“Worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We’re organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but there is one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We’re not cultivating the art of worship. It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe we ought to search for this until we find it.” (A. W. Tozer, Worship, Christian Publications, n.d., pp. 12, 23-24)
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” – A. W. Tozer
Why We Worship
We are all worshippers. The word “worship” in a simple definition is “to acknowledge the worth” of someone or something. As humans we are constantly praising sports teams, musicians, nature and ourselves, along with a plethora of other achievements. While most of these are good and worthwhile, we can miss the One from whom all worthy things come, God. One reason we worship is to satisfy our God given hunger for Himself. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “He [God] has also set eternity in the human heart.” Mankind’s desire to find ultimate worth only finds ultimate resolution in the eternal life found in Jesus Christ. As theologians have said the purpose of man is “to glory God and enjoy him forever.” Another reason we worship is that we are commanded to. Those who know the Old Testament can point to the first four of the ten commandments to hear loudly proclaimed “I am the Lord your God.” “You shall have no other gods before me.” “You shall not make for yourself an image.” “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” From the New Testament we are commanded by Paul “In view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is your act of spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). While we live in a society that does not like to be commanded to do anything, we must realize these commands are for our very own good. Rather than letting our hearts pander after lesser things, God wants us to continue to recognize and attend to Himself as the Worthy One.
God created man ‘very good’ but Adam derailed this goodness by his sinful rebellion. I, too, have sinned against a Holy God and deserve eternal separation from God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid the penalty for my sins. My faith in Christ and his work has brought me from death to life. This good news satisfies my soul daily as I enjoy union with Christ, my vine. My daily failures point me to my need for the cross. His forgiveness and steadfast love is the foundation of my salvation. The good news of Christ’s work on the cross is the foundation by which we are able to begin a life of worship. The gospel is central to my life and ministry.
Worship as a Lifestyle & Corporate Worship
When considering the biblical commands for worship, we quickly realize they refer not merely to an event in the temple or worship service. We are commanded to worship God with our entire life. Our bodies are the living sacrifice that are to be constantly offered to God. How we relate to parents, sibling and neighbors can be an offering to God. How we work, play and interact with all of nature is part of our worship.
There is another sense in which we worship. It is those moments where we gather together with other and do together things which God’s people are commanded to do together. The Old Testament is full of feasts, sacrifices, offerings and rituals that the people of Israel together recognized as special acts of worship. As Christians, even though we are part of the new covenant, we can learn from their acts of worship the priority and holiness of God. The New Testament is less prescriptive of corporate worship gatherings. There are commands for coming together regularly, taking communion, reading scripture, praying, preaching, singing that are traditionally grouped together in what Christians call worship services. Both worship as a lifestyle and corporate worship are important categories for Christian growth and faith.
It is a fruitful exercise to think through who the audience in our worship gatherings is. Kierkegaard has famously used the analogy of the theater to talk about audience. In his analogy, God is the audience, the congregation are the actors, and the minister is the prompter. This is a helpful analogy that keeps God as the primary audience, heart-focus and reason for our worship. It keeps us from thinking that the minister is the audience (as one we seek approval from). It keeps us from becoming passive in our worship as though the congregation is heart-focus of worship. The analogy works well to a point. With God as audience, we might begin to assign God himself a passive role. We might also find ourselves as congregation members/leaders attempting to gain the audience’s approval. God invites us and seeks us out to be in relationship with him on the basis of Christ’s death on our behalf, not because of our works. In this way, God is not solely the audience, he is in fact the Author of the Play, the Great Protagonist, and by his very presence, an actor in the drama.
I like the use of the analogy in part because so many people have given ‘performance’ in worship services a bad name. As musicians and artists, there is no way NOT to perform a piece of music. Problems arise not from the word ‘performance’, but from within the ‘heart’ of the performers–their attitudes and motivations. Certainly, an attitude of humility, gratitude, wonder and praise are our intended motivations. Those who participate in this performance by listening have the opportunity to ‘perform’ as well. Offering their hearts in prayer, gratitude, wonder and praise for the gifts that are given. Indeed, furthering the Kierkegaard analogy, God himself often performs during these moments: He heals, corrects, inspires, unites, guides, rebukes, comforts, melts and molds.
As worship ministry goes, the primary audience is God and thus. Content is planned for believers to heartily engage in. Non-believers are included in worship, however, by being in services and are witnessed to by those who sing and speak. Indeed, many non-believers will sing and participate along with the believers. Non-believers are also gifted artistically, and it is good to think through where they might have the opportunity to share their gifts. Their participation in a worship service needs to be given permission by church leadership.
Focus of Sunday Services
Sunday Services are designed for believers and seekers. By definition, worship that is acceptable to God can only be accomplished by believers (Heb 11:6). The content of weekly meetings, however, can be done in such a way that non-believers are convicted and convinced to become believers (1 Cor. 14:24). Their presence ought to be continually acknowledged and encouraged. The language used ought to be understandable to the common man. The purpose of worship, however, ought never be manipulated by the presence of non-believer. The priority of biblical preaching and the expressive worship of God are to be maintained. Non-believers will see and witness the greatness of God by those who worship Him (Psalm 105).
The Purpose of Sunday Morning Messages
During seminary I was trained as an expositional preacher. In my experience, the purposes of services have been adjusted from week to week depending on leadership’s objective. The purpose of a Sunday morning service ought to be determined by the leadership of a given church. If Sunday is the main worship gathering of a congregation (as is traditional), then its focus ought to be on building the believer through preaching the Word of God, prayer, and encouraging the fellowship of believers (Acts. 2:42). These are things that believers have done since the early church. Since believers are also desperately in need of the gospel, sharing the good news ought to be a regular part of weekly worship gatherings. The message should be communicated in such a way that non-believers understand and are convicted and convinced of the gospel. Evangelism is a process, so using the Sunday morning service as a main evangelism vehicle is hardly enough. Believers ought to be regularly equipped and commissioned to share their faith within their sphere of influence. If statistics are true that a non-believer needs to hear the gospel at least seven times and from at least four people, then it is not only the pastor’s responsibility, but the entire church’s responsibility to make the gospel winsome to outsiders. Responses to the gospel message may be planned carefully such that hearers can respond to the good news.
Since the New Testament doesn’t prescribe style of worship, I have tended to hold my preferences at bay when it comes to which style I prefer to attend or create. I believe in a balance of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). I believe there are strengths and weaknesses to both Contemporary and Traditional models of worship. My youth worship experience tended to be entirely contemporary. First Free went from Blended to mostly contemporary. If I am the worship pastor at a church, I will inevitably do better with a mostly contemporary format, as my skills are in that area. In the worship seminar that I created several years ago, I describe four elements a service needs to be effective. They are prayer, the Word of God, creative expression, and personal experience. Each of these areas needs attention, effort and evaluation. The creative expression would usually be in the form of music, but could also include other art forms, written for singing and/or appreciation by the congregation. The personal experience element (testimonies, personal introductions, etc.) ensures the hearts of the non-musical in the congregation are engaged, and the invitation of worship leaders is expressed.
Leadership in Worship Ministry
Because worship ministry is a teaching ministry and men are challenged to be the spiritual leaders of the church, it is best if a man leads in corporate gatherings of worship. This could be either the pastor, an elder, or a gifted lay leader. Women may also lead given they are submitted to the authority of a male leader.
While at minimum, a single leader can lead corporate worship, a plurality of leaders leading in corporate worship more accurately represents the biblical model of plurality in church leadership. As much as possible, church leaders ought to be active in planning and participating in leading in corporate worship (prayer, scripture reading, playing music, sharing testimonies, etc.). Certainly, such participation requires more communication and planning, but ultimately results in more engaging corporate worship.
As for musical leadership in worship, we can learn from the music ministry David set up in 1 Chronicles 25. Musicians were set up in rotations, younger musicians were included with older musicians, and skill in musical ability was valued and encouraged.
From a practical standpoint, I look to develop teams rotating every 3 or 4 weeks that keep team members engaged in playing yet allow for sharing the musical duties with others. Certain team members may play for multiple teams as their availability allows and the team needs demand. I prefer to work with only 1 or 2 other singers rather than a large singing ensemble. Unless the skill level of singers is high, a larger number of singers requires more rehearsal time to ensure a unified and blended sound. If there is interest by a large enough number of singers (10+), a worship or gospel choir should be developed.
Use of the Christian Year
Over the centuries, the Christian Church has developed many traditions for gathered worship, one of which is the annual “Christian Year.” I do not feel bound to the Christian Year as a worship model but have found it helpful in engaging the minds and hearts of the faithful. The Christian year, in general, is familiar and familiarity often helps people to engage in worship.
Advent: The four Sundays leading up to Christmas anticipate the second coming of Christ while remembering His first coming. All but one of these Sundays is intended to be somber and preparatory in anticipating the King, as represented by the blue or purple candles in the Advent wreath. The rose-colored candle celebrates joy and is a relief from the penitential nature of the other Sundays. The center white candle, or “Christ” candle, is lit on Christmas Eve. While I am not convinced that we need to fast and do penance during Advent, I believe that setting a tone of longing for the King is appropriate for the season. Many churches choose to do the full array of Christmas music repertoire during this season; however this does not help our hearts worship. Simply singing Christmas carols for the sake of having an opportunity to sing them does not build anticipation in our hearts. Our culture will play Christmas music ad nauseum for the two months, but it does not understand the weighty nature of Advent. Singing of Advent and Christmas songs needs to be done thoughtfully to build towards a climax at Christmas. Some Advent songs are: O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent. On the contemporary side: Sing to the King (Passion), Even So Come (Tomlin)
Epiphany: This day celebrates the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, in particular to the Magi who came to worship him. “We Three Kings” is appropriate here.
Lent: I have found it helpful to have prolonged devotions on the cross during lent, though I have not personally fasted from any particular thing during Lent. I am open to other experiences that celebrate lent.
Palm Sunday/Good Friday/Easter: This week begins by celebrating the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Often Children are involved in a re-enactment emphasizing the Lord’s reign. Good Friday celebrates the Lord’s death. Many great creative services can engage our hearts to remember Christ’s suffering. These include a biblical “Stations of the Cross,” “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” and “Tenebrae.” Many great, age-old hymns fit this season: Were You There?, The Old Rugged Cross, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, etc. Easter Sunday is often the climax of the Christian Worship for the year, celebrating the resurrection of Christ. While it is the temptation of every church to pull out all the stops for this Sunday, one must gauge one’s self if following the Christian year. Traditional Easter worship lasts six Sundays, until Ascension Sunday. That being said, there is plenty of time during those seven weeks to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with the rich anthology of resurrection hymns written throughout history. Modern churches often use the Easter service as commercial for the church to set up a ‘practical’ or ‘relevant’ series that follows the weeks after Easter—a series that new folks or unchurched folks might be particularly interested in, i.e. Relationships, Money, etc.
Pentecost Sunday: Celebrated on the 7th Sunday after Easter, this Sunday includes the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Songs and experiences highlight the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
Trinity Sunday: This somewhat more rarely celebrated Sunday follows Pentecost Sunday and focuses on the dynamic relationship of our triune God. There are many Trinity-inclusive songs that ought to be sung throughout the year, including: Holy, Holy, Holy; Come Thou Almighty King; and others.
Ordinary Time: This term refers to the period between Easter and Advent and services focus on life in the Kingdom of God in all its various expressions. Services in general focus on the character of God and remembering his deeds.
Use of Spiritual Gifts
The sense that the sign gifts were used in the New Testament to verify the authority of Christ and the apostles is no longer necessary, given that we now possess the authoritative Word of God. However, there is no directive in Scripture to say that tongues or miracles necessarily cease. It ought to be the regular practice of believers to pray for healing and anoint for healing. If God would give the ability to speak in a tongue in a public service, it ought to be interpreted (1 Cor. 14:27).
Cultural and Ethnic Diversity
When the church was born at Pentecost it was extremely diverse (Acts 2). It struggled to avoid favoritism by appointing leaders of different ethnicities, namely, Greeks (Acts 6). Later, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles was demolished (Eph. 2:14). Whenever possible, a church should embrace the unity that can be found in the diversity of its people. At First Free, one of the ways I did this was by incorporating several musical styles into our mix. I also asked worshipers of different generations and ethnicities to read scripture or pray. While I encourage diversity, I also believe it should be genuine, and not forced. A church should reflect its neighborhood. If a church is in a town that is not racially diverse, diversity may be embraced in other ways (for example, adopting a sister church in a different country) instead of expecting the town to change.
Though the historic church was insistent upon singing the Psalms, the modern church has all but abandoned psalm singing. There is much need for teaching concerning these ancient prayers and songs. I remain committed to attempting to embrace and integrate Psalms into corporate worship as much as possible. I want to encourage people to yet again understand the Psalter, sing the Psalms and embrace the complexities of a psalm-filled spiritual life. I have written about 15 full-length psalm songs appropriate for worship. Some are for congregational, others for ‘special’ music.
There are several methods ‘liturgies’ I have followed. Even non-liturgical churches follow a liturgy, they just don’t call it that. Rick Warren uses the acronym “IMPACT” to describe a simple liturgy:
Inspired Movement, Praise, Adoration (more intimate), Commitment and “Tie it together.” A more recent discovery of mine found the worship service flow used by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York to be useful. It emphasizes scripture, silence, and music to emphasize the gospel every week. Another, liturgy I often followed was used for Concerts of Prayer. These events were whole-church prayer events designed to make the average prayer gathering more engaging. We would take people through movements of ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), “Bless, Confess, Request”, or some other intentional prayer strategy.
It is important for every person to prepare personally for corporate worship. As a worship singer, it is important to pray through the words of all songs to make sure they are coming from our heart. As a musician, it is essential rehearse the music privately and corporately so that the experience with group is as undistracted as possible. Prayer and time together as a group also gives integrity to the group leadership experience. If those who are leading are loving each other, those who are being led will notice and be inspired to do the same.
Symbols: Baptism and Communion
Baptism by water is an outward sign of an inward repentance (Acts 2:38). Water baptism does not save a person, rebirth by the Spirit does (Tit. 3:5; Jn. 3:6-8). For the believer, baptism is obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28:19) and the example of the early church (Acts 2:41; 8:36; 16:33; 18:8). A water baptism, as done to the believer represents the washing away of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). In baptism, a believer identifies with the death (going down into the water), burial (being under water), and resurrection (coming up out of the water) of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12). The only requirement of candidates for baptism is true conversion to faith in Christ (Acts 10:47). Baptism’s effect on its recipient is to experience the joy of obeying Christ (Matt. 28:19).
While infant baptism has similarities to Old Testament circumcision as symbolizing belonging to the family of God (Col. 2:11-13), it fails to have the same experiential meaning for its subject, i.e. faith precedes baptism (Acts 8:12). Infant baptism does not have the same strong biblical support as believer baptism. A better method than infant baptism is a child dedication service whereby parents, extended family, and church members are commissioned to support and nurture a spiritual environment for a child (Deut. 6:4-9). While I do not advocate for infant baptism, I am not opposed to it.
The Lord’s Supper is one of the most important moments in history that Jesus calls us to live and relive. The night before He died, Jesus called His disciples to remember Him and His sacrificial death when they ate and drank together (Lk. 22:17-22). He forever redefined the Passover meal they were enjoying by announcing a new covenant in His blood (Lk. 22:20). Believers ever since have, at different intervals of regularity, kept this memory and heart-engaging celebration. Scripture urges us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a worthy and introspective manner (1 Cor. 11:20-28). The Lord’s Supper may be alluded to in John 6 when Jesus confronts some shallow followers of His by calling them to either “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” or face not having eternal life in Him. This passage confused the Jews, just as did Jesus’ call to be born again confused Nicodemus (Jn. 3). In both cases, the use of metaphor points us to spiritual rather than physical realities.
The practice of baptizing and taking communion externally reveals the reality of belonging to the Body of Christ. In both cases, what matters is not so much the mode, but the essence of faith and motive in the act. Baptism pictures our identification with His death, burial, and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the sacrifice of Jesus for His people. In eating and drinking, we are proclaim that Christ’s death is for us (1 Cor. 11:26), and we experience His life (Jn. 6:53-58). The sacrifice was not purely meant for individuals, but for the community of individuals, thus a baptism alone or taking of the Lord’s Supper alone lacks the communal value that Jesus intended (“you” in Lk. 22:19 is plural). Doing these ordinances together builds up relationships in the community of faith and celebrates what God has done.
There are many books I’ve found influential in my worship journey. Here are a few of them:
- The Bible
- Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin
- Worship By the Book, Donald Carson, ed.
- Worship Evangelism, Sally Morgenthaler
- Desiring God, Piper
- Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
- The Complete Worship Leader, Kevin Navarro
- Stirred By a Noble Theme, Shead.
- The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Robert Webber, ed.
Recruiting and Training/Development
1 Chronicles 25 is remarkable in the Old Testament music worship system because it integrates the training and development of young musicians. I believe that corporate worship ought to include avenues for people of all ages to participate in singing, reading, and praying. Children’s choirs can work to tell biblical stories in fresh and engaging ways. Youth bands and youth choirs can develop alongside adult bands and choir to help form mature Christian musicians. I’ve worked with many youth in the past to develop their playing ability through lessons (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) so that they can participate alongside adults in worship services. Usually, there is little ‘musical pressure’ on the youngsters, but having the experience of playing with the adults usually motivates the students to practice by setting them a goal. Eventually, the younger musicians have contributions of their own they want to make to the musical group. By integrating youth and adults, the youth develop musically much faster than doing a youth ‘only’ band. It typically has taken me 3 years to develop a youth band able to perform on their own.
To facilitate musical development, often I’ve used a VBS, a coffeehouse, or a week of camp as a goal for a group to work towards. These ‘fun’ trips give life together experiences for the participants and build musical skill, not to mention expand ministry vision.
If a musician is interested in playing, generally I facilitate an interview and an informal audition with the individual to assess their abilities. Sometimes I will include another worship team member in this process so that there is more perspective on the new person.