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Monthly Archives: August 2011

EMERGENCY! The Primacy of the Word in Worship

THEME: Worship and the Word

Volume 6, No. 8 (August 2011)

I see these monthly installments as primarily a teaching medium, but this month I feel the urge to preach a little.

I’m concerned. Concerned by what I’ve seen, heard, and read about as far as the place of the Scriptures in our services.

Worship is not just music. Yet, as has often been pointed out, today music and musical style is the number criterion for people choosing a church in North America (more than the preaching!). Music has almost become “the new sacrament,” in the opinion of some.

But, as Bob Kauflin cautions us, “No worship leader, pastor, band, or song will ever bring us close to God. . . . Worship itself cannot lead us into God’s presence. Only Jesus himself can bring us into God’s presence.” Similarly, Mark Driscoll warns us:

When such things as the arts and music are used to lead God’s people into worship . . . we have supplanted the leading of the Holy Spirit with music and the arts. Such a move is pagan because music becomes mediatorial in a way that only Jesus Christ is supposed to be. [1 Tim 2:5] This kind of pagan thinking is commonly articulated following corporate worship services when people say things like, “The music really led me into God’s presence,” or “I could not worship well because of the music. (Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, p. 354)

I’ve been in a number of churches where the first word of Scripture heard is when the pastor gets up to preach; all that goes before consists of us singing things to God, rather than also hearing from Him. The singing may be very God-honoring, but it’s not the same as hearing God speak to us through His Word. Some worship leaders treat Scripture readings in the service as little more than handy transitions or fillers between songs, as if the songs were the main event and the Scripture is an afterthought (which it is in fact often is). Indeed, a common (if not predominant) approach to planning worship in our day seems to be selecting a group of songs (using whatever criteria: popularity, speed, key, etc.), and then looking for some Bible passages to go with them if time allows.

The fact is that the crucial biblical pattern of Revelation and Response calls for worship that is a dialogue between God and His people—where we are listening and not just doing all the talking. The irony is that we Protestants, who claim to be people of the Book, have so little of it in our worship services! (Except in liturgical churches, where it is built into the liturgy.) James White makes the devastating claim that “when the role of Scripture in worship is negligible, when Scripture is used only to launch a sermon, what is communicated is that the Bible is marginal in Christian life, too.” We may unwittingly be teaching our people that all that is needed in the Christian walk is to love Jesus and praise Him, without giving due place to the Word’s nourishment.

What about planning worship the other way around? What about determining what Scriptures and biblical truths we want to focus on, and then choose songs that give an appropriate reflective commentary on those Scriptures? This is the strength of thematic worship, I believe. The Scriptures should be used to call people to worship (after all, we don’t invite Him, He invites us; in our church, we now call this opening reading “Scriptural Invitation”); to give content and depth to our worship; to give God His say in our dialogue of worship; to give songs and prayers their appropriate place as devout, manmade responses to God, His Word and His ways.

Full disclosure: it was only a few years ago that I was myself convicted of this need in my own worship planning. If you have a role in planning and leading worship, I beg of you: give careful and prayerful consideration to the place of Word of God in our services. It is not connective tissue; it is the life-giving breath of God. It is the primary way He speaks to us today; and when God speaks, we certainly should be listening. By all means, let’s give our best creative efforts to robust and enthusiastic responses to God in song and prayer; but let’s give the Scriptures their proper place of honor and use in our assemblies. Absolutely central to worship, in Paul’s own words, is to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly among” us (Col 3:16).

ADDITIONAL READING

Ron Man

“Revelation and Response: The Dialogue of Worship,” Worship Notes 1.5 (May 2006)

“Worship and the Word,” Worship Notes 1.6 (May 2006)

“Called to Worship: Giving God the First Word,” Worship Notes 3.3 (March 2008)

“Thematic Worship: A Rich Feast for the People of God,” Worship Notes 3.4 (April 2008)

“Worship and the Word” (lecture at Calvin Symposium on Worship 2009)

Bryan Chapell, “The Call to Worship,” Worship Notes 3.3 (March 2008)

James White, “Making Our Worship More Biblical,” (Perkins Journal 34.1 [Fall 1980])

COMING EVENT: Please click on “Coming Worship Events” at the top of the page for details about the papers to be presented in two sessions at the Evangelical Theological Society’s Annual Meeting, November 16-18 in San Francisco.

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