Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Worship Today: Maintaining Continuity with the Past and Across the World


On this subject of worship, insights from all kinds of Christian believers and “traditions” abound. Even views and practices with which one may profoundly disagree, will contain aspects of truth from which we can learn. In the following descriptions of trends which I have noted, it is all too easy to see the problems which have been caused by them (a middle-aged man’s default mode?) and miss the emphases which have brought refreshment to many believers and glory to God.

Equally, there is something in that aphorism, “The whole world is queer but thee and me… and I am not sure about thee”. That is, we will all have something about another’s “position” on an issue and its practical outworking with which we have some, even if slight, disagreement. It can be hard to know when wise discernment has developed into critical nit-picking.

Given the theme of the paper I have found that “maintaining tension” is difficult. There is so much one could say, and getting a right sense of proportion is challenging. In Antioch in Acts 11 some eyes would have seen differently from Barnabas’ (Acts 11:23 and 15:1f). He must have beheld many other things too, but amidst it all he saw evidence of gospel grace and worked with that as of primary importance.

So, too, in this area of contemporary practice in worship. What to prioritise, what to see as secondary? Or tertiary? What to categorise as “of first importance” and what to see as “adiaphora” (things indifferent)? What to call a legitimate cultural expression (e.g. musical style) and what an absolute moral requirement?

Sadly, Christians have been disagreeing about all this for ages. In a paper describing Reformed Baptist singing (a fairly tightly-defined issue within a fairly tightly-defined group, one would have thought), Sharon James comments,

At different times church meetings have divided over whether congregations should sing at all, whether they should sing hymns at all, whether to use hymn books at all, whether there should be any musical accompaniment at all and, if so, what it should be.[1]

I certainly have no mandate nor desire to prolong a conflict!

But I want to open with these caveats as otherwise we might not sense the emphases we need to hear from Scripture for ourselves, or for the family of God we belong to back in our home setting.

I intend to cover two areas: First I want to describe what, in my observation, have been trends that have shaped modern churches. Then second, I want to suggest some practical outworking of principles which can help us be faithful to the Bible, relevant to our own church family, and, by God’s grace and power, bring a sense of spiritual awe and joy to the believers with whom we worship, and conviction to those not-yet-believers who may join with us.

I. Spot the Trends

1. Fashionistas, chronological snobbery and the “democracy of the dead”

“You’re fiercely fashion-forward, always looking for The New & The Next. The sidewalk is your catwalk and you’re always the first of your friends to try the new trends”.[2] Thus haute-couturier Henri Bedel introduced a word new to me – fashionista. Could he have been talking about churches and their leaders too?

Certainly, there have been trends in church life over the last fifty years which have illustrated the sentiment, “Newest is best, latest is greatest”. Some churches have charged forward to keep on the crest of a wave and ahead of the pack. Innovation has been the name of the game, and woe betide anything that smacks of last decade’s fashion in style, sound or look: “Oh, that song is sooo 1990s!”

We live in a time of rapid transition; youthfulness is exalted; everything is up for grabs. That is how many Christians feel about the way that worship has changed in their experience. It is not a new problem; C. S. Lewis didn’t like ecclesiastical developments amending worship in his day and noted sardonically, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not… Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”.[3]

Behind that comment lies a deeper issue, summed up in the famous warning, “He who marries the spirit of the age will be a widower in the next.” Lewis described the dangers of “chronological snobbery”: the assumption that our ancestors were fairly ignorant and backward while we, who happen to be alive just at the moment, conceitedly begin to think that we are “the people” and wisdom will die with us (Job 12:2).[4] We often fail to recognise that those coming after will soon look upon us as quaint at best, or seriously flawed at worst.

G. K. Chesterton also pleaded for a better perspective in his “The Ethics of Elfland” essay:

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead… Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition object to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.[5]

My sense is that many in the contemporary church have stopped listening to these voices for too long. In an attempt to be “relevant”, a depth of historical heritage has been ditched; modern music styles, in particular, have changed so quickly in many Christian traditions that a virtual wholesale rejection of the past has become normal.

We need to heed the past; believers in Jesus’ day still used the wisdom of the ages in their worship (prescribed as it was in many ways by Scripture) as they sang age-old Psalms and followed practices of generations.

But it is not a simple issue to connect to the past and also to relate to the present. “Old songs” were once brand new, and often met with a resistance in their time because of that. Isaac Watts, for example, came in for plenty of criticism for writing hymns.

Holding on to the past for the sake of it presents its own big problems. Even a voice as conservative as Dr Peter Masters notes,

We feel that language has changed far more in the 125 years since Spurgeon’s hymnbook than during the 150 years which separated Spurgeon from Watts. We are now confronted with numerous quaint and jarring words or phrases which ought to be edited… Editorial changes have aimed at achieving instant comprehension wherever possible, thus enabling worshippers to honour the apostolic principle – “I will sing with understanding also”… Another modernisation will be seen in our treatment of the words “man” or “men”, together with male pronouns, where these convey the unintended impression to a new generation that all Christians are male. This use of language occurs to an excessive degree in older hymns, and in most cases a way has been found to eliminate it.”[6]

And it would be curmudgeonly not to joyfully celebrate some of the great hymns and songs which have been written to inspiring tunes very recently. There has been a blossoming of musical initiatives over the last fifty years; well-trained and wonderfully gifted writers and musicians have hugely enriched the world-wide church’s repertoire of songs which glorify the Lord.

The movements over the last half-century have probably got more “ordinary” Christians engaging with the subject of worship than previous generations which, according to the class culture of the past, just did as they were told by their superiors. The democratisation of worship has been a significant plus and has put the honouring of God right to the top of the agenda. Which brings us on to trend 2.

2. Individualism and being part of the “joyful assembly”

In traditional societies, people are primarily identified by class, caste, country, tribe or family. There is a deep sense of solidarity with others of their own kind and members live according to the expectation relevant to each group. In this setting, worship cannot be anything but a corporate activity.

But somewhere in it all the individual may easily be devalued and lost; group solidarity matters most. The gospel can be lost as personal salvation is often less prominent in the religious landscape of pre-modern societies.

In modern and post-modern societies this is not so; here the “i-world” dominates. According to Robert Bellah two types of individualism can be identified. One he calls “utilitarian individualism”, which takes as given basic human appetites and fears and sees human life as an effort to maximise self-interest relative to these ends. The other he dubs “expressive individualism” which holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold and be expressed if individuality is to be realised.[7] Either way, the modern West is dominated by such “what’s in it for me?” individualism. Characteristics of belonging to a group, such as taking part in civic activities, volunteering, giving to charitable foundations and so forth, are all declining. The social capital of modern societies has plummeted.

In her incisive analysis of several generations of young American adults, Jean Twenge has picked up significant and rapid changes in their lives, especially since the widespread adoption of smartphones. In a world in which a teenage woman will spend on average over five hours a day accessing media, usually through a hand-held device, Twenge has traced profound ways that modern technology, combined with expressive individualism, is changing the values and habits of countless people.[8]

The church has not been immune to these changes; they surface in many ways, for example in measurable changes to patterns of church attendance and membership, mobility and migration pathways – and a struggle to gain disciplined commitment to church and corporate activities. Churches seems to have less of a sense of “we are in this together as we joyfully assemble”, and more of an, “I’m being authentic doing my own thing; I hope you are doing yours too.” Pastors are made to feel legalistic by simply echoing the apostolic call for everything to be done in a decent and orderly way. Confusion somehow seems more “authentic” – the critical marker for an expressive individualist.

Post-modernism has taught us that we each have our own truth and so if I have my own subjective sense of what God is saying to me, none should question it. Such a culture values the “here and now” above the “then and there”. This seems more real and more spiritual than an emphasis on forms of the past, which can seem phony, hackneyed and imposed. Some have also noted that there is a focus on “how I am” during worship, for we value highly the “inward”, but play down the “upward.” As Don Carson has said, we end up worshipping worship, rather than God.[9]

The trend, however, has its positives too. The answer to the problems highlighted above is not to retreat back into the “good old days” of pre-modern corporate cultures, but to recognise the wonderful tension and resolution the gospel brings – a genuine third way of valuing both the “one” and the “many”. A truly personal salvation and relationship with the risen Lord, but also a belonging to a family, a body, a temple, a building made without hands, a people, and a kingdom where, as I lose myself, paradoxically, I find myself. As I am overwhelmed by God’s love, I cannot help but love and worship him, and want to bless others for his sake.

The church needs a robust theology of grace that gives us the both/and of personal and corporate. Though there may be a creeping individualism seeping into much that we do, we can acknowledge two great realities that flow from this recent trend: 1) Individuals do matter. Paul said that Jesus, “loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Rediscovering that personal note has been a very big plus in the modern church. 2) It makes us all think much harder about true “self-forgetfulness” rather than a false humility. Precisely because we are becoming aware of the problem, we can counter it more effectively with a proper place for the self.

3. The Illuminati, neo-Gnosticism and spiritual indwelling

They were a secret society called “the Illuminati” – 18th century enlightened ones who were “in the know”. Such societies have blossomed throughout time; the Apostle Paul had to contend with false teachers – “super-apostles” – who claimed to be so much more powerful than he and his gospel. The early Christian churches were blighted the Gnostic heretics, special groups who “really worshipped” because they “really knew”, having been introduced into the secrets of true spirituality.

Some of the “holiness” and “second blessing” teaching of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may echo this. Francis Schaeffer warned in the late 1950s and early 60s of the dawning of what he called a new “super-spirituality” which appealed to the need to belong to a special group who had been “truly blessed”.[10]

It is hard to deny that the church has experienced waves of teaching that tend towards an emphasis on the “special ones” who truly worship. In the past, in formalised religion, this meant those who worshipped in the equivalent of the “holy place” – the chancel, with its robed choir, and priests who approached an altar in some confused extension of Old Covenant rituals.

In the modern church this is much more likely to be the band who vicariously “truly worship”, led by the doyen of modern churches, the worship leader. The spotlight is on them in more than one way; they seem to be “in the Spirit” while they sing, eyes closed, and perhaps sway – while the rest of us in the gloom of the unlit and muffled world of the congregation try our best, but clearly can’t match the real worshippers.

Mix into this theologies which seem to legitimise an “extra blessing” in one way or another, and it is easy to see how the modern church in effect has its “exalted ones” – even if they in no way choose that moniker. It can be so hard to remember the great biblical teaching, reclaimed at the Reformation, of the priesthood of all believers.

C. S. Lewis struggled with this too. In one of his most well-known quotes he says of the music in his own church,

I disliked very much their hymns which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the merit of it. I came up against people of quite different outlooks and education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realised that those hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic side-boots in the opposite pew, and then you realise that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.[11]

This note has been rediscovered over the last fifty years. Whereas older generations believed in the theology of “the priesthood of all believers”, the more recent generations have sought to practise this in various ways. Although we can see weaknesses in the individualism of this generation, it has also sought to emphasise that the members of the body of Christ come together to bless one another.

4. The technology revolution, and the revolutionaries that shape it

Part of the explanation for the rapid pace of change in our society is the breath-taking technological advances that the third great revolution (after the Agrarian and Industrial) – the Information Revolution – has triggered.

In worship, changes in music have been most notable. A capella has given way to powerful sound systems and electronically-dominated singing. Voice amplification, stage and auditorium lighting, sophisticated music mixing, vision projection and various other technical hardware and software developments allow a range of presentations unavailable until very recently. For all this to work well, churches and organisations have to invest significant amounts of money and expertise. For behind the well-lit, on-stage personas, there is a small army of tech people making sure it all works smoothly.

And technology shapes services. The timeframe for choosing material so that it can be printed, rehearsed and made available to the wide number of people who need it, will mean that much of the worship content (songs, prayers, Bible readings, sermon titles and content) needs to be planned well in advance. Services need to be tightly scheduled so that all taking part know what is expected and can keep to the running order.

Some churches have fully adopted the modern concert style with dark auditorium and no natural lighting, a well-lit stage utilising a wide variety of lighting tools, and singers/worship leaders who are amplified so loudly that the congregation (audience?) sings along with them as the accompaniment, and not vice versa. A worship atmosphere is developed which relies heavily on technology to make it “work”.

Even if your own church is not like that, significant numbers of Christians now attend big inter-church or para-church jamborees, conferences, holiday events etc., so that this style is experienced by many. The home church is then, sometimes subliminally and sometimes consciously, compared negatively to the larger event.

In one sense, it has long been thus. Medieval cathedrals with their stunning architecture, stained glass and multiple staff with various kinds of expertise once “set the bar”; classical nonconformist chapels made use of high pulpits and balconies to keep everyone easily within ear-shot; Victorian and early twentieth-century worship was often dominated by a powerful machine – the pipe organ – which could only be played by a trained organist. Large chapels required heating and lighting and used technological advances such as gas lights to make this possible. What is unprecedented today is that the latest technological improvements provide so many worship alternatives.

Critiquing is easy to do, but new technology has also provided many benefits: it has brought great Christian music to the masses; God’s word can be listened to on a phone; those without strong voices can preach to large groups; people have been able to take part who might otherwise never be heard. It has led to a range of musical accompaniment that enriches the singing. It can even enable a small group of Christians in an out-of-the way church or chapel to sing with other believers via a CD player. Great resources can be accessed at the touch of the button, even in societies that ban Christianity; technology has greatly extended the reach of the gospel.

These issues that have understandably led to confusion amongst Christians: What is biblical, what is right, what is pleasing to God? How would we know?

Which brings me on to the fifth trend.

5. Bibles, hermeneutical gymnastics and Lordship

Previous generations of Christians had to work out what they believed about worship. The Protestant Reformation brought this issue very much to the fore. Rather than following tradition, it was the Bible that was to shape how a faithful church should worship. Much debate led to what has been dubbed the Regulative Principle – that no practice should be part of true Christian worship unless it is commanded, properly exemplified, or a good and necessary outworking of a clear principle in Scripture.

This Principle was to guard believers from idolatry, but also to give freedom, both of conscience and practice, within boundaries. Stemming from this, Christians also worked out what were the legitimate powers of leaders to innovate and to organise:

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 21:1).

Calvin stated,

Moreover the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application… we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunction of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe… I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.[12]

Some felt the Principle was too restrictive and opted instead for the Normative Principle; that is, anything is permissible unless it is specifically forbidden, within broad biblical principles. Up until the recent modern era, most Protestant churches were a) willing to base worship on what the Bible taught about it; and b) outworked a combination of the above two principles. Thus, most shared a common understanding and a relatively common experience of worship.

This seems to have all changed; styles vary enormously amongst churches in the same denomination and between churches of varying confessional commitments. Some of this is due to a less-than-straightforward approach to interpreting Scripture. Rather than asking, “What is the original author’s intention?” and being under that authority, the whole modern trend in hermeneutics is to make the reader king, based on the assumption that we cannot really know what the original author meant, and maybe we are not under their authority anyway.

Now meaning is determined by “what I think it means for me”. Individualism, combined with post-modern hermeneutical gymnastics, means that the church has been set adrift from its strong biblical moorings into a world where “If it feels good and right it must be okay”. Experimentation in worship is now de rigueur. Reacting to the perception of a buttoned-down, tight-lipped past, new movements have emphasised freedom to express oneself. Biblical principles can be circumvented by various means. As Gershwin in Porgy and Bess put it, what it says in the Bible “ain’t necessarily so”.[13]

Conservative evangelicals sensing this have responded in a number of ways. Some see only problems, dangers and disobedience, and long for a past when worship was “pure” and untainted by the world.

Others see both weaknesses and strengths: New doesn’t mean wrong, as recent gifted theologians, preachers and song writers have demonstrated; music and style are often matters of taste and preference, not absolute right and wrong; freedom is a biblical principle that needs endorsing. This has led to some churches being willing to think biblically and face up to some of the prejudices against wise change, and thus adopting some of the more recent developments in worship. Modern does not necessarily mean a challenge to the Lordship of Christ.

6. Summary of Part One

Powerful movements and trends have been experienced by churches and Christians over these last fifty years. Changes have come at a fast pace and older believers often found it difficult to adapt. Younger believers have warmly embraced musical styles more familiar to their culture.

The power of that culture to shape church worship is undeniable. What we have found is that as well as problematic developments, we can also identify things which are good and right. Each trend emphasises something that has biblical warrant, and is important for the church to practise.

The gospel has to be clothed in contemporary words and idioms so that outsiders find it intelligible, challenging and attractive. And insiders must worship with mind and heart so that they express worship in their own language and fitting to their own times. Calvin so famously said years ago,

The Master… did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages)… Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what many hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.[14]

But, on the other hand, these powerful movements have all tended to loosen our links to the Christians who have gone before us. It can generate a sense that it is all about “now” and it is all about “us”. A heritage of millennia can be, and for the younger generation is, being lost. That sense of continuity all the way back to the Lord and his Apostles, is becoming a distant memory, or even no memory at all.

Without realising it the gospel can also be subtly altered to what God is doing “here and now” not what God has done “there and then”. Instead of good news of a great victory won for us at the cross, it becomes a great experience of how I feel. This kind of distorted gospel drags us back to religiosity and what it can offer by way of positive feelings. Religion is adept at fooling its adherents that they are acceptable because of the way they are worshipping, and especially if they are feeling good about it. Such a gospel cannot save.

So how do we negotiate the minefield? Wholesale rejection is neither right nor wise, but an uncritical embracing of everything will not get us far either.

In the following points I want to attempt some practical suggestions which may help us outwork biblical principles in a contemporary place, which also preserves continuity with the past and connection to believers around the globe. Each suggestion relates to the corresponding trend and seeks to ameliorate its weaknesses and make the most of its strengths.

II. Try the Applications

1. Blended worship – not driven by fashion or locked into the past

The attempt to use the best of the present and the best of the past has been labelled “blended worship”. Its danger? The worst of everything. Its advantage? Connectivity to the past and a reinforcement both that we stand in the long line of witnesses, and also that we are the people who worship God now.

A connection to the past will enable believers to develop a resilience that being imprisoned in the now cannot provide. It may also humble us, as we realise that other Christians have had very rich experiences of the blessings of God, and it may help us not to be trite and superficial. Margaret Thatcher used to comment that as she walked the staircase of 10 Downing Street and saw the photographs of previous Prime Ministers, it helped put the challenges she, and Britain, faced into perspective and gave encouragement to press on.

Blended worship may mean we utilise songs and hymns, prayers, quotes and stories from the past which enrich our lives. A strong sense of heritage and privilege will enable us to be as bold as we live for Christ in our times, as they were in theirs. Introducing elements from the past may require a deal of explanation of the very different styles; poetry, for example, was much denser than we are used to, language was more educated than present day common usage.

There are perils, of course, in such time travelling. We may put past heroes on platforms, not realising that all had weaknesses; we may see the past through rose-tinted spectacles, thinking all was bliss. Without realism about the past, we may unconsciously create a longing for a time which never really existed. Instead of galvanising us to confront the challenges we face now, we may cultivate a wish to be somewhere else, at some time other than now. So blended worship needs discernment.

Charles Wesley reputedly wrote more than 8,000 hymns, yet we sing but a small fraction of them. We do not need to work through the whole repertoire to find the gems; that has been done for us. Though we still have to use discernment, the passage of time has left us with the best work of the great poets and hymnwriters of the eighteenth century. They stand out as some of the very best examples of Christian doctrine and experience expressed in worshipful wonder of the living God.

But for modern songs, we are the sifters! It is as we use, and then abandon or keep them, that we compile the “good and great” category for future generations. To this end, it may mean a congregation that adopts a “best of the past and best of the present” approach will end up singing far more modern songs than older ones, just because it is only as they are used that they can find the best.

Decisions regarding what type of worship should be used in our churches might be described as four-dimensional. On one axis is the right/wrong polarity. This, for example could be connected to words and doctrines in prayers, songs etc. But it may also be with the issue of extra-biblical matters such as “new expressions”. Depending on one’s stance on the “normative/regulative” argument this category may come into play over such things, for example, as flag waving, giving the Lord a clap of appreciation, utilising arts ministry, and other new forms. The Regulative Principle would see these as having little or no scriptural endorsement and thus an imposition onto the pure worship of God’s people. A normative stance would mean they would be judged on other criteria.

The second axis is the helpful/unhelpful decision and is more difficult to judge: Is the practice edifying even if it is right? An overly long prayer, for example, may deaden a meeting; a really long time of singing may help one, but drive another to distraction due to fatigue. What one may find helpful, another will not.

The third axis relates to the aesthetic question: is something good or poor in terms of excellence, quality, suitability, appropriateness, and so forth? We are now getting into strongly subjective territory. But it must be explored if we are to make wise decisions about what to include and what to reject. We need to recall Frame’s helpful comment:

When sophisticated members of the church insist that worship only employ the most sophisticated music of their own culture, what has happened to their love for those who are poorly educated or of a different cultural stream?… when advocates of contemporaneity want to set the traditions of the church completely aside and replace them with something largely meaningless to the older generation are they acting in love?[15]

John Piper adds,

By “fine” culture I have in mind the pattern of life that puts a high priority on intellectual and artistic expression that require extraordinary ability to produce and often demand disciplined efforts to understand and appreciate. By “folk” culture I have in mind the pattern of life that puts a high priority on expressions of heart and mind that please and help average people without demanding unusual effort.[16]

He goes on to comment that one tends to snobbishness and élitism, performance not participation, the other towards lazy, slipshod, ill-disciplined, short-circuiting of the mind. One can help the mind think clearly and stir a sense of beauty and excellence, the other meets people where they are and is very inclusive and accessible. We are all on a continuum between these one or the other and need to be ourselves, making the most of the strengths of each.

Finally, we come to the axis of preference: do I like it or not? It is okay to have strong preferences, either way. It is also perfectly permissible to share your thoughts in appropriate settings. Paul strongly urged Apollos to go to Corinth, but Apollos was not sure and Paul left it there (1 Cor 16:12). It seems to have been a preference issue.

In the debate over worship, Christians have all too often made fundamental category errors. In an attempt to protect “pure worship” by dubbing a practice they do not like as wrong, they have instead baptised their tastes and preferences as the only truly biblical option. Labelling other views as fundamental departures from the faith has led to acrimony and the so-called “worship wars”.

John Frame comments,

I confess unhappiness with the methods used by critics… They draw all sorts of things together into one big conceptual lump: the health and wealth gospel, Church Growth Movement “follow the directions” approach to church planting, goal-centred ministry, contemporary worship, Contemporary Worship Music. Then they present these as one large and deeply flawed religious movement that we must repudiate in toto. Therefore Contemporary Worship Music becomes the scapegoat for everything bad in modern Christendom. In my view this kind of argument represents poor logic, theology and ethics. It is not valid, edifying, or fair to tie everything together in this fashion.[17]

Michael Hamilton notes,

Every complaint about worship music, no matter which style, claims to be rooted in theological principles. Yet in every critique, the theology aligns perfectly with the critic’s own musical taste.[18]

Ron Man says,

Words like “deform” and “trivialize” are very serious terms in theological discussion. Normally to speak of deformed worship is to speak of alleged worship that is not worship at all. I hope that X doesn’t mean to make such a strong point. But either his rhetoric has gotten away from him, or he is condemning a whole branch of the church of Jesus Christ for no good reason… If God is looking above all else for faces turned heavenward toward him in adoration and worship, how it must grieve him when instead he sees us facing off against one another in our provincialism, our territorialism and our narrow-mindedness.[19]

Using this four-dimensional matrix to explain the difference between the various poles will help believers make better choices for all of the worship they engage in, and especially as they seek to keep a balance between different times and places.

2. Gathered and scattered worship – not individualism run riot

Three notes can be sounded when we come together to worship which can help counter the powerful trends we noted above:

i) First, we need to keep emphasising that we come together as the family of God in this place. The most well-known two words in the Bible? “Our Father”. Known still by millions even in our culture, they immediately challenge the rampant individualism of our age. The prayer was meant to always reinforce the fact that, having been justified, each and every believer is adopted into the family of God. There we find our identity. Now we can say, “I am the child of the Heavenly Father, and part of the family in which my Elder Brother is not ashamed to call the rest of us brothers and sisters, and in me and in all of us the Holy Spirit dwells.”

The gospel is the way to preserve the “one and the many” without either being lost. So gathered worship must not be seen as a group of individuals who happen to be together, but as the family coming to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. That note must not only be sounded, but practically outworked. The NT has that great “when you come together, each one…” (1 Cor 14:26). We must give careful attention to how we can best practically implement that.

So, lots of “we and us” language in songs, prayers and comments is helpful. Gordon MacDonald argues there should be a regular place for the classic “Pastoral Prayer” where one of the leaders of the church brings the concerns of the whole congregation to our Father in heaven.[20] Spoken corporately, and said out loud, liturgical prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, and also reciting classic creedal confessions, underscore this sense that we are here together to worship.

ii) The second note to be repeated regularly, is to include the global church in our sense of gathering. Introductory prayers can remind all that even as we meet, all over the world believers have been, and will be, meeting in almost countless numbers. Prayers of thanksgiving for parts of the world experiencing great blessing can be presented alongside regular prayers for the persecuted church. Remembering mission partners on a regular basis is extremely important. It is all too tempting for church leaders, in a culture in which we don’t see many converts, to concentrate on church growth in our own locality. But global and “kingdom” prayers again serve to deliver us from our self-absorption.

Given the mobility of modern life, and the massive migration movements that we all have witnessed, it is important to acknowledge that the global church will often be represented in microcosm in our own assembly. At a recent count I noted over forty nationalities present in our own church meeting. The blended worship mentioned above serves to help people from other cultures as they may be more familiar with classic songs of the faith, rather than only the newest. It will help them feel they belong more easily.

iii) The third important, and often neglected, note is to emphasise that the church is still the church when we are living for God on Monday – it is the church scattered, not gathered. Without getting into the debate whether “worship” is a “Sunday meeting thing” or an “everything we do” thing (the one tends to devalue the rest of the week, the other the actual gathering for “vertical” worship on Sundays), it seems to me that it is a both/and not an either/or thing. We leave church worship to go into a time of worship – living for God’s honour during the rest of the week in all that we do.

Thankfully some great “whole of life” resources to be used in Sunday worship are being provided more often now. Songs which emphasise that we live for our King all the time in all that we do redress the pietistic tendency which has been dominant in British evangelicalism. Of course, strengths abound in any movement that emphasises personal holiness and prayerfulness, but corresponding weaknesses may result in a sacred/secular divide. In a highly secular society the week ahead becomes something to escape from rather than a place and time in which to serve God.

Churches which develop a strong “whole of life” worship where Sundays equip people to energetically live for the Lord in their homes, neighbourhoods, places of employment and leisure time will reinforce a better sense of corporate worship on a Sunday. Rich community life is what our Father wants for us, and sensitivity to both gathered and scattered worship can help develop it.[21]

These three notes can help to counter the individualistic tide we are experiencing without negating the importance of the personal. They are worth working at.

3. Missionally sensitive worshippers – not a select and superior elite

The Apostle Paul gives some very helpful guidance on corporate worship in a sustained section of directives in 1 Corinthians 9-14. They guide the believer away from what is wrong, harmful and unhelpful towards what is right, good and beneficial for others.

He emphasises that when all believers come together there should be no division between any kind of inner circle and the rest. The body metaphor that the Apostle employs is a significant reminder that each person is necessary for all others to thrive and for the whole church to function properly. Fifty-nine times in the New Testament the phrase “one another” is mentioned, covering a whole range of issues; it emphasises the mutual indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the ministry that each has to others.

Intelligibility is important for both Christians and outsiders. It is crucial that believers understand what is going on. Words must be used which convey meaning, not just noise. All must be able to say “Amen” (1 Cor 14:8-9, 16) to the prayers. This principle of intelligibility applies also to unbelievers.  The worship is to be accessible to them in terms of language and “real” so that they can sense “God is among you”, rather than that we are all mad (1 Cor 14:23-25). The truth of the gospel may cause them to think so, but observing how we worship should not! (Acts 26:24).

Timothy Keller, in an exceedingly helpful short paper, alludes to what he calls the “as if” principle enshrined in this section of Scripture.[22] He argues that we should speak and act in such a way that we expect outsiders to be present. We should not unnecessarily adopt forms, styles and expressions which only the insiders “get”. This will affect the way we explain what we do, give out notices, speak about others and so forth. Worship leaders and preachers will work hard at being “overheard” well by those in attendance who do not yet believe.

Stuart Olyott refers to three “quality” markers, which if present will help a church to thrive and grow: i) quality welcome; ii) quality teaching; and iii) quality hospitality.[23] James alludes to the first in 2:1-13 in quite some detail. Many churches do not help themselves here. Some attendees will decide just because of a poor welcome that they will not give it another go.

Quality teaching is a complex thing, but a strong combination of “normative, situational and existential” would help.[24] My sense is that too many preachers lose the overall sense of the Bible’s “great story”, with its wonderful central Hero. They home in on the “instructions to obey” before they have proclaimed winsomely enough the lovely Saviour who gives these instructions.

Even good Bible handling can become stale without working on the situational aspect. Every preacher must remember that he is bringing a message to these people here. Introductions, conclusions, illustrations and application for them means the “as if” principle is being outworked by the preacher all the time.

This is also where the third marker Stuart Olyott mentions is key. Hospitality refers to “after care” and is a common Christian grace, not a specialist gift, according to the Apostle Peter (1 Pet 4:7-11). It is where the “organised” aspects of corporate church life, and the “organic” of what individual believers can do, interface. It is vital but too often absent. It connects the gathered to the scattered via food and home. It is where the individual translates what has been said in the corporate context (“You are very welcome”) into practice. It is where each and every believer can play a vital part in church health and growth. It only needs a cup of cold water, and bonds are built that can last a lifetime and beyond (Matt 25:35; Lk 16:9).

In a period of history, and in a part of the world, where so few believe the gospel, the church has to recognise it missionary mandate. Even in its corporate worship, where what is offered is for the Lord’s glory and honour, these principles shape and encourage an outward-looking sensitivity.

4. Encultured worship – not a rejection of technical progress

Churches did not possess their own buildings for the first three hundred years of church history; they met where they could. “The Temple” was the family of God – the key “building” was his very own people. The place in which they met was a matter of convenience and circumstance. Churches also met in specific places and became “local” with geographically-defined names. That specificity also inevitably brought with it cultural loading, which varied between the differing localities.

Early churches were often a mixture of cultures too. For example, they had to work out what it meant for Jew and Gentile to join together in Christian fellowship and worship. Some matters required great sensitivity and flexibility while others were non-negotiable in all situations (see Acts 15:24-29).

Although a lingua franca existed, each area, like today, had its local cultural expressions, tastes, baggage, concerns etc. We are often unaware of those particular to our own culture until someone from another points them out (Titus 1:12!). It takes spiritual wisdom and mature insight to work out what is an indifferent cultural vehicle, and what works against a Biblical priority, or may do spiritual damage.

Christians will sometimes disagree over cultural styles; some fear that certain cultural developments will move the church in a worldly fashion, while others will not see a problem. It is reminiscent of the early debates over food offered to idols, and the weak and strong believers.

In one sense, place and space are “indifferent things” in that buildings, architecture and technological advances do not essentially bring you closer, nor lead you further away, from spiritual reality and honouring God. But they can hinder or help. The Westminster Confession, when discussing the power of leaders to help organise the church’s worship, left it to the wisdom and common insights that all human organisations needed to function well.[25]

In the past the technological revolution that produced the printed book changed church worship meetings, and in so many ways for the better. Cheaper Bibles meant people could follow the exposition of the Word more easily, and there could be a greater repertoire of songs through printed music and song books.

For us today, having a good, technically better, sound environment can help people listen. Jesus asked Peter to put a boat out onto the water so that he would be heard by all and not just by those in the immediate vicinity who were pressing close to him (Lk 5:1-3). It was a simple practical solution to the problem. Today that will usually mean investment in a sound re-enforcement system, rather than training all to speak louder (once a pre-requisite for preachers, especially those speaking regularly in the open air). Modern technology has helped the message not to be lost and also made it accessible to many others through recordings and various forms of broadcasting. Those with less strong voices can also take part in readings, prayers, sharing news and so forth.

Vison, too, is an important part of communication. If we cannot see a speaker, and given that the brain processes about 65% of its information in any given communication through visual stimuli, then using some kind of camera and projection in a large auditorium makes sense and helps the listener. It is not necessarily caving in to a fad, nor inflating the ego of someone on a stage. So, for both sound and vision, taking advantage of technology in our worship environment is part of wise cultural adaption.

When we move on to consider music, it is important to remember that it is an aid to help worshippers to actually sing![26] The goal is not an accomplished performance of high-quality entertainment; music should be a vehicle to promote the worship of the Lord through the voices of God’s people expressing their delight together in him.

We also need the humility to learn from different worldwide musical traditions. Global migration has helped to make other expressions more accessible. While not everything travels well across cultures, some does, and the global church has been enriched by songs, music and words from believers around the world.

5. Gracious worship – not a human invention

The final practical outworking is a re-emphasising that we worship the God who is Trinity. He is family, with each person giving glory to the others in an endless “dance”, as Lewis described it.[27] Community, love, adoration, communication and goodness are at the heart of this reality. Before the world began, he who is from everlasting to everlasting, experienced all this (Ps 90:2). We are called to enter into this in our experience, and all because of amazing grace.

I sense that in the past the Trinity was seen mainly as a doctrine which clever people argued over, rather than a reality to which we must keep relating – the One God who is three Divine Persons. Even some of the great systematic theologies start on a slightly Unitarian note, with the Trinity appearing at the end of the first few chapters once the existence of God has been established.

The Trinity brings sharply into focus the “One and the Many” even if it is a mystery to our minds. This is not a philosophical puzzle to solve, but a reality to know, for it points to someone to worship. It is a glorious truth which helps us overcome the weaknesses of both traditional Western culture where the “one” is lost in the “many”, and our present day in which the one lives at the expense of the many.

So, we must keep our focus on who we worship, rather than how we feel about that worship. As Piper says,

Worship has a horizontal effect while being vertical in focus. All the people should think of how others are helped to experience God by their Godward hunger and demeanour… all the circumstances – sound, light, music, welcome, heat, ushers, parking should not distract from a focus on God.[28]

Lewis reminds us:

Both musical parties, the Highbrows and the Low, assume far too easily the spiritual value of the music they want… Our music is valued for the intention, not the act; our Father doesn’t “need” our music to please him, but is like a human father who values a worthless but beloved child’s present.[29]

And this God has spoken; the human authors were not just giving their opinions, but through them he was speaking his truth to us. He has revealed how we should worship, and his Word is authoritative. Authentic Christian worship will be based firmly on the Lord’s will for us, not our human inventions. We follow what he says about the elements of worship. It will shape what we include and what we exclude for the gathered people of God’s worship.

It will also affect the way that we thoughtfully plan and lead our services of worship. Throughout history believers have carefully crafted approaches to worship and we can learn much from them. We may not employ exactly the liturgy they did, for it is often studded with archaisms which are now obscure to us, but we can certainly benefit from their insights.

Try using a “journey in worship” outline to help lead the people of God into a fully rounded sense of worship. A pattern of “Call, exalt, confess, hear, believe, take, respond” framework is useful. And there are many others which can be utilised to overcome a drift into thoughtless repetition, seen both in the traditional “hymn sandwich” service, and in modern churches with their predictable music and recurring choruses.

We need to encourage one another, bear with one another, weep with one another and rejoice with one another. Services can be crafted which provide a vertical emphasis, but also reflect the truth that it is people, in all their variety and experience of the highs and lows of life, who are the worshippers. Grace can abound both vertically and horizontally, so that all can sense that they are in the presence of a holy God who, in Christ Jesus, has shown us wonderful mercy. It will be for ever the theme of the songs we sing in his new heaven and new earth.


John Frame challenges us with these comments:

Simply opposing the modern world at every point is an entirely inadequate approach. I say that for theological reasons. I certainly wish to be counted among those whose thoughts and actions are based on principle, not pragmatism. But I confess to find myself, on the basis on biblical principle itself, very often siding with those who are considered pragmatists rather than those who are regarded as the most principled among us. The fact is that when we seriously turn to Scripture for guidance, that guidance usually turns out to be more complex, more nuanced, than anything we would come up with ourselves… Certainly scriptural principle is more complex than any mere negation of existing cultural trends.[30]

We cannot just critique what we do not like, point out the dangers we fancy we see, and then retreat into a cosy past that never did exist, and will not return. We have to grapple with real concerns, but react with Christian maturity and sensitivity. We need a clear mind about what Scripture teaches and requires, and what are actual freedoms to be explored and enjoyed, celebrating the diversity built into God’s creation and all its peoples. I trust that this paper will stimulate a better approach to keeping the tension between past and present, and between “here and there”. We need to hear those who have gone before, cheering us on to be faithful in our own times (Heb 12:1).


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