We have been created to glorify God and that is the primary purpose of worship, whether done publicly or privately (1 Cor. 10:31-33). Jesus stated that His desire was to be worshiped in spirit and truth (John 4:24). This means that we cannot worship God any way that we please, for the Bible warns, “Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil” (Ecclesiastes 5:1; see context of 5:1-7). In order to walk prudently (in the fear of the Lord) as we approach God in worship, some guiding principles are essential for corporate worship gatherings. The following are the basic principles by which I would propose the planning and practicing of corporate worship each week:
1 – Proper worship focuses on God. We were created to worship and God has commanded us to worship Him alone (Exodus 20:3-5; Revelation 22:9). Therefore, worship should be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’ Further, it should be noted that God has outlined in Scripture how He desires to be worshipped. Therefore, as we prepare our hearts for worship it is essential to remember that worship is about God, not us.
Dr. Don Whitney says, “Worship is, by definition, the worship of God. So why would you include something in your worship service that doesn’t focus on God? Go through your order of service and ask of every element, ‘Does this focus on God?’ If not, either remove that element or push it to the beginning or end of the worship gathering. Specifically, items like the announcements, the welcome of guests, and greeting one another may have a legitimate place, but they should be accomplished in a way where they won’t break people’s focus on the Lord. Schedule them just before or after the time when God is the exclusive focus.” (Ten Ways to Improve Your Church’s Worship Service)
2 – Proper worship has clear Biblical support. God’s Word (the Bible) must be the basis for examining every element of corporate worship. God knows how He wants to be worshiped and He has given us direction in His Word regarding what He desires. We should examine every worship activity in light of the Word. Where there is clear scriptural warrant we should practice that element. Those things which find no basis in Scripture should be suspect as to their value in worship. This does not mean that such things can never be done – they should, however, only be done during those gatherings that are not called “worship.”
There are ten things that I have found solid biblical support for in corporate worship. It is not necessary for all ten to be done in every worship gathering but these are those elements which are clearly defined and commanded in Scripture: (1) Read Scripture – 1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Luke 4:16-17; (2) Teach/Preach the Word– 2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:6,13; 5:17; 6:2; Tit. 1:9; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Cor. 14:26; Acts 20:20-21; (3) Pray – Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 18:1; Acts 2:42; 4:24; 12:5; 1 Cor. 14:19; Col. 4:2; (4) Sing (use music) – Matt. 26:30; 1 Cor. 14:26 (solos); Eph. 5:18-20; Col. 3:16; Heb. 2:12; Psalm 100; (5) The Ordinances, Baptism – Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 8:12, 36-38; 10:46-48; 16:15, 25, 33; 18:8; 22:12-16; 1 Cor. 1:14-17; and the Lord’s Supper – Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; 10:16-17; (6) Giving Thanks, Testimonies, and Encouragement, Thanks – Eph. 5:18-20; Phil. 4:6; I Thess. 5:18; Heb. 13:15; Testimony – Rev. 12:11; 1 Pet. 3:15; 1 John 1:1-4; Acts 1:8; Matt. 10:32-33; John 15:27; Encouragement – Heb. 10:24-25; Rom. 15:1-2; John 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 12:25-27; Gal. 5:13-15; Gal. 6:1-10; Rom. 12:1-21; 15:14; 2 Cor. 1:4-6; Eph. 4:2, 32; Col. 2:2; (7) Giving of Tithes and Offerings – Acts 2:43-47; 1 Cor. 9:9-11; 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 9:5-11; Gal. 6:6-10; Phil. 4:15-19; Mal. 3:8-10; (8) Silence (or meditation) – Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13; Hab. 2:20; Ps. 1:1-3; 46:10; Rom. 3:19; (9) Be JOYFUL!!! – Is. 35:10; 56:7; Ps. 33:3; 47:1-2; 51:12; Ezra 3:11; Luke 15:10; Acts 13:52; (10) Do God’s Will– John 9:31; Ps. 34:15; Prov. 15:29; Rev. 7:10-17.
3 – Proper worship has expository biblical preaching as the central point. Preaching must be the primary form of the Word in our worship, because this is the model Jesus and His disciples left for us (Luke 4:43; Romans 10:14-15) and because we are commanded to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Perhaps worship services would be better labeled if they were referred to by the type of preaching taking place rather than the type of music being sung. One of the clearest passages of Scripture authenticating this point is Nehemiah chapter 8. Ezra stood behind a pulpit and read the Word of God and then his assistants explained the meaning of the Word to the people. This revival at the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem was of great significance in the life of Israel as never again did the nation fall prey to idolatry. The preaching of the Word in worship had a profound impact on the entire nation.
Dr. Albert Mohler has correctly said, “Authentic expository preaching is marked by three distinct marks or characteristics: authority, reverence, and centrality. Expository preaching is authoritative because it stands upon the very authority of the Bible as the word of God. Such preaching requires and reinforces a sense of reverent expectation on the part of God’s people. Finally, expository preaching demands the central place in Christian worship and is respected as the event through which the living God speaks to his people.” (Expository Preaching and the Recovery of Worship, Part 3, from http://www.crosswalk.com/news/mohler).
4 – Proper worship is Christ-focused. Jesus Christ is the image of God, the creator, sustainer and reconciler of creation, and the head of the church (Colossians 1:15-20). It pleased God to reveal Himself through the Son and to reconcile us to Himself through Jesus’ death. So with the disciples, we worship Jesus Christ (John 20:28). Jesus is the focus of our worship because Jesus is the focus of the Father’s work. (Some churches err by making the Holy Spirit the focus of their worship, but Scripture clearly reveals that the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to glorify Jesus, Acts 18:5; John 15:26; 16:13-15; 1 John 5:6; Rev. 19:10.)
5 – Proper worship requires spiritual life. The Bible makes it clear that we are born into this world as sinners, children of wrath, and we are dead to God (Ephesians 2:1-3). However, by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:4-10), we are made alive to God and dead to sin (Romans 6:1-14). Only those who have been made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit can truly worship God. These are the true worshipers that God seeks (John 4:21-24). This has much to say to worship gatherings that are designed as “seeker-sensitive.” The Bible says that no man seeks God (Romans 3:11; Psalm 14:2-4; Isaiah 9:13; 65:1f), yet, in John 4, Jesus says that “the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” This would lead me to the conclusion that perhaps our worship gatherings should be “Seeker sensitive, or Christ sensitive.”
Some would argue that if you do not structure worship to accommodate the unchurched or unsaved, then they will not come to your church and will remain in their sins. It is hard to find a theology or philosophy of evangelism in the Bible that says worship is a method of evangelism. Actually, the opposite can be found. In addressing the corporate worship of the Corinthian church the Apostle Paul made it clear that the “uninformed,” or “unbelievers,” who came to church would be “convinced” (evangelized, saved) not by a style of worship or even by the preaching, but by the changed lives of the members of the church (1 Corinthians 14:22-25). Surely, we should offer a gospel invitation to the hearers of the Word when we gather in worship, but the focus of the worship service should be on God and not man – even if that focus is to lead a person to Christ. Proper worship will create opportunities to counsel and visit with the unchurched. The greatest issue of import in the evangelizing of our lost friends and family members is influence. We must live godly and holy lives, so that our testimony will give us the opportunity to share Christ with them. They will come to church if, and only if, they see that coming to church (in truth, it is having a relationship with Christ) makes a real difference in our life and behavior. (There may be great value in the occasional “evangelistic service” or “revival” meeting whose primary purpose is the reaching of the lost; after all, what better place to conduct such meetings than the House of God, the local church?).
6 – Proper worship should be a time of celebration, inspiration, and edification. The Bible says we are to “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, … to come before His presence with singing, to know that Lord, He is God, to enter His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise, … to be thankful to Him, and bless His name” (Psalm 100). This is celebration, we should be glad to go to the house of the Lord to worship (Psalm 122:1). God is worthy to be praised and it is a privilege for His saints to bow before Him in adoration and praise. Although worship is all about God, it will benefit us and cause us to grow in our love for Him and one another. This is inspiration – true worship should inspire us to greater love for the Lord and each other and to new heights of service (Romans 12:1-2). And, though worship is about God and not us, true worship should build up believers in both mind and heart, “until we all attain the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man” (Ephesians 4:11-13). This is edification, being built up into a mature believer in Christ.
7 – Proper worship is more than corporate worship on Sunday. As believers in Christ, we are not to neglect the Lord’s Day worship gatherings of our local church (Hebrews 10:24-25). However, true worship must become a daily habit. We are to give our entire lives over to God as a living and holy sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2). That means we should worship God in every aspect of our lives, every single day of our lives. This type of daily walk with the Lord will surely enhance the public worship of any church, if the members are inclined to walk daily with the Lord in the spirit of holiness.
8 – Proper worship involves a biblical basis for music selection. One of the most critical aspects of worship leadership in our present cultural situation is that of the musical content of our worship services. There are two areas that need to be addressed: the lyrical content of the music chosen and the type or genre of the music itself. The lyrics of songs used in worship should be doctrinally sound and not need convoluted explanations; they should be clear and easily understood. Much in modern music is doctrinally weak and sometimes just plain false. Regardless of the style of music, the words should honor God and be in line with Scriptural principles. The style itself, however, is not unimportant. Frankly, I find the terms “traditional,” “blended,” and “contemporary” to be somewhat confusing because I’m not sure anyone really knows what constitutes one as opposed to the other. Many churches are having several different styles of music in a variety of worship services and sometimes worship settings, apparently in order to attract people who would enjoy the type of music used in that service. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but worship isn’t about us, it’s about God. This methodology is all too often “man-centered.” Since worship is about God, it should be centered on Him. If worship honors and glorifies the Lord, then all of us should be satisfied and joyous in the process. We should strive for excellence and work to maintain a “God focus” in all of our efforts at corporate worship.
While I find much in contemporary music to be shallow and some to present false doctrine or inaccurate concepts, I must admit that there are some old songs, some hymns if you will, that also would not pass a strict biblical test. I also have discovered that there are choruses or songs of a contemporary nature that are taken directly from Scripture. The question we need to ask is this: does the Bible instruct us in what kind of music to use? The answer is yes! “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the feat of God” (Ephesians 5:18-21). What are “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs?” Clearly, the “psalms” are songs that are based on the book of Psalms in the Bible, which was Israel’s hymnbook. In the context I believe this could include any songs where you sing the words of Scripture. The word in Greek actually refers to songs typically accompanied by instruments. It would seem to me that this would easily please God since He authored the words Himself. “Hymns” are songs of praise and those which teach doctrine. One of the reasons that churched people are so ignorant of the basic doctrines taught in the Word of God is that they no longer sing the great hymns which extolled those doctrines. “Spiritual songs” are choruses or hymns that honor and praise the Lord, preparing our hearts to hear from Him in worship. We should not make too much of the distinction in these terms, “As to the definitions of these terms, Expositors (Bible Commentary) says: ‘What the distinctions are, if any, between the three terms, has been considerably disputed. Psalms are religious songs, especially those sung to a musical accompaniment and par excellence an O.T. psalm; hymns are properly speaking songs of praise; songs, the most general term, are applicable to all kinds of songs, secular or sacred, accompanied or unaccompanied. The three words are brought together here with a view to rhetorical force, and it is precarious, therefore, to build much upon supposed differences between them.’”1 Please note that the quote is referring only to the word “songs.” The addition of the word “spiritual” would mean that using secular music in worship is inappropriate.
Influence is another important issue in my mind in the structure of worship. When churches have differing styles of music in several different services, it will be a matter of course that the elderly members will gravitate to the more traditional service and the younger generation will go to the more contemporary service. Do we really want to lose this tremendous force of influence over our younger generations? I shutter to think where I would be today had it not been for the tremendous influence of older saints in the church in which I grew up. I remember in particular the influence of L. H. Thompson. He was the director of the ushers in our church. He took an interest in me and made me a part of the usher crew as a teenager. His influence on my life was significant and had there been a service for “youth” I would have attended that and lost the influence of this godly man in my life.
For the sake of the Kingdom, we must find a way that we can all worship together. Worship should cause us to recognize the greatness of our God and create within us a thirst for a closer walk with the Lord. Pastors and music leaders must work together to create an atmosphere of genuine worship where young and old alike can experience the joy of the Lord, hear from heaven, and leave encouraged to be more faithful in their daily walk with the Lord.
1Wuest, K.S. (1997, c1984). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English reader (Eph 5:18). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.