Who (or what) is the proper focus of our worship? What must we proclaim in our worship? What do the various elements of a corporate worship service mean? This is the third of three posts that will explore the object, subject, and movement of corporate worship. These posts are based on a sermon series I did at Bethel and come from a teaching guide on worship that we published.
Should our worship follow a particular sequence? If so, what elements should be present?
The way something is built can signal its purpose. Think of the ice cream vendor who constructs a shop shaped like an enormous ice cream cone. There are things that reveal their purpose through how they are constructed.
Worship is one of those things. As Bryan Chapell puts it in his book, Christ-Centered Worship, “Structures tell stories”, and the way that Christians structure their time of worship can help to display the Gospel. That’s the story we tell through the movement or progression of our worship. There are many different elements that make up our time of corporate worship, and maybe you have wondered why they were there or what they mean. Perhaps some of them have become so familiar and rote that you don’t even realize what you are doing or why you are doing it.
When we enter into a time of corporate worship, we are presenting ourselves before the living God as his covenant community. To get an idea of what happens when we enter the Lord’s presence–and what that means for our worship–take a moment to read Isaiah 6:1-13 and notice what I’d call the “movement of worship” there.
In that famous passage, the first thing that happens is that God reveals Himself to Isaiah, and Isaiah is overawed by the holiness of God. Immediately after recognizing the holiness of God, Isaiah realizes the depth of his own personal sin. As he despairs and confesses his own sin, God intervenes to declare that He has forgiven Isaiah. God announces that through an angel, His messenger, and that announcement is accompanied by a sign that confirms and reminds Isaiah of that forgiveness. Once all of that has taken place, God then asks who can be sent out to proclaim His forgiveness to others, Isaiah responds by saying, “Here am I, send me”, and God instructs him as to what he should say. In this brief experience from the life of one of God’s greatest prophets, we can see the movement of Gospel-shaped worship.
First, God’s holiness is revealed, announced, and acknowledged. Recognizing that holiness simultaneously produces awareness of our sin. Conviction and confession lead a declaration of forgiveness from God through His messenger. The declaration of forgiveness is accompanied by a sign to confirm that forgiveness. Then, God sends out His people to share that news with others, but takes time to instruct them before they are sent out.
This simple movement (adoration, confession, announcement/assurance, sign, response, and sending with teaching) informs the way that we worship. Like following a recipe, it is important to have the right ingredients and to use them properly. Without implying that any one style of worship is perfect (it is not), we can still identify a certain structure that attempts to follow this movement.
Worship should begin with a time of quiet reflection and preparation. Then we hear from God’s Word a call to worship and an announcement of His holiness. We adore God through song(s) of praise or prayer, after which we confess our sinfulness and unworthiness before Him. Following this confession, we hear from God’s Word a declaration of forgiveness and pardon. We then take time to be instructed by God’s Word and respond in faith. Our response comes through giving financially to God as well as through song and further praise. On the days we celebrate the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), we celebrate the signs and seals that God has attached to His promises.
When we leave our time of worship, then, we should have: acknowledged the holiness of God, repented of our sinfulness before Him, heard the good news of His forgiveness, been instructed by His Word, responded to His grace, and celebrated the signs that accompany the promise.
A distinctive of the Reformed tradition is that all of this is grounded in Scripture. Paul wrote to Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Since this is God’s story that we are telling, we should let Him tell it in His own words, and so Scripture should inform and saturate every part of the service, not just the sermon.
Worship itself is a form of witness, and the way we worship is very important. This does not mean there is only one right kind of worship. There is a difference between style and substance. Some churches use traditional worship and some use contemporary worship. With some qualifications, I’d say that these kinds of differences are typically fine, so long as the right story is being told through the worship. If we don’t acknowledge God’s holiness, confess our sinfulness, hear His forgiveness, receive His instruction, respond to His grace, and go forth as His people, then we are missing part of the story. It is like reading a book with missing pages. You might get the main point, but you certainly wouldn’t understand the whole thing and you wouldn’t be reading it the way the author intended.
There are elements that need to be present in our worship. There is a movement that must unfold. If that movement is distorted, then the gospel itself can be distorted. If we are proclaiming to the world that a holy God has freely saved lost sinners and sent them out to serve Him, then we have to show that through the way that we worship. The God who reveals His holiness and exposes our sin is the God who freely takes away that sin, confirming that announcement through visible signs, and then sends us out as His ambassadors to joyfully tell of His grace. The God who made us is the God who saves us, and the God who has saved us is the God whom we worship.