Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 2
The Reverend Joseph F. “Skip” Ryan is the founder and Senior Minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Begun in 1976, the church has an attendance of 1400 today. Ryan holds a B.A. cum laude degree from Harvard University and a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Seminary, where he was president of the student body. A popular speaker, he also serves on numerous boards and is a consultant in church growth. Ryan is known for his deep concern about worship, and readily admits that it is the “glue that holds Trinity together.” In the following interview, Ryan talks about the meaning of worship and shares provocative insights about its importance.
Q. In your opinion, what constitutes worship?
A. Most importantly, I think that the presence of God constitutes worship. It is not a human endeavor, but one that is inspired by the presence of the Lord Himself. When people gather for worship, it is fundamentally an assembling of God’s people, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And God is the most important Person present. Frequently, during the invocation I will say things that will help people remember that.
The primary activity during worship is listening to and speaking to the Lord, not only in the proclamation of the Word, but in the hymns and other elements of the worship service. We don’t just hear Him through His Word; the whole environment speaks of His presence.
God’s presence is the beginning point for biblical worship; in the Old Testament, where God is present, there worship takes place. Dignity and awe and solemnity are very appropriate in His presence. There are times in worship where we should be struck dumb, where clapping hands and shouting would be inappropriate, because at times we need to be silent before the Lord.
The assembly of God’s people is the place of God’s worship -not the building. In the prayer of invocation we are calling upon the Lord to be among His people, to do as He has promised and constitute us as a worship assembly of His people.
Q. You have said there are some inadequate models of worship. What are they?
A.> First, worship is not simply instruction. We should not see the worship service only in terms of the sermon, which is accompanied by a few frills like the offering and some hymns. To avoid this tendency, at times in our service we rearrange the order so the sermon is not the climax of worship.
Second, worship is not a training center. The worship service is not the time to train the congregation in evangelism, visitation, or discipleship. The emphasis in worship is on being, not doing. We are not coming to learn how to do something, we are coming to learn that we are the Lord’s people and that our primary purpose is to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.
Third, the worship service is not simply for fellowship. Surely fellowship takes place in worship, but the primary reason for being there is not horizontal; it is vertical. If the strongest feeling you have after a worship service is that you have been in the presence of other people, then you have not been in the presence of the Lord.
The purpose of worship is also not evangelism. Gearing a worship service primarily to the unchurched, in my opinion, is not worship. It may be an evangelism meeting, which is good, but it is not worship. Dr. Edmund Clowney talks of “doxological evangelism,” which means as we praise God and worship Him, people are drawn to Him and are converted. It is true; I have seen people become Christians in our morning worship service, not because we directed the service evangelistically, but because they sensed a reality that they had never experienced before.
Finally, we should not see the worship service as vision-building time for the church. Using the worship service to promote the new building or new programs will cause you to end up with something less than worship.
Q. You advocate providing opportunities for people to participate in worship, not merely watch. How is this done?
A. First, there needs to be a balance between form and freedom (or spontaneity), between structure and liturgy, between formality and informality. I think we should use all the liturgical forms –creeds, liturgical prayers, and responsive readings, particularly the Psalms. But a worship service should also have pockets of freedom and spontaneity within the liturgy. These pockets of spontaneity –usually in the form of music, sharing, or praying -are the freedom within the form. We encourage people to be involved.
Ours is not an informal, spontaneous, new-fangled worship service. It is a blend of formality and informality, liturgy, and spontaneity. But the key is not to calculate some blend. The key is to focus on the presence of the Lord Jesus and let those who are worshipping worship in spirit and in truth. This means they must really worship and not just play at it.
In our service, the beginning of worship may be rather formal with a responsive call to worship — perhaps a Psalm — then a prayer of invocation, a hymn, and a creed. We then, however, move into a period of informal singing with Scripture songs flashed on the wall. We encourage handclapping here, a joyful kind of singing.
Other pockets of spontaneity may be in the forms of sharing or praying. Sometimes we have a straightforward pastoral prayer, sometimes we ask specific people to pray, sometimes the elders come forward and pray. Also, during our communion service, people must come and get the elements instead of waiting for the elements to come to them. Since we celebrate the Lord’s Supper frequently (about twenty-five times a year), this is a wonderful way of helping people participate.
Q. Where do you feel that contemporary elements like drama fit in a worship service?
A. I think the worship service is drama, and we participate in it. I try to work that out in worship by moving around; I start out behind the Lord’s table, move to the front for another part of the service, then later move to the pulpit to preach. Also, I think we should use all the beautiful instrumentation we can. We use a piano, flutes, violins, drums and guitars. The Psalms give us many examples of the music and drama of worship.
Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is also part of the drama of worship; the Lord’s Supper is the demonstration — the drama — of the gospel. I think pastors should make much more of the rightful place of the dramatic portrayal of the Lord’s Supper than we do.
We derive spiritual benefit from the Lord’s Supper, but it is mediated through the dramatic portrayal of the Lord’s death. Some of the liturgies — Episcopal, Anglican, or Reformed — can help us here; we should use them, or create our own biblically – centered ones, and exhibit more wonder at what we are doing in the Lord’s Supper.
Q. What do you think our biggest failure is in worship today?
A. I think we have too many agendas we are trying to cram into one hour of worship. We are trying to instruct, train, fellowship, evangelize, build vision, and give out all the announcements to keep the church running for a week — all in one hour. We allow many things to formulate our objectives for worship rather than focusing on the main goal of leading people into the presence of God.
Another failure is our tendency to imitate other churches’ models of worship without due regard for the unique way in which the Lord may be leading our church to worship. There is too much stress on specific types or models of worship and too little stress on entering into the presence of God.
Q. Do you think congregations should be better educated about worship?
A. Yes, but I do not think that means more sermons about worship, unless it is natural as a pastor preaches through the Bible. I think pastors need to instruct their people while in the process of worship. Sometimes when our folks are half asleep during the first hymn, I’ll stop it halfway through and lightly suggest we try again with our eyes open and our voices raised, reminding them we are singing to the Lord of all the universe.
Q. If a church wants to get serious about worship, what should the congregation do?
A. Visit other churches where they are doing things differently and get ideas. Don’t imitate them slavishly, but do see what is applicable to your situation. The pastor should ask the session for freedom to experiment with the worship service to make it better. Also, the pastor needs to make sure he is worshipping as he leads the people; if he is, the people will catch it. Think through the service — the rhythm of worship, the elements, the flow, the content, the structure. Pastor, don’t be overly chatty like a talk show host. Don’t talk about yourself; talk about the Lord. Lead people to the Lord. Call upon them to think about what they are saying and the Scripture they are reading.
Q. What have you found to be the greatest benefit in your approach to worship?
A. People come to worship really wounded and needy from the battles of the world. There must be a place in the midst of the battle where there is the Sabbath presence of the Lord. If church becomes just another meeting, if there is no reality in the worship service, then we are asking people simply to come to another teaching session.
One Sunday, a very old man approached me after the service. He shook my hand and introduced himself. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young man, I have my own church, and I probably won’t come back here. But I want you to know something. I have not worshipped like that for twenty-five years.” He had tears in his eyes.