Where Do We Get Our Ideas For Worship Styles?

Most of the debates over worship style are reduced to the question, “Is it allowed?” Traditionally-minded people who don’t like contemporary worship argue something like, “You can’t do that!” When those arguments fail, the assumption is often “Well, since it’s not against the rules, we should do it!” But are those two options really the best answers, and do they really do a good job at considering whether to adopt a certain style of worship?

I do think that the Bible commands certain components for worship, namely the reading of the word, the offering up of prayers, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and the celebration of the sacraments. I also believe that the Bible forbids certain things from worship, especially the use of images as means of prayer or worship, but also other forms of behavior which would violate decency and good order (1 Cor. 14:40). Still, that doesn’t quite get to the most common debates over worship styles. Usually those have to do with music genres, types of instruments, amplification, stage presentation, and manner of dress or decorum. There are even questions like, “Should the pastor wear a robe, a suit, or a polo shirt?” or “Are flip flops ok?”

You might say that these latter sorts of questions are “non-essentials,” and that would be true in a way. The kind of clothing that the pastor wears does not actually make or break the service. He’s still a pastor, and the New Testament does not ever give commands on what he should wear. But, at the same time, it would be very wrong to say that one’s choice of clothing or overall self-presentation “doesn’t matter.” We all know that it does, and in fact, the reason that it matters is why the clothing industry is able to make so much money. Business suits don’t simply “look good.” They serve a social purpose. They communicate a position of authority, as well as stability. They are meant to simultaneously draw attention to one’s standing or role while also deflecting attention from the particulars of one’s physique or self-expression. They are both formal and uniform. The same goes for brightly colored-shirts. They communicate excitement and energy. They are supposed to grab your attention. That’s the whole point. And people choose their clothes based on what sort of message they want to send about themselves to others. Sometimes, they even make this decision based on what they want to think about themselves. They work to create a self-image.

We make decisions about “look” and “feel” based upon our larger intentions. The “message” we want to send depends upon the goal we want to achieve. Sometimes we use strict rules, but other times we make these decisions by judgment calls and strategy. The way we make decisions about worship works in a similar way.

Is Worship Like a Concert?

Before we argue about  what style of music to play or what kinds of instruments to allow, we should first ask the question, “What is this all about?” What are we trying to do in worship, and what sort of “message” do we want to send? Where do we get our ideas and images for what a worship service should “look like”? What do we think a worship service is?

Look at the picture of the worship service here:


Here’s a similar one:


It seems clear that both are patterned after a music concert. One of them might even be a music concert. But how would you know which was which? You’ve got the smoke machine, the colored lights, the screens, and even the stage itself. The congregation looks like an audience. I don’t think these are unusual examples. A google image search for “congregational worship” produces these results:

congregational worship - Google Search

While the “concert” approach to worship service might still seem new, it is no longer weird. For many people, it is now the normal model.

My question is not whether this approach to worship “is allowed” but instead, “Why do people think this makes sense for worship?” What is the motivation? Where does the idea even come from?

Some people might say that this is simply a matter of imitation. Concerts are one of the most common places that our society sees large groups of people assemble together. Concerts are also very effective at generating deep emotions and bringing people together in something like a spiritual way. Church leaders see this and they want to copy it for their own worship services.

I think there’s some truth to this, but I don’t think it’s simply ambition or wanting to “be cool.” I think that people, including both church leaders and members of the congregation, simply think that the church and the concert are largely trying to do the same thing. The minister and the choir are carrying out something like a “performance,” and the congregation is like the audience. If that is how we understand worship, then we don’t need to have particular motivations to adopt the other elements of the concert. They just make sense. They help provide a high quality experience.

Worship In The New Testament

But is the worship service like a concert? Is it trying to do the same thing?

The New Testament does not actually give us a list of “Do”s and “Don’t”s for worship, but it does show us a few historical examples. Acts 2:42 describes the early church’s activity by saying, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” This comes up again in Acts 4:23-35. There we see the people praying “with one accord” (Acts 4:24), and they pray Psalm 2 and give a Christian interpretation of it. Later in Acts 20 we see another example of a worship service: “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). A lot of people focus on the fact that Paul preached for so long, but we should also notice that there is some helpful information about the setting. It’s on the “first day of the week.” They “came together to break bread,” which indicates that the Lord’s Supper was a main purpose of the gathering. We see that there is a central rhetorical event, or a sermon. We’re also told that this gathering was in a room with windows where people were seated (Acts 20:8-9). In other words, the setting was a sort of household room.

This tells us that the earliest worship services were not set up like a concert. There was not a stage with a large audience. Instead there was a “gathering” or “assembly” of people together with one another in a room. The expression of the worship took three forms. There was a unified group praying and singing, sometimes led by the apostles but still understood as the people lifting up their one voice “with one accord,” and there was the communication of the preacher to the congregation in the form of the sermon. In addition to this, there was the group “breaking of bread” which seems to have taken the form of a group fellowship meal, perhaps with a more ceremonial point where the words of institution would be spoken (this would depend upon a closer reading of 1 Cor. 11:17-26).

This “look” and “feel” would naturally change as the church grew and moved into different buildings. With greater numbers, comes a greater need for orderly process and even more permanent furniture arrangements and interior design. However, “the goal” of the service should be the same. The Biblical picture is not one where the people are spectators, watching and listening to a smaller group carry out the worship. Instead the Biblical picture is that the people are the worship team, and their shared voice and prayer is the worship. The ministers “lead” this, in the way that a coach or director would, but they do not do the worship for the people. In fact, Hebrews says that “the fruit of our lips” is “the sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb. 13:15). That means that we believers are now carrying out the work of priests in the worship of God. The “thanksgiving” and “praise” we “offer” to God is literally the sacrifice that we bring into His tabernacle.

So the New Testament only gives us a few descriptions of worship services, but it does give us an answer to “What is the worship service for?” It’s a group gathering for the people to pray and sing together, to break bread and fellowship together, and to be taught about the Scriptures by a preacher. And all of this is to be understood as a sort of ceremony where a sacrifice is given to God.

What Does This Mean For Our Worship Styles Today?

This post has attempted to reframe the question of worship style from “Can we?” to “Should we?,” and the way that I’ve tried to answer that question is by encouraging the right kind of motivation and the right purpose. This means that I haven’t been trying to give a list of rules. Instead, I have tried to find principles that can be applied in different ways but should still achieve consistent results. Let’s get specific with some of them.

  1. Worship is carried out by the whole congregation– This means that the majority of the singing and praying should take place together. It should be a unified voice. It should be common. This means that…
  2. Worship should be intelligible and accessible– The people involved in the worship should understand what is going on, and they should be able to participate in it. Worship should not be too difficult as to exclude some members, nor should it be eccentric or exotic. It should be the kind of thing which people can participate in without a lot of formal training, and it should discourage. This means that…
  3. The congregation is the main “performer”– The congregation is not watching the worship. The congregation is carrying it out. This means that any musical accompaniment should be an accompaniment. It should accompany the singing of the people and not replace it. It should not overtake the focus of the group, nor should it involve lots of “extras” which further draw attention to the musical performers. This means that…
  4. The musical accompaniment should not be too loud– This is not just a danger that comes from contemporary music. It can happen with pipe organs, just as well as with electric guitars. If the average person in the congregation cannot hear themselves or their neighbor, then the music is not helping them sing. It’s preventing them from singing. This also means that…
  5. The people should know how to sing the music– The music in worship should be something that people can reasonably be expected to sing. They should know what’s coming before it comes, and it should be consistent. There shouldn’t be “surprise” endings or unannounced changes. This does mean that traditional pieces of music should be retained whenever possible. It takes a lot of practice and repetition to learn to sing new songs, especially for people who are not especially gifted at singing, and this means that ever new song in worship adds a challenge and a barrier to participation. This doesn’t mean that new songs can never be introduced, it just means that they should be introduced very carefully and very sparingly.
  6. The people should know how to pray the prayers– Everything above should also apply to the prayers in worship. The people should be praying most of the prayers themselves, and they should know what they are praying. Even when the ministers pray on behalf of the people, they should understand that what they pray is supposed to represent what the people are praying. This means that the prayers should be intelligible and appropriate for the specific congregation. The minister’s prayer should also not draw attention to the minister but be a natural voice for the people.
  7. Additionally, the worship should include portions where the congregation interacts with itself– The people should be able to “break bread” and “fellowship” together as an act of worship. If the people are only interacting with the pastor and the other worship leaders, then an important element is missing.
  8. Finally, all of this should be done in a spirit of “reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28)– The God of the New Testament describes Himself as “a consuming fire.” Even though we are not entering a physical tabernacle with sacrificial altars around us, our worship is still serious business. We are offering ourselves as a sacrifice to God. This doesn’t mean that God is especially pleased with expensive or “fancy” things, but I think it does mean that we should not treat our worship lightly. We shouldn’t be frivolous or silly in church. And we shouldn’t adopt a style of worship that encourages levity.

Our worship is a time where the church meets with God in order to give Him glory, praise, and honor. That is the goal. Jesus promises to be present when we do this, and He promises to open our hearts by His Word and commune with us by His sacrament. We should make our decisions about worship styles, including the “look” and “feel,” with this in mind, and we should always compare our assumptions and motivations by the teaching and example of the Scriptures.

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