Worship is something such that it is of vital importance for us to get it right. We as evangelicals are not getting it right. Our problems with worship are at least as old as evangelicalism itself.
In the typical evangelical service, the sermon is, and has always been, of first importance. This is where God speaks to us through His word, the Bible, as taught to us by pastors whom He has called, equipped, and ordained. It is through the sermon that the Gospel is preached to unbelievers and they are challenged to yield to the claims of Christ. Everything else is either preliminaries, designed to prepare our hearts to receive God’s word through the sermon, or a response to what God has said to us through the sermon.
This includes worship.
As a result, worship has been little more than an afterthought in much of evangelicalism.
In the past couple of decades, an awful lot has changed. People talk about worship much more than they used to. The landscape is now filled with new music from Hillsong, Vineyard, and many others. The “worship set” has taken a much more prominent place in the service. “Worship leader” is now a recognized category of ministry. Worship leaders, planners, and programmers have sophisticated philosophies about the trajectory which a time of worship ought to take in order to achieve the maximum impact with the congregation.
And yet, nothing has changed at all. The sermon still trumps all. The only real difference between evangelical churches is whether they emphasize teaching (whether deep and thorough exegesis or practical and relevant teaching) or preaching for decision–that is, preaching where the end in view is that people will come to Christ.
That is not right.
When we worship, we enter into the presence of a Being who is completely and totally other than who or what we are. If He had not revealed anything of Himself to us, we would be absolutely clueless about who or what He is. If He were to expose us to even the slightest fraction of His actual presence, everything about us would be completely and utterly obliterated. Though I love a lot of the worship songs we sing, I find it hard to believe that such a view of God is in play here.
When we worship, we enter into something much much older and much much bigger than what is happening in the here-and-now of contemporary American evangelicalism. We enter into the story of God’s redemptive plan for all of humanity. This story goes all the way back to the Old Testament, when God called a man named Abraham, led him on a long journey, built him and his family up into a great nation, and then entered into a covenant with that nation–the nation we recognize as Israel. Through this covenant Israel became God’s special people. There were visible signs of this covenant and of God’s presence in Israel, such as the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the feasts and seasons. Worship in Israel was understood as looking back to the event at Mount Sinai in which God established His covenant with the people of Israel.
Later there was another covenant, sealed by the blood of Christ shed upon the cross. Through this covenant, the Church is identified as God’s special people–a new Israel, if you will. In this relationship the Church is the body of Christ (don’t think too hard about this one or you’ll creep yourself out), an extension of His presence in the world, an organism inhabited by the Holy Spirit. Here there are visible and tangible signs of Christ’s presence: the Word, the sacraments, ministry, discipleship, fellowship, prayer, and love.
When we worship, we enter into this story. Our worship looks back to all of this, culminating in the event at the cross where Christ defeated sin and death once and for all. This story ought to inform everything we do in church: the preaching, the sacraments, and the singing.
In order to get worship right, we need to recalibrate it so that it points toward a God who is completely other than us, who we would not know at all if He did not reveal Himself to us, and yet who invites us to join in His plan for the redemption of all humanity, which culminates in Christ’s defeat of sin and death on the cross.