Worship Values: Worship Must Be Congregationally Oriented

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[ We've been working on rewriting our mission and also creating a series of "values" about worship that will communicate our vision for what worship should be all about. While those aren't completely finalized, I think it will be helpful to share some thoughts about each value in a series of short posts. ]

What kind of worship do we want to cultivate? Sixth: Congregationally Oriented

Gathered Worship
I like to call public worship "gathered worship" to emphasize several things including this very value. God commands that we worship Him in several spheres of our lives - in private, in our families, and with our local churches. I'll write more on these spheres next time in our seventh and last worship value. It is certainly true that worship is for God, and in an overarching sense, directed to God; after all, we are to worship God, not anything or anyone else. But at the same time, God wants our gathered worship to be edifying to the church. He has designed the church's public gatherings as a time when the entire church can participate, utilize their spiritual gifts, and be edified. Look at how Paul instructs the Corinthian church after their worship had become unbalanced as they focused on the supernatural gifts to the exclusion of other aspects of worship: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up." (1 Corinthians 14:26) When Paul says "let all things," he is referring to all things pertaining to public worship.

Edification and Exaltation
We see the wonderful balance of simultaneous brotherly edification and Godward exaltation in Colossians 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Notice how we are to sing to one another, with thankfulness to God. That's why worship songs can either be directed towards God, be about God (in the third person), or be simply to the gathered church. A few examples: "The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures;" (Amazing Grace, God in the third person) "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;" (Holy, Holy, Holy, directed to God in the first person) "Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before." (Onward Christian Soldiers)

Worship Performance and Participation
Too often, especially as churches grow and either hire or attract more talented musicians, public worship can become a playground for musical skill rather than a platform for encouraging and fostering participation by everyone. I don't mean to set up a tension between musical excellence or skill and congregational participation, as if to get people to participate we should intentionally offer music that is of lower quality. But the value of congregational participation should necessarily shape and limit the music that we make in gathered worship. That's why for centuries, hymns have been written in certain meters. The poetry of hymns is limited so that the lyrics can be set to tunes that people know, and so that the poetry is more accessible to people of all intellects. Likewise, when we write or choose songs that we want our people to sing, they should be artistically limited in range, tempo, and meter. We should choose singable songs and lead them in a singable way.

The Function of Music in Worship
This leads us to naturally question what the function of music in gathered worship should be. Throughout the Bible, we see music used in various ways in worship, but they can be grouped into two broad categories. First, music is used as a stand-alone offering of praise, and the participation of others is expected to be passive. Second, music is used to encourage, support, and enhance congregational singing. When the inherent power of music is wed to truth-filled lyrics it becomes a mighty tool that God uses to help us connect our minds and hearts and feel the great doctrines that we sing. Because the New Testament doesn't specify whether or not we should use instruments in our congregational singing, and doesn't specifically mention praising God with instruments, I believe that this second function of music should be the primary way music is used in gathered worship. While this doesn't completely exclude our use music as an offering by itself (as in so-called "offertories," music performed for the congregation), it does, however, call us to examine what the purpose of our musical offerings is in light of our entire worship services. We must remember the overarching command to let all things be done for edification and ask such questions as "will this musical performance help our people prepare to engage with public worship or distract them?" Worship should never become an artistic playground. There is a time and place for artistic expression and experimentation, but that should be outside of our normal, regular gathered worship.

Beyond the Songs
This idea of encouraging participation by all goes beyond simply the songs that we sing. The New Testament is replete with commands involving "one another." Many of these are naturally obeyed in the context of gathered worship. Our readings, prayers, and other liturgical elements should also be written and led in such a way as to encourage participation by all. Our people participate during public worship in two ways - either actively or passively. Passive participation involves listening and observing; this is how we participate in sermons. Active participation involves interacting with our voices and bodies (i.e. posture). Our services should seek to balance passive participation such as listening with active participation such as speaking and singing.

Encouraging Participation
Because of our culture's natural drift towards passive participation, pastors and worship leaders should take up the call to help their people actively participate. This means leading by example and by giving much thought to the mechanics of leading such as giving clear bodily, verbal, or written guidance for when to sit, stand, kneel, read responsively, read congregationally, when to begin singing, etc. These small details can go a long way to helping people feel comfortable to join in without fear that they will be singing or speaking alone. Some practical suggestions for how to increase meaningful participation are to choose songs that are singable, limit the use of brand new songs, help the congregation understand the lyrics through verbal or written explanations, and to limit the volume of the instrumentation used to accompany singing so that the people can hear themselves sing. Singing songs or particular verses a cappella (without accompaniment) is a wonderful way to highlight the beautiful sound of the congregation singing.

In conclusion, our worship services should be designed in such a way to encourage and foster participation by the entire congregation, not just by the leaders performing and directing the service. In this way we will obey the command to "let all things be done for building up." As the late Robert Webber put it, "worship is a verb," it is something that we do, not that is done to or for us. May our churches grow in passionate participation so that as non-believers observe our worship they might fall on their faces, worship God, and declare that God is really among us (paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 14:25).


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