Keeping Children in the Worship Service

Our church has experienced a wonderful revitalization over the past few years. By God’s grace, we have endeavored to become a more Word-centered, gospel-driven, and Christ-exalting church, seeking to always be reformed according to Scripture. One of the more recent subjects we addressed was concerning our Lord’s Day worship and children’s ministry programming. Formerly, children were dismissed part way through the service for Kids Church. Now, rather than being dismissed along with the toddlers (ages 2-3) and preschoolers (ages 4-5), our elementary students (grades 1-5) continue to participate in the worship service with the rest of the congregation.

There is obviously a tremendous benefit in age-specific education. In fact, our toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary students currently use The Gospel Project curriculum either during the Sunday Classes hour or during the Kids Church portion of our Sunday morning service. We want them to be working through the Scriptures, seeing Jesus on every page, and becoming fluent in the gospel. However, there are several reasons that compelled us to keep our elementary students in the worship gathering for its entirety.

The Pattern and Power of Scripture

First, the pattern of Scripture supports keeping kids in the service. In the Old Testament, it appears that children were included in the corporate worship of the covenant community to hear the word of the Lord (Ex. 12:24-27; Deut. 31:9-13; Josh. 8:30-35; Neh. 8:1-8ff.; 12:43). The reason? Deuteronomy 31:12: “…that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.”

Second, in the letters written to the Ephesian and Colossian churches, Paul directly addresses wives and husbands, parents and children, bondservants and masters (Eph. 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:2). This suggests that children were present in the congregations where these letters were being read (cf. Col. 4:16)!

Third, if we truly believe that God’s Word is living and active, that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring illumination, conviction, and repentance, then we must pray that the Word of God will reach the hearts of our children in ways that they may not even recognize. In Acts 2:39 Peter proclaims that the promise of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. Yes, they may be thinking, reasoning, speaking, and acting like children; but as Albert Mohler reminds us, “the Word of God can reach where we cannot go.”

The Formative Power of the Worship Service

Parents are to be the primary disciple-makers of their children (Deut. 6:4-9; Ps. 78:5-7; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). The corporate worship service—where God’s word is publicly read, sung, prayed, preached, and seen in the sacraments—is a powerful and formative tool for discipling our children. Part of how kids learn is through observation and imitation. Sitting through a worship service teaches them how to worship by listening to God’s Word read and preached. The content of the prayers, songs, sermon also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children; they can help them follow along, and afterwards ask questions and explain things to them.

 Parents have the great responsibility (and opportunity!) to teach to their children, by their own example, the meaning and value of worship—not just personal but corporate. If we don’t value and prioritize the local church, we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids don’t either.

John Piper explains: “The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship, [who] don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad [or mom or grandma] loves being here. The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week.”

Our kids should want to be in church in part because they see that their parents want to be there. Imagine the cumulative effect on a child who sees his parents praying fervently, confessing their sins, singing joyfully, reading the Word reverently, listening to the sermon intently, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper week after week, year after year!

Raising Generations Today

Children also benefit from being in the presence of Christians of various ages because they are able to see that the faith of their parents is not a faith that they own alone; they see a faith that is important to all of these people who are gathered around them on Sunday morning. Keeping kids in the worship service helps cultivate inter-generational discipleship. When our children see this incredible gathering of people reading the Word, praying, confessing, and singing together it reinforces what mom and dad are modeling and teaching at home. It gives them a taste of the eternal—God’s saints celebrating him together.

One pastor writes: “[They] must see, know, and learn that the singing of the great hymns of the faith, the preaching of the Word, reading of confessions, corporate prayers, etc. is anything but boring. It is the gathered life of the community of faith. It is our weekly rhythm—appointed by God, designed by Him, established for the ages—this is what we want them to know, because we want them to know and worship Him.”

If our children grow up totally separated from the church of their parents and grandparents, in their own “church” which constantly caters to their age, desires, and interests, it shouldn’t surprise us to see these children grow up feeling disconnected from church, bored with church, and ill-equipped to become active members of a church when they are on their own. We want our kids to know that church is for them as well.

Parents, Prepare Your Children for Worship

Much of the success of this change depends on the parents. Despite common objections, there are several things a parent can do to help prepare their children for corporate worship on Sunday Morning. Noël Piper and Jeremy Walker have both written excellent practical suggestions for helping your kids sit through “big church.” These include:

  1. Worship with your family throughout the week. Set aside time during the week to sing, pray, read the Scriptures. Family worship not only helps you disciple your children, but it also helps Sunday morning corporate worship to not be such a shock to their systems.
  2. Start preparing Saturday night. Ensure that your family gets plenty of rest the night before in order to have enough time Sunday morning to prepare and arrive on time for church.
  3. Arrive early enough to get drinks, use the bathroom, and accomplish other tasks before the service. This can help to limit the amount of trips in and out of the sanctuary.
  4. Worship with your children. Encourage them to read along, sing along, take notes, listen carefully. Helping them learn at a young age to listen well, sit still, and pay attention will serve them far beyond two hours on a Sunday morning.
  5. If necessary, provide them with “quiet” activities, such as crayons or pencils for drawing or coloring. Our church makes these items available for parents to borrow, along with a kid-friendly paper designed for taking notes throughout the service.

Let the Children Come

The most common objection, of course, is: “They won’t understand the sermon! It’ll be over their heads!” But listen to how Piper excellently responds to this sentiment: “Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head! They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day—that they don’t understand 90% of—in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.”

This transition hasn’t been an easy one for our families. It has taken much work and patience. But we strongly believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the additional noise and fidgeting. Children are a blessing from God and a gift to the church. Yes, it’s a noisy gift; it’s a squirming and fidgeting gift; it’s a messy gift; but it is a beautiful gift. Children are serve as a visual reminder of those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Our Lord welcomed them with open arms, and we should do likewise.

Faithful Giving as an Act of Worship

Money is an interesting topic, isn’t it?

We love to sing about it, we love to use it, and we love to have it. Whether it’s Pink Floyd or the O’Jays singing about money in the 70’s, Notorious BIG singing about more money and more problems in the 90s, Bruno Mars singing about how bad he wants to be a billionaire, or Ariana Grande letting us all know how much money she has by the fact that she sees it, likes it, wants it, or got it, throughout the decades we’re familiar with our pop-culture fixation on money and the things that it can buy.

As long as we’re talking about money in an abstract or glamorous way, everyone’s fine with it. But start talking about our specific use of money, start talking about our giving, let alone start preaching on giving, and it’s a taboo topic on par with the “who’d you vote for” question at Thanksgiving Dinner.

Though the topic of our money and giving can often be an uncomfortable and touchy matter, it is one that Scripture speaks clearly and often on. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that 1 out of every 10 verses in the Gospels is Jesus teaching on money, possessions, or giving. As we zoom out and look at the whole Bible, there are around 500 verses on the topic of prayer, less than 500 verses on the topic of faith, and almost 2,500 verses on the topic of money and possessions.

Because of our draw to possessions and our temptation to idolatry, discontentment, and covetousness, God taught often and clearly on this topic. We’re told to avoid the love of money (1 Tim 6:6-10) and to choose God over money (Luke 16:13), so that we can be generous and ready to given (Matthew 6:2-16) and put our trust in God, not riches (1 Tim 6:17-19). We’re also encouraged to plan and save (Prov 21:20) and to look after the news of our families and others (1 Tim 5:8; Heb 13:16), just to name a few of the things God’s says in His Word about this topic.

As I’ve thought on this topic recently, I want to share with you 7 principles for faithful, godly giving that I think we see in God’s Word.

#1 God sees the topic of our money and our giving as a spiritual matter, an issue relating to our heart, and an issue directly relating to our worship of Him.

One of the key passages to look at to see our money and our giving as a spiritual matter and heart issue are Matthew 6:1-4, 19-21, and 24. In these verses we see Jesus teach on the topic of giving and how we are to give, as well as establishing the principle that we cannot love both God and money. It was this very topic of giving and money that led the rich young ruler not to place his faith in Jesus (Matthew 19). And in Matthew 13, we see Jesus give the parable of the sower, After sowing seeds among 4 different soils, with only the last soil representing the heart that truly comes to Christ and bears fruit in keeping with repentance, we see in verse 22 Jesus commenting on what caused the seed thrown among the thorns to wither and die — The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.

The fact is, you simply cannot read the Bible’s teaching on money, giving, and possessions without recognizing that our money and our giving is a spiritual matter relating to our heart.

#2 God expects and commands us to give

There are numerous commands throughout Scripture that command us as God’s children to be faithful and generous givers. In fact, in Matthew 6, it’s interesting how Jesus begins his teaching on giving there. He begins in Matthew 6:2 by saying, “Thus, WHEN you give.” Not “if” you give, but “when” you give. You see, there was an exception as Jesus is teaching his disciples that of course they’re giving. To think of a non-giving disciple wasn’t even on the radar; it was an oxymoron. His intent, then, was to teach them how to give. Throughout God’s Word, he both expects and commands us to be faithful and generous givers.

#3 God wants us to give for the right reasons

There are numerous wrong reasons that people could give. In Matthew 6:1-4 we see Jesus address the wrong reasons of giving for people’s praise and adoration and simply to boost ourselves. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 we see Paul address the wrong reasons of giving reluctantly and under compulsion. We must make sure, as we think about our use of money and our giving, that we are avoiding the wrong reasons for giving and instead give for the right reasons — with a heart focused on worshipping God in glad, faithful obedience and generosity in our giving.

#4 God reminds us that our giving is ultimately to our all-seeing Heavenly Father

Jesus is clear on this in Matthew 6:3-4. As we give to the local church and as we give to our brothers and sisters in need, our aim and goal should be one thing and one thing only — worshipping God through that sacrificial giving. If that is not our goal, we will give ourselves to sounding the trumpet before us and building ourselves up in the eyes of others. But true Christian giving is content with not a single soul ever knowing how much we gave, because our focus is ultimately on God, and we are content that our all-seeing heavenly Father sees our giving — and that is perfectly sufficient for us.

#5 God teaches that our giving should be done in light of the Incarnation

2 Corinthians 8:8-15 is key here. In these verses, Paul ties our giving to the incarnation and what Jesus did for our sake in taking on human flesh and accomplishing the salvation of His people. Just as our humility should be modeled after the incarnation (Phil 2), so our giving should be done in light of the incarnation — in light of the fact that God the Son, the 2nd Person of the Trinity, gave up everything that was highly His, became poor for our sake, so that through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, we might receive the greatest gift of all through faith and repentance — His righteousness and the right to become children of God.

#6 God teaches that our giving should be in accordance with our means

God has called us to care for ourselves and to care for our families. We simply cannot give everything away and neglect those responsibilities. Nor can we give what we do not have. Rather, we give in accordance with our means. Some have been blessed greatly financially and should praise the Lord for that. Others struggle greatly financially. Whether the rich or the poor widow with two coins, we are to give generously and sacrificially according to our means.

#7 God teaches that Christian giving must be done willingly, freely, and cheerfully

2 Corinthians 9:7 is key here. The Christian should not be browbeaten or guilt into giving to the Lord reluctantly or under compulsion. Rather…

…the Lord loves a cheerful giver, which is what we must be.

…the Lord loves a cheerful giver who sees all that God has blessed him or her with and wants to give back to the Lord out of that abundance.

…the Lord loves a cheerful giver that sees the great sacrifice of Christ and wants to honor and emulate that sacrifice in his or her giving.

…the Lord loves a cheerful giver that sees our giving as a heart issue and wants to examine his or her heart and examine his or her checkbook to see if the use of money corresponds to what they know to be true and biblical.

And…the Lord loves a cheerful giver that sees our giving as an act of worship, whereby we please and honor the Lord by gladly, freely, delightfully, and cheerfully giving to the local church and to others because that is what is honoring to the Lord and what He has called us to do.

May we, as men and women of God, strive to be faithful in our giving as an act of worship of our Great God!

Waiting = Worship?

Most Christians that I know are well aware that waiting on the Lord is a large component of being a believer. Yet when it happens to us, when we’re forced to wait, we’re somehow taken aback by this unexpected intrusion of not getting to do what we wanted to (for the Lord of course!), or go where we think He wants us to go.

Many of us know well, stories in the Bible of characters who had to not only wait, but some never even saw promises fulfilled that God had made to them. Moses waiting for 40 years in the desert to go into the promised land, and then not being allowed to go in; Joseph waiting as a servant and then as a prisoner before God elevated him to great status in Egypt, yet not making it back alive to his homeland; David waiting many years between being anointed as king and actually reigning as king; and the list goes on. 

If great saints in the Bible had to wait, what makes us think we won’t have to?
One reason we have found it so difficult to wait is simply that we live in a culture where we don’t have to wait for hardly anything. And then if we do come across something where we are forced to wait, we simply make a fuss and then we get what we want. We have drive through restaurants, dry-cleaners, banks, pharmacie; we rarely truly wait for anything. No wonder we Western believers are so bad at waiting. Our culture completely caters to our lack of being able to wait.

But yet here my family waits. It would not be a stretch to say these past three years of waiting to go to Paraguay have not been easy. We may have comfort in terms of housing, food, clothes, etc…but our hearts are quite restless as we long to go to Paraguay.  This waiting has not been of our own making. At least not that we can see.

Right after finishing our training, one of Bill’s retina detached, forcing a 9-month medical delay. Our support-raising has been slow but when we reached the 75% of needed support, we had the green light that we could leave, only to find out that I need to get my citizenship, forcing another 6+ month delay. There is no need to ask why the delays. We know God is sovereign in orchestrating these delays, and what He is asking us to do in the delay is trust Him deeper. But honestly I’m not liking it. I find I’m floundering from time to time. I’ll have weeks where I’m on task, enjoying my time in His Word, content with where He has us at this time, seeing my need to depend on Him for clarity. And then at other times, well, I’m the opposite of what I just said.

Right now I’m in the season of the latter. Not liking where we are, discontent in our circumstance, cloudy in vision.

I looked on the internet for a good, Biblically accurate acronym for WAIT,  and found my options wanting. So, I decided to make up my own. If there is one out there exactly like mine, it’s purely coincidental, although if anyone is a student of Scripture, it’s not a stretch to think two people could come up with the same acronym. I hope this is an encouragement to anyone else who is in a place of waiting on the Lord.

W – Worship in the Waiting

According to  Romans 12:1-2, our whole lives are to be offered up as an act of worship. This is not nullified during a period of waiting. In fact, I would say striving for this would seem even more urgent during a time of intense waiting. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

A – Acknowledge and Acceptance

My mind goes immediately to Jesus praying in the garden, before His death. Three of the Gospels record His prayer. First, Jesus acknowledges to His disciples that His soul is very sorrowful. Then He prays. It’s a simple prayer, really. Mark 14:36 “And He said, Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” It’s OK to admit that the waiting is hard for us. But if acknowledging it is all we do, we’ll end up only complaining. When acknowledging it leads to acceptance, that’s when we are free to…

I – Imitate and Intimacy

Again, Christ is our supreme example here. Many times in Scripture we find Him retreating alone to commune with His Father, whether it was to prepare Himself for the temptations Satan would throw at Him, or just to get away from the pressing crowds who wanted anything and everything from Him. Luke 5:16 says, “But He would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” We gain everything from imitating Christ by pursuing intimacy with God.

T – Trust in Truth

Even though we may wrestle with doubts, those of us who have trusted in Christ’s finished work on the cross can trust that what He says in His Word is true. That not only will He complete the work He has started in us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…” 2 Peter 1:3

Whether you are experiencing waiting,  testing, or possibly even persecution, take heart from these words, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9).

“Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15).

So, we will continue to worship in our waiting, acknowledging that it’s hard yet accepting it, while imitating Christ by pursuing intimacy with our Abba Father, while trusting that He is working all things for our good.

Worship Matters: The Regulative Principle

There are few things that have caused as much controversy within the Church as worship. One of the reasons there are so many denominations is largely due to how churches worship. We could all give examples all over the spectrum in regard to this. Within one small city it is likely to see a church with very hefty structure or liturgy, a church with no structure at all, as well as a church that tries to blend the two. For each of these particular local churches, beliefs about worship govern how they function. Everything from how the building is built, what kind of things the building is used for, and what happens throughout the week. When the Sunday service(s) are in view a whole new batch of questions come up in regard to a church’s worship philosophy. How does worship begin? What do we do in worship? What do we not do? Is there music? If so, what kind and what instruments do we employ? Is there a sermon? If so, who preaches it and what makes up it contents? Is there prayer? If so, how should it be done? Is there an offering, a greeting, announcements, sacraments, calls to worship, or a benediction? If so, how do we do these things? The answers to all these questions (and more) comes down to one thing. What we believe about the nature of worship.

Amid all the varying opinions about worship and all the worship wars that have been fought over the centuries there is one thing too often forgotten – what does God say about worship? Perhaps on the surface that statement seems a bit naïve, but hear me out. Too many people have confused the difference between biblical mandates for worship and personal preference in worship. And by so doing we have often given our own personal worship preferences a divine weight they were never intended to carry. When this happens we can easily fall into the error of being more committed to our own man made traditions than God’s requirements for worship. Which would make us modern Pharisees.

So as we approach the subject of worship we must take caution. I want to discuss worship with a twofold aim. First, I want to examine what has historically been called the regulative principle to see what God has to say about how He’s approached in worship. Second, I want to discuss how the Scripture encourages us to apply this regulative principle in worship.

The Regulative Principle

As early as Genesis 4 we see that God has a great concern about how He is worshiped. Here we see Cain and Abel both worship God through making their own offerings. Cain’s is rejected and Abel’s is accepted. When God replies to Cain about why his offering was rejected in 4:6-7 He implies that Cain knew how to make an appropriate offering and if he had correctly made the offering he would’ve been accepted. In his anger over being rejected by God, Cain kills his brother. Later and all throughout Exodus we see God rescue and redeem Israel out of slavery in Egypt for the purpose of worship. Moses told Pharaoh, “…let us go a three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God” (Exodus 3:18). This theme of letting them go to worship is repeated on and on and on as the narrative progresses. Of this Ligon Duncan says, “It is the primary reason why God sets His people free: to worship Him. The primacy of worship in a believer’s life is, thus, set forth. We are saved to worship!”[1] After being redeemed from slavery God then brings them to Sinai and gives them the law to order their life and worship. The law is clear in the first two commandments. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve (lit. ‘worship’) them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).

They were to worship God only. No images, no idols, nothing else. Only God. All of Israel’s worship is to be governed by a true knowledge of God, His character, and His Word. No idols are to be worshiped and the true God is to be worshiped in the right way. Why? God is a jealous God. This means there are regulations on what the true worship of God looks like. These regulations are where we get the term, the regulative principle. The clearest definition of this principle is seen here in the first two commandments. One of the most helpful explanations of it is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, paragraph 1. “The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good to all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called on, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”

To sum this up, since the Bible is where we learn who God is, the Bible is also to be the place where we learn how God is to be worshiped.

Israel did not do this well. In Exodus 32 we further see God’s concern over how He is worshiped when He rebukes the people for the golden calf incident. Afterwards in Leviticus 10 we find the sad account of Nadab and Abihu. Two brothers who offered strange or “unauthorized fire” to the Lord and were killed on the spot. We learn from these instances that the holy God must only be approached by a holy people. After the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy we see prophet after prophet reminding God’s people of what He revealed to them through the law of Moses. And when we cross over into the pages of the New Testament we do not see God’s concern about how He is worshiped lessen. We see it continue in Jesus’ teaching and in the teaching of the apostles.

The Application of the Regulative Principle

There are many ways we could speak of how to apply the regulative principle, and in order to do so here I’d like to take a brief look at the 16th century Protestant reformers. If you were to ask any one of the reformers what the reformation was about what do you think they would say? Justification by faith alone? Salvation in Christ alone to the glory of God alone? No. I think, they would say the reformation was about worship. Think about it. Before the reformation the worship of the church was done as a mass, and the centerpiece of the mass was the table. In the Roman Catholic understanding it was at the table, and by the priestly words, that the bread and the wine would literally become the body and blood of Christ. And when this happened Christ would be re-sacrificed anew and all those present would benefit from it. The reformers rightly saw this as what it was, heresy. So after the reformation broke out and Protestants began gathering together for worship, they put a new centerpiece in place by replacing the table with the pulpit. Because, it’s in the Word of God where we encounter, meet, and reckon with God Himself. And so by placing the pulpit front and center it was a visible reminder to all present that the Word of God governs the worship of God’s people.

Let’s now move back to the present and apply this regulative principle in light of the reformers recovery of the centrality of the Scripture. Because the Word is the only rule for faith and practice, and because His Word governs all of worship, the Bible should take center place in the worship of God’s people. This is applied in many ways. While all of life is to be worship to God as we give ourselves to be living sacrifices, the heart of our personal worship is the gathered worship with the body of Christ.[2] So let’s aim at applying this to corporate worship.

First, we should apply the regulative principle in the theology or philosophy of our worship. This first point answers the question as to what the basis of our worship is. As Westminster Confession chapter 21 states, we must not worship according to our own imaginations or preferences, but instead we must worship God in the manner God has instituted to be worshipped. We worship Him the way He wants us to, not the way we think is best. So, our theology of worship should not be based on pragmatic principles or popular trends or fads but based on what we see from God in Scripture. This means that rather than thinking about what we enjoy in worship, let’s instead think about what God expects of us when we gather together to worship Him.[3]

Second, we should apply the regulative principle in the structure of our worship. This second point answers the question of what elements to include in a worship service. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see a variety of things taking place among the worship of God’s people. We see Scripture being read, Scripture being preached, prayer, singing, offerings, sacraments, and vows/oaths. Other than this, there’s not much guidance as to how to put all these things together.[4] God has given us a great measure of freedom here (this is why churches can look and feel so different). For example, many passages such as Colossians 3:16, John 4:24, and 1 Corinthians 14:40 give us principles for worship, but doesn’t direct how to plan our services step by step. There is one guiding principle to keep in mind. Which brings us to the last point.

Third, we should apply the regulative principle in the content of our worship. This third point answers the question of the substance of our worship from beginning to end. Everything done in the worship of God’s people should be pointing towards and proclaiming the same message as the text of the sermon. In this way, everything done serves the preaching of the Word. Why do this? Because while we may be speaking to God in song or prayer throughout the service the sermon is the apex of the service where God speaks to us. In this manner we sing the Word, pray the Word, hear the Word, see the Word, and respond to the Word. If we’re to continue to reformers tradition of the centrality of the pulpit, we will keep the Word the most prominent factor in our worship.

 

Citations:

[1] Ligon Duncan, Give Praise to God, page 29.

[2] R. Kent Hughes, Worship By the Book, page 142.

[3] D.A. Carson, Worship By the Book, page 29.

[4] I mean it when I say that Scripture doesn’t give us much guidance on how to put all these elements together, but that does not mean there is no guidance on how to put it all together. For example we’re to serve one another in love, so if we only employ contemporary music to reach our modern world, we neglect the older members of our congregation and ignore the history of the Church. And the opposite is just as true – to only employ hymns would be to neglect the younger members of our congregation and to idolize some bygone era of Church history that was just as fallen as our current culture is now. Inspiration in song didn’t end with the hymnal and doesn’t begin with modern music.

Sing What We Mean, Mean What We Sing!

Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

There’s an old saying that goes ‘many people will lie in the first 30 minutes of Sunday morning worship more than they will all week.’ This has always been an interesting quote to me especially when thinking about weekly congregational worship. This week, in particular, my worship director and I were talking about a worship class he is currently taking. I was helping him with an assignment where he was organizing the different worship songs that we’ve done of the past few weeks into certain categories based on who the recipient of the song was. Was it being sung to God or is it an encouragement to the congregation? This discussion led my mind to go back to that old saying and wonder how much do we really believe the songs that we sing.

Do we ever think about it on Sunday mornings? While in that moment we may be caught up with an emotion or excitement, are we really engaging with the words that we are singing?

I want this brief blog post to be an encouragement to all of us as we go into worship this weekend. I hope that we will be encouraged to think through the words that we are singing. I want us to really focus in on the depth of these truths and how they affect our souls. We truly must think of the songs we sing as an outpouring of our hearts towards God and an encouragement one another. I hope the words of Colossians 3:16 become a reality to us all. So specifically we will look at two types of songs that seem to be the most often sung but overlooked in their meanings.  These are songs of lament and songs of dedication. In one, we sing of our trust in God in the midst the pain and sorrow and in the other we sing of our dedication to God in all things.

The Song of Lament

For many of us songs of lament probably aren’t all that common in our congregations, even though their meaning and use is probably one of the most real parts of the Christian life. The Psalms are filled with hearts broken and beaten by the world, but whose ultimate faith is in the Lord alone. In our congregations we may not sing them very often but when (not ‘if’) we do we should take a moment and reflect on what they mean. When we sing the words of Blessed be your name and echo the bridge “you give and take away, blessed be your name” do we truly think through what that song is saying? Do we really look at our situations and see all that we may have gained and all that we may have lost and truly be able to cry out “Blessed be your name?” When we are stuck in the wilderness of life do we truly cry out “Blessed be your name?” Songs of lament can be one the greatest salves to hurting heart. They give voice to the destitute, but as we struggle do we truly believe these words. Do we truly yearn for these words to reflect our hearts towards God?

So for those of us who are in pain may we sing these songs with a heart that reflects a trust in God. And to those of us who are not in the midst of trials and struggles, let us sing these songs with two things in mind: First, the times we have been brought through the fire. When we sing these songs let us reflect on what God has done for us. Let us not sit by passively or sing absent-mindedly, but let us sing reflecting on how God has brought us through. Second, let us remember our brothers and sister who are sitting around us in our service who are struggling. Let our singing be an encouragement to them of how God is worthy in the midst of our struggles, but also let these songs be a reminder that we all suffer and walk through the deserts.

Songs of Dedication

Songs that cry out for dedication and sing of our allegiance to God are some of the most often taken for granted songs in Christian worship. With one voice we can echo the words “Jesus I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee, destitute, despised forsaken, and thou from hence my all shalt be,” and yet it is not less than a day and back we are to the same pattern following our own desires and ambitions, with little or no thought for the will and direction of God. Another example from the same beautiful hymn “Go then earthly fame and treasure, come disaster scorn and pain, in thy service pain is pleasure, with thy favor loss is gain.” These simple lines echo the call of Christ to follow Him in the gospel, and connect us to the mission of His disciples for all generations; To give up everything of this world and be solely devoted to him. In these songs we declare with one voice yes and amen, we will follow Him without a second guess, yet again we quickly turn back.

Worship through song is formative in many ways, for worship gives voice to who we know we should be, and when we take it seriously we begin to think thoughtfully about whether or not we truly believe the words that we say. It is easy to nod our head at the words of the sermon, but it’s a whole other thing to put those words into action in our daily lives. However, in worship through song we sing those truths one to another and back to God. So the songs we sing on Sunday should never simply be another song in the list of songs that you’ve learned, that flow as easily from, our lips as the newest pop song. The songs we sing should be an outflowing of the truth of God in Scripture and in our lives.

The songs we sing should build us up with joy for the greatness of who our God is. We should be able to sing in reflection for all that he has done. We should sing with joy to exclaim his greatness to our brothers and sisters. And we should sing the truth of Scripture to those who do not know that they may hear and believe the word of God presented through song.

May our worship through song never be a lie.

May we think deeply of the things of God and sing in response to the greatness of our God. May we not simply check out on a Sunday morning and go through the motions of singing words that we’ve heard time and time again. But may we engage our mind and our heart to understand what God is saying in his word and through the worship of his people.

So when we join with our brothers and sisters this Sunday and sing with one voice may we engage with the words that we’re singing. Let the words truly be a reflection of our hearts, let the words that we sing become formative for our lives as they reflect the truth of Scripture and the truth of our Savior.

Joy Joy!!

Bifrost Arts produced, what is to me, the best Christmas album of all time called: Salvation Is Created.  If you’ve never heard it, you’ll be strangely surprised at how much you like this album.  Using only minor keys, it sounds like a robust, theological, Christmas version of Edward Scissorhands.  For those of you looking get your hands on a quality, substantive, musically appealing Advent album, look no further.

Enjoy a sampling from it below:

Under the babyʼs head she held
Love, love, sing Emmanuel
Lending at His birth, peace on all the earth
See His mother Mary weeping Love, love, love.

Over the shepherds, angels tell
Joy, Joy, called Emmanuel
Born in Bethlehem, good will unto men
Bend before His cradle singing Joy, joy, joy.

Down from the throne of Heavʼn He fell
Light, light became Emmanuel
Covered in our flesh, swaddled in our dress
Wise men to His coming chasing light, light, light.

Onto the ground His blood He spilled
Peace! Peace! Cried Emmanuel
Sinners dark and vile, God to reconcile
Spilling love and joy and light and peace, peace, peace.

© 2009 New Jerusalem Music

You can sample and buy the whole album through Bandcamp.

We Must See Our ____ to Know What ____ is

As we saw yesterday, we often forget to look at the really broad picture of the Bible, especially when it comes to how individual books of the Bible are laid out.  Take Romans again for example.

Romans is a letter that has been broken up into 16 chapters.  These chapters have themes, and these themes form purposed arguments.  In other words, the words of the Bible AND the flow of the Biblical authors arguments are not by accident.  In Romans chapter 1:1 – 3:20 descends into the abyss of sin.  3:21 – 5:21 soars in description of the gospel.  6:1 – 7:13 responds to the gospel with a call to holiness, while the rest of chapter 7 (7:14-25) discusses man’s failure to live up to those gospel standards.  This is all clear, but notice what comes in the beginning of chapter 8?  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus.” 

This structure teaches us many things, one of those things stands out in particular to me today.  One cannot get to the astounding love of God toward us through Jesus without going through the darkness of sin.  This calls out a couple of types of people.

1) Some of you draw from the well of God’s love so much that you have never or have no intention of ever looking yourselves in the mirror to see how wretched you really are.  This is wrong.

2) Others of you drink heavily from the darkness of your own sin and failures so much that you never look up out of your pit, and glance in the direction of God’s love at all.  This is also wrong.

You probably already know what I’m going to say next don’t you?  We must avoid both of these extremes to be Biblical.  In order to get to the glorious love of God in gospel theology, we must go through sin to get there first.  There is no other way to it.  We cannot have sin with no love, or love with no sin.  We must see our sin to know what love is.

I wonder, which side of the pendulum to you fall on?  Find out, and run toward the middle to have a rich gospel-centered theology.

Theology = Worship = Application

When we take a step back from books in the Bible to look at the whole book, we often see things that stand out.

The book of Romans makes this especially clear.  In Romans, the first 11 chapters give us some of the richest, deepest, and thickest theology in the entire Bible.  Paul deals with many things in the first 11 chapters which we ought to give long attention to.  If we look at Romans as a whole we see something that stands out at the end of chapter 11, something that acts as a bridge.

After writing this glorious treasure of theology in Romans 1-11 Paul explodes into praise and says this, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  For who has known the mind of the LORD, or who became His counselor?  Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again?  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen.” 

This praise from Paul has often been called the bridge in Romans because of where it comes from and where it leads to.  I say where it comes from because before the bridge we have such rich theology; and I say where it leads to because after this praise chapter 12 begins the last section of Romans that deals primarily with application.  Why is this important?  Is it any surprise that theology leads to praise, and praise then leads to application of theology?  No, at least it shouldn’t surprise us.  Imagine Paul writing this as a boiling pot of water getting hotter and hotter to the boiling point as he is finishing chapter 11.  He then explodes in praise, because that is what the theology has led him to.  The praise then leads Paul to describe how the theology affects our everyday relationships including other believers, our authorities, and weaker brothers.

Notice that this means, contrary to popular opinion, that theology leads to the praise of God.  So many people have given up on deep thinking about the things of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and in doing so they have given up the very thing that will lead them to white-hot worship.  I do not know whoever began saying that seminaries should be called cemetaries, but they obviously did not see this pattern in Romans.  If you’re a deep thinker of God and love deep theology, this is for you.  If you feel you can only scratch the surface of Paul’s thought, this is for you.   No matter if you dive in over your head, or jump in the shallow end of theology, it should lead you to praise, and that praise should lead to a practical out working of the great truths you have learned.

Romans 1-11 (Theology) = Romans 11:33-36 (Worship) = Romans 12-15 (Application)

Pastors: Ask Your People to Worship With You, Not For You

Helpful quote from Mark Ashton on a team approach to planning worship:

It is helpful to have a meeting to plan and review services in order to learn from mistakes and to develop good practice.  Obviously some churches do not have this opportunity, but where the person responsible for Bible teaching and the person responsible for the music can confer and pray together, it will raise the quality of the services.  If such a meeting can be weekly and can include one or two others, with draft outlines of the service prepared and circulated in advance, it will be better still.  It is particularly important to assess the sermon and to consider how the rest of the service relates to it.  Sermons should not be divorced from the context in which they are delivered.  Ever preacher benefits from hearing his sermons reviewed, and every service benefits from the preacher playing a part in its preparation…The best services are normally team efforts, demonstrating the corporateness of the Christian life.  But a mistake we often make is to draw others in to help with the execution of the service rather than with the planning and preparation of the service…this is the difference between asking someone to do something for us and to do something with us.

(Worship by the Book, edited by D.A. Carson, page 80-82)

The Central Question in ‘How’ We Worship God

Any conversation on the Sunday worship of God’s people tends to be emotionally loaded because it is usually our first instinct to think in terms of subjective preference rather than objective truth.  This can make any conversation about worship heated.  This is why worship wars have happened, are still happening, and will most likely always happen until Jesus returns.

But there is a question that can calm down our wars.  D.A. Carson instructs us to ask this when thinking about worship: “We should not begin by asking whether or not we enjoy worship, but by asking ‘what is it that God expects of us?'”  This question can be clarifying because it brings us back to the center, back to the foundations of worship.  Carson’s question is really just his version of an age-old principle the Church has used in crafting the worship of God’s people – the regulative principle.  This principle is this: we’re to worship God the way God intends us to worship Him, not in any way we want to.  This is very simple to say, but in practice it can be hard to implement.

Carson’s question rings true again.  When discussing the worship of God’s people what does God expect of us when we gather in His name to worship Him?  Are we free to do whatever we like?  Or has God left us guidelines to follow, or practices to employ?  The answer is Biblically clear.  The Bible gives us a list of practices that must be present in our worship, and going beyond this list is dangerous because it means we wander outside God’s intentions in His worship.  This list is: the Preaching of the Word, the Reading of the Word, Prayer, Singing, Sacraments, and Simplicity.

These things in practice can look very different based on the size and culture of the congregation, but all of them must be present for our worship to be Biblical.  There are also helpful guidelines to aid us in implementing the above list in faithful and helpful ways for God’s people. Worship must be God-centered, Christ-centered, Word-centered, consecration, whole-hearted, and reverent.

These two lists taken together along with Carson’s question can do much to aid us in planning the worship of God’s people for the glory of God and the good of God’s people.

Delighting in the Duty of Daily Worship

Each Sunday we gather to worship God.  An oft overlooked aspect of Lord’s Day worship is that it is supplemental.  This means what happens on Sunday should be an overflow and an add-on to the worship that has already been happening in our lives throughout the week.  Worship is more than what we do on Sundays when we gather together as the Church – worship is the way we live our lives.  Romans 12:1 makes this crystal clear, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, by the mercy of God to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship.”

This means our focus on the Lord’s Day in worship should be our focus everyday of the week.

Daily we’re to worship God.  Not just any God, but God over all, the King of ages who has revealed Himself to us through the gospel as Father, Son, and Spirit.  This God is worthy of our worship, worthy of all praise, and He commands us to worship Him.  But what’s in view here is more than mere duty.  God commands us to delight in the duty of praising Him.

This is most clearly understood in terms of beauty.

What makes worship beautiful isn’t those doing it, leading it, living it, or even those loving it.  What makes worship beautiful is the object of our worship – God Himself, who is wonderfully delightful.  If this is a new thought to you, here’s my advice on how to worship God everyday of your life: as you worship don’t think about worship, think about God, and you’ll find yourself worshipping.

What Pastors Wish Their Worship Leaders Knew

shutterstock_92514370_FotorWhat follows below is a helpful article by Bob Kauflin explaining the yearnings, warnings, cravings, and longings inside the heart of a pastor for his congregations music.  As a pastor I found it very encouraging, I hope you do to.

Bob Kauflin:

This past week I had the privilege of participating in the Cutting it Straight conference in Jacksonville, led by H.B. Charles, Jr. and hosted by Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church.

H.B. started this conference, now in its second year, specifically to influence African American pastors to preach expositionally. I was invited to be part of the worship track. H.B., along with his music pastor, Joe Pace, hopes to see more black churches singing songs that are theologically rich and gospel-centered. Not gospel like “black gospel,” but gospel like “Jesus bore our sins on the cross to purchase our forgiveness” gospel. While our cultural backgrounds are different, we share a passion to see the Word of God proclaimed in song in the power of the Spirit, and to see churches singing songs that enable the word of Christ to dwell in us richly.

For two of the seminars I was assigned the topic of “What Pastors/Worship Leaders Wish Their Worship Leader/Pastor Knew.” It was a little challenging because pastors and musicians vary widely in terms of their theology and practice. But here’s my attempt to pinpoint “What Pastors Wish Their Worship Leaders Knew.” Although this post highlights areas that might be problematic, pastors should regularly communicate support and evidences of grace in their worship leader before pointing out things that could be better. For the sake of this post, I’m using the term “worship leader” to describe a non-elder who leads the music during the gatherings of the church.

1. Pastors, not worship leaders, will give an account to God for the people in their church. (Heb. 13:17)
Pastors are ultimately responsible for the teaching and song diet of the church.
Pastors should know in advance what songs will be sung, and should play a part in choosing them.
If you want a pastor’s trust, you’ll have to earn it.

2. God’s Word to us matters more than our words to God. (Is. 66:2Ps. 19:7-11)
Music ministry is Word ministry.
Don’t underestimate the value of proclaiming God’s Word passionately.
Seek to know your Bible better than your instrument.
Lead us to sing the Word, hear the Word, see the Word, and pray the Word.

3. We are what we sing. Therefore, choose our songs and lyrics wisely. (Col. 3:16)
You are discipling the congregation through your song choices and words.
For better or worse, our churches will remember more words from our songs they sing than from the sermons they hear.
Build a repertoire of songs that enable us to express the many varied aspects of God’s glory and the many appropriate responses, and make sure we’re singing them.

4. While song introductions can be helpful, the worship leader is not the preacher.
Your primary role is to enable the word of Christ to dwell in us as we sing, not to preach.
When speaking, typically less is more.
Choose good songs, and let the songs do the teaching.

5. Prayers are corporate conversations with God, not filler.
Don’t pray simply because you feel awkward or don’t know what else to do.
Use your prayers to speak for the congregation, not just yourself.
Model what theologically informed, engaged, Christ-exalting prayer looks like.
Don’t mix up the members of the Trinity, and don’t pray as though God has forgotten his name.

6. Your job is to support congregational singing, not overwhelm or replace it.  (Eph. 5:18-19Rev. 5:9-10)
Make sure your sound man knows the value of the congregation’s voice.
If you constantly sing harmony, some of us will have a hard time knowing what the melody is.
Don’t assume your instrumentalists have to play constantly.
Pull back from your vocal mics sometimes, stop playing your instruments, and let us sing a cappella.

7. Truth matters more than tunes, but that doesn’t mean we should sing great theology to bad melodies or accompaniment.
Choose songs the congregation enjoys singing and can sing.
Occasionally try changing the arrangement, tempo, or feel of a song so the congregation can hear the lyrics in a fresh way.

8. Keys that serve the congregation take priority over keys that make you sound good. (Phil. 2:3-4)
We don’t come primarily to listen to you sing, but to lift up our own voices.
If you have to sing higher, try occasionally adding fills that heighten the impact and meaning of the lyrics we’re singing.
Congregations get weary if they have to sing a lot of high Ds and Es. If we’re singing F#s they’ll probably drop an octave or faint.

9. Don’t teach us so many new songs that we never learn them and so few new songs that we fail to benefit from them.
Learning about two songs every three months is doable. Learning 4 songs a month isn’t.
We have access to more songs more immediately than any time in history. Teach us the ones that we will feed our souls for more than a few weeks.
If your aim is to serve us, you won’t have to try to impress us.

10. Blaming sin on being an artist/musician doesn’t make it any less sinful.
Moodiness, over-sensitivity, procrastination, pride, irresponsibility, and laziness aren’t due to having a certain temperament but to indwelling sin.
Getting to know non-musicians in the church can provide perspective and encouragement.
If there’s anything in your life that might hinder or disqualify you from serving in your role, please let me know. I want to help you.

11. Your goal in leading isn’t performing, but pastoring and participation.
If the people in the church generally aren’t singing, you’re performing, not leading congregational worship.
Your job isn’t done just because you practiced. People have to actually sing.
Leading with your eyes open most of the time will communicate your care and help you gauge how people are responding.

12. You’re not the Holy Spirit, but you can depend on Him.
Music can’t open the eyes of our hearts, illumine our minds, our change our lives. But God’s Spirit can.
You don’t have to tell us to “sing louder” or “sing it like you mean it” or exhort us with “C’mon!” Give us doctrinal fuel and for our emotional fire and trust the Spirit will do the rest.
When you spend time in prayer asking God to empower what you do, you’ll lead more often with a humble confidence that is easy to follow.

13. Ultimately, Christ is our worship leader, not me or you. (Heb. 2:11-128:1-2)
You don’t have to bring us into the throne room. Christ has already done that. (Heb. 10:19-22)
You don’t have to feel pressure or be anxious about leading us. Christ perfects all our offerings (1 Pet. 2:5)!
The more you point us to what Christ has done and is doing for us, the less we’ll see you and the more we’ll benefit from the ways God has gifted you.

If you’re a pastor and identify with some or many of these points, don’t keep it to yourself. More importantly, take your musical leader out for a meal and express your appreciation in specific ways. Then talk about what could be better. Who knows what God might do?

What would you add?

(Image courtesy of shutterstock.com)

Are You Joyful? You Should Sing!

James 5:13 says “Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.” 

When I read this, I ask one question: why?  What is it about singing that seems to be the fulfillment of joy or cheer?

C.S. Lewis has a great answer:

But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me.  I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor.  I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game…My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.  I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, page 94-95)

This, among many others, is a great reason why we should give ourselves to singing during worship with God’s people.  Singing isn’t optional – it’s the way we express and complete our joy in Jesus.  To not do this is wrong.

John Calvin on Music

In his writing and preaching John Calvin touched on almost every topic of concern to human life, including music.  Here is an excerpt from Calvin’s preface to the Genevan Psalter:

“Now among the other things which are proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the principal; and it is necessary for us to think that it is a gift of God deputed for that use. Moreover, because of this, we ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting [it to] our condemnation, where it was dedicated to our profit and use. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve all honest things; and that it should not give occasion for our giving free rein to dissolution, or making ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it should not become the instrument of lasciviousness nor of any shamelessness…

“And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another….

“What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him.

“As for the rest, it is necessary to remember that which St. Paul hath said, the spiritual songs cannot be well sung save from the heart.…For a linnet, a nightingale, a parrot may sing well; but it will be without understanding. But the unique gift of man is to sing knowing that which he sings. After the intelligence must follow the heart and the affection, a thing which is unable to be except if we have the hymn imprinted on our memory, in order never to cease from singing. For these reasons this present book, even for this cause, besides the rest which has been said, ought to be singular recommendation to each one who desires to enjoy himself honestly and according to God…”

Worship According to the Word

Great piece from Albert Mohler:

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor offers this insight into fallen human nature: “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” Though the Grand Inquisitor falls far short as a reliable guide to theology, at this point he is surely correct. Human beings are profoundly religious—even when we do not know ourselves to be—and humans incessantly seek an object of worship.

Yet, human beings are also sinners, and thus our worship is, more often than not, grounded in our own paganism of personal preference. As John Calvin profoundly explained, the fallen human heart is an “idol-making factory,” always producing new idols for worship and veneration. That corrupted factory, left to its own devices, will never produce true worship, but will instead worship its own invention.

The church is not comprised of those who found the true and living God by experimentation in worship, but of those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, incorporated into the Body of Christ, and are then called to true worship as regulated and authorized by Scripture. Worship is the purpose for which we were made—and only the redeemed can worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

But, do we? The British philosopher Roger Scruton once advised his fellow philosophers that the best way to understand what people really believe about God is to observe them at worship. Theology books and doctrinal statements may reveal what a congregation says it believes, but worship will reveal what it reallybelieves. If so, we are in big trouble.

Just look at the confusion that marks what is called worship among so many evangelicals. Instead of engaging in worship that points to the glory of God, many churches feature services that look more like a carnival of chaos than a Christian congregation at worship. Years ago, A.W. Tozer lamented that many churches conceive of worship as “a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction.” Many Christians, he argued, would not even recognize worship as “a meeting where the only attraction is God.” True fifty years ago, those words now serve as a direct indictment of contemporary worship.

The pathology of our problem must be traced to realities as fundamental as our worldview and as superficial as personal taste. At the worldview level, we must face the fact that modernism collapsed transcendence in many minds. The focus of worship was “horizontalized” and reduced to human scale. Theological liberalism simply embraced this new worldview, and it made the theological compromises that modernity demanded. Worship was transformed into an experiment in “meaningfulness” as judged by the worshiper, not an act of joyful submission to the wonder and grandeur of God.

Now that postmodernism rules the worldview of the cultural elite and the culture’s most powerful centers of influence, the radical subjectivity, moral relativism, and hostility to absolute truth that marks the postmodern worldview shapes worship in some churches as well. Postmodernism celebrates the victory of the image over the word, but Christianity is a Word-centered faith, rooted in the verbal revelation of God and the identity of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word.

Postmodernists assert that all truth is constructed, not absolute. As philosopher Richard Rorty insists, truth is made, not found. Those who accept this radical pragmatism will see worship as an experiment in “making” meaning rather than a discipline of preaching, hearing, believing, and confessing eternal truths revealed by God in propositional form.

While all Christians affirm the necessity and reality of the experiential dimension of faith, the experience must be grounded in and accountable to the Word of God. This is of central importance to the question of worship, for, left to our own devices, we will be inclined to seek worship that meets our desire for a “meaningful” experience or matches our personal taste as a substitute for authentic worship regulated by Scripture and centered on God, rather than His people.

Concern for the proper worship of God was central to the Reformation, even as it is central to our most important theological debates today. Nothing is more important than our understanding of worship, for our concept of worship is inescapably tied to our understanding of God and His sovereign authority to reveal the worship He desires, deserves, and demands.

Hughes Oliphant Old once summarized the Reformers’ understanding of worship in terms of “its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence, of simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” As Old recognized, this path of renewal “may not be just exactly what everyone is looking for.”

This is surely true, but it is the only path back to the worship God seeks, and to the recovery of our witness to the infinite glory, perfection, and worthiness of the triune God. We will either recover the biblical vision of true Christian worship, or we will slide into some form of pagan worship. There is no third option.