Summer 1990

Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 2

Worship — you might say it has been the buzz word of the church for the last few years, the burning issue of the day in many evangelical and Reformed churches. That’s quite a change, because for a long time it was hard to get anyone to talk seriously about it.

Just what is worship, anyway? People talk of traditional and contemporary forms of worship, contrasting them as though they were somehow philosophical and theological opposites. If these terms are used as synonyms for formal and informal worship, you have neither a biblical nor a theological issue, for both kinds of worship are found in the Bible. Actually, you are only talking about a difference in style, and that’s simply a matter of taste.

However, “contemporary” worship can mean something different — not only a change in the content and style of worship, but a redirection of the focus of worship. The important questions here become “How does the worship affect the worshippers?” “Are they experiencing the level of excitement and joy they want? “Does the huge choir impress them?” While this approach draws crowds and is very entertaining, it fundamentally violates the biblical concept of the focus of worship. The ultimate test of a worship service’s success is not whether it pleases the worshipper; it is whether it pleases God.

On the other hand, fault certainly can be found in many of the “traditional” worship services. There can be lack of creativity, thoughtless repetition in the order of worship, an absence of enthusiasm, and a deadening dullness. One almost wonders if God would not say of it what He said to Israel through Malachi: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you” (Malachi 1:10).


When we worship, we must keep several ideas in mind. First, we must ask, “To whom are we actually addressing our worship?” Are we addressing God, or are we trying to interest and entertain the congregation? Of course, we need to recognize that the best of worship has entertainment value. From what the Apostle John tells us, we know that the worship of heaven is the most interesting and enthralling spectacle imaginable. But the object of heavenly worship is not to keep us interested in what is happening so that we will want to come back or so that we will have a good time. The object is to put every resource and all energy into praising God so that we can offer Him the best possible worship. His attention to and appreciation of what is going on is what matters.

If we regard the primary purpose of worship as the evangelization of the lost, or if we are always concerned with the impact of an element of worship upon the non-believer who may be present, we have missed the point of worship. God has ceased to be the audience, and the non-believer has taken His place. Of course, Paul said that we are to consider how our demeanor will look to the non-believer, but this does not justify making the unsaved the primary audience.

Second, our worship should reflect the glory and majesty of the worship of heaven. Hebrews 8:5 teaches us that earthly worship is a shadow of heavenly worship. Actually the earliest model for our worship is the synagogue, and, while we still reflect that design, it should not be the primary pattern. Some may disagree because they do not see the glory of heavenly worship reflected in the worship of the earliest church as recorded in Acts. But the worship of the Acts church was practiced under the real threat of persecution. In such limited settings, resources were restricted to reflect heavenly worship. Now, we are free to employ every resource. The best of our poetry, art, music, and energies should be used in worship.

Third, those who plan worship should understand why they have included certain elements in the service and how all of the elements relate to one another. Simply put, we need to know where we are going and how to get there. The elements of a worship service should flow logically and connect with each other, so that one act complements, explains, or expands upon another. Tossing together a service with all the familiar old elements, just as we would a salad, is unacceptable. And to be sure, in this well-planned worship there will be plenty of opportunity for congregational participation. Far too many traditional and contemporary services are merely spectator events.

Finally, there should be a historical connection with the best of the liturgical elements and forms of the past. To throw away the hymnal and simply use choruses on an overhead projector, as some are doing, is to deny the congregation the richness in worship that comes from using the best of the devotional thoughts, poems, and music of great Christians of past centuries. What deprivation and distortion of identity! Marvelous tunes are available that date back to the synagogue worship of Jesus’ day. Why throw out the best of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others? They have much to say to us.


John Calvin gave worship top priority. He spent much time and energy shaping the worship of Geneva according to his perception of the biblical pattern. Calvin’s impressive originality created an entirely new style of music for Geneva’s worship. He devised ways to teach adults to worship, even using children to teach the new Psalm tunes. His revised forms of worship and the ever-growing editions of the Psalter show his continued involvement with the improvement of worship.

If we started out well, what happened along the way to stifle interest in the development of worship? The answer is found in the conservative nature of our Reformed fathers. The generations of Reformed leaders following Calvin were not only conservatives in their theology, but also conservationists in all things. Instead of continuing the same creative development of worship that Calvin began, they put their energy into preservation. Calvin’s worship was sealed in concrete as the last word on the subject. With no continuing reformation of worship, it became ossified. At one low point, the Scots ceased Psalm singing and the public reading of Scripture because they disagreed over how to do them.

Down through the centuries, Reformed churches trudged through worship. Efforts were focused on the preparation of good, biblical sermons while the other elements of worship were given little thought. Change came gradually, unfortunately through a creeping eclecticism. While many of the changes were good, they came as a result of pressure from the congregation rather than thoughtful study and careful planning by the church leaders. Major changes in practice, such as the use of organs, choirs, and hymns resulted from such pressure.

The result has been two-fold. First, we have in many of our churches a hodgepodge of liturgical elements in worship that are somewhat randomly connected. Second, we have continued to allow change simply to happen.

But a fresh spirit is blowing through the church today, bringing with it an openness to improvement and modification in worship as never before. We live in an era of accelerated change; Eastern Europe has shown us that. Many new churches are being planted around the country, and a new generation of pastors is eager to lead the way. It is critical that ensuing changes be biblically grounded and historically informed. We now have an opportunity to work through fundamental questions about congregational life and worship. Let us embrace this opportunity to restore to worship the splendor and dignity it should have.

Making the Most of Worship

Preparing for worship takes some time and thoughtful planning. Below are helps for worship preparation which Reverend Joseph F. “Skip” Ryan (See “What is Worship,” pg.10) provides his congregation at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  1. RECOGNIZE: Corporate worship grows out of personal worship. Therefore, the most fundamental preparation for Sunday worship is that which flows from presenting yourself as a living sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1-2) and having a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:1-10). DO: Ask God for a heart of worship and brokenness each day.
  2. RECOGNIZE: You cannot expect to rush into church after an exhausting Saturday night and “be worshipful.” A late Saturday night may at times be necessary and fun, but if you always get less sleep than you need on Saturday night and are tired in church, can you be alert and attentive to the majesty and presence of the Lord? DO: Get a good night’s rest before Sunday worship.
  3. RECOGNIZE: Conscious acknowledgment of God’s deity will prepare your heart for coming into His presence. DO: Before bed on Saturday night, read individually (or pray with your family) passages of Scripture which remind you of who God is. Pray that even as you sleep, the Lord would prepare you to worship Him (Psalm 127:2).
  4. RECOGNIZE: You must have a fertile heart Sunday morning. DO: Spend time alone with the Lord Sunday morning before coming to church (Psalm 5:3).
  5. RECOGNIZE: You cannot prepare adequately just before worship if you are late. If you are parking the car, you have missed the beginning of worship. DO: Plan to be in your seat at least five minutes before the service starts.
  6. RECOGNIZE: God is in our presence when we gather for worship; He constitutes us as a worshipping assembly (Hebrews 12:23; Genesis 28:17). DO: Come, conscious that God is present.
  7. RECOGNIZE: What you are really doing in worship is joining with “the general assembly and the church of the first born who are in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). We worship with the whole of God’s elect from every time and place –including the angels! (Hebrews 12:22). DO: As you come into church, imagine the host of brothers and sisters (saints from all ages and the angels) who are waiting to worship with you.
  8. RECOGNIZE: There is a healthy balance between greeting friends and being quiet before the service starts. DO: Be quiet before worship. Pray or read a psalm, the prayer at the top of the program, the responsive reading, or a creed.
  9. RECOGNIZE: Worship takes as much effort as solving a complex problem in your checkbook or playing a good set of tennis. DO: Concentrate on each phrase spoken, sung, or prayed. Think as you worship (Mark 12:30).
  10. RECOGNIZE: Worship centers around the Word read, preached, and heard, for the Word is God’s living voice speaking His will to us. DO: Listen carefully to the Word read and preached; give the sermon full attention; pray to learn from it.
  11. RECOGNIZE: Worship is much more than hearing a sermon. The first half of the service is not “window dressing” or a warm-up for the message. DO: Concentrate on the meaning of each part of the worship as it occurs.
  12. RECOGNIZE: Worship also centers around the Sacraments –ordinances instituted by Christ for the benefit of the believers. DO: Participate in the Sacraments:  Baptism — reaffirm and “improve upon” your own baptism. Communion — attend and expect Christ to minister to you.
  13. RECOGNIZE: We do not come to worship primarily for what we “get out of it.” We come for what God “gets out of it.” Do not expect to be entertained but to give worship to God. DO: After the service ask, “How did I do?” rather than “How do I feel?”
  14. RECOGNIZE: Worship should change us. DO: During the minute of silence following the benediction, resolve to do one concrete thing on the basis of your worship (Romans 12:2).


Just How Important Is Emotion in Worship?

by Dr. Howard Stevenson

The quality of worship is often measured in some Christian groups and meetings on a purely emotional scale or graph; the higher it soars, the more significant the experience of worship is judged to have been. Make no mistake, authentic emotion constitutes a legitimate part of worship. It is, indeed, a vital ingredient in all of life’s relationships; we cannot separate ourselves from being deeply touched and moved by important events of life. This is a part of what it means to be human.

However, in many circles there seems be a tendency to make the emotional response the only criterion of “success” in worship. If we leave a time of worship with deep and strong emotional “tugs,” we immediately say that we have truly been “in the heavenlies.” Is this, however, the only evaluation of what it means to be a worshipper, or is the involvement in worship also based upon other parts of the human psyche –the mind, the conscience, the imagination, the will?

Emotional identification in many of life’s experiences comes as a “by-product” of the event and is not sought as the ultimate goal. We would not measure the quality of a football game or a concert or a close personal encounter with a friend by the extent of our emotional “trip.”

Perhaps the ingredient of true, authentic emotion required in worship cannot be measured as accurately as one would like. Is it possible that we can make sincere, factual, objective statements of God’s worth, such as “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” “God is great and greatly to be praised,” and “Praise Jehovah” and be satisfied intellectually and rationally that we have truly worshipped?

In many a worship service I have attended, either as a leader or as a member of the congregation, I have not been moved to tears –an emotional bath, as it were — but I was still impressed with the fact that I had genuinely worshipped and given God the praise and adoration due to Him. Does false criteria based solely or exclusively on subjective emotional response sometimes rob us of the sense and satisfaction of having worshipped, even though we have given more than adequate expression of our love, adoration, and praise to God?

A professor at a well-known seminary once remarked in my hearing that he was somewhat saddened by the fact that many of his graduate students in church music did not recognize they had in fact worshipped in their performance of a great choral masterpiece. They evidently did not feel that the music was any more than a work of choral art — be it a Brahms “Requiem,” a Handel “Messiah,” a Rutter “Gloria,” or a Wood “Service of Darkness.” They either could not or did not make these masterpieces a vehicle of their worship, perhaps because singing them gave a stronger sense of objectivity, craft, and artfulness than did their singing of simpler, repetitive, almost monosyllabic, experience-oriented texts of praise choruses set to relatively elementary harmonic and melodic patterns.

But surely worship can be expressed and identified just as effectively in the art forms and cultivated expressions of poetic text and verse, set to the beauties of polyphony or the richness of harmonic texture, as it can be in folk melodies and words.

I sometimes think this is the response of many believers, too, when using the stronger, more poetic texts and music of the hymnal. Is the experience and assurance that we have been a worshipper reserved only for the times that we sing a lengthy sequence of praise choruses with their understandable simplicity, repetition, and folklike melodies? Or can our heritage of hymns, careful and dramatic reading of Scripture, periods of time for silent, thoughtful prayer speak perhaps of other facets of this celestial experience of worship?

I am not implying any kind of elitism or false sophistication here but am pleading for the expansion of the scope of expressive worship possibilities. I would not for a moment wish to reduce or limit the joys of corporate worship but, instead, to move beyond the “formula” concept of worship that measures this spiritual encounter only by sheer emotion –however it is generated — rather than by a mature evaluation of what has actually transpired both in the believer as well as by the believer.

I appreciate the way in which Archbishop William Temple involves every facet of the human personality in his five-fold description of worship:

  • the quickening of the conscience by the holiness of God
  • the feeding of the mind by the truth of God
  • the purging of the imagination by the beauty of God
  • the opening of the heart to the love of God
  • the devotion of the will to the purpose of God