirit, which produces unity and mutual edification among his people
- the filling of the Holy Spirit, which empowers his people for love and service.
What do you think of this definition?
Important Considerations with regard to the Practice of Worship
If my definition is accurate at all, then this has certain implications about the way a congregation and its pastoral leadership goes about planning and participating in worship services. In the rest of this post, I will explore some of “theÂ more central and significant issues,” in my opinion, with regard to worship. The first is…
DISTRUST OF FORMS
A primary attitude in non-liturgical churches is that worship should not conform to set forms, but should be free and spontaneous. In their eyes, liturgy is seen as set, scripted, vainly repetitive, dull and without spiritual vitality. On the other hand, non-liturgical worship is seen as free, lively, Spirit-led, from the heart, and open to possibility.
In my experience, this dichotomy bears no resemblance to reality.
First, in the free-style evangelical churches where I’ve worshiped, the worship was just as scripted as any liturgy.
- The order basically remains the same week after week.
- A limited number of songs are sung, thus creating a repetitive musical “tradition” within the congregation.
- An annual calendar is followed, though not the Church Year calendar. It takes into account the major Christian holy days, but is based more upon the pastor’s preaching schedule, secular holidays and schedules, and church events.
- Prayers in worship, though “spontaneous,” take on forms that become repetitive.
And so on. The argument is not, and never has been, between “form” and “freedom” (defined as “lack of forms”). The real difference is between one kind of form and another.
Second, those who advocate evangelical free-style worship often fail to grasp the significance of the kinds of forms we use.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “Pastor, it really doesn’t matter what form we use, as long as we worship God from our hearts!” There is a sense in which this is true, of course. Paul and Silas were able to worship and praise God in a Philippian jail cell, without the assistance of a church building, Bibles, musical accompaniment, or comfortable seats. God has never been confined to a building or set pattern of worship, even when he gave Israel specific instructions about how to approach him.
But that is NOT what folks mean when they protest forms. Rather, they are suggesting that they are free to do whatever they enjoy and call it worship, and if a friend comes along and suggests there might be more to it than that, they resist as though someone were trying to deprive them of their liberty.
It is the responsibility of pastors to start, not with people’s preferences, but with the God we worship, as revealed in creation, Scripture, and in Christ and his Gospel. The first question to ask is not, “What will attract people?” Rather, we begin by asking, “Who is God, and what has he done for us?” That question should be our main guide in choosing the forms we use.
That does not mean everyone has to use exactly the same forms in shaping worship. Nor does it mean we have to use only old forms or traditional forms. We need not sing only hymns and reject gospel songs or praise choruses. For that matter, why should we sing songs primarily from English, German, and American sources? Why not integrate songs from God’s family all around the world? And there’s more than music to consider. We need not have only certain forms for hearing Scripture or participating in prayer. We are free in the Spirit to creatively adapt our forms, as long as the forms we use maintain a sense of integrity with God’s revelation.
I’ll give one example. I think contemporary evangelicalism misses the mark and fails to recognize the impact of the forms our worship takes in the area of congregational participation.
- Church buildings now being constructed have auditoriums that are more like concert halls than sanctuaries. These buildings mold us into stage-actors and audience. The form of our architecture tells us that a worship service is something that we attend and others perform.
- In many church services, the only opportunity for congregational participation is through singing. However, even in churches that sing a lot, it is not uncommon for the band and singers on stage to be so dominant that the congregation does not have a sense of lifting their voices together in musical praise. The atmosphere is more like a concert where people show enthusiasm for the music without really being the choir that produces the music.
- In these same services, often the only people who speak during the service are those who speak from the stage. The congregation learns that its main job is to sit and listen.
Now, contrast this with a typical service from the liturgical church we attend:
- Welcome by pastor, with response by congregation
- Gathering song, sung by the congregation (with no “worship leader”â€”we all sing together and follow the instrumentsâ€”same with all hymns and songs)
- Responsive greeting between pastor and congregation
- Sung Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”). One singer, standing at congregation level, leads us by singing the verses and congregation sings the refrain with him.
- Hymn of praise (congregation)
- OT reading, by reader who is member of congregation
- Choral Anthem by adult choir
- NT reading, by reader
- Gospel song, sung by congregation
- Gospel lesson, read by pastor
- Children’s message, children gather at altar and are taught by pastor
- Sermon, by pastor
- Hymn (congregation)
- The Creed (said together by congregation)
- Prayers of intercession (said responsively with reader and congregation)
- Offering, followed by offertory sung by congregation
- Responsive prayer before communion (pastor and congregation)
- Communion, made up of many elements that are responsively read or sung by pastor and congregation, including the Lord’s Prayer, said together in unison. Communion is taken at the altar, distributed by pastor and reader, and a couple from the congregation
- Blessing, by pastor
- Closing hymn
- Announcements, given by pastor and other congregation members
Whatever you might think of the individual elements or how they are practiced in this particular church, you must admit that this service is overwhelmingly congregational. The only extended period of sitting and listening is during the sermon. In every other part of the service, the family of God is actively involved in giving worship to God. In this church, we don’t attend worship, we worship!
Congregational participation is a Gospel value that is integral to genuine worship. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is creating a forever family, and he wants his whole family to be actively involved in worshiping him together. He wants to hear from each one of us, as well as speak to each one of us. He desires that we experience the unity of the Spirit as we lift our voices together to give him offerings of praise. In fact, the word “liturgy” means, “the work of the people.” No spectators allowed when it comes to worship! We should reconsider any forms of “worship” that diminish congregational participation.
DEVALUED OR DISREGARDED MATTERS
In general, liturgical worship is poetic while evangelical worship tends to be prosaic. The liturgical tradition values an aesthetic approach, while evangelicals are much more straightforward, plain and pragmatic. This has led to the stereotype that portrays “high church” worship as elitist, pretentious, and snobbish, while “low church” style is the domain of the common manâ€”honest, direct, speaking straight to the heart.
The following quote from A.W. Tozer (fifty years ago!) represents a voice from within the nonliturgical community that shows the damage done to evangelical worship when we cling to that stereotype and promote the merely pragmatic:
We of the nonliturgical churches tend to look with some disdain upon those churches that follow a carefully prescribed form of service, and certainly there must be a good deal in such services that has little or no meaning for the average participantâ€”this not because it is carefully prescribed but because the average participant is what he is. But I have observed that our familiar impromptu service, planned by the leader twenty minutes before, often tends to follow a ragged and tired order almost as standardized as the Mass. The liturgical service is at least beautiful; ours is often ugly. Theirs has been carefully worked out through the centuries to capture as much beauty as possible and to preserve a spirit of reverence among the worshipers.
…In the majority of our meetings there is scarcely a trace of reverent thought, no recognition of the unity of the body, little sense of the divine Presence, no moment of stillness, no solemnity, no wonder, no holy fear. But so often there is a dull or a breezy song leader full of awkward jokes, as well as a chairman announcing each “number” with the old radio continuity patter in an effort to make everything hang together.A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares, p. 11f
An important element in my journey from evangelicalism to a liturgical tradition was a growing desire for less prose and more poetry in worship. I was looking for…
- A church with a worship space that puts God front and center, focusing attention on him. To put it bluntly, an altar not a stage.
- A worship space that communicates both God’s transcendence and immanence, lifting our faces and hearts upward and gathering us as one family together around the God to whom we look.
- A worship space that is intentionally designed and decorated with elements of beauty that stimulate the imagination and delight the heart and mind.
- A worship service that is personal, hospitable, and authentic, but not “chatty” or “casual.”
- A worship service that encourages the active participation of all worshipers, not one that reduces the congregation to an audience of spectators and listeners.
- A worship service in which the leaders understand the power of words, and use them to lift us into a higher realm of thinking, imagining, and relating to others.
- A worship service that is not just all about analysis and answers, but one that invites us into the mysteries of realities that transcend what our minds can comprehend.
- A worship service that is filled with Scripture, along with time and space to meditate on what God is saying.
- A worship service that honors the sacraments as well as the Scriptures.
- A worship service that allows for holy silence.
- A worship service that both reflects what the Holy Spirit has taught the church over the ages (history and tradition) and what the Spirit is saying to the church today (creativity, spontaneity, freshness).
- A worship service that respects and includes people of all ages and backgrounds.
Transcendence. Mystery. Beauty. Imagination. Silence. Participation. Hospitality. Reverence. Careful and thoughtful preparation, especially with regard to words and atmosphere. These are characteristic of a transforming worship that looks up to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.
Such worship lifts us out of the prosaic and becomes a poetic window to the heavenly, spiritual realm, a foretaste of eternal newness.
Adventures in Missing the Point
Of all that might be said about worship practices, we must not leave this subject without emphasizing THE fundamental truth about worship. It must be said, because in my opinion our worship practices fall short mainly because we forget this truth.
Here it is: WORSHIP IS WHAT GOD’S PEOPLE DO FOR GOD. The word “worship” does not describe what God does, but is a verb assigned to our part in the meeting we call a “worship service.”
We have been conditioned to think, on the contrary, that worship is for US.
- That worship is where I go for my weekly spiritual inspiration.
- That worship is a habit of godliness that keeps me on track in my walk with God.
- That worship is where I go to get spiritually fed.
- That worship is where I go to stay in fellowship with God’s people.
- That worship is where I go to get blessed and filled so that I can go out and face my daily life with God.
- That a worship service is where unbelievers come to hear the Gospel and get saved.
Because we think worship is primarily for us, we get concerned when someone no longer “goes to church.” We think of going to church and attending the worship service primarily as something beneficial for people. And of course, it is! However, we must understand that the benefits we gain from worship are byproducts that accrue from participating in it.
Worship is a verb that describes our actions. Worship is for God. Worship is what we do for God. Worship is God’s people coming together and participating in actions that are directed toward God.
- Bringing offerings to God.
- Giving gifts to God in response to the gifts he has given us in Christ.
- In the call to worship, we are invited to actively praise God.
- In confession, we acknowledge our sins to God.
- In the Creed, we affirm to God that we believe in the revelation of his mighty deeds.
- With our voices and hearts, we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to him.
- We present our material and monetary offerings to him.
- We also offer God our thanks and receptive hearts when we humble ourselves to hear his Word and partake of his Sacraments.
- In worship, we celebrate the Gospel!
Worship is for God, and worship is what his people do. Worship is not a meeting we attend. It is not a concert. It is not a preaching service made up of preliminaries to “warm us up” and then the “real thing”â€”the message and invitation. It is not a missionary endeavor in which an audience of unbelievers is confronted with the Gospel through public proclamation. Nor is it a Bible study or Christian meeting designed primarily for a believer’s spiritual growth and development. All these conceptions of worship assume that the service is directed toward the congregation, that those up front or on the “stage” are those who act on behalf of God, and that the main purpose is for them to give something to those in attendance.
This, however, is not the meaning of the verb “worship.” Worship is what God’s people do for God. Each worship service is like a special occasion on which we honor our great Hero and celebrate his accomplishments in winning a decisive victory. If you and I were invited to participate in a ceremony honoring a war hero, what would that be like?
- We would come together to express our appreciation through words, gifts, rituals, songs, and other activities.
- We would decorate the hall with banners and flags and emblems of victory.
- We would put our hero front and center.
- Every activity would be planned for the purpose of honoring him, all the focus would be on him, and all applause directed toward him.
- Special speakers would tell his story and pronounce his praises.
- The community would feast together.
- Neighbors and family members would give testimonials.
- Presents would be lavished on our hero, and each member of the community would want to say “thank you” personally.
Now, let me ask, would that occasion be a blessing to those who participate? Of course! Such a celebration would uplift and inspire everyone in attendance as well as encourage and challenge them to live a better life. But not because they came in order to receive a blessing. No! Those who came gathered for one purposeâ€”to honor their hero. To lift up his name. To tell the glad story of his achievements. To express appreciation and gratitude to him. To participate in activities that magnified him. As a result, they themselves were blessed. The natural byproduct of honoring another is the blessing that accrues to those who participate.
The flaw in my illustration, of course, is that we are not merely honoring the past acts of a hero. We are meeting with the living God who is present with us and active to transform us. And when we present our worship to him, weak, feeble, and filled with sin though it may be, he receives our offerings and acts toward us in ways that bless us.
Of course, God meets with us in worship. Of course, God blesses his people with his presence. Of course, God teaches us from his Word. Of course, God’s Spirit fills us and transforms us. Of course, we receive food for our journey through the Sacraments. Of course, we are spiritually formed and edified when we meet together in Christ’s name. Of course, if unbelievers join us, they may respond to the Gospel and experience God’s saving grace.
Of course. But the question here today is, what is worship? Answer–the glad offerings we bring in response to God’s grace. As Robert Webber said so succinctly, worship is a verb. We don’t attend worship, we worship.