Monday, January 16, 2023

A Philosophy of Ministry for Worship Services


In this article, I want to write out clearly my philosophy of a weekend worship service. Every church I am familiar with has a weekly, weekend worship service. But different churches use that time in different ways. Some churches are formal and liturgical, while others are informal and have almost no liturgy. Some worship services devote over half of their time to music, while others have very little music and very long sermons. Churches can lean seeker driven, seeker sensative, or not seeker friendly at all.

None of these differences are good or bad. But these distinctions do reflect differing ministry philosophies when it comes to the worship service. Pastors and worship leaders plan worship services with a particular theology and teleology in mind.

Below, I will cover three aspects of a Christian church worship service: The purpose of gathering, the elements of a service, and three different paradigms for congregational worship.

The Purpose of Gathering

With the dawn of radio and television preaching, Christians began asking the question Why do I need to attend a worship service? This sentiment has only been exasperated with today’s unlimited access to livestreamed services and digital avatar services. I can read my bible on my own, pray on my own, serve my community on my own, donate my money to whatever ministry I see fit, and have a personal relationship with God all on my own. Why is there any need to affiliate with a local church? Why all the formality? Why do we have membership? Why can’t I attend this church this Sunday, a different church another Sunday, join a men’s group from another church, send my kids to an children’s program somewhere else, and so forth?

These are valid questions. Yet they are based on a false premise that a Christian can have a vibrant faith apart from consistent, committed relationships with other Christians. Forsyth writes “To be in Christ is in the same act to be in the Church.”[1] It is nonsensical to be a Christian without having any connection to a local church body. It is equivalent to being a football player without being part of a football team. As Cyprian (d. 258 AD) famously taught us, to call God our Father is also to call the church our mother. An isolated faith is an incomplete faith.

Something powerful happens when we gather together. Being physically present with other Christians and worshipping together changes and shapes us. Jonathan Leeman explains a church gathering this way: “People show up with their desires or grievances. A [preacher] affirms those desires or grievances. The people look around and see heads nodding. They hear shouts of agreement. Individuals discover they’re not along. Their desires grow. They might even be rallied to action, to build up or to tear down…. In a gathering, we experience what other people love, hate, fear, and believe, and our sense of what’s normal and what’s right can shift comparatively quickly. The loves, hates, fears, or beliefs of the crowd become ours.”[2]

When we were baptized, we were baptized into a church body (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). When God adopted us, he adopted us into a family (Ephesians 1:5-16). The apostles described gathering together as an absolute necessity (Acts 2:41-44; Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 Corinthians 11:18, 14:24-25) and the way these early Christians practiced their faith could not be done from 6 feet apart (Acts 2:41-44; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 2 Timothy 1:6).

The Greek word for “church” literally means “assembly.” The church is a people, and not a building. But it is more accurately a gathered and sent group of people. And the church needs to meet face-to-face, in-person, with regularity.

The Elements of a Worship Services

Having stressed the need for Christians to gather and worship together, I want to discuss the elements of a worship service. When the church gathers for worship, what are they to do? What things should be practiced together? What should actually go on in a worship service?

The New Testament gives us four essential elements of a church worship service: preaching, prayer, singing, and sacraments. I will briefly cover each of these elements, along with other practices I prefer having in a worship service.

First let’s look at preaching. In his instructions to two young pastors, the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of preaching (Titus 1:6-9; 2:1, 7-8, 15; 1 Timothy 4:13; 6:2; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:14-16; 4:1-2) and teaching sound doctrine (Titus 1:11; 1 Timothy 1:3, 6:3). A significant part of Jesus’ ministry was preaching (Matthew 4:17, 23, 5:1-7:28; etc.) and the apostles continued that practice (Acts 2:14-36, 41; 3:11-26; 5:27-32, 42; 6:2-4; etc.). Preaching is an essential element of a worship service.

Second, a church is a place of prayer. A gathering of believers in the New Testament is considered a place of prayer (Matthew 21:13; Luke 19:46; Acts 1:14; 6:4; 14:23; 16:13). Jesus tells us that we should pray regularly (Matthew 6:5-7; Luke 11:2-13) as did the apostles (Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 24; 1 Timothy 2:8; James 5:13; Jude 20). The early church prayed fervently together (Acts 1:24; 4:31; 6:6; 13:3; etc.). When the church prays together, their desires and love for one another and the mission of God becomes unified by the Spirit of God.[3] Prayer is an essential element of a worship service.

Third is singing. The church has a rich history, handed down from ancient Israel, of singing in worship. Psalms and poems take up nearly a third of our Bible, and Israel was known for being a singing bunch. Even in the New Testament, we see that the early church was accustomed to worshipping through song (Romans 15:9; Hebrews 2:12; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-19). Singing involves the congregation in a unique way, blending the most intentionally written sentences (poetry) with the most beautifully crafted rhythm (music) and places words in people’s mouths to utter aloud together in unison. Singing involves the entire mind, body, and emotions, and is an essential element in a worship service.

Fourth, we are instructed by the apostles to include sacraments in our worship services. Since the days of the apostles, Christian from every age and region of the world have practiced two sacraments together as an act of worship in their services: baptism and Eucharist. All new Christians should be baptized as a sign of their new life in Christ (Acts 2:38-41). The Eucharist (also called communion or the Lord’s supper) does not have to happen every week but stands as a reminder of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:23-33).

I’ve argued that a Christian worship service ought to include preaching, prayer, singing, and sacraments. While not essential, I would add one more to the list that churches would do well to include: practices of spiritual formation. A spiritually-formative practice is a discipline that teaches me how to live in the fruit of the spirit through practice.[4]

The early church practiced several different forms of spiritually-formative practices when they gathered together. They considered the local church a family, calling each other “brother” and “sister,” while practicing family customs like sharing meals together, offering hospitality, and sharing their possessions. When they gathered for formal worship they would have a time of silent reflection, form choirs, read together, confessed sins to one another, and discuss the teaching of the day. They would evangelize by setting food on tables and opening the front door, inviting passersby to come and eat.[5] In the same way, churches today can add all sorts of liturgy to their services, instilling habits and thought patterns into the minds of the congregation.

The Emphasis

“And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out…” (Mark 3:14)

Jesus gave us a good rhythm to follow when he first formed his group of disciples. A church goes through a regular rhythm of being gathered together and then being sent back out into the world. Most churches, when they gather, practice most or all of the elements of a worship service listed above. So why do worship services look so different from one church to another?

Glenn Packiam in his book Worship and the World to Come identifies three paradigms for a worship service: mission, formation, and encounter.[6] Evangelical churches tend to favor a missional emphasis, such as evangelistic, seeker-sensative, or purpose driven worship services. Reformed churches tend to favor a formational emphasis, such as gospel re-enactment or God-centered worship services. Charismatic churches tend to favor an encounter emphasis, spending most time in the worship service on experiential elements like singing or celebrating.

All three styles of worship are legitimate, and all three paradigms could be present in a worship service. My personal philosophy of ministry leans towards formation.

“The way we worship becomes the way we believe.”[7] As a pastor, one of my greatest responsibilities is crafting a worship service that shapes people. The music places words in peoples’ mouths, the sermon plants ideas in peoples’ minds, and the liturgy creates activity in peoples’ movement. Week after week, the congregation will gather for worship, and that worship, over the course of time, ought to form them more into the image of Jesus. By practicing these rhythms, the church develops habits of worship that bleed into their personal walk with God. These spiritual habits can eventually shape spiritual desires, which in turn lead to spiritual maturity.[8]

[1] P. T. Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel, and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962), 61-62. Quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, ed. John S. Feinberg, 1st edition (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 124.

[2] Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2021), 46.

[3] Edmund Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 133.

[4] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Zondervan, 2009), 44, 47.

[5] Carolyn Osiek, Families in the New Testament World, 1st edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 199.

[6] Glenn Packiam, Worship and the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2020).

[7] Glenn Packiam, Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013), 20.

[8] This principle is explained thoroughly in James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

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