I’ve written quite a few posts regarding worship, specifically the place of music in worship, over the years, but this post is unique. In contrast to all my earlier posts on the topic, this post is written from the standpoint of just another congregant and not a music director. As we’ve been visiting various churches this topic is always one of the things we talk about after the service.
I really don’t want to go on and on about issues of style or mechanics (music selection, “traditional” vs. “contemporary”, to clap or not to clap, what key a song is sung in, etc), but instead want to focus on the place of music and worship in the service. Let’s agree on one thing: worship is more than music, and the idea of a “worship section” of the service is a misplaced concept – worship is not something we attend but rather something we do; it is something that requires the engagement of heart, spirit, and mind. These are some pretty basic concepts that I’ve explored in other posts, and perhaps I’ll come back to them again, but since I’m talking about something bigger today I won’t explore them right now.
Worship is response. Pure and simple. Worship is our response to God as he reveals himself through his Word. Which begs the question: how can we respond to that which we do not know? I’ve been the member at a lot of different churches in my lifetime, and I’ve served at two different ones as a professional music director, and this is a truth I’ve taught over and over again. So let me say it again: worship is our response to God. It is not music, it is not raising or clapping of hands, it is not speaking in tongues, it is not singing, it is not a particular style of music or action. Worship is response. How we worship may be examined (at least partially) by looking at those things, but the concept of worship is much broader than any of them.
So I naturally want to know what a church believes about worship. The obvious place to look is to examine how a congregation worships (all those things I’ve listed above), but there are some other things to consider at as well – and that’s the focus of this post.
Since the primary purpose of church is to learn the Word in community, I look at what a church emphasizes in terms of time. If preaching takes 20 minutes and singing takes 40 minutes then a caution sign goes up in my heart. Is that to say you can never spend more time in song than in teaching? Absolutely not, what I’m talking about are repeated trends that happen over time. One Sunday with that ratio isn’t going to bother me; 5 in a row is going to raise some serious concerns. (yes, for the sake of argument I’m using a standard 60 minute service, though the vast majority of churches we visit and have attended over the years have an average length much closer to 90 minutes, which is my personal preference – I’m making a broad generalization here)
Another important thing to look at is the order of worship in a service. While there is no right or wrong here, the order can tell you a lot about how a church views worship. Take the offering, for instance. Is it smack dab in the middle of a service, between singing and preaching? Based on a lot of conversations I’ve had with people I find this can often (though not always) indicate a practical belief that the offering is simply a “transition” time in a service. Is it after the preaching? Every time I’ve seen it here the church tends to believe the act of giving our offering is a response to the word that was preached (hence, an integral part of worship) (on a side note, I’ve actually spoken to pastors who specifically refuse to put the offering at the end of the service because “too many people may leave after the sermon and we may not get our full income for the week”. This represents an entirely different view on the offering, and an unhealthy view at that!). Then there’s the whole issue of do you pass the plate or let people bring it forward…. Again, I’m not suggesting there is a right or wrong place for the offering or way to take it, what I’m looking for is that a church has consciously thought these things through and can justify them.
Another thing I look for in terms of order is a response time after the sermon. I’ve visited churches where after the sermon there is a quick “God bless you. Amen. You’re dismissed”; I’ve been at churches that force an alter call every week (and keep extending it until someone comes forward for prayer, it seems); I’ve been at churches that will sing a single “song of response” (sometimes with very little response by anyone); and I’ve been at churches that fall somewhere in-between those extremes. I believe there needs to be a time for response – whether it is prayer time, singing, offering, whatever, there needs to be a time in the service where congregants can meditate on the words and challenge of the sermon and then respond to it appropriately. When churches place extended singingafter the sermon instead of before it they communicate to me they view response in worship as a crucial part of the service, and they communicate an understand that worship is response. By placing all the singing before the sermon and no response after of any sort they communicate a belief that music is to prepare us to hear the word (in other words, worship is initiated by us) but that worship is not response (after-all, if we can’t respond then response must not be very important). Again, I’m not suggesting there is a clear right or wrong answer here, except to say that I personally think there should be music before (to help prepare our hearts for worship/learning and demonstrate a physical/aural break with the world we came from) as well as after (to give us an opportunity to respond to what we’ve just heard).
Finally (for this post), one last thing I’m looking for is a church’s belief on the presence of communion in the service. Perhaps it’s because I spent part of my childhood in a liturgical church, but I think communion should be present more often than it is absent. Communion is the sacrament we do to remind us of the death of Christ and what he paid for us; we are told to do it “in remembrance” of him. Do you have to do it every week? No. Is there any specific verse in the Bible that says how often it should be done? Not that I’m aware of. But if it is part of the regular worship service then it is never viewed as an “after-thought”. On a broader scale, participation in communion is a constant reminder to me of my membership in the universal church and not just my local church. Call me crazy if you want, but when I take communion not only do I think of what Christ did for me on the cross, but I am reminded that I belong to a body of believers that crosses geographic, political, and even time lines. Some argue that if it is done every week it looses its meaning. If we accept that line of reasoning, though, then we should not pray or read the Bible every day because it will loose its meaning if we do it that often. For those churches that offer it every week I ask them, “Why” and I want an answer – and it better be good. For those that do not I ask the, “Why not?” and I also want an answer – and it better be a good one.
I guess what I’m trying to say in all this is that I want to know a church has put much prayer, thought, and study into the construction of its worship service. To say “That’s how the church has done it for years” is one sure way to turn me off – I could really give a horse’s rear end about tradition. If tradition helps focus us on God then by all means keep it. Don’t keep it for tradition’s sake, keep it because it draws you closer to God. But if tradition doesn’t draw you closer to him and lead you into authentic, responsive worship, then for cryin-out-loud get rid of it! Just as much as churches need to be able to answer questions of doctrine (where do you stand on such-and-such), they also need to be able to answer questions on worship; churches should invest just as much time defining and studying the structure and components of their worship service as they do defining their statement of faith. This is, after all, the primary time during the week where the “church” gets together – don’t you think we should be clear on what that is going to look like?