After concluding a conference devoted to the theme of worship and reading for a full year in preparation for this past G3—I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how we worship, why we worship, when we worship, and the ultimate goal of worship. As we study the subject of worship from the pages of Scripture, necessary alterations and adjustments will be necessary in our worship services if we are seeking to honor God. As I pressed, in my sermon at G3, it is the calling of the pastor to reform what the culture is seeking to deform In the life of the church on a weekly basis.
In 1 Timothy 3:14-16, we find Paul talking directly to Timothy about the behavior of the local church in Ephesus. Apparently something needed to be corrected. It was Timothy’s job as the overseer to address the deficiencies and make necessary adjustments. Each week, as the church goes about life in a broken society, there will be attempts made by the enemies of God to deform the church’s understanding of the church and the functionality of the church (relationally and corporate worship). Weekly reformation is required in order to stay on track.
As we think about worship, it would do us well to consider the fact that God has called us to be worshippers. He has rescued us through the blood of his Son, identified us with himself through the waters of baptism, and placed us within the context of a community of the redeemed (known as a local church) for the purpose of worship.
I made the following statement in my sermon at the 2020 G3 Conference:
We must not raise another generation of young people who will grow up with the false idea that they come to church to:
Watch the worship
Watch the preaching
Watch the singing
Watch the praying
We are to be participants—not spectators in worship!
When we treat worship services like the movie theater or a sporting event, it turns it into something other than what God intends a worship service to be in the first place. When you hear people talking about going to a church because they’re attracted to their “worship” or their “singing” you should have red flags going up all in your mind. For instance, when was the last time you heard someone say they were going to a church because of their praying or the depth of their sermons? Remember, God has not called you to ecclesiastical spectatorship—he’s called you to church membership. Such membership involves personal engagement and participation in worship.
At the end of the day, we must have this firm understanding that Christians are worshippers of the one true and living God. We must gather and participate in worship. We should never gather with the idea that we watch other people do the singing or the worship that makes us feel a certain way. Worship is not about us. Worship is about God and his glory.
This week, as you prepare to attend worship with your family, have a conversation with your family about how you intend to participate in various ways through engaging your mind, heart, voices, and even finances through giving. Worship is about God receiving the glory that he deserves from his people. It’s not about us, our preferences, our desires, and our feelings. Christian maturity will lead us away from such a consumerism mentality to weekly worship.
As you return home after a profitable week studying the theme of worship, don’t be ashamed to make necessary adjustments in the church’s worship. Sometimes such adjustments will be opportunities for the church to see them and hear the reasoning—which will produce spiritual growth in the church.
Recently, I had the privilege to watch the new documentary Spirit & Truth and I want to explain why you should take time to watch it yourself.
The Necessity of Worship
As followers of Christ, we are called to worship God. Worship is not something that’s optional. God has created us as beings who will worship God or something else. When we pause to consider the necessity of worship—that God has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light for the very purpose of worshipping him—we then begin the journey of a life of worship. Psalm 100:3 says, “Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” As sheep of his pasture, we are there for him—to serve him and to magnify him. Our call to worship God is seen clearly in the scene when John fell down before an angel in a posture of worship, and the angel corrected him – telling him to worship God.
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Rev. 22:8-9).
The Confusion of Worship
In our modern day, the concept of worship has been skewed and confused from the way in which God originally designed it. It’s not just modernity that has caused the problems, even in ancient times, the human heart has always had a propensity to worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). We see it with Aaron and the Israelites who fashioned a golden calf in order to worship God (Ex. 32). We see it with Nadab and Abihu who offered up strange fire to God (Lev. 10). We see it with the church at Corinth who perverted the Lord’s table resulting in the judgment of God (1 Cor. 11).
Today, much of what is called worship isn’t really worship at all. If anything, it’s the honor of selfish desires and cravings rather than the honor of God. We see this in the way modern worship services are designed, the elements of the services, and most critically in what is often missing in the “worship” services of many local churches each week.
The Excellence of the Documentary
Les Lanphere does a great job in this documentary. From the way the storyline develops through a series of interviews—the lesson of biblical worship is communicated clearly from the pages of the Bible.
The way in which modern motion graphics are employed in the film is not a distraction, but a major addition to the way the story unfolds and the way the truth of biblical worship is taught.
I was interviewed for this film and enjoyed talking with Les Lanphere. Perhaps one criticism would be that there were not enough Baptists interviewed for the film, but the truth of the text of Scripture was certainly presented well and that’s the reason I encourage you to watch it and share it with your friends.
Questions to consider as you watch the film:
What is family worship?
What’s the goal of family worship?
Why we do organize the worship service the way we do each week?
Who or what should regulate the weekly worship service?
If we don’t sing Psalms, why not?
What are the ordinary means of grace?
Should the church be looking to the people to see what they want or should the church be looking to God to see what he wants when it comes to worship?
If you attend many evangelical churches in America, you are likely to see the entire church worship center arranged around a stage for a band so that the people can see the show that happens on a weekly basis. At North Point Community Church in Atlanta where Andy Stanley serves as pastor, it’s common to hear their band lead the people in songs such as “Free Bird” as they did back in 2013 or like the parody they performed near the end of the Christmas season in 2016. What a tragedy to for people to confuse such performances with worship. It seems that the light of the gospel has gone out completely in many evangelical settings.
This past Lord’s Day, I went to worship at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in the heart of London, and I was not entertained. The entire service was quite simple. Upon arrival, the deacons provided a warm greeting at the door and handed us a Bible for the service. As we took our seats, there was a board on the wall with numbers on it which directed our attention to the hymns that we would be singing. There was no music minister leading the congregation, no large expansive choir, no praise band, no screens with moving images, no smoke machines to add dramatic effect, no colored lights, no jokes were employed in the sermon, and nothing that seemed to be remotely designed to entertain the crowd.
And yes, there was a crowd. It was already dark by 6:30pm on Sunday evening, but the church was filled with people. They were ready for the moment when the pastor would take the pulpit. He came to open with prayer and Scripture reading, and then he directed us to open our hymnals to the first hymn where he then led us as we stood to our feet and worshipped God through song. There would be multiple hymns and Scripture readings before the sermon was delivered.
From an American context, it was quite simple. Some would perhaps even consider it quite boring in terms of a worship service when compared to our American evangelical worship context. When you talk to people about why they chose a specific church, far too often they talk about a specific program the church offers them or their children, the choir of the church, or how the “worship” makes them feel. Tragically, the once bright light of the gospel that exploded during the days of the Reformation is being greatly dimmed—and in some cases snuffed out altogether.
In many American church contexts, the lights are being turned off in the worship center so that people can have their eyes focused upon the stage. Rather than the sermon being central, now it’s the show. The show can find various forms from full rock concerts to self-help talks geared to make people feel a certain way. Doctrine has been overshadowed by drama and theology has been swapped for the trickery of pragmatic church growth schemes.
If we traveled back in time to the days prior to the Reformation, we would find the people starving to death spiritually and led by false shepherds to embrace the Roman Catholic Mass as the center of fellowship and worship of God. The false doctrine of transubstantiation loomed over the people.
As we move through the Reformation, the table was no longer central. The pulpit became central as the Word of God was brought to the people and the people were brought to the Word. The worship of God had been deformed and God raised up men who would lead people back to the Bible which would reform the worship practices of God’s people.
The Reformation was a rediscovery of God’s Word and an explosion of light and life. If you were to travel to Geneva and walk into St. Pierre’s Cathedral, you would find these words on the wall just behind the pulpit where Calvin thundered the Word: post tenebras lux—which means, after darkness light.
Tragically, Europe has fallen back into the abyss of darkness. Many of the once brightest churches and pulpits of the Reformation are now art galleries, museums, and coffee shops. Rather than worship centers, such campuses now serve as community centers.
As the gates of hell continue their assault upon God’s Church—we must not fall prey to the scandals, schemes, and cultural pressures. God desires to be worshipped and we must gather together for that purpose. Worship should be God centered rather than man centered. When a church comes to understand that reality—it will revolutionize their approach to worship and ministry. The holiness of God remains central and man’s dependence upon him is what drives the church’s worship through the blood of Christ.
Charles Spurgeon never attempted to entertain people in his day. In fact, regarding preaching, he said the following:
Avoid a sugared Gospel as you would shun sugar of lead. Seek that Gospel which rips up and tears and cuts and wounds and hacks and even kills, for that is the Gospel that makes alive again. And when you have found it, give good heed to it. Let it enter into your inmost being. As the rain soaks into the ground, so pray the Lord to let his Gospel soak into your soul. 
I’m grateful that London still has a church (among a few others as well) who are not organizing entertainment centers in order to put on a show for their community. Instead, they are providing the ordinary means of grace on a weekly basis where God’s people are spiritually nourished and encouraged to worship God.
The next time you think about your worship service, before you complain about it being boring or dull or stale—before you embrace the false idea that your church needs to do something other than the ordinary means of grace to attract the community—just remember that one of the most successful worship services is one that leaves you feeling as if you were not entertained in the slightest degree.
What do you think of when you consider the weekly and regular worship of God by the gathered church on the Lord’s Day? Do you think of the singing or the preaching or the praying? What happens when God’s people worship him rightly?
In his book titled, Worship: The Ultimate Priority John MacArthur provides four specific results that occur in the lives of God’s people when they engage in true biblical worship.
God is Glorified
The Church is Purified
The Church is Edified
The Lost are Evangelized
As we read about the early church in Acts and as we examine the work of church planting—it seems that these effects are the natural outflow of a healthy church. What about you and your local church? Are these results evident in your context of worship?
God is Glorified
One thing that must be central as we gather weekly for worship is that the service is not about us. If it’s about us—including the music, the preaching, or any other element—it cannot be about God. We gather to praise God for his worthiness and exalt God for his glory and magnificence. Worship is not entertainment.
The sobering reality is that God is not glorified by sloppy and unbiblical worship. It matters how we pray to God. It matters how we sing to God. It matters how we listen to the sermons. Everything we do as we gather for worship should be vertically focused and we must make much of our glorious God. When God is central, only then can God be rightly glorified.
The Church is Purified
How many worship services have you attended in your Christian life? Do you believe that you’ve been changed as a result of worshiping God? Worship—true and biblical worship—changes us. We cannot draw near to God and expect to remain the same.
Have you met a professing Christian who claims to have an unbridled tongue? Maybe they’ve said something like, “I come about my tongue honestly. I get it from a long line of family members. We just don’t have a filter.” The question remains, how can a person draw near to God and not have their tongue impacted by God? Remember Isaiah in his magnificent vision of Isaiah 6? That was one thing that was immediately clear to him.
Isaiah 6:6 – Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. (ESV)
The calling of God upon us as his people is to be holy—as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). If we can gather for worship on a weekly basis and it doesn’t change us and cause us to become more conformed the image of God’s Son—we have not worshiped God properly (Rom. 8:29).
John MacArthur rightly states, “If the corporate worship in the church leaves people unchanged the church is not worshiping.”
The Church is Edified
The edification of God’s people is essential in true worship. When we come to the realization that worship matters because God matters it will revolutionize our worship. Since worship matters, how we worship God is essential. Words matter and words serve as the building blocks of doctrinal truth. If we are to know God and worship God rightly, we must engage our minds. If we are to be edified in worship, we must know some things about ourselves and about God.
Often times proper edification comes on the other side of confrontation. The kind of preaching that refuses to confront people with their sin leads a church in the opposite direction of biblical worship. Soft preaching produces hard hearts and hard preaching produces soft hearts. When David was confronted, his response was repentance and then edification (Ps. 51). When Peter denied Jesus, he repented and was later restored by Jesus (John 21). We will be edified in the faith as we draw near to God (James 4:8) and pursue God in holiness.
The Lost are Evangelized
In the book of Acts, the church was divided as it grew in number and some of the widows were being neglected. They were not receiving the proper care from the church. In Acts 6, we find the origination of the office of deacon and upon the establishment of these seven men—the church was unified and able to free up the apostles to study the Word and pray. The result is key—the word of God increased and many people came to faith in Christ.
A church that learns to worship properly will leave with burning hearts that desire to proclaim the good news of King Jesus. Selfish people have shallow worship and cold hearts to the lost world. We must learn the proper connection between true worship and true evangelism.
The weekly and regular worship of the church should not be designed for the unbeliever nor should it be designed as an evangelistic crusade. The people of God must worship God and the people of God must be fed properly with a rich diet of God’s truth. However, when God’s people worship rightly, any unbeliever who is present will come face-to-face with the good news of Jesus and the living hope of the church. A sloppy and lazy worshiping church is a shameful thing in the eyes of a watching world.
One of the great ways we’re called to worship God is by singing. All through the Old Testament, we find passages where God’s people are called to sing to the LORD. In Psalm 9:11, we find these words, “Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!” It’s a common theme through the Psalms. In Psalm 30:4, we find this call to worship, “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.”
As a gathered church, we should engage in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as we make melody in our hearts to the Lord. Since we have hundreds of great hymns and spiritual songs for worship that are filled with great theology, we should engage our mind and heart in the song during our worship. As we sing, it should be that the theology of the song is what produces joy in our hearts—not the arrangement or the skill of the vocalist who is leading. How often do you miss the theology of the song you’re singing?
When John Newton penned his famous “Amazing Grace”—he wrote, “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch; like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Although this is a familiar line to us, we must not miss the theology. Newton was pointing out the absolute inability of man to come to God on his own. Newton understood God’s marvelous grace and he put it on display in his song. Don’t miss this truth. We cannot move ourselves to God on our own—we are lost and helpless, and it’s God who comes to us.
Consider the words to the great hymn penned by Thomas O. Chisholm “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” In that first verse, he writes, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father; There is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not; As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” This is the grand doctrine of God’s immutability. Although a clunky theological term, the immutability of God means that he never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. As we sing this wonderful hymn, we must engage our mind and consider the never changing always faithful God who rules the entire universe.
In the song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” we find the following words:
Jesus sought me when a stranger Wandering from the fold of God He, to rescue me from danger Interposed His precious blood”
The author of the hymn, Robert Robinson, was pointing to the fact that we were wandering away from God. We are not seekers who are looking for God. We are not spiritually sick people who are seeking after God. The Bible is clear, there is no one who seeks after God (Rom. 3:10). The theological point is that Jesus sought us and found us and he interposed his blood in our place (substitutionary atonement). Jesus was the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). It was Jesus who pleased God and satisfied holy justice in our place. We must engage our minds and understand what it is that we’re singing as we worship.
When we turn our worship services into entertainment platforms for bands and vocalists to perform we miss the point and opportunity of corporate worship. We are not gathered for entertainment nor should we select songs for that purpose. Charles Spurgeon, in the Sword and The Trowel, once wrote these words to song leaders:
O sweet singer of Israel, remember that the song is not for your glory, but for the honour of the Lord, who inhabiteth the praises of Israel; therefore, select not anthems and tunes in which your skilfulness will be manifest, but such as will aid the people to magnify the Lord with their thanksgivings (June 1, 1870. 276-277).
Far too often people choose churches where they can find their kind of music performed in a way that makes them feel good. Worship is not for us to have a certain feeling or for a vocalist to give us goosebumps. We are not judges of performances. We are worshippers of God. If we are allowing bands and vocalists to perform and if we’re all caught up in the frenzy of our feelings—we will likely turn a blind eye to the theology of the songs within corporate worship. Before long, the church will be singing words that are so shallow they could be inserted into a Country song and performed in Nashville. Even worse is when the songs are arranged well and the congregation enjoys singing them, but they’re filled with incorrect theology about God.
Singing to God is about praising God first, but it also serves to teach us about God—especially the little ones who are with us in the worship services. Remember, words matter, songs matter, worship matters, and as we sing—we must labor to not miss the theology of the song.
The world is filled with manuals for almost everything imaginable. We have manuals for vehicle repair, lawn equipment operation, and computer usage. So, when it comes to the worship of God, we have a sufficient manual in the sacred Scriptures that we call the Word of God. If the Word of God is the central hub in the worship of God—what does it accomplish in the lives of God’s people? How does the Bible shape or affect the worship of God?
The Word of God Informs our Worship
We are called to know God. The journey of faith is not merely centered upon rituals of worship. If all of life is for the glory of God—that means that we are called to worship God on a daily basis. In Deuteronomy 6, we find the prescription for discipleship in the home where parents are to teach their children in the morning, along the way throughout the day, and before they go to bed in the evening—from the Scriptures. Knowing God in general through creation is a beautiful thing, but it’s simply not enough. God has given us the Word—the sacred text in order to make himself known in a special and intimate manner.
The Word of God is sufficient to communicate truths about God’s character. The attributes of God reveal his omnipresence, his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his immutability. These grand truths are not recorded in the Bible so that we can have material for seminary classes or doctrines for debates within evangelical circles. They are written in order that we will know God and love God.
When we sing “Amazing Grace” as a gathered church, we are not singing empty words. The verses contain doctrine about our God that originate in the pages of the Bible. Such knowledge about the wonder and beauty and love of God should lift us to the heights of praise. It’s not the arrangement or the crescendo that should stir our emotions but rather than mind and the heart being moved by the truth about the fact that a sovereign God has chosen to save a people for his glory through the blood of his Son—who were saved by the mercy of God alone—not the worthiness of the rebels.
The Word of God is like a fire according to Jeremiah 23:39. It’s like a hammer that crushes according to the very same verse. The Scriptures are like a sword that pierces according to Hebrews 4:12, and yet the Psalmist declared that they are sweeter than honey in Psalm 19:10-11.
Furthermore, the Word of God provides us the manual of worship. In other words, there are right ways and wrong ways to worship God. We do not have the freedom to invent new and fresh ways to worship God. In the Scriptures, we find the ways that God has demanded his people to worship him, and to deviate from that plan is to engage in sinful worship that’s fleshly, man-centered, and that which doesn’t glorify God. In Deuteronomy 12:4, the LORD gave the Israelites a clear command stating, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.” In other words, God expects worship to be carried out in a specific manner—unlike the pagan worship of the world.
In the New Testament, that same pattern exists. We find Ananias and Sapphira being judged by God for inappropriate worship in Acts 5. We see the church in Corinth experiencing God’s judgment for perverting the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. God has a standard and a plan for the way he desires his people to worship him, and it’s not to be left open ended for the imagination of man to decide. The Word of God informs our worship.
The Word of God Reforms our Worship
It is the goal of Satan to deform anything that God has created. He began this work of deforming the created order in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3). He has sought to deform the relationship between God and man. He has sought to deform the family structure. He has sought to deform marriage. He has long attempted and been successful in deforming worship. God desires for his people to honor, praise, and glorify him in worship—yet Satan desires to deform worship to rob God of glory.
In modern times, we have watched the downgrade of worship within evangelical circles. Church services have been rearranged to satisfy unbelievers and it has given rise to the entertainment model of worship that’s centered on the satisfaction of the human heart rather than the glory of God.
In recent years we’ve seen examples of this downgrade in church services such as North Point Community Church led by Andy Stanley where the band opened a worship service with a pop song from the 90s with lyrics such as, “Love the way you turn me on” and “You’ve got the right stuff baby.” The contemporary Christian music world has likewise drifted way off course today where we have songs that could be focused on the relationship of a man and his girlfriend as opposed to a believer singing to his God. If it’s so watered down that we can’t find proper theology—it’s not God honoring worship. Sadly, the church has drifted along the currents of culture and it has led to a downgrade of worship that is entertainment based as opposed to worshipful and worshipper engaged.
This is not a new development. Years ago the worship of God was so perverted by the Roman Catholic Church that the Scriptures were concealed, congregational singing disappeared, the traditions of the Catholic Church took priority over the Word of God, and the worship of God was dark and lifeless.
It was through the movement known as the Reformation that the Scriptures were brought out of the dungeon and elevated to a primary place in the life of God’s people. Modern translations brought the Bible to the people and it reformed the worship of God that had been long deformed by satanic influences and man-centered ideologies.
That’s why we have a saying that emerged from the Reformation that says, “Semper Reformanda”—always reforming. It comes from a longer Latin phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) that first appeared in a devotional book by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Day-by-day the worship of God, the pure doctrines of God, and the life that brings glory to God will be deformed. Sometimes it seems as if it’s only a slight movement and then suddenly it picks up pace quickly, but the agenda never stops. Satan has a desire to deform that which honors God. We must be constantly reforming our worship to get back to the straight and narrow path that glorifies God.
It’s not about being “old-fashioned” or “traditional” in our worship of God. It’s about being biblical. It’s about honoring God in the way that he has specified. The Word of God not only informs our worship, but as we continue to read the Scriptures we continue to make necessary adjustments in order to reform what Satan has deformed. Even when we think we have the external functions in their proper place and regulated by Scripture, there is a need for the church to be always reforming the heart to guard against becoming like the Pharisees that Jesus once warned when he said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).