Worship in the church has been a topic hotly debated over the past few decades. There has been fight after fight concerning the so called Worship Wars that debate over the style of music. In addition there is a regular debate about the Regulative Principle. Yes, Scripture should guide our worship practices, but what about the things Scripture does not speak on like projectors for lyrics, fog machines, and even microphones? With all the variance that accompanies church worship, it is vital for churches to define scriptural principles that help them in planning their Worship time together. One of the reasons churches argue so much over worship is because the theological principles driving their worship are never clarified or communicated. As I continue to think through this issue, here are some Scriptural principles that guide me as I think about worship in the church.
1. Worship Should Center on The Word of God
The preached word of God should be the center point of our worship. In most churches, preaching takes up the dominant amount of time in our worship services. The church has a message to be proclaimed and a message that needs to be heard. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be taught weekly from the Bible. The best method of preaching is Expository Preaching, a method in which the content of the sermon should match up to the content of the Scripture studied. Topical preaching has its occasional place, but the steady diet for corporate worship should be the robust expository teaching of the word of God.
Many think that worship stops after the singing, but no, worship is just beginning. As the preacher stands before the people and heralds Gospel truth and as the people engage with God’s word, they must rejoice over the truth along with the preacher. Christians are people who have had their lives transformed by a truth: the good news of Jesus. Therefore our worship must not only be an emotional experience, but a time grounded in the solid foundation of the truth revealed in God’s word. However worship centered on the word of God is more than preaching but should be a part of everything we do in worship. Whether it is influencing the content of our songs, having corporate scripture reading, or even in our prayers, scripture should be pervasive in our worship time together.
2. Worship Should Be Participatory
It is easy for worship to become a spectator sport. A huge crowd gathers into the room to come and watch the show. We often think of church like coming to a football game where you cheer or criticize the team that is playing, but never participate in the game by stepping on the field. As you sit in your chair, you watch the people on the stage worship but you are just there to spectate. A lot of times churches design their worship services to encourage spectator, consumer Christians by including so many “showy” elements that foster a culture of sitting on the side lines.
This might make me a little bit odd, but this is one reason why I’m not a big fan of special music in churches. I grew up in churches that made this a weekly practice and I’ve even done a few special musics myself in my day. The special music is when every one sits down, gets comfortable and watches a soloist, a choir, or a musician perform. More often than not, the special music rather than encouraging participation facilitates a distant watching.
Worship should be participatory, seeking to get the people engaged in worship. Participatory elements include corporate singing, corporate scripture reading, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, or even sermon notes to help people engage with the sermon message. Worship services should be structured to encourage the worshipers participation in worship rather than encouraging them to be spectators while the “professionals” worship up on stage.
3. Worship Should Be Evangelistic
A key component of worship must be evangelism. There has been vicious debate over what worship should be for, believers or non believers. Well I suggest that the issue is a false dilemma. Worship should seek to both reach the non believer and edify the believers. Every worship service should have a clear, explicit presentation of the Gospel message. Any lost person who happens to visit your worship should be able to walk away knowing how he or she can be saved.
This means that often you have to watch the Christianese that can alienate non-believers. Things must be explained, including the worship order so they can understand what is going on in the service. The non believers should be publicly welcomed and thanked for coming and even addressed specifically in the sermon message. This includes making your church welcoming and hospitable to outsiders, helping them to feel at home when they first come to your church.
4. Worship Should Edify Believers
A key component to worship should be discipleship. The majority of those who come to worship tend to already be believers. They come every week to be encouraged in their walk with Christ and to be fed the word of God for their spiritual growth. Worship should seek to empower and equip believers to live for Christ boldly and confidently. They should leave both challenged and stirred to turn from their sin and live for Christ.
This often comes from the sermon component that seeks to not only evangelize to the lost but also encourage the saints. It is hard to do both simultaneously and some sermons will be catered to one purpose over the other, but we must always try to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This comes through the teaching of the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16-17). Christians might leave challenged and convicted, but they should always leave in the hope of the grace of God that covers their failures and empowers them to live on mission.
5. Worship Should Be Contextual
Worship should be contextual. Worship will look different in different cultures or in different places. To deny that culture does not influence your worship services is to be a liar. The fact that our worship is in a specific language already contextualizes our service which by default reaches out to a specific culture and alienating others. All of our worship has some cultural expressions that are mingled into our time together. This is not always a bad thing, but it is something we must realize happens.
As a result different parts of our country and even different types of people will connect better with different worship styles than others. It is easy to elevate our personal preferences to THE way people must worship, but we must realize that our preferences are just that – preferences. They are not absolute guidelines to be imposed at all churches in all ways.
The question is how far is to far when it comes to contextualizing our worship? Can worship become showy and worldly? Can you over-contextualize in which you actually sacrifice the message of the Gospel? Yes, all those things are very real dangers. There are lines that can be crossed, often dealing with music, which leads us to the next point.
6. Music Should Have Solid Theological Content
The songs we choose for worship should have robust, rich doctrinal content. One of the great and true criticism of the Contemporary Christian Movement is that the lyrics could be very well about their boyfriend or girlfriend rather than Jesus. They often repeat vain ambiguous phrases over and over that could be about anything. So often these lyrics emphasize emotionalism but not doctrinal truth. When Christians get together to sing, they should sing about the Gospel. Even the early Christian hymns we have in the Bible like Philippians 2 or Colossians 1 have highly rich doctrinal content.
Thankfully many are moving back to singing songs that have doctrinal depth such as many of the modern hymns such as “In Christ Alone”. These are powerful songs, done in a modern or contextual way that engages people in worship while still instructing people in truth. The singing portion of worship can also be a time of great teaching. The people of God should sing the Gospel together, which means we need to make sure we are singing about what Jesus has done and not how much we love of our boyfriend or girlfriend.
7. Worship Should Bring God Glory
The focus of our worship should be about God. We are there to bring him glory, honor, and praise. It is so easy to turn our worship times into moments about us. “What can I get out of it?” is a question many ask when they think about worship. Yet, worship is not about us, but about God. As we read in Scripture about those moments of extravagant worship, it is clear to see who the focus is on.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8)
Their attention is totally focused on God and his glory. We come to worship together not to have our ears tickled or to be entertained, but we come to engage in worship with the triune God of the universe. We are there to worship the Father for his wonderful redemptive plan he put in place before the foundations of the earth. We are there to worship the son, for his servitude and humility by taking up the cross and dying in our place. We are there to worship the spirit, which opens our eyes to the truth of the Gospel and empowers us to live for the one true God. This is the worship we must strive for, rigorously God-center and bringing our gracious King glory.
What do you think about these seven principles? Are there any you disagree with or any I left out? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments!