A recent blog post here raised a bit of discussion about the whole question of worship. So I was eager to get my hands on a new book (Christ-Centered Worship, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids) by my colleague and friend, Bryan Chapell, who is President of Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis. Needless to say, Bryan’s insights on worship, built on solid biblical foundations, provide much-needed wisdom in this area of church life which has sparked so much controversy in recent years.
There is so much from the book that is worthy of mention, but let a few quotes suffice, and if you are interested you may actually purchase and read it for yourself.
The practical realities of planning worship will require church leaders to balance many concerns: reverence and relevance (eg musical styles), transcendence and transparency (eg biblical or personal illustrations in preaching), liberty and law (eg dress standards), elevation and engagement (eg choosing between traditional or modern translations), sobriety and joy (eg encouraging respectful silence or appreciative clapping after a moving testimony), classical or common expression (eg using seminary terms or street terms to describe sin). The choices are not between aspects of worship that are either good or bad, but between concerns that can all be legitimate in appropriate contexts.
One way to determine what choices to make when weighing these concerns is simply to fall back on local church tradition – do what has always been done. Another approach would be to choose according to personal preference – do what I want to do. A final alternative would be to simply do what most people in the church want to do – let’s take a poll. Of course, none of these approaches guarantees that our worship will reflect Scripture’s priorities.
When our question is “How can we balance valid but competing concerns in our worship choices?” our best approach is to consider what the gospel requires. Gospel priorities will force us to consider both God’s glory and our people’s good. We cannot simply fall back on what the church did in the past, especially if it no longer brings glory to God or ministers to his people. We cannot simple impose personal preference without idolizing our glory and good. We cannot simply respond to what a poll says without being more concerned for the people’s present preferences than for God’s ultimate glory and our neighbour’s eternal soul. Since our worship should have a gospel pattern and purpose, the only biblical way of prioritizing legitimate, but competing, worship concerns is to consider how our worship practices are consistent with our understanding of how we would present the gospel in our context.
This is really the heart of Dr Chapell’s thesis. Our liturgy tells a story, and we tell the gospel by the way we worship. That connects us with Christians of a former age who were faithful to the gospel, and it also unites us with other Christians today as we share the same mission to further the cause of the gospel in the hearts and lives of people. We may tell the gospel story in different languages and cultural expressions, but the fundamental story does not change. God in Christ has come to save and redeem his people, and as we re-tell his story in our worship, our hearts are moved by his love and we want to share it with the world.
It this commitment to Christ-centred worship which Dr Chapell believes can resolve the tensions within local congregations.
Because of the differing worship perspectives vying for ascendancy in our churches, it has never been more important for church leaders to unite in a worship approach that prioritizes gospel principles. Christ-centred worship can create harmony around a common mission even where personal preferences differ. Such worship requires leaders to identify the gospel calling of their specific church in its specific cultural setting. First, leaders should ask, “Who has God gathered to do ministry in this place?” As leaders identify the mix of personalities, backgrounds, talents and gifts God has gathered, they will begin to understand their ministry resources.
Next leaders should ask, “What is God calling us to do with these resources?” The question requires leaders to consider the spiritual and physical needs of those already gathered, as well as the needs of those this specific church has opportunity to reach and serve for Christ’s sake….A Christ-centred church asks not only how to minister to those most like us but also how to minister to those who most need us.
Worship priorities cannot ignore the needs of those already gathered in the body of Christ, because the primary purpose of any church is to enable the people of God rightly to honour God. At the same time, leaders must recognize that God’s people cannot rightly honour him if they are unconcerned for the progress of his kingdom and the proclamation of his name. So worship choices cannot ignore the needs of those God has yet to gather into the body of Christ. Leaders must be concerned to always to deepen the church’s “rootedness” and extend her “reach”. The apostle Paul reminds us of this internal/external balance when he tells the Corinthian church that in worship “all…must be done for the strengthening of the church” (I Cor.14:26) but also encourages worship with intelligible words so that an unbeliever can understand the gospel (I Cor 14:23-25).
Leaders can lock arms in unity to support worship that promotes the gospel’s purposes, even when it does not meet all of their or others’ personal preferences…..personal preferences do not trump gospel purposes. And when leaders unite under the rule of the gospel, the constant pressure from some parishioners to adjust worship for the sake of personal preferences can be resisted with explanations about the church’s specific calling rather than with statements about counter-preferences….Leaders simply must keep reminding themselves and others that their style of worship is determined by what they have agreed effectively communicates the gospel in their specific context. Other churches with other people and other resources may well have other legitimate callings that determine other legitimate style choices. But those churches cannot and should not determine how the gospel can best be presented in a context they do not know or share.
Church leaders who have the mind of Jesus will consider others’ interests above their own, and will consider Christ’s purposes above all (Phil 2:3-11). With such leaders to guide them, God’s people can also unite in worship, not because they share the same preferences, but because they have a shared purpose: the presentation of the gospel for the glory of the Saviour and the good of his people.