Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a wide variety of churches. Every one of them has a very different approach to leading congregational worship.
And, as I’m sure I heard Robert Webber say, “I’ve found myself thinking and rethinking” about two very fundamental questions. What is the purpose of church worship? and What is the role of music in worship?
This article reflects my thinking so far about those issues. I propose a framework of four key principles for each question and four practical application points.
This Ain’t Your Grandparents Worship War
Scattered throughout the history of the church have been controversies, tensions, debates, and even great animosity about “how we worship”.
They don’t call these disagreements “worship wars” for nothing. But this article is not critique nor a “worship war” rant. I want to make it clear that I do not believe any particular musical or liturgical style, sound or approach is inherently superior to another.
What is important is theologically thinking through the purpose of church worship and understanding “Why do we do the things we do?” My premise is that a little more theological thoughtfulness will help us make better decisions that will improve the healthiness of our congregations.
How your church worships reflects a philosophy of ministry based on interpretation of scripture and its application in your unique context, as well as taking into consideration its traditions, routines, and numerous practicalities.
Understanding the Biblical foundations of church worship is especially important if you’re responsible for planning and leading it. Leading worship is an enormous responsibility, a serious undertaking, and a high calling. Worship decisions make a huge impact in the spiritual formation of a faith community.
On occasion – like maybe every Sunday – we should look at what we’re doing, evaluate it, and perhaps recalibrate our efforts.
Question #1: What is the purpose of church worship?
There are many possible answers with many points of emphasis. Differences of opinion abound and that’s one reason why we have thousands of Christian denominations. Here’s my theological perspective.
1 . First, the purpose of corporate worship is to provide a ways and means for the people of God to have communion with God.
Communion means “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”
Another way to say this is “to help people connect with God” or “engage with God”.
Scripture depicts God as intensely relational. He strongly desires to have intimacy with His sons and daughters.
The idea of communion reflects God’s nature of love.
Why? Well, God has a vision for worship and it is to be together.
“I will be your God and you will be my people”
This sentiment is woven throughout the biblical narrative, both Old and New Testament.
I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Exodus 6:7
I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. Leviticus 26:12
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9
So, a primary purpose of church worship is to “gather” God’s people together to draw near to Him as a community of faith that is distinctly Christian. [James 4:8, Hebrews 10:25]
2 . Second, the purpose of corporate worship is to provide structure and language for people to express praise and adoration.
Worship is a pattern of revelation and response. God reveals, man responds.
Therefore, “We can love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
When we truly encounter the almighty living God in all His majesty, power, holiness and glory – our response is reverence, humility, and honor.
We then give Him glory through words, songs, prayer, and actions of praise and adoration – this is doxology. The meaning of “doxology” is to offer praise to God through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Worship is the natural response of human beings to the divine revelation of God. We worship God because He is worthy.
So, a major purpose of church worship is to give God’s people a vocabulary of praise and adoration.
3. Third, another purpose of church worship is edification – to encourage one another and build each other up.
Another way to say this is “help God’s people connect with one another.”
Worship unites a church at the heart level.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord Ephesians 5:19
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up 1 Thessalonians 5:11
Now I’d like to suggest something that may be hard to understand, but perhaps you’ve also experienced it as true.
Sometimes “amateur” music encourages people better than “professional”. Maybe it’s because we can relate to it more, I’m not sure. But, people can discern the difference between the real thing and the shallow.
I wish every perfectionistic worship music critic would seriously consider this:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Matthew 5:8
The “pure in heart” may sing out of tune, play out of tune, chose cheesy songs, be over the hill, out of style and basically un-hip; but they are the ones who not only see God, they are the ones who reflect God.
On the other hand, the “pure in heart” may also have world-class talent with killer chops, good taste, and be young and good looking. They reflect God too. The point is, “purity of heart” makes a huge difference.
It is the presence of God that does the heavy lifting in worship, not our talent or high dollar production values. I respect the massive effort it takes to pull off great production, I’m just saying that is not what worship is primarily all about.
So, another purpose of church worship is to encourage God’s people to be the real deal and build one another up.
4. Finally, the purpose of church worship is to help change and transform the worshiper.
God is in the transformation business. His Spirit changes us from the inside out, both as individuals and as a community of faith.
Worship works hand in hand with discipleship. Through worship and discipleship, we learn to walk in the ways of God and be imitators of Christ in all we do.
When we gather for worship, we should leave changed, with a fresh revelation of God for who He truly is – holy, good, merciful and loving.
Worship “in spirit and in truth” will affect you to take action as an ambassador for Christ, to go into all the world and make disciples. [John 4:24, 2 Corinthians 5:20, Matthew 28:19]
Then we will know that the purpose of church worship is being fulfilled.
Question #2. What is the role of music in church worship?
When we understand the Biblical values undergirding “the purpose of church worship”, then we can properly situate the place of music. The role of music is to serve the larger purposes of worship. In the context of church, music is a means to an end. Music is a valuable tool, a flexible vehicle, and a precious resource to enable people to worship God. Consider these four aspects.
1. First, music in worship can help people commune with God.
“The nearness of God is my good.” Psalm 73:28
Music is unique in its tangible and intangible ability to connect deeply with the human soul.
Music is a wonderful and powerful means of communication and expression. Employed theologically and artfully, worship music helps us focus on God. Hopefully without being distracted!
But, a word of warning. Worship music is a created thing and the Creator does not dwell in the music. Music is the work of men’s hands.
We are not to worship “worship”. Especially worship music. That is idolatry.
At its best, worship music should be all about God.
2. Second, music in worship gives us the vocabulary and actions to express praise and worship to God.
It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the
ten-stringed lyre guitar
and the melody of the
harp keyboard. Psalm 92:1-3
When the church gathers for worship we engage with God through singing, clapping, bowing, lifting hands, and other biblical actions, often led by music. Other worship actions are accompanied with music in the background.
Music encourages our brothers and sisters when we sing the truths of God.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16
Melody and harmony bring us together in a unique way. Music also unites us physically when we clap together in rhythm.
The “songbook” of a particular church gives those believers a common bond of music that has meaning and a shared history.
In these roles and others, music leads and builds up the church community in very practical ways.
(By the way, the Hebrew word for musical accompaniment is “zammar”. See more “worship words” in my book Worship Actions & Attitudes: Understanding 10 Hebrew Words For Praise and Worship)
3. Music both expresses and affects our emotions so that we grow closer to God.
In worship, one role of music is to help express emotion. It’s a two-way exchange of feelings.
We can experience the emotions of God to man, such as Jeremiah 31:3:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with affection, I have drawn you and continued My faithfulness to you.”
And we can express our emotions from man to God.
“I love you, O LORD, You are my strength.” Psalm 18:1
Music can also change or shift our emotional state. In fact, just the tonality of the music, major or minor, harmonious or dissonant, can affect your mood. Your mood will impact the openness of your spirit.
Music connects with us at a deeply emotional level.
A word of caution. No manipulation allowed. Music can and does inspire, entertain, inform and motivate, but these outcomes are secondary.
4. Music helps unite, encourage and inspire the body of Christ.
Think of some of the great anointed songs, old and new, that have inspired you and motivated the church.
Think of those powerful moments when you truly experienced the glorious presence of God in a worship service.
I have numerous times. I hope you have too.
Great music is inspirational. But bear in mind, “excellence” in worship music is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Pursuing the goal that “everything has to be amazing so we can impress as many people as possible” is a distorted motive.
Authentic excellence is simply doing your very best. We honor God when we offer Him our very best musical preparation, heart condition and positive spirit, keeping our eyes on Jesus as we serve him, as best as we can, with our musical abilities.
The purpose of music in church worship is not to attract or draw a crowd. It is not to make us or our house of worship “famous”. These things may happen for the glory of God, but they are not to be our primary aspiration.
Music in church should help us “be” with God, hear from God, bless the Lord, and be a blessing to one another.
I suggest regularly asking simple, thoughtful questions of evaluation on an ongoing basis, based on the Biblical purposes of church worship and the role of music.
Here are some sample questions to start the conversation.
1. How are we accomplishing the purpose of communion?
- Are our worship practices – the songs, the structure, the prayers, every element – helping people progressively grow closer to God week after week?
- Are we intentional to create time and space where our people can experience intimacy with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
2. Are we giving our people a language and musical vocabulary of praise and adoration?
- Are the songs and words we’re saying giving our people a language and musical vocabulary to glorify God through songs, prayer, and actions of praise and adoration?
- Are these words and songs meaningful and relevant to them?
- Are they theologically sound?
- Are there songs we should add? Songs we should retire?
- [By the way, check out my article: Planning Powerful Worship Sets]
3. How are we doing to make our worship services edifying and encouraging?
- Are our worship actions helping our people encourage and build up one another?
- Are the keys of the songs singable by both men and women?
- Do we give our people space to reflect?
- Do we encourage them to build one another up?
4. Is transformation happening? How would you know?
- Do the messages of our worship actions, songs, and prayers challenge, inspire and motivate our church to grow deeper in maturity, to be bold for Christ, to lay down our lives and be messengers of the gospel?
- Do we have a vision of transformation?
- Are we intentional about transforming our church for the glory of God?
[By the way, I also recommend you check out my friend Dr. David Manner’s wonderful website “Worship Evaluation” as a resource.]
In answering the first question, “what is the purpose of church worship?”, we considered four aspects. First, that church worship is to help the gathered community of God have communion with God. Second, that corporate worship is to give God’s people the language and actions to praise and adore Him. Third, “gathered” worship is to encourage, edify and build up the faith of our brothers and sisters. Finally, that church worship is to change and transform individuals and communities for the glory of God, from the inside out.
In answering the question, “what is the role of music in church worship?”, we explored the role of music in serving the purposes of worship. First, music can help people connect with God. Second, music gives us the language to express praise and worship to God. Third, music helps unite and encourage the body of Christ. Finally, music both expresses and affects our emotions so that we grow closer to God.
In writing this article, I realize how much I’m leaving out, and how much deeper we could go in exploring the purposes of worship and music.
That’s all for now amigos! Vaya con Dios! The Lord be with you.
So – what do you think? What would you add? What do you agree or disagree with? Let me know in the comments! Thanks and bless you for reading!
For more discipleship resources designed specifically for worship ministry volunteers, check out my free online video training “Why We Worship: A Discipleship Course For Worship Ministry Volunteers”.