In this series I’m going to write about some of the guiding principles of worship in the church as well some of the practicalities of putting those things into practice in the local church context.
The Four-Fold Structure:
It is important to begin with defining this thing called worship. I will offer a working definition of the term worship with the caveat that it is by no means exhaustive nor complete. Worship, simply put, can be anything done to the glory of God within the bounds of well-informed biblical precedent. Private, personal worship does play an important role in the larger context. However, for our purposes we will be narrowing the scope to include only the corporate worship practice of the small “c” church. In other words, our focus will be on the gathering and practice of the local church. In that context, worship takes on a markedly different and more specific meaning.
In the corporate context, worship becomes the gathering of a community of people to partake of the shared practice of God-centred adoration, lament, confession and remembrance. It is in this practice that the Father is glorified and the Son works amongst His people through the Holy Spirit. I hesitate to use the word “good” due to it’s inherently murky meaning (“what is “good” art? etc.) but good worship is rooted in a deep and foundational structure. This four-fold structure chiefly revolves around the principle of identity.
This worship gathering begins with God’s identity. The congregation, through song, scripture, corporate readings and poetry, focuses on who God is. His attributes are described, His deeds are remembered and the congregation explores the many facets of His character.
The next step is the congregation reflects on their identity through corporate confession. Whether it is exploring and confessing personal sin or corporate sin, they remember and walk through this darker part of their identity as human beings. This is also an appropriate time to practice lament for institutional sin and injustice in the world.
Following confession, the congregants are reminded of their new identity in Christ through the assurance of grace.
Lastly, the worship gathering moves to focus on their identity in the community and in the larger world. They hear the word and respond in sermon, song, poetry and silence to the call of God upon their lives. Then they are sent out to live this identity in that aforementioned community.
This “deep structure” reflects a firm belief that worship is, and should be, formational. The Eastern Orthodox fathers often speak of worship as “impression” above “expression.” Our theology, our ideas about God, and our deeper understanding of our relationship with God and each other are informed by our shared corporate experiences in worship.
Within this deep structure and form there is a great amount of room for the many and varied worship styles. There is a great breadth of spiritual riches in different traditions and we do ourselves a great disservice if we are unwilling to explore these resources from inside and outside our faith community. While it is important to contextualize worship resources to fit our immediate context, it is equally important to seek to incrementally stretch ourselves as leaders and congregants. As one of my worship arts professors at Columbia Bible College said, “we take people lovingly from the familiar to the unfamiliar.” Liturgical catechesis plays an essential role in this process. Good teaching facilitates a number of things that might otherwise be misinterpreted.
A good example might be the role of performance in the worship gathering. If we accept the premise that corporate worship is as much impression as expression then well-chosen performance pieces can serve a congregation well. A well-known evangelical trope is to have a one to four chord light keyboard sound to accompany prayer times. How much better would it be to have a beautiful classical piece to lift our minds to heavenly things! If we are exploring lament, a old black spiritual may serve us better than a sermon. Good catechesis informs our experience and tells us that performance in worship does not make congregants spectators. They are participants. I was approached by a gentleman after performing a song at a church in Edmonton and he said this to me: “When you were singing, I was feasting at the table.” This is the attitude that good teaching fosters in us.
Next week: part 2: Leadership