If you were asked to define worship in only a few words, what would you say?
Is it a time set aside on Sunday morning or does it happen on other days or at other times? Is it the act of singing songs of praise to God or does it involve more than just singing? Does it happen corporately only or also privately?? While I would hope that we would describe worship by something other than a specific time, place, or song, I know that the phrase “worship” can be difficult to define.
Many of us have been on the frontlines of the “Worship Wars,” and have seen the damage an incorrect definition of worship can inflict in a church. We’ve been in churches that would rather have two separate services than attempt to put their preferences aside and worship together. We can probably identify churches in our circle that split over the use of hymnals versus screens. (We’d love to think that this is a recent development, but the truth is, people have been arguing about the relationship between worship and music since music began. The organ was originally marked as a tool of Satan, and setting the Psalms to music was considered blasphemy).
Some people define worship as a musical genre of songs that we sing on Sunday morning. But defining worship as a musical genre has two major flaws. The first is that musical taste variable. What’s fashionable in music today isn’t what was popular 50 years ago and won’t be what is popular 50 years from now. The second is that musical taste is subjective, so what I like might not be what you like. And when worship becomes about my personal tastes and preferences, we’ve lost the true meaning of worship and turned toward idolatry of self.
Some people identify worship as a specific time and place. By their definition, “worship” occurs only in church, and only on Sunday mornings between 10 and 12 am. For them, this time is set apart– there is a special dress code, a set of rules to follow, and possibly even a strict schedule. This definition, too, has a flaw: If worship can only happen in that time and place, then the meaning of worship is limited to physical and earthly circumstances, and there is no room for the supernatural presence of God.
What we need is a better definition of worship.
On the latest episode of the podcast, Jimbo and Bob spoke with Dr. Joe Crider, the Dean of the School of Church Music and Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth Texas.
When asked to define “worship,” Dr. Crider gave this very succinct, but very convicting, response: “Worship is a response to our self-revealing God. God reveals, his people respond.” Worship was never meant to be held together by a musical thread– God would never call us to gather around something that changes so frequently with culture, or that would be so specifically tailored to individual tastes. Instead, Dr. Crider said, the unifying thread that holds worship together is the Word of God. The Word is unchanging. It transcends generations, cultures, and time.
As a worship leader myself, I was convicted by this definition, and it truly changed the way I approach our corporate worship service, and my own personal times of worship.
Often when I think about how to create our corporate worship service, I think about how to create the response I’m looking for. I want to have a service that is engaging, relevant, and that gives our congregation space to seek God. I might look for songs that focus on a specific theme or idea, or that evoke an emotional reaction.
But if the Word of God isn’t the focus of our worship planning, then what exactly have people been responding to?
If they’ve responded to anything other than the Word, then there’s a glaringly obvious issue with the worship service… It didn’t worship God. Instead, my congregation was led to worship musicians, lyricists, well-spoken transitions, or worst of all… Me.
None of that has eternal benefit.
My words on Sunday? They disappear within a few days. The song we sang? Sometimes people can’t remember the words to it the following week. The beats per minute that helped motivate us to move past our Sunday morning sleepies or brought us into quiet reflection before the Pastor speaks? Not one person even knew how that’s carefully crafted.
But the Word of God stands for eternity.
When I base the service around the Word of God, I can trust in the authority and the power of the Word through the Holy Spirit. Everything the Word says has an everlasting impact. The Bible promises me that the Word of God doesn’t return void, and that every word of it is God-breathed and inspired.
As Worship Leaders, we are tasked with a holy calling. We have the beautiful gift each Sunday to introduce people to God so they can engage with Him and respond to Him. When we cultivate a worship service, we are called not to be song-driven, but to be Scripture-driven. Only then can we be sure that they are responding to God as He reveals Himself to them.
When I put this into practice, it changes my perspective and transforms my planning.
Dr. Crider suggests using the Psalms (the song book of the Bible), to guide your worship planning. In the podcast, he broke down Psalm 34 into sections and discussed the ways that we can use each of those to choose songs of praise, reflection, or even to introduce the Lord’s Supper or baptism. He also suggested using the Gospel as a guide, following the concepts of the Gospel: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.
I utilized this structure as I chose songs for our next service. I looked at several Psalms and felt led toward Psalm 136. It begins with verses 1-9 praising and thanking God for His creation. The Psalmist also repeats this line after every single verse: for his steadfast love endures forever. We opened baptism and praised God for the creation of a new life with Him. We then sang praises for God’s grace and His work in our lives.
Moving on to verses 10-16, the Psalmist thanks God for His rescue of the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. This led us to singing about God’s provision in the desert places of our lives and for giving us what we need. When we moved into the final verses of the Psalm, 11-26, we said the repeated phrase together as a response to God’s redemption of us as slaves to sin. To hear our entire congregation saying together, “His steadfast love endures forever,” and then to sing of the sacrifice and love of Jesus through “Jesus Paid it All,” was beautiful.
Applying this structure had many more benefits, as well. Instead of worrying about transitions between songs and making sure I was saying the “right” thing, I could just read the Scripture and let God speak for Himself. Instead of trying to evoke an emotion, I could trust the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of our people. Instead of leaving service wondering if people “truly worshiped,” I could know that they were given an opportunity to respond to God’s revelation of Himself because His word was made clear and known. Instead of thinking I needed more musicians or a bigger band, I could know that Scripture will not return void and I could lean back and let God do the heavy lifting.
In addition to planning corporate worship service, I also began to utilize Scripture-guided worship as part of my personal worship, as well. Instead of starting with a song to get me in the right frame of mind, I sat down with my Bible and opened to the Psalms and quieted my brain for a while. When I allowed scripture to talk to me instead of lyrics to a song, the reverse happened. Scripture began to bring songs to my mind whose lyrics matched what I was reading. I was able to make Scripture-based connections to old and new hymns that I hadn’t recognized before.
Changing from music-based planning for our worship to scripture-guided worship is a work in progress. Pastors, I would encourage you to guide your worship leaders through this episode and work together on continuing this week by week. Remember to help your team by letting them know where you are going to be in Scripture each week, and communicate your vision for the service and for the congregation. It will transform the worship service and their own private worship.
Dr. Crider’s book, Scripture-Guided Worship: A Call to Pastors and Worship Leaders, breaks this concept down even further for pastors and worship leaders and is an invaluable resource. Dr. Crider also has resources available through SWBTS and can be reached through their contact information.