Theology of Worship and Sample Worship Service
It can be said that one of the most important tasks for a person seeking to work within a Church setting is to develop a coherent philosophy of ministry and with this a developed understanding of Christian Worship. Because, unlike other world religions, we have not been given a specific framework which we can look to in our Scriptures, nor do we necessarily even have a single line of tradition. Rather, having been given some basic general writings and guidelines, the Church has been forced to work out for itself what exactly our worship should look like. While there have certainly been influential traditions which have exercised broad influence, there is ample evidence that from the very earliest era of Christianity there can be found variety and distinctions among different communities. It is my goal in this paper to approach the topic of Christian worship and seek to understand worship in a broad theological sense from a contemporary Evangelical perspective, specifically coming from a Baptist tradition. The first step in doing this must be to first define what Christian Worship is, so that we can then develop how this can be worked out within our communities. Next, having established a basic definition, I will look more closely at the specific forms, styles, and aspects that best fit in with my understanding of Christian worship. Once this basic framework is constructed I will then end with an application of this theology of Worship in a specific setting by designing a complete service of worship for use in my church.
I. Defining Christian Worship
Worship is an activity that humanity has participated in since even before history was written to express the details. It is not even always religious, with this term expressing an attitude of substantial admiration and devotion to anything that an individual feels is worthy of such an attitude. However, the general meaning is the specific religious devotion and activity directed towards a divinity or divinities. It is in its very nature an act of humility with the central expression being the coming before that which is greater than the individual. Throughout time there have been countless manners, styles, and concepts of what worship entails, so the question which must now be addressed is “What makes worship be described as Christian Worship?”. It is the goal of this section to briefly outline and describe those elements which are at the heart of making worship Christian.
The first element that goes into making Christian worship is the object of our worship. While various religions may worship a divinity, Christian worship always has in mind a specific understanding of the divine. First, we understand that there is only one God. This is the God of Israel as revealed in history and written about in the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. Second, we believe that God is a complex Unity. He is One God consisting of three persons, as revealed in Scripture and expounded and defined by the various councils of the early days of the Church. So, Christian Worship must have an understanding in mind of the Trinity. This understanding then leads to the next bases for the distinctiveness of Christian Worship. Christians believe in God the Father, he who is revealed in the Old Testament, and we believe in God the Son. The Son is revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, an historical figure of the 1st century, who was both fully man and fully divine, who was crucified, but rose again. He conquered death, and offers salvation to all who believe in him.
We, as Christians, also believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Although the theology has not been quite as worked out concerning this third person, Christianity believes that the Spirit of God indwells each person, giving renewal of life, counsel, and various gifts for our lives in this world and in our gathering together as the Church. Christian Worship has an awareness and even an eagerness to seek out and discover these various gifts, understanding that the Holy Spirit was sent to enliven the church, leading and guiding the believers towards greater depths of maturity in life and experience. In short, Christian Worship has as its basis an understanding that God is Three in One, that he is a personal God, and that he has been revealed through Jesus. We also have as a basic understanding that while humanity was created in the image of God, sin has entered the world, condemning each person to death. We cannot hope to save ourselves, but are rather completely dependent on the work and grace of Christ to save us.
Christian Worship is also not simply a matter of performing the proper actions, but rather is an orientation, a lifestyle that requires total devotion of life in and outside the specific Church setting. Worship is not contingent on the performance of certain actions or the saying of the proper words, but is rather dependent on the heart and mind of those within the congregation, with an understanding that the activities and thoughts of the rest of the week goes into the quality of the worship in a specific service. Although there are indeed certain forms and actions which have been established as vital to a Christian service, the worship itself is not necessarily dependent on these particulars, but rather is directly correlated to what is going on in the hearts and minds of those participating. These vital attitudes include an awareness of our humble stature before God and an awareness of the equality of all humanity before Him. Thus there is both a vertical attitude of worship in reaching out towards God, and a horizontal aspect as we are called as a Church to edify each other as a primary reason for gathering.
II. Specific Issues in Christian Worship
It is understood that the distinctives and vitality of true Christian Worship does not come necessarily in the specific forms and styles, but rather in how we approach Worship before God and with each other. Thus, the goal in our gathering together should be to best facilitate an atmosphere which fosters a truly Christian orientation towards God and all of life. With this comes the understanding that there is not a set manner in which this can be accomplished, a single style which can be universally applied to all congregations. Rather, because worship comes out of who we are, there should always be elements and evidence of this source. Christian Worship should have as its heart our devotion to Christ, but can take on many different styles and elements which lead us and guide us in this devotion. While historical patterns of worship have become established, these are not necessarily the only acceptable or useful patterns. Rather, I believe worship is most engaging and powerful when the object of worship itself becomes the focus rather than the approach to the worship. This is why worship patterns can change over the years, and why, I believe, that we have not been given an authoritative order of worship. Instead we have been encouraged to foster the attitudes and perspectives of a lifestyle of worship, and in our meeting together to express these in whatever manner best fits the general understanding of devotion and honor towards God and each other.
With this in mind Christian Worship is not a static exercise, but rather one that is continually adapting and evolving reflecting the culture it is in and at the same time transforming those within that culture. In reflecting the culture, Christian Worship can take on the various styles and influences that the culture in general defines as honoring and expressive. A musical culture should have very musical worship. A culture that holds art in a high regard should use art in their worship. Because we are not concerned with the specific forms, Christian Worship should reflect in its various styles the various modes of expression that different cultures and times may hold as vital to the expression of that culture in general. Worship should come from who we are, and thus should reflect that source in its expression.
However, Christian Worship is not simply a cultural endeavor, but is in fact an activity which is very grounded in history, and has strong traditions of its own which have been found to inform and build those in the congregations throughout history and in a wide variety of locales. So, while we must take into account contemporary modes of expression in our worship, we must also be continually aware of our past, letting those who have gone before us inform and guide us in our worship settings. In doing this we let Christian Worship shape us and transform our culture into something more. We connect with the expressions of the past and in doing so reach beyond our own abilities and insights to grow past our own deficiencies. For although each generation and locale has a great deal to contribute, each also has areas and weaknesses which must be addressed if we are to truly be communities seeking after God and edifying each other. So, while it is important that worshipping communities be continually aware about whether the forms and styles are truly expressions of the people, it is also vital that these communities are aware and engaging with the wider Church throughout the world and throughout history so as to gain and grow from what has gone before.
A key part in developing the specifics of a worship setting is to first understand and work out the various roles and parts which are involved in the specific setting. Christianity has as a basic premise the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” (I Peter 2:4-5; 9-10). Essentially this means that there is not a ranking of participants or a class of those specially able to perform various acts. Each person, men and women, have a role and place in the congregational setting equal to every other person. However, in a specific service of worship there must be order and leadership provided. Thus, we have in our specific settings set aside specific roles that have been found to best facilitate this order and leadership. In the Evangelical context of which I am a part the primary role in the service is that of the Pastor. He or she is the one most involved in the weekly planning of the service, and is usually the primary visible figure.
This role is not necessarily an acknowledgement of an inherent gift or status, but rather a reflection of the training of the man or woman in theology and pastoral ministry. Because of the needs of a community it is vital that there be people who have spent time in training, and have a leading towards spending their lives and time in fulfilling the pastoral roles. Thus, while there is an understanding that each person has a vital role to play in the life of the worshipping community, there is also an acknowledgment that there will be a few figures who stand out and who lead and guide the congregation in their communal worship. However, there must be a continual balance made. The tendency is not usually to limit this role, but rather to exalt it so that wider congregational involvement is limited and maybe even passive.
Because of this tendency in Evangelical contexts it is important that those who are leading are continually aware of the need to engage the congregation drawing out the various gifts and using these gifts to enhance the worshipping life. It is easy to have a small number of people do all the work and take on all the responsibility, but this is not necessarily Christian. Rather, worship should be participatory and engaging for all who attend. Because the Holy Spirit has given various gifts to every single person, Christian Worship can in fact only be complete when these gifts are fully realized and utilized within the body. While a specific service may not allow for equal usage of these various gifts, there must be in every community an allowance and leading for these gifts to be used in some setting. And with this there must be in each worship service an acknowledgement of this equality. A Christian Worship service is by nature a communal event, and must reflect the values of equality and community by being engaging and participatory.
At this point it may be useful to look more closely at the specific elements which are found in a service of worship, and briefly describe how these elements are understood and utilized within my own context. One of the clearest distinctions between a “contemporary” church such as my own as compared with a more traditional church is the style and role of music in the worship setting. It is understood that music in our society plays a very strong and wide-ranging role. Music can be said to be a primary mode of expressions of all sorts, with music reflecting virtually every single nuance of emotion, style, and thought. Because of the importance of music within the wider culture as a, maybe “the”, vital means of expression, music is also found to be important within a worship service for a “contemporary” church.
Music is not simply singing melodically to a tune. Rather, music has the ability to shape the expressions, giving greater emotion to the words, and somehow engaging one’s entire being more than simply words alone. Musical praise and worship, then, is utilized to both steer a congregation towards various expressions and allow for one’s own feelings to be expressed in a more open, allowing, way. In a “contemporary” service music and singing is also the primary way in which the congregation involves itself, engaging and responding in the worship setting. This is a time of interaction with each other and with those who are leading, so that there is not simply somewhat speaking at the people, but rather they are all involved in creating an atmosphere of worship. Although this participation can be encouraged in other (often more liturgical) ways, because music is seen as so expressive in the culture, it can be used in the church as a way of involvement and expression without the focus being on the form. Because music is natural to those involved, it allows people to focus on God in a powerful, substantial way. It is this idea of natural expression that also will help steer the kind of music used, and will inform what kind of musical accompaniment will best aid this expression.
Another important element of a Christian service is that of the spoken Word. There are two facets to this. The first is the reading of Scripture aloud in the congregation. As a community, the written Word is a source of authority for who we are as a people, and thus must play a strong role in our congregational worship. This does not necessarily mean, however, that there must be a segmented slot for a “reading”, but it does mean that Scripture should be utilized throughout each service as a continual foundation for what is going on. It serves as an authoritative guide and a tool for leading people towards greater maturity.
With this comes the idea of using Scripture as the source for any kind of spoken message. Although different services within a church may have different emphases and styles, it is vital that there be a setting in each worshipping community where the Scriptures are expounded upon for the training of the congregation. I do not necessarily believe, however, that every type of worship service requires an exegetical sermon, with allowances being made for different emphases and needs within the congregation. The other types of services may include topical (discussing various “practical” ideas that are immediately relevant) or conceptual (discussing theological ideas or various practices which are vital to the Christian life and understanding), though certainly each should have Scripture as a foundation. Scripture teaching and expounding should always, however, be the primary mode of speaking, allowing the Spirit to teach the congregation through the words of the preacher.
Another element of Christian Worship which is unique to Christianity, but constant throughout Christian history and tradition is our sacraments. The universal understanding holds to at least two main sacraments, baptism and communion. In my Baptist tradition, baptism is certainly important and vital to community life, but is certainly not a regular aspect of our weekly services, but is rather an occasional celebration. However, along with baptism we can also discuss other forms of various community “business” that do form a vital part of our worshipping community. Although not necessarily thought of as “worship”, such activities as baptism, baby dedications, testimonies from individuals, taking of an offering, and even announcements are in fact different types of our celebration as a community of believers and thus part of our worship. In these things we acknowledge a bond of unity and a dedication towards developing as a community, and in doing so help to edify one another.
The other primary sacrament is the taking of communion. Within the Baptist tradition of which I am a part, the taking of the bread and juice is not seen as a specific reception of grace, but is more generally thought of as a remembrance and celebration of the grace already fully imparted to us. Because of this, there is an understood flexibility in both style and frequency of this sacrament within my community. The usual practice is to take part in communion once a month as a congregation, but allowing and encouraging various small groups to take communion on their own, often on a weekly basis. This is usually seen as a time of restoration for each individual and as a community. The taking of communion is extremely vital to the life of the community as a way in which the whole congregation can participate and is one of the very few specific prescribed acts that should characterize a Christian worship service. However, we have been called to “take and receive”, not “take and understand”, so there should be an allowance for various interpretations over the specifics of what this practice means and entails, and this great symbol of unity should never, ever, be a source of dissension or disunity within a specific congregation or for the wider Church.
III. Service of Worship
In working out a theology of Worship it is vital that one does not become removed from an actual setting. Rather, it is important that one allows a specific setting to help guide how a theology of worship is developed. Having worked through a theology for my own context in part by being informed by my own tradition, it is now the point at which I can apply this theology back onto my setting and develop an actual service of worship that can be used by my own congregation.
The first step of this is to understand the congregational context, because what may be appropriate in one context may not be appropriate for another. My church was originally founded as being a ministry for those who fall in the generation which can be called “Generation-X” or “Baby-Buster.” As conceived, the Church in a wider sense had in many ways was thought to have failed to orient itself towards reaching those who had the specific needs and understandings of this generation, so a new style and approach was demanded. Because of this basis, New Song church was from its inception reaching to develop what may not have prior existed, and thus could be considered a “cutting edge” of contemporary Worship.
In addition, because of a generational focus, there was not a strong connection with traditional Christian worship in any form (though it loosely falls into the Baptist tradition and reflects this theology), and so the congregation was able to work out for itself the specific service styles. Its use of music, drama, speaking styles, were for a time models to which other churches referred. In the last few years, as the congregation has grown older, the church has become a young “singles” church to being a young family church, with all of the settling down that this implies. So while it is still very contemporary, it is not necessarily looking to be “cutting edge”. It is a highly educated congregation, with about 1/3 of the adults having some kind of post-graduate degree. It is this setting in mind that I design the following service.
B. New Song Worship Service
One of the goals in designing this service is to formulate a service that may in fact actually be used. Part of my responsibilities at my Church is now to take part in putting together a new Sunday evening service that will be a supplement for our regular Sunday morning. The service laid out here will, hopefully, be our inaugural meeting. Although the bases for this service are too complex for a full discussion in this paper, the basic goal is to offer a setting for those in the church to gather together in a setting of Worship, where there is a pushing and teaching towards greater growth and maturity in the Christian faith. Essentially, this is an updating of the Willow Creek model of having a “seeker” service, and a service for established Christians. However, because our Sunday morning service is not “seeker” sensitive, but oriented already towards Christians, the Sunday night service will be looking towards an equivalent increase in depth, offering a context of maturation and development for those within the congregation to deepen their relationship with God. It is expected, however, that this evening service will in some ways redefine a “seeker” from someone put off by Christian expression to be understood as someone who seeks the very depths that Christianity has to offer. Rather than watering down to attract, the depth that we offer is expected to draw people in.
C. Order of Service
Date and Time: Sunday, January 21, 2001. 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Series: Understanding Worship.
Week 1: Who is God?
Pre-Service – interactive engaging with those who are entering. Various subtle dramatic interactions and a PowerPoint presentation seeking to lead the congregation to answer in their minds, or with each other, the question, “Who is your God?”
Call to Worship – Lights brought down. Psalm 148 read (prepared reading by a person speaking through a microphone though not seen by the congregation). Visual presentation either PowerPoint or other graphical format following the words. Music starting quietly about halfway through, building into the first song.
Music Set I – 15 minutes – Contemporary “Praise” songs; Lively and Celebratory
Scripture Reading I – Isaiah 55, flowing out of the Music, with a smooth subtle transition between singing and speaking. Lights on, reader prepared and speaking in microphone though not seen.
Speaking I and prayer – speaking focus: Who is God? God is Trinity; God the Father.
Music Set II – 10 minutes – lively and praising
Scripture Reading II – John 1:1-18, flowing out of the music, with a smooth, subtle transition between singing and speaking. Visual representations of the life of Christ on screen – both video and art. Lights dim, Reader prepared and speaking in microphone though not seen.
Speaking II and prayer – speaking focus: God the Son, the person of Jesus.
Music Set III – 15 minutes – contemplative and flowing.
Scripture Reading III – Acts 2:1-4, 43-47, flowing out of the music, with a smooth, subtle transition between singing and speaking. Lights on, reader prepared and speaking in microphone on stage.
Speaking II and prayer -- speaking focus: God the Holy Spirit; God is Trinity.
Music Set IV – 10 minutes – start slow and contemplative, end lively and active.
Benediction – 5 minutes
Flexible time – Music playing, encouraging continued participation in worship and prayer, and interaction with each other.
Theological and Contextual Rationales
As can be seen this is not a typical service even by “contemporary” worship standards, and thus requires an initial explanation of the format. It is constructed with a basic understanding that worship services in the past have tended towards being somewhat fragmented, with “clunky” sections often put together awkwardly. Thus, there is a segmenting of the service with expected elements to follow in an expected order. While this may be comforting to some, and easy to manage, it is my thought that a service should not be put together piece by separate piece, but that there should be a lyrical quality even to the format, so that the elements intermingle and inform each other as do various parts in music. With this, Scripture flows into music, music flows back into Scripture, which flows into a short message, which flows into prayer, which flows back into music, and so on. While the various segments are themselves somewhat short, the transitions will hopefully not make this a fragmented service but rather a complex symphony, leading by the end to a unified expression of the topic, so that throughout the congregation is drawn in, engaged, and led into an overall deeper worship through different types of expression. Because this is a supplemental service, the speaking will be more conceptual in nature, and there will most probably not be a regular taking of communion, nor will there be other regular expressions of “community business”.
I. Pre-service – The time of entrance is valuable in being able to focus and transition the congregation from their daily concerns and thoughts towards our topic. Rather than drawing a fine line of “beginning”, we will rather subtly lead the congregation into thinking about the content of the service before we even begin. This will be accomplished through various means. One will be a more direct PowerPoint presentation that is repeated, beginning at around 5:45, asking in a creative way, “Who is your God?”. The other way will be more dramatic and interactive, with “plants” placed in the parking lot and other places who engage and stimulate the same question in a creative way, before people are in their “church” mindset. The goal of this is to engage Christian thought outside the normal bounds and styles, thus taking people off guard and interacting in a memorable way. This is also a great way of meeting new people, helping everyone to feel involved, and welcoming all who come.
II. The Call to Worship is the official “beginning” of the service, marking in words a firm transition as we come before God as a congregation and helping to create a context for the rest of the service. This will be a verse that is both a call and a general introduction to the rest of the evening.
III. Music – Musical Worship is a cornerstone of expression at New Song Church and we have been greatly gifted with both excellent leaders and musicians. In the contemporary tradition worship is often seen as being synonymous with music, and thus music plays a vital role in leading and directing the thoughts and feelings of the congregation towards various expressions of praise, worship, confession, adoration, etc.
IV. Scripture Reading – Because there will not be in this service necessarily any traditional exegesis of Scripture, it is vital that we do keep Scripture in the forefront of our Worship experience. Although not typically necessary for a service in our tradition, the formal reading of Scripture is a wonderful tool that can be used to add authority to the message. The various styles of reading and atmosphere used are meant to add both a dramatic element to emphasize the reading and to simply add a flexible creativity so that the reading of Scripture retains a strong impact and can really engage the congregation. Each Scripture will be read by a different person, who prepares their specific reading beforehand, so as to get the best effect from the reading.
V. Speaking – one of the especially different aspects of this service is going to be a bit of creativity in the speaking format. Rather than having a single speaker give a half hour or forty minute lecture or sermon, the speaking will be broken up into three different segments, each hitting on a single point of a broader theme, in this case a discussion of the Triune God. It is hoped that in fact there will be 2 or 3 different speakers used rather than a single preacher. Because this service is designed to encourage maximum participation by the congregation, those within the church who have specific training or speaking gifts will be sought out to use these in this setting. By adding a multiple number of voices to address a single theme it is hoped that there will not be a sense of being preached “at”, but rather there will be more of a communal and welcoming feel to what may at times be challenging remarks. Also, different people have different, though equal, approaches to the same topic, and in our speaking format we hope to reflect this, and follow somewhat the model of the Gospels and their multiple witness to the same events.
VI. Prayer – Rather than having a time set aside for prayer, prayers will be scattered throughout the service, in essence to express the fact that we are always in prayer. The prayers following the various times of speaking will not necessarily be written out (my tradition tends to distrust this), but will be somewhat prepared so as to reflect the theme of the individual speaker.
VII. Benediction – A brief overview of the service, an “answer” to the initial question of “Who is your God?”, and a call and blessing for the coming week for the congregation. This is the “official” end of the service, coming at about the 2 hour mark.
VII. Flexible time at the end – Understanding that people may still be eager to participate in congregational worship of some kind, there is not going to be a firm end, but rather just as the service flowed into a beginning so too will it flow into an end, allowing for continued music, prayer, and any other expression that may arise to take a course of its own so as not to stifle any kind of movement of the Spirit.
In developing both a theology of worship and a specific service of worship the primary basis of my understanding is the fact that Christian worship is not dependent on specific practices or forms in order to make it efficacious. Rather, Christian worship is more adequately understood as being an orientation rather than an act, and a attitude rather than a practice. As a community we should be worshipping God in all that we do, and say, and think, so that our gatherings are informed by this lifestyle of worship. When we meet together we are setting aside specific time to celebrate what God has done in our lives as individuals, and especially as a community, and looking continually at what he is doing and planning to do with us. We come before God, focusing our hearts and minds on him, participating in his complex Unity with our complex unity we call the church. We have been gathered together from all different backgrounds and experiences to be united in Him, and to join together with one another as a unified body.
Our worship is not dictated by specific details, but is instead allowed to flow from who we are as a community and as a culture, thought informed and enhanced by the wider influence of Christian tradition from throughout history and throughout the world. As we join together in worship we are built into a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” so that as a united body we will “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).