Theology of Worship
Why a ‘Theology of Worship’?
All worship is driven by a theology, even if unconsciously. If one’s worship is consumed with songs that exclusively focus on the creature instead of creator, sermons that are structured around the felt needs of the congregation in lieu of a Christ-centered focus, a low view of the ordinances, and prayers that are little more than requests in nature, then inevitably one will be drawn to a theology that is man-centered.
By the same token, if one’s worship is dominated by songs that are Biblical, focusing on the attributes and glories of God, sermons which maintain a Christ-centered perspective, a proper view of the ordinances and a prayer life which gives equal attention to the confessional, thanksgiving, supplication and adoration portions of prayer, the theology that is developed and promoted in that environment will be God-centered and God honoring.
Our prayer is that Covenant Fellowship’s Theology of Worship will be one which brings honor and glory to our Triune God. (1)
In order to bring about worship that is honoring to God, we must pay particular attention to the songs that are sung, the prayers that are offered, the creeds which are recited, the ordinances performed, and the sermons which are preached. It is vital that the leadership of Covenant Fellowship maintain vigilance in their responsibility regarding the worship that takes place in the confines of our assembly; assuring that Covenant Fellowship maintains proper focus and a sense of adoration and awe towards God.
The first question in both the Longer and Shorter Westminster Catechisms is: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer that follows is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” This should be the overriding focus of our worship. The question remains; how do we go about worship that reflects this?
What is the Focus of Our Worship?
The center of all Christian worship is Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, establishing a New Covenant with the Father through His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. It is Jesus Christ who sent us his Spirit to guide and comfort us. We are the Body of Christ, united with Him and seated in the heavenlies. He is our High Priest, and our praises to God the Father are pleasing because of Christ’s finished work. (2)
Therefore our worship is to be formed by our relationship with God the Father through God the Son, as led by God the Holy Spirit. All worship should be Trinitarian in nature, addressing the work of our blessed Three-In-One God. “God is the One who graciously invites our worship and then hears our response. God is the One who perfects and mediates our praise and petitions. God is also the One who helps us comprehend what we hear and prompts us to respond.” (3)
How are we to Worship?
We have now explored why we should have a theology of worship, and what the focus of our worship should be. Now we get to more pragmatic aspects of a Theology of Worship; i.e. HOW are we to worship.
Many will make the claim that proper worship only contains hymns, or all services must progress in a strict and regulated order. Some believe that the sacraments (known to us as ordinances) are to be offered each week; some believe that once per quarter is sufficient. This is often confusing the means with the end. As we stated in the above, worship is to have Christ as its center, being inherently Trinitarian in nature. But how do we go about ensuring that we are maintaining our focus? This section of the document will examine the area of methods in more detail.
First and foremost, our worship methods must be Biblical. This should go without saying, but in a day and age when anything goes, we must reiterate this fact.
What exactly does this mean?
Since the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to the world, including His plan of redemption in His Son, Jesus Christ; our worship should contain prominent readings from Scripture. There should be an opening Scripture reading in our services, as well as sermons based upon the Word of God, followed by a closing reading that prepares the people to go into the world, witnessing to the lost and bringing the good news of the Gospel to all. The passages selected should illustrate God’s character, and actions.
The songs which are sung should likewise focus on God’s character, being, and actions. Songs which contain, or are written from Scripture are the best for expressing this properly. Songs which focus on feelings, or are centered on the creature should be the minority of the songs which the church sings. Feelings are expressed within the Bible, and there is nothing incorrect about them, however when the church comes together to worship God, our singing should be focused on the object of our worship.
Songs, prayers and sermons should be theologically rich, enabling the congregation to experience the beauty and depth of our faith. Hymns, both modern and ancient, should comprise a good portion of the singing. All songs should be selected carefully, ensuring that proper focus, and biblical truths are expressed.
Some thoughts regarding worship (4)
Music is a gift of God and part of the created order. From its inception, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), to its consummation, when “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” will sing to the Lamb on the throne (Rev. 5:13), creation is musical.
Of all the musical instruments that may be employed in the praise of God, the human voice has priority. Other instruments are to be used primarily in the service of the singing of God’s people. The Christian church sings!
Singing is a ministry that belongs to all the people of God. The congregation is always the primary choir. The role of professional or volunteer choirs and musicians is to aid the whole people of God in their worship. While anthems or vocal and instrumental solos may be offered, they do not have to be. Congregational singing, however, is essential. While it is possible to be actively engaged in worship and in prayer while listening to an anthem or solo, a diet of worship which does not regularly include ample opportunity for all the members of the congregation to join in song will be impoverished worship, and the life of the church and the faith of its people will suffer.
Of all the art forms that may be employed in worship, singing is especially corporate. Different voices, different instruments, different parts are blended to offer a single, living, and unified work of beauty. John Calvin recognized the power of congregational singing and unison prayer in helping the church express and experience the unity of the body of Christ. Asserting that the human tongue was especially created to proclaim the praise of God, both through singing and speaking, he noted that “the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of the believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshiping him with one spirit and the same faith.”(5)
The church’s ministry of song is for the glory of God. The principal direction of congregational singing is to the Lord (Ps. 96:1). Music is made first of all to the Lord and only secondarily to each other. Music should communicate and express a sense of awe and wonder in the presence of God; it should lead our thoughts toward God rather than toward ourselves. God can be glorified by beautiful sounds and spirits may be uplifted by a pleasing melody, but it is primarily the joining of the tune to a text that gives meaning to Christians’ songs. Not only should both text and tune glorify God and be consistent with each other, but the tune must serve the text. Music is always the servant of the Word. (6)
The church’s ministry of song is for the edification of God’s people.Through congregational singing Christian faith is not only expressed; to a very real degree it is formed. Since people tend to remember the theology they sing more than the theology that is preached. A congregation’s repertoire of hymnody is often of critical importance in shaping the faith of its people. Here again, it is the meaning of the text that is of primary importance. It is through the sense of the words that God s people learn of the nature and character of God and of the Christian life.
Through congregational song God’s people learn their language about God; God’s people learn how to speak with God. Songs of worship shape faith. It is, therefore, very important that a congregation have a rich “vocabulary of praise.” Simple, repetitive music such as praise choruses are very appropriate in worship and can be very effective in moving individuals to prayer and to praise. But it is also important for the congregation to know some of the great hymns of faith in order to have a sense that the Christian faith is both relevant and enduring, and to be enriched by the faith of the “great cloud of witnesses.” Hymns, both ancient and modern, which stretch minds, increase vocabulary, rehearse the biblical story, and teach of the nature and the mighty acts of God are essential for the congregation to growth in faith.
The emotional power of music, rightly employed, is a vital and moving aid to worship. Music, quite apart from an associated text, is capable of evoking powerful emotions. Hearts are stirred and feet set to tapping by a rousing Sousa march, while another melody may move people to tears. It is, therefore, important that the emotional mood of a particular tune be commensurate with the sense of the text. It is also important that the emotional power of music in worship be evocative rather than manipulative, honest rather than manufactured, and that the congregation’s singing allow for the full range of emotions in worship.
* What theology is expressed in our congregational singing? Is it biblical? Is the range of what we sing representative of the “whole counsel of God?” What do our songs and hymns say or imply about the sovereignty and grace of God? About the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ? About the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature and mission of the church, the ordinances, and the Christian life?
* Is there sufficient pastoral breadth in our music ministry? Do we sing songs that are appropriate to the many and variable life situations in which believers find themselves? Does our congregational singing include the many moods and types of prayer, including praise, thanksgiving, confession, lament, intercession, and dedication? A congregation which sings only “upbeat” praise choruses and hymns, for example, will have a diminished and restricted understanding of prayer.
* Is there sufficient historical, cultural, and generational breadth?Does our congregational singing express belief in the communion of saints? Are all the saints present encouraged to join in singing, and do our songs also express our belief that we sing with saints throughout the ages and around the world? Do the hymns and songs include contributions from other cultures, languages, and eras? Are songs included which allow for the full participation of children? For those beginning the journey of faith as well as for more mature Christians?
* Are we providing our congregation with a sufficient vocabulary of praise? Marva Dawn suggests that a hymn text “is great in proportion to what we can learn from it.”(7) What do we learn about God and the Christian faith from what we sing?
* Does the music serve the text? “A tune is excellent only as it is subservient to the words, undergirds the thought, and captures the dominant mood.”(8) Does the tune help us to recall the words by bringing forward appropriate features of the text, or does the tune call attention to itself and contradict or stand in the way of the words?
* Does our music encourage corporate worship? Does the music encourage congregational singing or is it designed for the solo artist or does it come across as entertainment? Are soloists and choir effectively leading and supporting the congregation in its worship or are they merely displaying their virtuosity? Do the hymns and choruses we sing express the faith of the gathered community or do they tend toward individual and private expressions of faith?
* Is the music appropriate to the ability of the congregation? Do our musical selections respect the past practice of congregation? Do we include enough familiar hymns?
* Do the hymns and choruses we sing assume and encourage growth in discipleship? Is continuing congregational education in music and worship a part of our ministry? Do we take the time and effort to learn new hymns and challenging hymns? Worship is a “living sacrifice,” and therefore our gifts to God should represent some cost to us. Learning more difficult music and coming to understand and appreciate richer theology may be difficult work, but it can also be a source of spiritual renewal and growth.
Preaching should be predominately expository in nature, with the pastor working through books of the Bible. Topical preaching has its place and fills a portion of the preaching schedule; however the preaching of a book in an expository manner provides the congregation with the richest food upon which to feast.
The following is adapted from an article by Mark Bullmore (9):
What is expositional preaching? A sermon is expositional if its content and intent are controlled by the content and intent of a particular passage of Scripture. The preacher says what the passage says, and he intends for his sermon to accomplish in his listeners exactly what God is seeking to accomplish through the chosen passage of his Word… The biblical case for expositional preaching starts with the connection between the gift the ascended Christ has given to the church in pastor-teachers (Eph 4:11) and the biblical injunction for pastors-teachers to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). Those who preach should preach their Bibles… In the pulpit, [this] will look like the picture we see in Nehemiah 8:8: “They read from the book . . . clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” God has both purposed and promised to use this kind of preaching to accomplish one of his great aims — the gathering and building up of his people.
The pastor should also ensure that his prayers, whether extemporaneous or written, are God-honoring, God-focused and Biblically correct. Likewise, all leaders involved in the prayer life of the corporate body should ensure that they have active and rich private prayer lives; this will flow over into their corporate prayers.
Recitation of Creeds
Christianity is creedal. One of the earliest creeds is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
“I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time”
This creed states all of the pertinent aspects of the churches faith – Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins, buried and three days later He was raised. Likewise, the Apostle’s Creed, the Athanasius Creed, the Nicene Creed all state the great truths of our faith in a succinct and memorable manner. Therefore, Covenant Fellowship shall undertake to recite from the creeds weekly, instilling in our congregation an understanding of the great truths in such a manner as the youngest member to the elder statesmen/women of the church will have an understanding of our foundations.
The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper will be observed regularly within the worship services of Covenant Fellowship. During this time, emphasis will be placed upon the covenantal aspect of our relationship with God the Father, through God the Son. The congregation should be reminded that only those who are within the Body of Christ and not living in sin are to partake. While the communion at Covenant Fellowship is not closed, we are duty-bound to remind and exhort those members who are in rebellion against God, and those outside the Body of Christ that this is a sacred celebration, to be enjoyed only by the faithful.
The ordinance of baptism must be explained and offered to any who have come to Christ. The ordinance should be offered at the first practical time possible. Before any are baptized at Covenant Fellowship, the elders will conduct an interview with the person(s) being baptized to ensure their proper understanding of the significance of the ordinance.
All aspects of our worship should be “a lavish outpouring of our love and praise to our God who has created and redeemed us.” (1) With that in mind, all of our worship should be excellent. The songs we sing, the sermons we preach, the prayers we offer should all be done to the best of our ability. Our offering should be the firstfruits of our lives, not the leftovers from a busy week.
Covenant Fellowship services will be a lavish outpouring of excellent worship to our triune God, involving prayers, preaching, Scripture reading, and recitation of creeds, singing and the practice of the ordinances of the church. All of these will be done to the Glory of God, centering on the finished work of our Savior Jesus Christ who bought us.
1. Romans 11:36 – For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.; Jude 24, 25 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (ESV)
2. Colossians 1:15-20 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV)
3. The Worship Sourcebook – published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
4. Adapted from the Commission on Worship, Reformed Church in America, 1996
5. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. 20, #31.
6. Howard Hageman, “Can Music Be Reformed?” Reformed Review, 1960.
7. Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 201.
8. Austin Lovelace and William C. Rice, Music and Worship in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p. 20.
A Theology of Worship