How to Prepare for Corporate Worship

My local church, the First Baptist Church of Durham, has a cool ministry that I thought I would pass on. Every Thursday our assistant pastor, Eric Campbell, posts a brief worship guide titled “Preparing for Worship” at our church’s website. This document tells the congregation who will be preaching that coming Lord’s Day and from what text. It also lists other individuals who will be leading in worship in various ways, the hymns that will be sung, etc. In addition, Eric also gives some guidance in how to pray for the service, provides some devotional thoughts, and points out some relevant Scripture passages to reflect upon. I would encourage you to consider a similar ministry in your own church. You can click here to read this week’s worship guide. I hope you have a blessed Lord’s Day tomorrow.

Theological Integrity in Worship

In the past months I’ve had some things to say about worship, some in a general sense and a series on the problems associated with what I call “Disney-World” Worship. Yes, I have been a bit of a curmudgeon in the process. I appreciate those who have interacted with me both on the blog, via email, and some in person. Next comes a series of posts describing something of a theological framework for worship, focusing mainly on congregational worship, which is a particular instance of worship as a way of life. Much of what I’ll say in these posts will apply to worship in the more general sense, but I have in mind some thoughts about the gathered assembly as I write. If you’re wondering how I define worship, you can read that here. While I’ve been descriptive about some of the problems with evangelical worship (in particular) in the past posts, I intend to be more prescriptive in these posts. And, perhaps, if possible, a bit less curmudgeonly.

For some time I’ve used a basic theological framework for thinking about worship in the public assembly. A sound biblical theology of worship should include: theological integrity, personal sanctity, developing community, artistic quality, and pastoral sensitivity. I’ll note that this framework is a means by which leaders can think about how they are shaping the worship life of a congregation. This post takes up the issue of theological integrity, which I believe is foundational for everything else.

When I say “integrity” I refer to a wholeness or soundness. Engineers who build bridges do their job well when a bridge has “integrity.” That is, it is sound in its construction and it allows passage over the bridge with the safety intended. When pastors and other leaders think rightly in a theological sense, it allows the saints the opportunity to respond in faith to God in appropriate ways that are fitting with respect to God’s glory, the edification of the body, and the proclamation of the gospel.

A good biblical theology of worship is formed by: (1) an understanding of worship that arises out of the whole Bible and is set in the context of the grand biblical narrative (GBN); (2) an understanding and enactment of the biblical elements of worship; (3) an understanding and enactment of the liturgical dimensions of worship found in the Scriptures.

A Theology of Worship That Has Scripture as Its Primary Source

There are different ways of coming to an understanding of worship. We may do so out of the cultural context in which we live, we may do so from studying the history of Christian worship, or we may do so by studying the Scriptures. Whether we like to admit it or not, we typically include all of these sources to some extent in our worship practices.

The fact that many of our churches display United States flags in our worship spaces, and have annual patriotic celebrations in worship services, shows that we allow our cultural context to serve as a source for our theology and practice of worship. And we can point to numerous examples of the way in which history and tradition inform our worship – I doubt anyone would argue that a quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper arose from biblical teaching. Rather, this is an example of tradition serving as a theological source for us.

We evangelicals prefer, though, at least in theory, to ground our theology in the Bible, and what I am calling for is a theology and practice of worship that draws primarily on the Scripture as its source, with things like tradition and culture as secondary sources that are subject to the prescriptions of the Bible. I think it is particularly helpful to set the doctrine of worship – both “way of life” worship and congregational worship – in the context of the GBN (I could say much more, but what I mean is that our “way of life” is seen in the context of the mission of God revealed to us in the GBN. For more on this see this previous post). This enables us to account for the whole of the Bible as we think about and form our worship, and not to leave anything out that should be in, and not to insist on something being in our worship that the Bible itself does not demand. We can then observe and assess our cultural and traditional practices through the lens of Scripture.

A Theology of Worship That Includes the Biblical Elements of Worship

There are different ways of categorizing the biblical elements of worship, but a survey of the Scriptures provides at least the following for our consideration (in alphabetical order): baptism, charity/giving, confession, Lord’s Supper, prayer and praise, preaching/teaching, reading of Scripture.

In my reading of Scripture I find these to be common practices when God’s people gather, which may be enacted in various forms. Confession, for example, may include a confession of faith as well as confession of sin. Prayer and praise may be spoken or sung. Giving may be done in varied ways. And preaching and teaching, as well as the reading of Scripture, indicate different ways to expose people to the Word of God.

I find it interesting that there is so little prescription about these elements in the Bible. We see these elements set in different contexts. We find no “order of worship,” however, that must be followed. It is as if the Spirit inspired the Scriptures in such a way that we learn what elements should be present in the life of the church, but without any strict prescription for how they may be employed. This actually seems consistent with the fact that worship takes place in varied cultural contexts and this allows a kind of freedom that sufficiently accounts for the forms God has given, while allowing the cultural and creative distinctions among groups of people to be displayed.

It is often interesting to take a list of biblical elements of worship like this and compare it to the last three months of orders of worship in your church. See what shows up in your worship and what doesn’t. Consider the frequency with which you see certain elements. You may find that you have real theological integrity, or you may find that some adjustments are in order.

A Theology of Worship That Includes the Three Liturgical Dimensions

I categorize the liturgical dimensions into three categories, though they may be ordered differently. David Pass, in his little book Music and the Church, sees three categories, while A. M. Triacca lists as many as eight. I think three categories suffice to account for the multi-dimensional nature of worship. Let me explain the three dimensions: doxological (adoration), hortatory (edification), and kergymatic (proclamation).

We readily understand the first of these, since we typically think of worship as that which is directed Godward. I use the term doxological in the sense of God’s glory. This is what we primarily do when we worship, we give glory to God. The Scriptures are replete with references to this liturgical dimension. This is the ultimate dimension of worship, but it is not the only one.

The Scriptures also instruct us about the way in which the assembled people of God worship as they exhort and edify one another. We call this the hortatory dimension of worship. In Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 we see examples of this. The language of doxology (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”) is used with reference to encouraging one another, and teaching and admonishing one another. Note the interrelation of these two dimensions. They are not in Paul’s mind distinct actions; they occur together. As we praise God, we encourage one another. As we build up God’s people, we bring glory to God. This is found throughout the Psalms (look at Psalm 136, for example), and it may be so prevalent that we tend to overlook it.

The Scriptures indicate at least one other liturgical dimension, which we call the kerygmatic, with reference to the proclamation of the gospel. We see this in various places in the Scriptures. Psalm 96, for example, urges God’s people to make God’s glory known to the nations. Solomon prays for the Gentiles who will come and pray at the Jewish Temple (2 Chron 6:32ff), implying that the foreigner will hear of God and come worship him. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, insists that worship must be intelligible not only so that believers may be edified (the hortatory dimension), but so that the unbelievers in their midst (note that, he assumes unbelievers will be in the midst of a worship service!) may themselves come under conviction and worship God (1 Cor 14:24-25).

Some Final Thoughts about Theological Integrity

If you’re thinking about some of these things for the first time, this may seem like a lot to take in. And, in fact, it is. The Bible has a lot to say about worship. As it happens, very often we have a lot to say about worship, but we often say it with little scriptural reflection. We need to change that so that our worship has theological integrity. Everything else I’ll say in the next set of posts hinges on this concept – forming a solid biblical theology of worship that helps our people understand worship as a way of life, and that moves us to shape our congregational gatherings of worship along truly biblical lines.

A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship: Disney World Worship, Part 3: The Sovereignty of Technology

Disney World is dependent on technology. Consider what a trip there would be like if Disney World went “unplugged.” I doubt your “dream vacation” would be so dreamy without all the rides, gadgets, and experiences brought to us by advances in technology. And Bruce Ashford wouldn’t be able to see his dream come true of doing the Castle Package at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique if Disney World didn’t build itself on the wonders of technology (I mean, without a blow dryer, what would they do with Bruce’s hair?).

Christian Worship has benefited much from technological advances. We take for granted the wonder of printed Bibles, for example. Without the development of the printing press, we simply would not have access to the Scriptures in the manner we do. For musicians, there are improved instruments (yes, technology brought us better-made instruments – give that natural horn a try, those of you who play valved instruments), printed music, and music publishing software. And we have made significant use of advances in audio and visual technology in the past decades.

I’ve always been an advocate of making the best use possible of technology in worship. I see no point in being a liturgical Luddite. At the same time, I am troubled by what appears, in some instances, to be the use of technology in a way that is unfitting and overbearing. I worry that in some places technology has assumed a magisterial rather than ministerial role. That is, it has come to rule our worship rather than serve it. In too many instances, technology has become sovereign in our worship.

Let me clarify two points. First, I’m not entirely sure how we can measure the problem I’m surfacing here. Perhaps others have some ideas about that. But, I’m not going to offer any hard and fast arguments in this post. Second, I’m not questioning anyone’s motives about the use of technology, I’m simply raising questions of judgment.

It’s a rarity to find a church in the United States that does not use some sort of audio reinforcement. Even cathedrals (we have relatively few in the US) typically have basic audio equipment – a pulpit mic and some loudspeakers. Other churches make extensive use of audio equipment, with installations of sound equipment alone in the range of five figures and even six at times (yes, I mean that churches spend hundreds of thousands on audio equipment). Let me identify a couple of problems I see with the use of audio technology these days.

First, I think we often turn up the volume too high in our worship services. It’s not difficult to ascertain optimal decibel levels in a room, but very often we use audio technology to exceed that level. On more than one occasion I’ve asked the question, Why exactly do we reinforce sound? We reinforce it (that’s what we do with the audio equipment) so people can hear. So, once they can hear what they couldn’t hear without reinforcement, we have to ask, What is the point of then turning it up louder?

I’ve heard a number of answers to that question. Perhaps the winner is that people think if they turn up the volume the congregation will sing more. This is simply a misunderstanding of congregational dynamics. If people can’t hear themselves, they actually sing less, not more. (The inverse is true too. If they only hear themselves, most won’t keep singing). You don’t encourage the congregation to sing by blasting more sound at them. Find the optimal sound for your room and leave it there. I promise you that optimal is nowhere near the maximum settings on your system. And, if you think turning the sound up loud is “cool,” get over it. You’re doing a disservice to the people.

Second, we use audio effects boxes in a manner that is irresponsible. The effects box is that little unit that is used, for example, to create reverberation. Now, I’m not opposed to using such a device. I served in a church for several years that was in a converted mall, and due to low ceilings we had an acoustical nightmare on our hands. The effects box helped restore some of the natural sound to voices and instruments that was lost in that room. This is a fitting and appropriate use of technology in my view. What I object to is the use of an effects box to make a singer sound like someone else, like they have a voice they don’t actually have. We “warm up” a voice with the effects box to make it sound better than it actually is. I realize that the pop music industry is built on such use of technology (I once heard a popular CCM group rehearsing when the effects box went out – Weren’t we all surprised that they sounded very little like they did with the aid of technology?). This is inauthentic. Just let the singer sing. And teach them to sing better, to sustain lines, and to find the natural warmth of their voice. If the sax player doesn’t have a great tone, don’t use technology to misrepresent him. I really worry about our indiscriminate use of such equipment.

Video equipment, for all its usefulness, has its problems as well. The use of screens, for example, for projection, has given us a lot of good options we didn’t have before. We can now make aspects of the service visible in ways we could not previously. While that’s true, our efforts to improve visibility have a downside. Several years ago I began displaying the Scripture text for my sermon on screen at a certain point in each service. I wanted the congregation to read the text aloud together each week and, with the proliferation of different English translations along with the fact that I was preaching out of a different version than our pew Bibles, I made use of video to display the Scriptures. I thought this was working quite well until some congregants made the observation that some people had quit bringing their Bibles to church. Talk about unintended consequences. I wanted them to pay more attention to the Scriptures, but in the process I took the Bible out of their hands. (Why I want the Bible in their hands is a matter for another blog. But, to be clear, it’s not so they can receive a gold star for bringing their Bible to church. It is part of a desire for our people to know how to read the Bible well, something we should be showing them from the pulpit). I think my motives were proper, but I hadn’t thought this one through. This wasn’t a problem with the use of video per se, but it is an example of a good use of technology might have some problems associated with it that we might not think of at first.

Another issue with the use of technology that is quite common these days is the practice of displaying shots of platform personnel and the congregation continually during the service. This has the effect of turning the worship gathering into a large TV viewing service. I am amazed at how often I watch the screen to see what’s going on twenty-five feet away, when I can see it just fine without the screen. Even when I’m conscious of it, my eyes are still drawn to the screen. My observation is that this is a common occurrence, and I think it too has unintended consequences. We divert ourselves from the real to a representation of the real, and we become once removed from that which should have our attention – a real image-bearer of God preaching God’s good news. Instead, we look at an image of the image-bearer. Also, I’m terribly distracted in worship services where we have close-ups of singers and musicians happening all the time. I wonder why we need these shots at all, but at the very least we should do it less often. Worship isn’t a TV show, it’s communion with God amidst his people. In an odd way, our attempts to build community by showing video shots of congregants and platform singers actually produces an artificial effect that makes people seem distant, the very opposite of our intention.

A side note here: Can we please stop “staging” worship services with singing groups that have choreographed movements and outfits? This isn’t high school show choir (no offense to high school show choir directors. Or, maybe, offense to you. Whatever the case may be). And, please, if you have to do this, don’t put it on video. Let the musicians stay in a back room where none of us can see them.

In the end, if the elements of worship, or our actions in worship, or use of media, or technology, garner more attention in a worship service than Christ, then something is out of order. Christ is the sovereign, not technology or anything (or anyone) else. We need to be more cautious about making a servant (technology) the master in our public assemblies.

Thus ends my musings on Disney World Worship. Next up, I’ll continue my series with some constructive comments about a biblical theology of worship in a few posts and then some thoughts on the practice of worship in the local congregation.