Is Your Worship Awful?
Churches generally distinguish themselves by those aspects of worship which they make prominent in their own practice.
What do Orthodox Presbyterians emphasize in their public worship? Without a doubt it is the preaching of the Word. It is likely true that the average church member evaluates the quality of any given worship service on the basis of the sermon and what he gets out of it.
This emphasis on the sermon and what we get out of it is perhaps misplaced. Shouldn't we ask what God gets out of our services? Sermons are important but it would seem that worship should involve expressions of love, appreciation and awe made directly to God and for his enjoyment. Here is where Orthodox Presbyterians often neglect the careful preparation that usually characterizes their preaching. John R. W. Stott has recently observed that evangelical worship services are too frequently "ill-prepared, slovenly, mechanical, perfunctory, and dull."
Instead of stoutly defending our sermons as acts of worship, let us examine the rest of our worship service to see what is worshipful about it. How much time do we take in our services to express to God our love for Him and our appreciation of his works?
An article two years ago in the Wittenburg Door asserted that worship is a ritual drama in which we are the players and God is the audience. Revelation 5 is appealed to for the support of this idea. There the activity is all on the part of the twenty-four elders, the living creatures and the other created beings. God and the Lamb are the silent observers to this worship. In the same way, we should expect to be active in worship, showing with all our being the appreciation we have for our Lord. One of the conclusions drawn in the article is that the proper question to ask ourselves in the parking lot afterward is not "What did I get out of it?" but "How did I do?"
Some may quarrel that this represents only an aspect of worship; for God also speaks to his people when they gather together. True enough. But it is valid to insist that worship should be an expression of praise directed to God, that such expression be carefully and thoughtfully, sincerely and joyfully done, and that we should want God to be pleased with it.
How many of us approach worship in this frame of mind? How often do we relish the opportunity to gather together to tell God how much we love him? Why is worship so frequently routine, in which minister and congregation alike can plan upcoming events and review past ones during the hymns, readings and prayers?
The answers to these questions do not lie first of all in tinkering with our services and striving for novelty. The heart of the problem is the quality of our relationship with Christ. If we cannot worship God daily out of the excitement of a growing walk with him, it is unlikely that we will worship him on Sunday just by changing our technique. Songs of praise do not come easily on Sunday when one hasn't sung to the Lord all week. Personal devotion to Christ is the keystone of all Christian life and worship.
The Form of Corporate Worship
Beyond this need for a vital relationship with Christ, there is still a need to examine the form that our corporate worship takes. People who come together full of worship should be given freedom to express their worship in a framework which allows for both ardor and order. When this is done, unbelievers who may be present are led to say, "God is really among you!" (1 Corinthians 14:25).
In this connection, let us consider some questions about our present approach to worship.
1. Do we Plan and Prepare for the Worship Service?
It is widely assumed (and hoped) that the minister is spending adequate time preparing his sermon. Can it be assumed that much planning and preparation is going into the rest of the service? In many cases the only preparation involved is to insert hymn numbers in the places where they belong. In some churches, Psalter selections are chosen week by week in the order in which they appear in the back of the hymnal. All that is needed then is to select a call to worship out of the front of the hymnal and change the particulars in the standard pastoral prayer, and the job is done.
It is not my intention to condemn these procedures but to question the level of preparation involved. If the service appears ill-prepared and perfunctory, is the problem traceable to this sort of planning?
To raise the question of planning is to raise the question of whether or not any extra planning would be allowable. That is, is the order of worship so rigidly fixed by sessional decree or congregational mindset that a change in the order is unthinkable? Or do we have freedom to introduce changes that are carefully considered which might enhance the congregation's ability to praise God, hear his Word, or respond to it? Granted, unrestrained variety in the order of worship from week to week will prove distracting and unhelpful to most people. But without any change, worship may become routine. Routine is not necessarily bad if worship planners are willing to adorn the routine with the best resources possible. Episcopal worship is routine, but it is beautiful.
Whether the form of the service is flexible or rigid in any given church, the task of planning should be regarded as important. In most cases, the congregation is confident that the pastor is doing his best; they consider him the paid expert anyway. The pastor may rarely imagine that any of his people could be helpful in planning a service, or he may feel threatened by the idea that they should. Thus, the worship of the entire congregation may be determined by the insights and experience of one man.
Is it likely that all the gifts required for this task are located in one man? May not other members of the Body of Christ have wisdom in worshiping God? Some churches have established worship committees which meet to plan the worship service, and they are finding that their Sunday meetings are enriched by it.
2. How are Our Services Led?
The service conceived and nurtured by a committee or pastor or staff is given birth on the Lord's Day when the Lord's people gather together. The person leading the service often determines the tone of the service and maybe even the makeup of the congregation. If he is very solemn, he will appeal to those who view worship primarily as a solemn experience. If he is observably joyful, he may appeal to those who like to worship joyfully, but may lose the empathy of the others. He may have a style which is good in itself but inappropriate for the setting or the occasion.
Wait a minute! Why does so much depend on the personal style and capabilities of one man? What do we testify about the diversity of the Body of Christ when we do things that way?
Probably the pastor has gifts for public prayer, reading and speaking clearly. But is there no one else with such gifts? And if certain of the people also have gifts, what are we doing if we fail to use them? In doing everything himself the pastor could be perpetuating the idea that this is the pattern for all the church's work — the minister does it all.
A service could and should demonstrate the varied beauty of the Body of Christ: elders can pray the pastoral prayer or divide it up among them; deacons can lead in prayer for the sick and explain their ministry and its needs; other men and women can give the children's sermon, lead a Psalter reading, read missionary letters, pray over the offering, give testimonies for specific purposes and make special explanations.
3. Is there an Element of Awe in Our Worship?
Many people are aware of the increasing traffic moving to the Episcopal church from many of the other churches with evangelical foundations. These newly Episcopalian people say they find in their new worship experience a sense of the awe and majesty of God which was missing in their old one. They testify that they had come to be so friendly with God that they had forgotten how great he is.
Being too friendly with God may not be the problem with most Orthodox Presbyterians. Yet it is probably true that the average worshiper in many of our churches often misses a sense of the mystery and majesty that surrounds God. The reason for this may well be the very theological precision which is our strongest point. While we readily admit that God is infinite and incomprehensible, what predominates in much of our talk is his explainability. We can discuss his attributes and decrees and the various subheadings of each. As one person put it, we tend to explain everything to death.
I am not saying that we should pull back and say less than the Bible says. But we should realize as we worship, that our God, whom we know intimately, is also the One whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts. He is not contained by time, space, or our explanations. And it is precisely his infinite majesty that makes his drawing near to us so astounding.
Do we need beautiful architecture or a masterfully written prayer book to sense the awesome greatness of God? No, but we need careful meditation and thoughtful leadership as we direct our hearts together toward God in worship. Then we will have a true sense of meeting with the eternal God and will better honor him and respond to his Word.
Let it not be said that one can hear good sermons in our churches but cannot sense the reality of meeting and praising the true and living God. Here are a few questions to help us evaluate our performance as worshipers of the Lord:
For what particular truths or attributes of God did we praise him last week? This question should help us determine whether we are thinking much as we sing and pray. There may have been several aspects of God's being or mighty acts for which we praised him. What were they and what did we express to God about them?
Was God pleased with the way I worshiped? Did he receive a sincere expression of praise from me? Or was I thinking of other things and allowing others to worship for me? The idea of a priesthood wherein a few perform religious duties for the many dies hard even among Reformed people.
What have I done to put into practice the truth I heard preached last week? What renewal took place or began to take place as I heard the truth last Sunday?
What preparations am I making to worship next Sunday? We must realize that the best planning and the best resources (theological, musical, aesthetic, etc.) will not produce worship in people who don't fully desire to worship God.
We want God to "get something" out of our worship. We want him to enjoy it and be pleased. This will require putting something into it. It will require the best that our elders and other planners can give it. It will require that all of us come together with hearts eager to express our praise, gratitude and appreciation to God.
And coincidentally, as a by-product, we may find the service beneficial to ourselves as well.