Around the Corner
INTERSECT: The Goals of Worship
Third in a four-part series on the important yet often-controversial topic...
Our previous two articles explored the what and how of worship. The what focused on worship as it is biblically defined. The how introduced the regulative principle, which attempts to allow Scripture to govern our worship practices. The third article is an effort to consider briefly the role worship plays in the life of the local church. Another way of articulating worship’s role would be its goals or focus. What is the end or goal corporate worship is supposed to accomplish?
Worship in Spirit and Truth:
Vertical and Horizontal
One particularly helpful passage from the New Testament on Christian worship comes from the book of Colossians. It helps clarify the role worship fulfills in the local church. In Colossians 3:16 we read, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with rejoicing in your hearts to God.”
As we mentioned regarding the regulative principle, it is important to let the Scriptures drive our practice of corporate worship. Paul urges the Colossians to allow the Scriptures to dwell within them richly as a corporate body (the you here is plural). Corporate gatherings ought to be richly saturated with Scripture. This corporately indwelled Word is to be in accord with all wisdom. It brings to mind the Old Testament teaching on wisdom, which essentially referred to the faithful application of God’s scriptural revelation to all of life. Paul likewise applies this concept to corporate worship—our corporate gatherings must be patterned after the ways of God. There has to be some measure or guide for our religious practice; otherwise, it has no grounding except the subjective self. When grounded in our subjective experience, worship devolves into disunity and chaos, as each individualized self competes with another.
Another important aspect here is the horizontal sphere of worship. The indwelled Word that accords with divine wisdom yields teaching and admonition for “one another.” The manner of this teaching and admonition is through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. There is great debate about the nature of these three items. Do we only sing biblical Psalms? What are hymns and spiritual songs? Regardless of these questions, the main point is clear: corporate worship (in this case, corporate singing) must teach and admonish believers in the faith. We should not think of this aspect of worship as an intellectual exercise alone, since it is to be practiced “in our hearts to God.” But neither is it an emotional frenzy, since such a spectacle is void of both teaching and admonition. The mind, governed by Scripture, informs the emotions. We hear the words of Christ upon the lips of fellow believers in our corporate singing. It nourishes our souls to feed on the redemptive truth resounding from the voices of those singing with us.
Colossians 3:16 holds in proper balance both the vertical and horizontal aspects of our worship: it is from the heart to God, yet it also produces teaching and admonition toward one another. The parallel passage in Ephesians 5 brings yet another aspect to bear on our worship—the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18-19, Paul warns the believers not to be drunk with wine, but rather to be filled with the Spirit. What is the outcome of a Spirit-filled life? Paul answers: “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord” (verse 19). The point of this comparison is to show the union between the Holy Spirit’s work in worship and the Scriptures. In some measure it explains Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman about worshiping God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). The more the Scriptures are manifested in corporate worship, the more evidence there is of the Spirit-filled life.
Planning Worship for the Local Congregation
What does this look like in practice? How do we allow the Scriptures to inform our corporate worship practices? Elsewhere, the Bible teaches us everything in the church “should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). In the context of this command, we find Paul dealing with disorderly worship and selfish/erratic displays of spiritual gifts, both out of step with Colossians 3:16. One of the ways to ensure corporate worship is practiced with decency is to practice proper planning of worship. While many factors are involved in planning worship, the following are essential.
First, we must start with the overarching goal of worship—to worship God! This is the vertical dimension. We must plan worship so God’s grace and glory is brought before His people (through the means He has established in His Word). To put it bluntly: He must be the center of attention. Our primary question isn’t, “What do people want in a service?” or “What type of worship service is pleasing to me?” Rather, our goal is to worship in Spirit and in truth—to worship God in ways clearly stated in His Word.
The next thing to keep in mind is another controlling principle from Paul’s lengthy discussion mentioned above (from 1 Corinthians). Whatever is done in the church should be done with the edification of believers in mind. This is the horizontal dimension. The mutual building up of the local body of saints is to be at the forefront of our minds when we plan worship. We certainly want to be mindful of unbelievers and people often classified as “seekers.” Sometimes, we fail to sense their fears, or we are unaware of a huge communication gap, or just flat-out forget what it was like to be new to the church. We can and must be sensitive in these ways and others. Yet, the biblical evidence is clear that our gathering each Lord’s day is primarily for Christians to worship the Lord. We must think carefully about how our corporate worship gatherings actually foster teaching and exhortation. Without this component, true biblical worship is not taking place. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is not in it.
We must be clear, however: evangelism also has a place in worship. Just as a sermon should bear witness to Christ, so the entire service should point people to Jesus, including the unsaved. Thus, worship isn’t planned as an evangelistic event, but when we worship in Spirit and in truth, evangelism should happen naturally. J. I. Packer referred to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as a “floodlight ministry.” His role is to focus attention on the person of Jesus Christ and to draw people to Him. Our role is to join Him and lovingly pray for people and plead with them to come to Jesus.
Worship Is Both Vertical and Horizontal. True biblical worship is offered as humble service to God in Heaven, but cannot be void of our corporate reality. Worship teaches and admonishes. And, the only way this can happen is when the people of God allow His Word to dwell in them richly.
Worship is not simply a privatized experience relegated to our prayer closets. No! It has to be on full display in the midst of the gathered body. When this happens, it provides evidence of the divine work of the Holy Spirit as He nourishes and builds up the Body of Christ to spiritual maturity.
About the Columnists: Dr. Matthew McAffee serves as provost and professor at Welch College. He has ministered in Free Will Baptist churches in Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Canada.
Dr. Barry Raper serves as program coordinator for Ministry Studies at Welch
College. He pastors Bethel FWB in
Ashland City, Tennessee.