Any complete discussion about worship must begin with the worship of individual believers. Face to face with God Himself, each believer stands alone! This always has been true; it will always be true. Indeed, worship will be the vocation of believers forever in glory. Furthermore, individual worship is not confined to a specific act or place; it is also a matter of lifestyle. It is entirely proper to speak of worship in life and worship in attitude.
Thus I recognize that corporate worship flows from individual worship. Individual worshippers gather to worship in community. Yet simply being part of a worshipping community does not guarantee genuine worship. So, my focus is on community worship—not the mere collective worship of individuals, but rather the corporate worship of the organized church. Thus, individual worship is assumed.
It is also important to acknowledge the pervasive role that the non-preaching elements of worship, or worship style, plays in the church culture of our day. Rightly or wrongly, worship style is a critical element some people consider in selecting a church.
So the matter of the corporate worship of the church must be discussed. It is my observation that every church has a philosophy of worship, even if it is not formally documented. Things are done a certain way. Usually, certain things are acceptable while others are not.
What follows, then, are some pithy observations designed to guide the church in making decisions about its corporate worship. Hence I am not giving a detailed theological statement. For sake of clarity, these observations are divided into two groups: first, observations drawn from instances of collective worship or directives about worship found in the New Testament and second, observations drawn from New Testament texts dealing with worship in general.
Observations from Gathered Worship Texts
People of God will usually have a place to worship together (John 4:20-22). The fact that Jesus does not prescribe one place over another does not mean that having a place is unimportant. In fact, Jerusalem was the proper place for worship in the Old Testament economy; however, in the New Testament economy, the place is not important (Philemon 1:2). The broader notion is that gathering in a distinct place for worship is an unspoken assumption.
God requires worship that is both subjective and objective (John 4:23-24). Characteristics of true worship are stated here. Genuine worship is done in “spirit” and in “truth.” The Father is looking for those who worship in this way. Worship in “spirit” is subjective worship. It encompasses feelings and emotions. It is both joy and sorrow. It is intangible rather than ritualistic. It embraces the internal rather than the external.
Yet genuine worship also must be in “truth.” As such it is objective and must have divine truth as its core. Thus exposition of the Scripture is a central part of genuine corporate worship. It is also instructive to note that this truth is expressed primarily in Jesus. These two elements of worship complement rather than compete with one another.
Genuine worship is a lively affair (Revelation 4:8-10; 5:9-14; 7:10-11)! Spontaneity and energy characterize the gathered worship of the church in heaven. Admittedly, this scene is unique. God Himself is personally present in a way not so this side of glory. Yet it makes sense that we should want to replicate here on earth the tenor of our future heavenly worship.
Genuine worship is supremely participatory (Revelation 5:9-14; 7:10-12). There should normally be a response to worship as the resounding “amen” suggests. Included in the response of worship is giving back what God has given to us. This stewardship is seen in the saints casting before His throne the crowns awarded them. And the antiphonal nature of this scene suggests that this worship is progressive—it breeds more worship. Yet in the midst of this active worship, the focus is always on the splendor and sovereignty of the Son, never on the participants (4:9-11).
Corporate singing is a significant part of genuine worship (Revelation 5:9-14). Indeed, I am convinced that singing is a central element of true worship. The music of the church—congregational singing, instrumental music, and up-front ministries such as choir, small group, or individual presentations—is essential to worship. Unfortunately, as then pastoral associate, Riley Kern lamented “. . . see singing as something that they have to put up with until they get to the good stuff!”
This same person also cautions: “Meaningful worship cannot be defined by style or presentation, as many today attempt. What makes worship meaningful has nothing to do with the instruments used, style of song, or graphics/technology. What makes worship meaningful is excellence and sinceritys … The most wooden anthem can be incredibly exhilarating when played and sung with absolute sincerity. By the same token, the liveliest chorus can be dry, boring, and cold when played and sung without spirit and enthusiasm. Whatever style of music we choose for any worship service, we must be committed to excellence and sincerity.”
The church’s singing is described as “new.” Undoubtedly the reference is primarily to the “new” concepts of Christ and the cross. These songs can be newly written or old, but regardless, they are “new.” In the Old Testament, new songs focused on new experiences with God. In the New Testament, the focus is on Christ. So the new song (5:9) says nothing per se about the time the song is written. It simply says the redeemed sing about redemption and all the corollaries thereof. By definition, this singing is not limited to the singing of the Psalms. So the church sings!
Genuine worship is continuous (Revelation 5:9-14; Romans 12:1). Worship that is confined to Sunday is flawed. And our worship should not stop when we leave the building (4:8).
Worship does not produce right standing with God (Hebrews 9:14; 10:2). No worship, whether Old Testament or New Testament, can purify a man’s conscience. Only Christ’s sacrificial offering can produce a transformation of soul. Rather, the situation is that those who have had their consciences cleansed can thus worship. Worship is not a magical ritual.
Worship is a privilege (Hebrews 12:28; 13:10; 10:19-22). Worship and service are possible only because of grace. Therefore, the people of God should thank God for the privilege of worship. Furthermore, Christ has inaugurated a new and living way of worship in stark contrast to the Old Testament way.
A variety of elements were included in the corporate gatherings of the church (Acts 13:2; 14:27; 1 Corinthians 11:22). The public meetings of the apostolic church included worship per se, and facets of church life such as prayer, fasting, commissioning for service, reports, and the Lord ’s Supper.
Teaching should play a significant role in the public life of the church
(1 Corinthians 4:17; Ephesians 4:11-16). Teaching the Bible is a deal breaker when it comes to worship. It was crucial in the early church; it should be no less so today. In concert with this truth is the clear statement that the public reading of Scripture is significant in genuine worship (Colossians 4:16).
Observations from Broader Texts
Genuine worship is by design (Matthew 2:2, 8, 11). The first worshippers of Jesus worshipped in a manner that was not impromptu but carefully planned. Worship also cost them their time and their treasure. Corporate worship need not always be convenient! True worshippers do not stay away from worship simply because they run out of time or energy.
God is the only acceptable object of worship (Matthew 4:9-10). Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy 6:13 explodes the loose notion of generic worship that is currently fashionable. Satan’s temptation of Jesus also exposes the give-to-get mentality that is so prevalent in today’s church. In our worship we must seek to please God, not ourselves or onlookers!
We are forced to conclude that it is possible to worship in the wrong way and before the wrong object. Only a certain kind of worship is acceptable to God.
Worship is a response to an encounter with the “Godness” of God (Matthew 14:33). Just as the disciples worshipped Jesus as the Son of God after being awed at his mastery over the wind, so believers should naturally worship God after encountering his power in their daily lives. This assumes that those who fail to have encounters with God through the week will have difficulty having a genuine encounter with God on Sunday.
Worship is a response to the personal nature of salvation (John 9:38). Faith is logically followed by worship. Because of this, the Son is the object of our worship. When we genuinely worship, we are responding to the mercy that God has generously and undeservedly given to us (Romans 12:1-8).
All men are worshippers (Revelation 20:4; 19:10; 22:8-9). Genuine believers worship God exclusively; for them there are no other objects of worship. However, all men worship something. Indeed, worship is the culmination of earth history (Revelation 5:11-14).
Worship is offered solely for the pleasure of God (Romans 1:25-26). God’s summary judgment of men is ultimately because they did not worship Him! This is of one piece with the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God . . .” (Exodus 20:4-5). The implications for our worship are staggering:
First, entertaining the audience is out! We “perform” for God alone. This may speak to the appropriateness of applauding those involved in leading corporate worship. It certainly rules out “worship” services designed primarily to satisfy the unregenerate “seeker’s” tastes.
Second, fussing over musical styles misses the point. Any style that draws a worshipper’s attention to God is acceptable, even though individual worshippers will have preferred styles. We ought to be able to set aside personal preferences for the sake of the larger activity of worship. Conversely, those who lead worship should deflect attention from themselves toward God. And to the extent to which worship is largely uncomfortable to the worshippers, or to the extent to which worship is consumed with the act of worship itself, to that extent there is distraction from the main thing—worship of God.
Noted researcher George Barna citing three surveys, concludes that “. . . relatively few churches have intense musical battles but most churches have too few people who truly engage God in worship.” He continues, “Most of the church people who fight about their musical preference do so because they don’t understand the relationship between music, communication, God and worship. Church leaders foster the problem by focusing on how to please people with music or how to offer enough styles of music to meet everyone’s tastes rather than dealing with the underlying issues of limited interest in, comprehension of, and investment in fervent worship of a holy, deserving God” (Barna Research Online, November 19, 2002).
Third, we should strive for theological clarity as we worship. Because we worship in the awful presence of God and for His glory, our music, our prayers, our preaching, and our readings—in short, everything—should accurately reflect His truth.
Fourth, those who have the opportunity to lead the congregation in worship should intentionally strive to give their best effort. After all, God is the audience. Excellence ought to be the standard. So prayerful preparation to include forethought, organization, and rehearsal will be the norm.
Fifth, worship is a spiritual experience in the presence of God, not a professional affair. Consequently, participants, especially leaders, will come to worship having engaged in private confession of sin. Because only genuine believers can truly worship, only professing believers should be recruited to minister as worship leaders.
Much more ought be said regarding the implications from the great worship passages of the Old Testament, such as Psalm 95 and 96. As stated previously, this is beyond the scope of this brief paper. However, the New Testament alone provides a rich mine from which to hew foundation stones for the worship of the church.
In many respects, corporate worship is locally driven. Who is to say that one “style” is alone biblical? I believe there is significant latitude in worship formulation.
The challenge facing each local church is to apply the principles of worship to its own circumstances, indeed to its own preferences. These principles, rather than mere expediency, should frame worship.
At the end of the day, yet at the risk of oversimplification, corporate worship may simply be viewed as the genuine church gathered for the purpose of revering the God of the Bible by means of any legitimate expression of adoration.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.