Course: Essentials of Worship
Finally, I would like to give a few thoughts about implications from these principles we have been identifying and some of these key texts, implications for those of us who design and lead the public worship or the congregational or corporate worship of the churches. Again, just an introduction to these things, here are some implications.
Worship should include elements of revelation and response.
First, worship experiences should be designed with elements that help the worshipers in terms of revelation and response. Our worship experiences should have various elements, and every one of those elements should serve the principle of revelation and response.
Scripture readings and biblical preaching
For example, clarity of revelation is helped by having a worship experience that is rich in Scripture readings and biblical preaching. So, if we are serious about worship that is helping the revelation of God that should be reflected in a variety of ways. Let’s put the Scripture front and center. Scripture should be filling our worship times together and biblical preaching as well.
Back in Nehemiah 7–8, when we find Ezra coming out to read the Book of the Law, we see that the Scriptures are read from sunrise to noon while the people stand, apparently, for the entire time and simply hear read the Book of the Law as Ezra reads it standing on a platform before the whole people. So at least six hours of just listening to the Word of God being read.
And then in the passage following that we find that some of the Levites and Scribes among them did the work of interpreting and applying the Scripture that had been read. So there was both scriptural reading and teaching about the Scriptures. And there is a guide for us about what our worship services should look like. We should have much reading of the Scripture.
Paul to Timothy said, “Until I come to you, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” And he also said to him, “Teach the word faithfully.” So, our services should be Bible-rich experiences, Scripture reading and scriptural exposition.
It’s kind of ironic, I think, that many evangelical churches that really pride themselves on being Bible churches actually have far less Bible in them than a lot of other churches that are not very Bible-oriented by appearance. Now what I mean by that is a lot of evangelical churches have done away with Bible reading. There is very little public reading of the Scripture in the churches.
Sometimes a pastor who is a great Bible expositor and attending well to the teaching or explication of the Word may read only one or two verses a week. And that may well be the only Scripture that is read in the service that week. And that’s a very sad thing. We need to trust the authority and the power of the Word of God and let the whole counsel of the Word of God be read to the people and then join to that a commitment to rich, deep biblical exposition in our preaching.
Songs of substance
It also helps revelation when we have songs of substance. Again, to me, the issue is not traditional hymns or contemporary hymns or praise songs; the issue is really substance. Do the songs we sing, whether they are old or new, traditional or contemporary, whatever those terms may mean, really help reveal the truth about God to us? Is there substance in there that clarifies what God has revealed about Himself — God’s person, God’s work, God’s will? Are they songs that are substantial in portraying God’s attributes and acts and desires for us? I think that is important. We can do a lot better than we have done here.
We need to pray for our churches, that God raise up biblically and theologically literate song writers and that it would be their songs that fill the church. This has happened in times past; it can certainly happen again. There are some great songwriters today. If we identify people in the church who are gifted musically, then, just as we would send people we think are gifted preachers to seminary, we should send those who are gifted musically to seminary, or at least give them opportunity for good theological equipment. Songs of substance will help us with the revelation issues.
Testimony and other spiritual gifts
Also I think the careful use, and I would emphasize the careful use, of personal testimony and other spiritual gifts can be appropriate, as long as they are submitted to the sure Word of God. When I hear a testimony, a well crafted, thoughtful testimony, it also reveals to me something about God; that God is alive and active and still in business and still transforming lives today. As long as this is guided by good pastoral care and submitted to the Scripture, I think testimonies and the other wise use of spiritual gifts can be very appropriate and helpful in the area of revelation.
I am a believer, also, that the sacraments are very helpful in the area of revelation. Even in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as the action is taking place and joined to word of explanation, the sacrament becomes for us a retelling of the mighty acts of God in Christ by redeeming us. Baptism also speaks to us of death and resurrection that God has accomplished in our lives. So, sacraments are another way in which content and substance of revelation are brought into the service.
Other kinds of elements in the worship service are particularly helpful in terms of response, the response of the people. Such elements, for example, as congregational and representative prayer; responsive readings of the Scripture, where there is a leader and a response; confessions of sin, time for personal confession and time for group confession; professions of faith, “I believe,” “we believe;” again, opportunities for testimony, both testimonies of praise and thanksgiving and testimonies of requests; saying, the ‘amen' that we read about in 2 Corinthians 1 and 1 Corinthians 14, and all the opportunity to sing and clap and shout and bring our whole being into praise and adoration of God. Also, I do wish we had more songs of lament and weeping in our praise as well, because the church sometimes is called to that type of response. Presentation of our tithes and offerings are appropriate responses as well.
Both revelation and response
A number of elements are helpful, of course, in terms of both revelation and response. For example, a faith confession like the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed helps us with understanding biblical revelation and also helps us to respond with our own credo, our own profession of what we believe.
Songs that may be sung as special presentations, choral songs or group songs or solo songs, done worshipfully also are a response in and of themselves, representative of the people. Also, if the songs are songs of substance, reminders of what God has revealed of his person, his work, and his will.
Again, many hymns and praise songs provide opportunities for both revelation to be clarified and response to be made. The wise use of silence can be a very powerful tool for both contemplation upon what has been said or preached or taught or read or sung, and space for a personal response to what has been said. So silence can be recaptured in our worship gatherings.
Traditional hymns and contemporary praise
I’d urge us to consider how the use of both traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs can be valuable working together in helping us respond well and have clarity of revelation. Here is an example — often hymns provide for a deeper glimpse into truth. Look how a hymn is structured with have multiple verses, old hymnody had many, many verses often for one hymn.
You could take an idea and take it more deeply on a biblical level, a cognitive level, understanding it at the thought level and then take a hymn on a particular doctrine of God or attribute of God or a story of God’s dealing and follow that hymn with a contemporary praise song that is simple. Instead of going into detail about the truth, the praise song can follow the truth with an opportunity for meditation or contemplation upon that truth, help us to linger in the presence of that truth and perhaps to take the truth from our minds into our hearts and digest it a little bit more deeply there.
So, maybe using a hymn of God’s holiness followed by a chorus of God’s holiness can be a wonderful combination, for example. I think it is very doable and good musicians and music leaders who are biblically literate and musically gifted are already doing a great job of blending hymns and praise songs together. There have been a number of people who have done good thought here; Robert Webber certainly is one of the most prolific authors from a Christian Evangelical perspective on the subject of worship. Webber’s many books, Worship Old and New, Worship as a Verb, Blended Worship, are helping the church to think about both/and options, rather than either/or, when it comes to these music traditions or other worship traditions.
Every element of the worship service should help the worshipers in terms of either revelation or response or both of these.
Worship should be Christocentric.
Second implication from what we have said before — the worship should be Christocentric. I think all Christian worship must be Christocentric. Why? First, because Jesus Christ is the final, perfect revelation of God. So, if we say worship is about revelation and response, we affirm that God has revealed Himself most profoundly, most clearly, most perfectly in the person of His Son Jesus.
We know that from a number of passages. John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God.” Then verse 14, “The Word became fresh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 14:9, “If anyone has seen me, he has seen the Father.” Colossians 1:15 and 2:9, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus in bodily form.” “His Son is the exact representation of the invisible God.”
But Jesus is also the perfect example of faithful response to God. When we consider the human life that Jesus lived, the true humanity of Jesus during his earthly sojourn, we find the One who is the absolute epitome of faithful response to God. Doing justice, that is Jesus; loving mercy, that is Jesus; walking humbly with the Father, that is Jesus. Consider how Jesus said, “I can do nothing apart from my Father; I do only what my Father shows me or tells me; apart from the Father I am nothing, can do nothing.” He is the model of humility, the model of justice, the model of love of God and love of neighbor.
So, in Christ we see most clearly both the divine attributes and God’s redemptive actions. In Christ, also most clearly, are revelation of what true human living and worship ought to be. Worship that is Christocentric means, again, that our worship should be gospel-centered. Preaching of the gospel, and the use of the sacraments, especially, are critical in light of these things.
Worship should be Trinitarian.
Implication number three, at the same time, we need to be careful that our worship be Trinitarian. Worship should be Trinitarian. Even with the Christocentric center our praise and prayers should be continually directed to the Father and we should acknowledge that both the revelation we receive and the responses we offer are enabled by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
I have to go back again to Torrance’s definition, worship is our participation through the Holy Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father. We focus on Jesus, even so we direct our praise and prayer to the Father as we are enabled to do so by the Spirit; so worship is Trinitarian.
Worship should counteract the tendency to focus on self and instead emphasize the community.
Implication number four: we have talked a lot about this so I won’t say much more here, but we must counter the tendency of our sinful flesh toward an inappropriately self-centered worship by emphasizing that the community worship experiences are indeed community worship experiences, not simply the gatherings of assorted individuals. We join with one another and with the church catholic, that is, with believers from all ages and from all nations, tribes, and tongues and we should strive, therefore, for more global and historic perspectives in our worship.
This could include the use of songs and hymns from different ages and different cultures, the welcoming of people from different cultures and traditions into our pulpits, and the use of more songs that express ourselves as we/thou than as I/thou, and of the whole forming and shaping of our worship experiences with a view to sensitivity toward all of the body of Christ. So, we come together and think: “Are we discerning the body and what members are getting less attention than they ought to have in our midst?”
We must take opportunities to stretch our understanding about what true worship is and involves.
Number five, here is a word for all of us. As we think about these things, let us take opportunities to stretch the understanding of our members and ourselves about what true worship is and what true worship involves. This can include carefully adding new experiences in worship and providing intentional teaching about the meaning and practices of worship. I would encourage classes on worship periodically, teaching on worship and even preaching on worship. We should move members toward a view of worship that includes an ever-expanding view of God and an understanding that we are to worship Him with our whole beings in all times and in every place. This last point means that we must preach and teach, especially, that worship must extend to the lifestyle commitments of loving God and loving neighbor.