Thinking Biblically about Worship today

Colin Randall

We live in an age when, rightly, many are concerned to shape our Sunday Services with a concern for mission. Are 'outsiders' made welcome? Do they understand what we are doing and saying? Will they have musical input that is to their taste? There is a concern not to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of people coming to faith. We snap up resources that can make services more engaging. But, sadly, we do not often get right back to basics and think about what the Bible has to teach us to about worship and allow that to both inspire and challenge us.

In this article I want us to notice four books that can help with this process. I believe two of them are fairly well-known (and these are also reviewed elsewhere in this e-news) and two of them less well-known. One is by an Australian, one by a Canadian and two by Americans and all operate with a Reformed approach to theology. As we shall see there is a large measure of common ground but some differences of emphasis. I shall start by briefly noting a couple of key points from the first two.

David Peterson's 'Engaging with God' came out in 1992 and is published by IVP. For Peterson worship is about believing the gospel and living it out in the power of the Holy Spirit whilst congregational gatherings are occasions for mutual upbuilding. He notes and ably demonstrates that the terminology of worship (e.g. 'sacrifice', 'temple') has undergone a radical shift with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, his body is God's Temple, he is our great High Priest. For believers in Jesus the language of the cult is now applied to the whole of life. For example, in Romans 12:1,2 Paul tells us 'present your bodies as a living sacrifice'. He is concerned with our day to day living. In Romans 15:16 Paul speaks of preaching the gospel as his 'priestly' work and in Philippians 4:18 Paul talks about the money given to support him is a 'fragrant offering'...... Throughout the New Testament this transposition continues. For the Christian worship is the offering of our whole lives to Christ who offered himself for us. Our church buildings are not replacements for the OT temple, it is Christians themselves who are being built into a spiritual temple. Peterson's work is salutary from two points of view. First, it is a right and proper reminder that God is most concerned with how we live from Monday to Saturday. Second, it warns us against going back to an OT model for worship, which seems to be a constant temptation for the Church with special people doing special things in special places. What then is the purpose of what we do on Sundays when Christians gather together? For Peterson the purpose is building one another up, as we find for example, in 1 Corinthians 14.

There is a huge corrective to much thinking about worship in what Peterson has to say. The NT does transpose worship language to our everyday lives and this reminds us of what is fundamental. The glory of the Lord is no longer confined to the temple but is revealed in our lives, which are our sacrificial offering.

Don Carson has a section in ‘Worship by the Book' (Zondervan, 2002) called 'Worship under the Word'. One of the points he makes is just how hard it is to get a theology of worship. He says that it is hard to construct a theology of worship when there is no agreed definition of what worship is.

He agrees with Peterson about the primary definition of worship being to do with the whole of life, but does want to see a distinct place for ‘corporate worship’ which is God-ward in orientation. Carson says, “would it not be better to say that the New Testament emphasis is that the people of God should worship him in their individual lives and in their family lives and then, when they come together, worship him corporately?” (c.f. 1 Cor. 14:25), He also notes Ed Clowney’s list of activities that Christians engage in when they meet together (Carson, p. 48). These include corporate prayer, Scripture reading, preaching, songs of praise and encouragement, giving, public profession of faith, the ‘holy kiss’, the use of ‘Amen’, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We also need to note that Christian corporate worship seems to have been built on the pattern of synagogue services, although he also notes that there is a need for caution here as much of our information about synagogue worship post-dates the New Testament and comes from after the destruction of the Temple - an event which would have had a real impact on the nature of synagogue worship (page 21). Carson also makes a valid point against much of our preoccupation with how worship makes us feel. He writes on page 31:

“In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself.”

Like others, Carson also warns us against equating ‘worship’ with ‘praise’ or ‘prayer’. Corporate worship is far more than these elements and includes the proclamation of the Word and our attending to it.

Carson also has a brief but helpful discussion of the Hooker principle (if Scripture doesn’t ban it, it is okay) and the Regulative Principle (if Scripture doesn’t sanction it, it is wrong) which points out the complexities and often hidden assumptions used in both.

The third book is Michael Horton’s ‘A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christian Worship’ (Baker Books, 2003) The Book comes in three parts. The first part explores the 'drama' of Scripture and how it relates to worship. Horton is firmly committed to covenant theology and corporate worship is seeing as having the nature of covenant renewal.

The second part looks at the two sacraments. Horton’s chapter on Communion sees him following John Calvin in advocating a frequent Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Supper (page 121). He also follows Calvin in his understanding of Christ’s presence at the Supper. He rejects the memorialism of Zwingli and sees a real encounter with Christ in the sacrament whilst firmly rejecting a localising of this in the elements of bread and wine. For example, he writes "the Holy Spirit - who plays a prominent role especially in Paul's explanation of the sacraments - overcomes the distance between us and the risen Savour, making that sacramental union effective. Because of his mysterious working, believers truly receive the same body that was born of Mary and the same blood that was poured out on Calvary." (page 117) and "those who receive the Supper in faith do not just receive the bread and wine; in receiving them they feed on Christ in heaven by faith." (page 118). I believe this is the same approach that Cranmer had and which bears fresh exploration as many evangelicals today are more the heirs of Zwingli than of Calvin.

The third part engages with contemporary issues, especially castigating mega-churches; the use of Contemporary Christian Music and visual images. His great concerns in this section are with a consumerist and therapeutic approach to the Christian faith. Whilst his targets are out there and need to be spelt out. His generalisations are a little too sweeping. Visuals can enhance worship; testimony and drama can be a useful prelude to the preaching and this is specifically their function at Willow Creek (see Nancy Beach’s book 'An Hour on Sunday' who articulates this); One interesting point made by Horton is that many hymns draw on 'folk' tunes rather than 'classical' tunes, and hence is not a matter of 'high' culture versus 'low' culture. But he is very scalding about the ephemerality of the 'pop' style being used by the church and is concerned that style is not neutral.

Horton’s book is valuable in many ways and does challenge much of what goes on today - and not just in America. But he has weaknesses as well. There are many things he passes over without mention as possible aspects of worship. For example he does not mention the 'kiss of peace' or discuss the use of 'dance' in the Old Testament; Horton does not like drama in services but he failes to engage with the Prophets use of dramatic action as they sought to communicate their message. He has a dislike of much testimony and seems to fail to notice the fact that many of the psalms are essentially 'testimony'.

For our fourth and final book we turn to Allen Ross' book ‘Recalling the Hope of Glory’ (Kregel, 2006). Sadly this book is not well-known this side of the Atlantic but has received enthusiastic reviews from the likes of John Frame and R. Kent Hughes. It is over 500 pages long and nothing less than a systematic working through the whole Bible and what it has to say about worship. The sub-title of the book is ‘Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation’. There is little of the polemic that is found in some of our other writers but much to challenge everyone. There is an abundance of fresh insight. For example he points out how the Garden of Eden has parallels with other Biblical sanctuaries like the Temple.

As we have seen in Carson and Horton, Ross highlights that corporate worship is a celebration of the God’s covenant relationship with us and in which there is a two-way dialogue in which we attend to God’s word to us - and we respond to him in praise and action. Indeed one of the recurrent themes in Ross is that worship is a response to revelation (as for example in Isaiah 6), and so proclamation should be a key aspect of our services whether in the readings, the sermon or the use of Creeds.

On page 39 Ross approvingly quotes John Stott: “This quest for transcendence constitutes a challenge to the quality of public worship. Does it offer what people are seeking - the element of mystery, the sense of the numinous, in biblical language the “fear of God”, in modern language “transcendence” so that we “bow down before the Infinitely Great” in the mixture of awe, wonder, and joy called worship” (The World’s Challenge to the Church, p. 125)

Ross himself writes “How can we think there might be more important things for us to do in life than to worship him? If we even begin to understand his glorious nature, we cannot. We will be caught away from our worldly experience and transported in our spirits to the realms of glory. We will be overwhelmed by the thought of being in his presence, tremble at the thought of hearing what he has to say to us, and be amazed at the thought that we can speak to him and he will listen! How can we not desire to transcend the ordinary routine by entering his courts to praise and glorify him above the profane we so eagerly value? Truly, if our worship, if our spiritual life, is going to rise above this earthly existence where our minds are fixed on mundane thoughts and our attention is given to mundane concerns, then we are going to have to begin to focus our hearts and our minds on the holiness and the glory and the beauty of the one we say we know and love” (page 37).

Points of agreement

Let me draw together some of the agreements we find in these four books. We see the need to take seriously the change to worship and ‘cultic language’ brought about by the coming of Christ. We must never lose sight of the fact that the whole of our lives are to be offered to Christ as our ‘true worship’ (Rom. 12:1). We need to see that attending to what God says in both Scripture and preaching is also an expression of worship. All agree that there should be a valuing of the inheritance of the past as well as fresh expressions from the present generation. We need to ensure that God and not worship itself is at the heart of our worship. There is agreement that Confession, Declarations of Forgiveness and Trinitarian Creeds are important. Finally there is agreement that there can be a legitimate variety of styles although we need to be aware that styles are not necessarily neutral. All these four books repay careful study.

Questions to ponder

From my own experience I think these books challenge much of our worship today. Here are a few questions I think we could helpfully ask ourselves.

Do we put enough emphasis on ‘proclamation’? God speaks to the congregation through Scripture and Creeds and preaching - and do we give opportunities for people to reflect on what God is saying, do we value silence as an opportunity for this?

Do we sufficiently value Holy Communion? Do we see it as covenant renewal leading to a genuine encounter with Christ?

Do we actually give sufficient thought and time to the preparation of the services?

Do we sufficiently use the principle of testing all things by Scripture and holding fast to that which is good (as opposed to a principle of ‘taint’)?

Do we sufficiently value our liturgical inheritance and the wisdom of the ages?