Monthly Archives: September 2014
How would you answer this question: What is the most important element of a worship service? Many would say, “The sermon is the most important.” Or, maybe Scripture reading is the key component? How about prayer? Maybe music deserves highest marks? Talk to any room full of people and the debate would be endless. I have found it interesting that there is such a diverse range of opinions on the matter, yet when I teach on the topic of worship there is one element that never receives attention in answer to the query.
Notice that my initial question was very specific. I did not ask about the most important element or idea ofworship as a topic, but of a worship service. The question is one of a practical nature, as opposed to a philosophical or theological perspective. The analysis of a Worship Service on this level is vital as our congregations come together for the purpose of experiencing God through song, sermon, prayer and other ways of engaging our hearts and minds. Does this clarification to the question change your answer in any way?
Arguments are plentiful for the inclusion and importance of Scripture, the sermon, music, prayer and other elements in our worship services. Our weekly gatherings as the Body of Christ are significant opportunities to hear from God in various ways. But what is the connecting thread? What element do we all notice if it doesn’t happen, or work well, but when it’s properly executed we don’t notice it at all?
Well, I suppose it’s time for me to get to the point. What is the most important element of a worship service?The transition. Now some of you think I’m crazy. What’s so vital about a transition? Better yet, what’s so spiritual about a transition? I’m glad you asked, so let me explain what I mean.
Transitions are the links of the chain. When moving from one element to another, something happens – you either notice it or you don’t – and that’s a transition. If one of those “links” breaks, it’s obvious. When the “link” holds strong, it’s as though it’s not even there. Are you moving from a song to a prayer? There’s a transition. Moving from the Scripture reading to the sermon? There’s a transition. Moving from songs, to announcements, to more songs? More transitions.
Consider the idea that a successful worship service is a service of successful transitions. Good transitions lead to minimal distractions from the established flow of a service. Bad transitions are distractions that often great music or excellent sermons have difficulty overcoming. Distractions can pull someone’s mind and heart away from what the Lord is doing in them, and may interrupt the work of God in their life. That’s what makes transitions – good transitions – so important to our Worship Services.
Now, I certainly don’t want to undervalue the quality of the other elements of worship. A poorly performed song can be a fatal distraction. A sermon that doesn’t communicate with people at their level will lead to wandering minds and disinterest. My point is that our services deserve as much time, energy and thought put into transitions as these other elements.
I’ve worked with churches for many years, both in my own church and as a consultant, and often my first order of business has been to analyze the worship services as they had been done prior to my arrival. I’ve done this using videos of various services and timing each element as it passed. What I discovered was the need to concentrate on transitions and the flow of the services. Believe it or not, often no significant changes in the style of worship are made (not even new songs) for a time. But, when work on transitions and flow begins, the results are readily noticeable. Within just a month or two, we are able to draw together the loose ends and begin to create an atmosphere that minimizes distractions and helps people focus on the theme of the day.
Transitions are one key element in our worship services. Don’t ignore them or underestimate their value. Someone needs to be aware of them and think them through before they happen. This is the best way to ensure their successful deployment and smooth sailing from week to week.
(Original Post on Sept. 15, 2014 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/22307-transitions-a-key-to-effective-corporate-worship)
One of the issues concerning worship that I find rather shallow is the misconception that worship takes place primarily in one direction. That is, when people talk or write about worship the reference is generally to that aspect of worship in which we direct our thoughts and focus toward God. You’ve probably heard it put this way: “When we worship, we are ascribing to God His worth. It can be defined as worth-ship.”
I am not saying that this is not an important aspect of worship – because it is. When I say that the issue is shallow, I’m responding to a lack of balance. What I would like to see is more balance and a more accurate representation of what Scripture actually teaches concerning what we do when we worship.
Before going any further, let me be sure to note that this discussion is within the context of corporate worship and what elements of it we find in Scripture. In other words, what I’m discussing here are those things we do when we worship together as a body (congregation, church, small group, etc.).
There are four aspects of relationships that we, as a body, participate in when we come together for worship. We must consciously recognize the existence of these relationships and understand that each one is active within the worship experience. If not, we will miss something that the Lord may want to teach us. We must open our eyes to see, and our ears to hear, God’s voice in the various ways in which he speaks.
The first relationship that we experience in worship has already been mentioned. It’s the vertical relationship of us focusing upward to God. In this we do ascribe worth to Him (Psalm 66:1-4). We thank Him and praise Him for Who He is and what He does (Psalm 66:5-7). Together we focus our hearts and minds on God, His Son and the Spirit. Paul says that we do this “with one accord and with one voice” (Romans 15:6). We are communicating – us to God.
The second relationship is related to the first in that it is vertical in nature. It is the opposite, however, and can be described as God speaking to us. The primary way in which this happens is through His Word. Paul encourages Timothy to publicly read Scripture as an important aspect of corporate life (1 Timothy 4:13). This can happen in a multitude of ways including unison reading, antiphonal reading (back and forth), dramatized readings, memorized presentations, Scripture put to music, and more. I recall a very effective instance in which a man quoted the entire book of Philippians from memory – including all the emotions and concern that Paul included in his words. This presentation is still remembered as one of the most effective presentations of Scripture many people had ever experienced. In this, God is communicating to us.
The third relationship that is often overlooked is the horizontal aspect of us speaking to others. In this we share our faith and encourage other believers. This is often communicated in the songs we sing, though we sing right through and miss the point. For example, as we sing: “Come, Christians join to sing…” we are inviting one another to worship. The popular chorus “Come, now is the time to worship” has the same effect. Try having the two (or more) parts of your congregation face each other when singing a song like this, actually inviting each other to worship. Colossians 3:16 is full of references to various aspects of us speaking and singing to one another – for teaching and encouragement. This type of communication can be described as us communicating to others.
The fourth aspect is now obvious. It is the other horizontal part and is when others speak to us. The sermon is the most apparent example. We are on the receiving end of admonition, encouragement, teaching, story-telling, and learning about God, His work and our response to Him. This can come through the Pastor, a testimony, the Choir, a soloist, our neighbor in the pew or even our Sunday school teacher. Again, Colossians 3:16 is a perfect reference for this when read through the eyes of a receiver. This type of communication is horizontal – others to us.
So this is a much more deliberate and balanced approach to corporate worship:
- God to Us
- Us to God
- Us to Others
- Others to Us
As worship planners, we must take each of these into consideration and realize that people will respond to each one differently. It would be appropriate, then, to have each one represented well in each service, if possible. This must be deliberate and planned well.
As worshipers, we must allow God to speak to us – or through us – as He desires. Worship is to be fully active and our physical participation is vital (see Romans 12:1-2). When we are aware of each of these four relational aspects of corporate worship we will enjoy it more, and experience the fullness of what God intended.
Take time this week to note these in your own services. Are they all present? Are they deliberate? Are you experiencing each of the four relationships? What can you do to make this more effective in your own body of believers? Whatever you find, seek more balance in your corporate worship setting and it will become more fulfilling.
So what’s this business of “worship” all about? Is it some songs we sing each week as we prepare to listen to the sermon? Is it a feeling we get when we think about God? Is it something we can do in private, or only in a gathering of believers? When is the best time to worship? What’s the best style of worship? Does it have specific elements that are required if we are to call something a “worship service?” What is it really all about?
Frankly, those are great questions. In fact, each of you reading this will have varying answers and will place those answers in a different order of priority. Our culture effects the answers to those questions, both our society and our church culture. Our Christian brothers and sisters in foreign lands would answer those questions from their perspective. Go to the Christian bookstore or type in “worship” on an internet search engine and a plethora of commentary, opinions and discussions will surface concerning this subject.
I have found more often than not that most discussions concerning worship are way too narrow. The writer or speaker will focus on one aspect of worship (like music or preaching or prayer) and leave out other elements that are vital (like transitions – as discuss in my upcoming article at www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts). Discussions on these topics are important, I understand that and appreciate it, however when that one area becomes the priority for worship or the focal point of worship, I take issue.
Most discussions are narrow in the sense that they only deal with corporate worship – i.e., the one time during the week when everyone gets together to focus on God. Again, this is important, however it is only part of the picture.
Worship is really an all-encompassing subject. It permeates our lives as individuals, as families, as churches and as a culture. Although not as obvious in the American culture, most foreign cultures allow a devotion to deity to be the centerpiece of all that they do. It is really a Western / American phenomenon that we compartmentalize our religion (worship) and isolate it into a particular time slot in our lives.
Read Psalm 19:1 –
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Now, ask yourself the question: What are the heavens doing to declare the glory of God? How does the expanse declare the work of His hands? We could answer that all of creation shows God’s glory by evidence of intelligent design. This is true. However, let’s go beyond that. Let me ask again: What are they doing to declare God’s glory (i.e., worship)? My answer would simply be that they are doing what God created them to do. In other words, God’s creation shows His glory (worships) by fulfilling its God-given mission. The flower worships by being beautiful. The stars worship by shining in the night sky. The fish worship by swimming. The trees worship by swaying and providing oxygen. When they declare His glory they are worshiping? I like to call this “The Heavens Declare” principle. Worship at its fundamental state takes place when God’s creation honors Him (worships) by doing what it was created to do.
So how about us as the New Creation? God has implanted within each Christian gifts of the Spirit by which we are to serve Him, His body and people in general. When we use these gifts, we are doing what he created us to do, and thus we are worshiping. So worship should permeate our lives – especially that worship in which we do what God has created us to do. The beauty of this idea is that we begin to recognize the value of each person’s part in the body of Christ. The men raking leaves in the church lawn, as they use their gifts of service, are worshiping. The men and women who pray unceasingly for needs of others are worshiping through their gift of intercession. Those that serve in the church office, the kitchen, teachers, helpers, musicians, and others worship God through their giftedness. He is honored (worshiped!!!) when His body functions as it was intended to function – each of us serving in our area of giftedness. My point is this: just as creation in reality worships by fulfilling its God-designed purpose, thus we, as new creations, worship by fulfilling our God-designed purpose (spiritual giftedeness). Service is worship!! (see Romans 12:1-2)
This may be a new line of thinking for you in regard to worship, but I would encourage you to think this through for you and your church. Do you know what your spiritual gift is? If so, are you using it? If not, why? God has planned for the church to worship Him by doing what they were created to do. If you’re not doing that, then are you really worshiping?
Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave them and made them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this (the use of the arts in the service of the gospel) and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. (from the Preface to the Wittenburg Hymnal of 1524)
In this statement the great Reformer, Martin Luther, sums up an attitude of openness and inclusiveness that sets the foundation for our rich heritage of music in the Christian Church. Granted, there are traditions within Christianity in which the use of music is limited, or even eliminated, but for the most part music is a commonly accepted and essential part of our worship experience. I would note, however, that Luther is making a statement which has much broader significance. Although he specifies music (because he is writing a Preface for a hymnal), he is actually referring to the arts in general. In other writings he points out that the arts are a reflection of God’s image in humanity – that part of His image which is creative and dramatic.
This should cause us to reflect upon our own opinions and notions of the arts and whether we utilize them or neglect them. Music, drama, painting, sculpting and a multitude of other arts can be practiced for God’s glory and the communication of the gospel. We learn more about God as Creator when we see a painting or photograph of majestic scenery or the intricacies of a flower. The prayer of the heart can be made more intimate when coupled with appropriate music. The need of humanity for redemption in Christ can be seen in a drama depicting the broken-hearted and move us to action.
The Christian message is one of redemption – of restoring our relationship with God – yet for many Christians that redemption has too often only focused upon the spiritual. We miss the reality of what redemption means to each of us today, where we live, and how we act. We have been blinded to the ways in which Christ restores in us those things that represent the image of God. Our redemption is holistic – body, soul and spirit. Our experience of redemption is both now…and not yet. This means that as we live here on earth our lives are evidence of that redemption every day – even as we look forward to our final redemption (see Romans 8:18ff). Not just in our devotional life, but in those acts which reflect Him, even in the smallest way, in who we are. In other words, part of what Christ has redeemed is the arts and creativity in man. We all express, in some way, our gratefulness to God and artists do so out of their creative imagination and expertise. Again, this imagination and expertise is under Christ’s Lordship as He draws the artist to Himself and begins to mold him or her and these gifts for His purpose and glory (see Romans 8:29). Paul even speaks of each of our lives as great “masterpieces” of art, and that God is active in preparing our way in this (see Ephesians 2:10).
Artists in so many fields yearn for the opportunity to use their God-given gifts in service for Him and the Church. Often their expression of faith is misunderstood, or entirely rejected without allowing for a fuller explanation from the artist. Sometimes our own preferences cause us to miss the value of a particular art form for someone sitting next to us in the pew, or people of a different generation. I would encourage you to find the artists in your own congregation and set them free to use their gifts for His glory. Your faith will only be enriched as God works through these men and women to help us see (both literally and figuratively) His word in fresh and creative ways.