Pastor Sean on Worship

I recently received this question about our worship services: “What are your views on the purpose and role of corporate worship? Is there anything you would want to change about our church’s current style, etc?” I also received this question, “What are your views on styles of church music?”. Here are some of my thoughts:

Before I begin my longer answer, let me give my short answer: “My views in worship are most strongly demonstrated in the worship we already practice at New Life in Christ Church. There is nothing major I want to change.” Now for the longer answer.

In John 4:23-24 Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” It is important for me and every Christian to recognize that the only thing we ever read about God seeking from us is … worship.

Worship is God’s great purpose. As God’s chief aim is His own glory (WSC 1) worship is God’s grand purpose in creation (Gen 1:27; Rev 14:7). Mankind failed in giving the worship that was due (Rom 1:20) and, thus God’s purposes in salvation are to call His elect to worship (1 Pet 2:5, 9; also Eph 2:18-22). Jesus’ work on the cross is to redeem a people to God and restore them to the purposes for which he created them—namely, worship (Rom 12:1; 1 Thess 1:9).

What are we doing in worship? Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord. While worship can have a broad meaning and refer to the way we worship God in all of life, for the purpose of this short article, I am focusing on the narrow meaning of corporate worship.

What is worship? The original words in Greek and Hebrew for “worship” carry the sense of one bending the knee before God. In English we see the relationship between the idea of “worth-ship” and “worship” in that worship is acknowledging the worthiness of God to worship (Rom. 11:33-36; Mic. 7:18). Corporate worship is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of bending our knew to him, praising Him for His greatness, and hearing His Word and responding by the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). It is commanded.

Thus worship is something we must be active in. We “bend the knee” before Him. We are not passive observers in worship. Even if we are listening, we are actively engaging our whole self in the activities going on.

We worship God … and we worship Him alone. Nothing else in creation is worthy of our worship, and it is a great sin to worship anything other than our covenant Lord (Ex. 20:3; Matt. 7:21-29). Our failure to worship is also a great sin against God, as it fails to recognize the worthiness of God to worship. It puts the creation (ourselves) over our Creator.

Worship is also personal (John 17:3). In worship, we are engaging with the personal Creator of the universe. We do not worship some abstract principle. We do what we do in worship because God is personal. In worship, we express affection, joy, sadness; we confess faults, make requests, present gifts, receiving cleansing, as well as eat and drink. Involvement in any of these practices is a type of honor. They involve trust, openness, confidence, and they attribute power and ability to God in worship.

God teaches us how we should worship. Worship should be directed toward God as He is. We are told that true worshippers worship God in spirit and in truth. True worshippers know that God is trinitarian. They recognize that worship is spiritual, it is not directed to a physical object or result. It recognizes that a relationship with God is the highest gift available.

Reformed churches, based on Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 21, affirm something called the “regulative principle of worship”. Very simply, it is based on the biblical idea that the Creator alone (not created human beings) has the right to say how he should be worshipped (Ex. 20:4-6). Humans don’t have the right to make up whatever religious pattern they want and call it worship (Lev. 10:1-3). My understanding of this principle is that the content of everything we do must be based upon the Word of God.

In other words, the message of our sermons, prayers, and songs will be the same: the gospel of Jesus Christ – centering on God as Creator, Man as Fallen, Jesus as Redeemer and God’s plan of restoration. Worship must be gospel-centered from the preaching to the prayers and confessions and the songs we sing. In gospel-centered worship we are regularly confronted with our need of Christ and of God’s provision of forgiveness through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We worship God as sovereignly in control of everything (Ps. 104), having sole authority over human living and worship (Ex. 20), and His presence with His people through our union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19-20).

The church is commanded to resist any temptation to communicate any other gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:8-9). Sadly, so many churches have doubted that the gospel message will truly save and have turned away from this message to other man-made messages. Mainline churches are plummeting in attendance because they have abandoned the gospel message. I remember attending a mainline church service where the communion hymn was the Beatles’ “Let it Be”. No matter what you think of the Beatles or the song, it was far away from the gospel message as the church had long abandoned the truth. I am concerned that many evangelical churches have abandoned the message as well and bring in man-centered messages that will not save.

This reminds us that, God is the primary audience in worship. Whatever is done in the service (whether by pastors, congregation members, praise team members, choirs, pianists, organists, or whoever) is done with the purpose of pleasing God as the audience. The question we always must ask is, was God pleased with how I “performed” (worshipped) today? The good news is that, by the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ, we need not fear the answer the question, but it does point us in the direction we should be going.

Still, we must not forget the horizontal aspect of worship. If loving God is the “vertical” aspect of worship, loving our neighbor is the “horizontal”. God tells us to “love our neighbor” as part of loving Him (Gal 5:13-15). God calls us together for corporate worship, so to fail to look out for the needs of others in worship would be unbiblical worship. Our songs are public confessions of who God is, what He has done, our need of Him, and our surrender to Him. With this in mind, worship should be edifying to the participants (1 Cor 14:26), it should be evangelistic in showing everyone the way to eternal life (calling unbelievers to life and reminding believers of the gospel promises they have) (1 Cor 14:25). Worship should not devolve to entertainment, but be a true ministry to the soul with the joy and the hope of the gospel. The love of Christ compels us to love others through the worship we share together.

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As for the second part of your question, about my desire to change things at New Life in Christ Church, nothing immediately comes to mind, and I do not plan for significant changes from our modern practices.

There are a few factors that I think of when it comes to our worship:

  • Worship is an expression of our convictions.
    • Someone asked what my views were on styles of church music.
    • Generally speaking, people talk about three styles: contemporary, traditional, and blended.
    • At New Life in Christ, I believe we tend to have a blended style, which I appreciate.
    • Let me share a bit how I see things, even if I am a bit simplistic in it.
    • Contemporary music styles tend to focus on the “immanence of God” – in other words, how God is close to us, how he is a helper, and how he is what we need. It is appropriate to articulate these things as part of our worship to God as He is near to us, He send His Son Jesus to be close to us, and His Holy Spirit is with us every day to help us do what God calls us to do (Phil. 4:13). We come to God with adoration and love. These tend to engage the emotions.
    • Traditional music styles tend to focus on the “transcendence of God” – in other words, how God is holy and separate from us. He is great and we are sinner. He in His mercy sent His Son to forgive our sins. He is Creator and we are His creation. We come before God with awe and wonder. These, today, tend to engage the mind.
    • Blended music styles tend to provide both the transcendent and the immanent together in the same service. I like how we can have a great hymn and then have a song that shows how close Jesus is. It avoids overly emotional and content-less worship services, avoiding lowering God to the level of human beings and taking away reverence. It also presents God in His rich and warmly and closely connected with our lives. He loves and cares for us. God is the center of the universe, and as Center, he loves and cares for us by calling us to His glory.
    • In my conversation with visitors, I hear some people say we are very traditional and others say we are very emotional. The fact that I hear either of these shows me that we are probably somewhere in the middle, of which I am comfortable with.
    • I believe that our blended worship style is a wonderful expression of gospel-centered worship.
  • Worship is an expression of who is part of our church.
    • In terms of our singing, I am immensely thankful for the gifting of Jonathan and Veronica Allison. Jonathan has effectively led us in gospel-focused worship and continues to work excellently in song-selection, worship preparation, and training and preparing participants for worship. I am 100% confident in their leadership.
    • We always need to be training the next generation and learning new ways to edify with the gospel message. I appreciate how Jonathan and Veronica seek and find a new song to sing to the Lord (Ps. 96:1; Ps. 40:3). These can be fresh and be edifying to both older and younger generations of worshippers. Jonathan has a significant task in leading us in singing and I have always appreciated what he does. I want to continue to support him in it.
    • Jonathan and Veronica also do a magnificent job in training up new leaders. Again, our singing is a product of who is in our church, and who participates, so he is always looking for servant-hearted people to come. I know that he has been open to new songs and even sharing leadership and ideas with younger leaders.
    • Our choirs have been an awesome expression of every-member ministry and a great point of fellowship in worship.
    • Our children’s choirs have helped children learn how to worship and helped them connect to each other.
    • We have so many gifted people who share so much with us that I want to continue to encourage them in the use of their gifts. Thanks for sharing with us!
    • As for pastoral leadership: A change in leadership will bring a change in worship expression, even if our convictions have not changed. It has to. I am different in personality than Pastor Doug and I will lead differently. After some period of time, I would like to attempt some minor changes to the structure of our service, mostly to adjust to my own peculiarities.I’ll work with the pastors and session before we do anything. Practically speaking: I’d like to have slightly shorter services and consider removing the mid-service greeting time. I’ve thought about adjusting the congregational prayer time as well, but I don’t have anything firm in mind. I’d rather have us experiment with some ideas than come with fixed changes in mind.That being said, I’ve been here long enough now that I’ve adjusted and been taught a lot by our congregation. Parts of the worship service carry the mark of my own influence. With worship, we have to always be learning and at the same time committed to our convictions.