The reality of loving, leading, and pastoring a local church requires regular trips into what can some times be best described as a “wrestling ring” without end. For myself and most of the other pastors I know, wrestling with one or more issues regarding the way we are “doing” church is fairly normal. In fact, one of the things I’ve especially appreciated about this blog is the willingness of some of the contributors to be incredibly honest and transparent about the things they are wrestling with now or what they’ve learned from the wrestling matches they’ve had in the past with various issues.
As I reflect on the myriad of ministry related wrestling matches I’ve had in my own mind and heart over the past 25 years, some of what I’ve wrestled with has had to with the content and format/structure of our Sunday morning and/or Mid-week services.
What I’ve noticed is this: It’s always easy but not always healthy to fall into a comfortable, repetitive pattern in our “worship services”. I’ve learned that it’s healthy for me and for my some of my key leaders to regularly ask questions about everything we do, including the way we “do” our services. These are some of the questions that I like to challenge myself and other key leaders with in this area:
–What are the existing components of each of our church services? (For example: the welcome, opening prayer, bulletin/information segment, worship in song, offering, message, and so forth).
–Why do we place those components in the order that we do?
–Why do we feel those components are important enough to be a part of the service?
–Is it time to modify, drop, or replace some of those components with other components?
–If so, what other components should be added and why?
What I’ve learned from my own experience and from others is that the format/structure of each church service is usually the result of the convictions held primarily by the senior pastor, even though he usually seeks input from other key leaders. Understandably, the convictions the senior pastor holds have been influenced by his previous experiences in the services of the church he was launched out from along with what he has been exposed to in the other churches he had been a part of previously.
Although there are some minor differences from one church to another regarding what components make up the format/structure of the service and the order those components take place in, the majority of church services are fairly similar. Realistically, and rightfully so, the format/structure and components of a church service should be culturally relevant and will some times reflect certain aspects of the culture, (like musical style), the church exists in the midst of.
With all of the above as the backdrop, I’d like to share two things I’ve wrestled with for many years regarding the worship in song component of our Sunday morning service in particular and two changes God has called us to make within the last year.
If myself or almost all other pastors I know were told that our church services could only contain two components, I believe most of us would say that one component should be worship in song and the other should be the message–the teaching or preaching of God’s Word. Those two are the “biggies”, the “pillars”, the “bedrock” that everything else rests upon. I certainly believe this way.
But, which of the two of those should be the highest priority? It’s clear from the way most church services are structured that the message–the teaching or preaching of God’s Word is what is THE highest priority. Because of that conviction, the worship in song component of the service is many times relegated to what is basically an introduction or a time of preparation for what really matters–God’s Word!
In this way of thinking, the corporate worship in song by the body isn’t viewed as being a worthy end in itself, its true value is in it’s ability to prepare God’s people’s hearts to receive God’s Word. I’ve actually heard a few pastors make a statement like “let’s prepare our hearts for God’s Word now by worshiping Him in song”.
That perspective was even passed on to me personally my first few years walking with the Lord. Older and more mature pastors and church members always encouraged me to pray and worship the Lord in song before getting into His Word so that my heart and mind would be prepared for what He would speak to me. I tried what they said and sure enough, it did seem to do just that for me. So far so good.
But then, the wheels of that perspective started coming off. The wobbling of the wheels started one Sunday morning when God grabbed my heart through the message and all I wanted to do in response was to worship Him in song as soon as the message ended. When the worship team began leading the one final/closing song, I joyfully sang out His praises through that song like never before and corporately all of us in that service magnified His name from all that was within us. It really did seem like everything else was in the shadows. And then that one song ended. And everybody began to exit. And I came crashing down.
Frustrated, I knew as I went home that morning that God had planted a seed about worship in song that I dare not ignore investigating and cultivating.
Being the inherent rebel that I am, I decided to experiment with my personal time with the Lord the next day. Oh I did pray when I began and I did worship the Lord in song before getting into His Word. But I only worshiped with one song and then I plunged into His Word….and He made His Word jump off the page and into my mind, heart, and life that morning, like never before.
I was so overwhelmed by His presence and His truth and it’s appropriateness for my life that I could do nothing else but magnify Him in song! I didn’t have any songs pre-thought out, but His Spirit brought to my mind the perfect song for what He had shown me about Himself and as I finished singing that song to Him, He brought another song to my mind that expressed a different aspect of what He had shown me from His Word. And before I knew it I had spent 30 minutes gushing out His praises through the various worship songs I had in my memory. It was like the Holy Spirit was at the keyboard of my heart accessing the database of songs that were in my mental hard drive. He brought up the perfect song for the specific truth He had driven home to me in my time in the Word. Everything had changed. I knew that much.
I also knew that I had to discover if what I had experienced at church that previous Sunday morning and what happened in my personal devotional time with the Lord that morning was in line with what He has revealed in the bible. I leaped head-long into the Word to see what He Himself had revealed about worship. For the first time really, I was able to see numerous instructions and examples of what I have come to call “prescribed” worship. Which is basically where God tells His people how and when to worship Him.
But I also discovered what I now call “spontaneous” worship. For example, Abraham’s servant in Gen 24:25 and 24:50 erupts in worship AFTER prayer and then seeing God move in response to His prayer. In Ex. 4:30, AFTER hearing that God spoke and what He had to say, the people bowed their heads and worshiped. Worship is expressed by men of God in response to perceiving God doing something or reminding them of something in Judges 7:14 and Job 1:20. Although these and the many other text that reveal spontaneous worship don’t tell us the words used in worship were in song form, I believe that putting whatever words are spoken as worship into song form would certainly be acceptable to God and satisfying to the worshiper.
To make a long story short, after quite a few years and much time wrestling with what God had shown me, I decided last year to move forward with changing the format of our Sunday morning service. Before doing so, I took our little body through a fairly in-depth study of what worship is and the two main expressions of worship that are found in scripture: spontaneous and prescribed.
We then began doing our service using these components in this order:
1. Welcome and opening prayer.
2. Ten to fifteen verses of a text from the bible that is linked to the text I will teach from.
3. ONE worship song
4.Five to ten minutes of having everyone greet one another, (crucial for a multi-ethnic church, but also good for any church in America in my humble opinion).
5-Upcoming events and offering
7-At least 20 minutes, (3 to 5 worship songs) of worship in song.
Because I teach verse by verse the worship leader knows where I’ll be in the text and it’s amazing how God guides him to select songs that express the key points I bring up from the text. And many times, they are points that I had NOT prepared for in my notes, but the Spirit had revealed to the worship leader as he put the song list together.
The extreme individualism that permeates our culture has influenced our corporate worship in song. One indicator of how far we’ve gone on the individualism is the fact that we don’t have a separate word or phrase for the concept of a plural “you”. In most other languages there is a word for “you” singular and “you” plural. People from the south have a remnant of this idea when they say “y’all”. But English as it is spoken currently by Americans reveals the individualism that dominates our culture.
Although we do come to Jesus individually, the moment of our new birth we become a member of the body of Christ. Because of our individualistic culture, we view every “you” in the scripture as directed to us personally, when in many cases the text actually uses the plural “you” that we don’t have a word for.
In my own little battle for trying to correct some of our American cultural traits that have been accepted as Kingdom culture, I’ve begun waging war on many of our familiar worship songs. We now intentionally change the nouns and pronouns from singular to plural. We no longer sing “Open the eyes of my heart Lord….I want to see you” We now sing it as “Open the eyes of OUR hearts Lord, open the eyes of OUR hearts, WE want to see you”. We leave the hymns alone, but unless pluralizing the songs tweaks the wording too much, we now pluralize all of the contemporary worship songs we do.
Our members have had nothing but praise and thanks for our making this change. But it has been VERY challenging for our worship leaders who have sung those songs hundreds of times with “I” “me” and “my”, to begin singing them this new way. They agree though, the challenge is worth it.
And finally, because of the visitors who have been exposed to the more traditional Sunday morning format and worship song selection, we now include in the “welcome” portion at the front end of the service what they are about to experience and why.