Some Things Remain the Same
Worship in the Church of Jesus Christ has been characterized by enormous diversity across the centuries and across the world today. This diversity seems to be allowed by the New Testament, which gives us precious little in terms of specific guidelines for the practice of worship in the church—nor even much in the way of actual examples. The implication is that God allows His people considerable latitude in applying godly wisdom to choose and adapt forms for worship that are appropriate to a particular time, place, and people. And so, we find God worshiped with a vast array of different languages, forms, styles, liturgies, dress, music and other art forms.
With all of this diversity, it is appropriate to ask a question: what is unchangeable and nonnegotiable in the panoply of worship options? What are the common denominators without which worship is sub-standard, if not sub-Christian? What are the things that bind and unite true worshipers of every age and locale?
Certainly there are doctrinal boundaries, fundamentals of the faith, which define those who are truly in the faith and therefore are able to worship “in truth” as Jesus commanded (John 4:23-24).
Besides a common doctrinal base, there are some other vital elements which God has given to ensure continuity and purity in the worship which He engenders, encourages, and delights in from His people. These are things we should look for no matter where we go in the world, and regardless of geographic, racial, ethnic, economic or cultural context. And these are things we should actively encourage in church planting situations and other areas where we might have influence.
1. The Role of the Word of God in Worship
God’s people do not gather to exchange their own ideas about who God is and what He is like; rather worship is our response to what God has revealed Himself to be in the Bible. We gather under the authority of the Word, at the invitation of the Word, and with the guidance of the Word. We gather to learn from and respond to the Word.
The Word of God must permeate all that we do in worship services— certainly in the preaching of the Word, but also in public reading of the Word, praying the Word, meditating on the Word, singing the Word (both through scriptural texts and also texts which faithfully represent scriptural truth). God’s people should respond to Him as He really is—that He might receive the glory of which He is worthy. And that means that the Bible must have a central place of honor and use in our services, must form the foundation of all our services and guide and protect our services. If we are to worship in truth, we must worship according to the Word.
As John Stott put it:
What, then, does it mean to worship God? It is to “glory in His holy name” (Ps. 105:3), that is, to revel adoringly in who He is in his revealed character. But before we can glory in God’s name, we must know it. Hence the propriety of the reading and preaching of the Word of God in public worship, and of Biblical meditation in private devotion. These things are not an intrusion into worship; they form the necessary foundation of it. God must speak to us before we have any liberty to speak to Him. He must disclose to us who he is before we can offer him what we are in acceptable worship. The worship of God is always a response to the Word of God. Scripture wonderfully directs and enriches our worship.1
The Word of God must be honored in our worship because it teaches us about God’s glory.
2. The Role of the Holy Spirit in Worship
The Holy Spirit is responsible for true worship taking place. It is He who works in our hearts to show us our need for Christ (John 16:8). It is He who convinces our hearts that God is incomparably lovely and deserving of our worship. It is He who engages both the mind and the heart so that worship is an expression of both. It is He who quickens our spirit so that our worship is sincere (“worship in spirit,” John 4:24); and as the Spirit of truth (John 14:17) He illumines the truth of God to us (1 Cor. 2:14), so that we might know Him and respond to Him as He really is (“worship in truth,” John 4:23, 26).
3. The Role of the Congregation in Worship
Regardless of what kind of planning and preparation and practice goes into a service of worship, regardless of what sort of leadership and tradition and liturgy there happens to be, these things don’t produce true corporate worship. The participation of the congregation makes it corporate worship.
Romans 12:1 teaches us to present our bodies—our whole lives—as “a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service worship.” A church service won’t really be a service of corporate worship unless the people of God gather after walking with and worshiping God throughout their week, with full hearts which can then overflow into a common expression of adoration and praise. We must teach our people that worship is a lifestyle, a way of life, not an event.
By definition, corporate worship will also only happen if the people are truly involved in the service. This expression of the unity of the body and of the priesthood of all believers is not optional. We are commanded to minister to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in the assembly (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). The Word of God requires that worship involve all of the people and not be a spectator event or performance.
4. The Role of the Jesus Christ in Worship
Perhaps the most crucial constant in all true worship is that which is least acknowledged: the role of the living Christ in leading our worship. The book of Hebrews teaches us about the present ministry of Christ, our living High Priest: His perpetual Priesthood, the One through whom we draw near to the throne of grace, the One who sympathizes with our weaknesses, the One who continues as the unique God-man and the Mediator between God and man.
In Hebrews 2:12 we find a brilliant summary of the role of Jesus Christ in leading our worship. According to the inspired writer, Christ is speaking to His Father (with the words of Psalm 22:22). And He says: Father, “I will proclaim Your name to my brethren” That is, the living, glorified One undertakes as High Priest and Mediator to reveal and teach the truth about God and His greatness to those who are His brethren (cf. Heb. 2:11).
The second half of Hebrews 2:12 shows us another remarkable truth: Jesus goes on to say to the Father, “in the midst of the congregation I will praise Your name.” When we come to worship, Jesus Christ is in our midst, and, in a sense, is leading us in singing praises to the Father.
What an incredible truth! To begin with, it shows that the ministry of music in the church is not a pretty add-on or an enjoyable preliminary, but rather it is given an astounding importance by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, whose ministry it really is! And this verse also shows us that Jesus Christ is the leader of our worship. (Hebrews 8:2 describes as the “minister,” in Greek the “liturgist” or worship leader in the heavenly sanctuary— as the priests were in the earthly sanctuary). That means that the worship leader, choir, or whoever leads in this part of the service is likewise representing Christ, in His ministry of leading the brethren’s praise.
God has been pleased to accept an incredible diversity of expressions of worship over the centuries and around the world, not because of any inherent worthiness or excellence on the part of any people, but because Jesus Christ (who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” Heb. 13: 8) is at the center, offering up a perfect sacrifice of praise in the midst of His people. Our worship is acceptable because we come in Him and through Him.
And so, as we consider the ever-broadening range of diverse worship expressions in our world, let us encourage them as appropriate and acceptable—in so far as they give a proper place to the Word of God, with the Holy Spirit blessing and giving power, with the congregation fully engaged and involved and with a recognition that we come to the Father led by and clothed with Christ who leads us in our praise.
1. John Stott, The Contemporary Christian, InterVarsity Press, 1992, p. 174.