By Justin Clemente
The way we approach corporate worship will speak volumes. What do we prioritize? What is most important? What does our worship say? What should our worship say to outsiders?
Content. Structure. Style. In some ways, I think these three words summarize the legacy of Bob Webber, late founder of The Institute for Worship Studies and prolific author and teacher in the field of worship theology. They certainly summarize the impact his books have had on my thought regarding Christian worship. I find these three words to be so important because they sum up what is, in my opinion, a scripture-rooted and God-honoring way to approach corporate worship in the Church. Think about this question: in your church experience, which have you found gets the most attention in worship? Is it laboring over the content of our worship – the words we actually pray, sing, and preach? Is it how the service is structured and which elements, exactly, are essential and timeless in worship? Or, is most of the discussion simply on how we sing what we sing – the style? Well, maybe you know where I’m going with this. Forget the color of the carpet, divisions in the church are far more likely to occur over worship style. The fact that a large percentage of churches have services oriented around a style (e.g. a “traditional” service, a “contemporary” service, etc.) indicates to me that it’s pretty high up on the list for many pastors and worship leaders. In this article I want to discuss each element of the “Content, Structure, Style” approach to worship, discussing the place each element should play in worship, and how that might look in various denominations.
What is Christian worship? Don’t read on – try to give an answer. It’s hard to sum up, right? What is the content of our worship? There are a few definitions that I find helpful. Robert Webber would say that “In worship the church proclaims and acts out Christ and his redeeming work, making it present in all its power among God’s people.”1 That’s a really good place to start. David Peterson, in what is for me a now classic text, defines worship like this: “Engagement with [God] on the terms he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.”2 Lastly, James B. Torrance offers this wonderful description: “worship is … the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.”3. In a favorite line of mine, he also goes on to say that worship is “our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.”4 Notice the trend here. What all of these definitions have in common is that they displace us from the center of worship and instead make God and his saving actions in history the core in Christian worship. This is what is meant by the “content” of our worship and this is why content is listed first. It represents the “non-negotiables” of worship – that which every denomination that names Christ is called to lift up, glorify, expound, and live out in its own context. Now, think about how your own definition of worship holds up to the above. If you are a worship leader/pastor, think about how you lead your people. Are they led to the fountain of Christ or are they taught that worship is primarily something that we do? Is the story of God held up in your worship services, or something else? Are your people taught that their likes and dislikes trump all other concerns in worship, or does God displace all other concerns as secondary? Content must take first place – all day, every day.
Once we have thought about what the content of Christian worship actually is, it’s then that we can move on to how we structure our worship. And let’s be honest here – everyone has a basic structure that is used in weekly worship. It doesn’t matter if you go to a Charismatic, Baptist, Non-Denominational, or any other “Non” kind of church – there will be a structure (pattern) used in worship. I guarantee it. It’s unfortunate that this isn’t always appreciated and recognized. For instance, worship is sometimes put into two different camps – “biblical” and “traditional” (in other words, all that liturgical stuff). One sometimes gets the feeling that those who say that their worship is “biblical” believe that there is some kind of (yet undiscovered) biblical rubric in Scripture given for how to patten worship in all times and all places. The fact is, all denominations worship by tradition – recognized or unrecognized, printed or memorized, high or low church. It rather a matter, as Jaroslav Pelikan put it, of choosing “good tradition over the bad.” Don’t get me wrong here – it is immensely important that Christian worship (if it is to be Christian) be biblical. But let’s be clear on how to best discern whether our worship is biblical or not. I think the best way to go about this is to speak of the “principal” of biblical worship. For instance, along with what’s already been said above about content, I believe we find the principal of biblical New Testament worship laid out in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (ESV) There you have it. Christian worship is composed of (1) what the Apostles taught about Jesus, (2) fellowship, (3) the breaking of bread, and (4) prayer.5 And this demonstrates exactly what I mean by the “principal” of Christian worship. All Christian worship should include the reading of scripture, but the Bible does not tell us how exactly we should do this. Baptists will do it one way, Anglicans will do it another. All Christian worship should include prayer, but the Bible does not script out corporate prayer for us. Presbyterians will pray one way, Charismatics another. The Litmus test for whether or not our worship is biblical is (1) whether it is Jesus-centered in all the ways mentioned above in the “content” section and (2) whether it contains the elements listed out for us in Scripture (again, e.g., in Acts 2:42). All of our traditions (denominations) can add to the vast tapestry of the body of Christ – it is neither necessary nor helpful to pit “biblical” worship vs. “traditional” worship.
Now we come to the subject that usually gets the most attention – style. Contemporary or hymns? Organ or guitar? To drum, or not to drum? We can’t answer these questions until we’ve gotten Content and Structure clear in our heads. However, when we do come to style, we need to realize that there is plenty of room for diversity here. At the same time, I have to admit that I am sad to know that the option that most often wins out is the purely contemporary one. Let me explain why I think we can do better. The church, in all its 2000 years of wisdom and reflection on worship, is a treasure trove of worship resources. “Kyrie Eleison” is still one of the simplest, most beautiful texts for worship out there. So is “Agnus Dei.” Also, worship from other times is a treasure trove because people from other times simply spoke differently about the gospel. For instance, in the text of “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder,” John Newton entreats us to, “Let us wonder grace and justice / Join and point to mercy’s store / When through grace in Christ our trust is / Justice smiles and asks no more.” Rarely has it been said better – and that includes anything written in the last decade as well. In worship there is a particular danger to that mindset that C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We’re newer. We’re better. We’ve arrived. We are often aware of the shortcomings of the Church in other centuries. It must be asked, are we as aware of the shortcomings of the Church of today? If so, that has to apply to the contemporary music we sing. Don’t get me wrong. I love contemporary worship music – I’ll take Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, and Indelible Grace any Sunday!
To sum it up, style has to be the last thing we speak of when we discuss worship, not the first. We we get the order right, we’ll get the vision right. When we get the vision right, we will, I believe, honor God in our worship. Content. Structure. Style. How we prioritize these matters, because in it, our worship speaks. The question is, what is it saying?
- Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999. pg.38.
- Peterson, David. Engaging With God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992. p.20.
- Torrance, James B. Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996. p.20.
- Ibid. p.14.
- Here I go along with those who see “the breaking of the bread” as a clear reference to an early form of Eucharist. If it was just an ordinary meal, why the additional reference to “breaking bread in their homes” in v. 46?