The Public Worship Service

A Practical Observation

Worship is ultimately God-centered; but practically speaking, worship in the narrow sense carries with it the need for intelligibility. When we praise God, we do so in our own language because we are verbalizing what is within our hearts; we are expressing our praise to Him. An essential part of all praise is expression.

But here’s what often happens. The means by which we express that praise often becomes primary; we form an emotional connection with the channel through which we worship Him, and we consider that channel then to be an essential part of worship. In other words, we often find ourselves saying “it doesn’t feel like church if we don’t have this or that.” If we haven’t had an opening prayer, we haven’t had church yet. If I haven’t heard the organ, we haven’t had church yet. If we haven’t sung a meaningful praise chorus, we haven’t had church yet. If we haven’t recited the Apostle’s Creed, we haven’t had church yet. If we haven’t had Sunday school, we haven’t had church yet. If the pastor isn’t shouting, that isn’t preaching.

The Rules of Worship

Remember, in the broad sense, our entire life should be lived as an act of worship. All that we do is meant to glorify God. But we also must remember that not everything we do to worship God is acceptable in His sight. For instance, I can run off with my neighbor’s wife and claim it as an act of worship; but it would be in opposition to God’s will, and nothing that is against His will can be considered worship.

The Bible is full of examples. God rejected Cain’s offering in Genesis 4:5. Nadab and Abihu were destroyed because they offered strange or unknown fire before the Lord. Exodus 20:4 tells us that worshipping God by using a “graven image” is not acceptable. So coming to God with “inappropriate worship” is certainly a danger, and one we would do well to avoid. But what is acceptable worship?

What Does The Bible Say About Worship?

There is a strong trend in today’s churches to view the public worship service as a theatrical event, where “worship” becomes nothing more than a tool by which men manipulate the hearts and minds of the congregation. But Isaiah strongly condemns this:

Isaiah 29:13 Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.

God’s Word, then, becomes our sufficiency; it is our guide in all things that relate to life and godliness. But just what does the Bible say about worship?

The Temple and the Synagogue

Let’s look first at God’s appearance to man in the Old Testament. God came down to earth as the pillar of cloud and flame, but eventually wanted Israel to build Him a dwelling place. God gives detailed guidelines for the building of the temple in Exodus 25-28. The chapters are full of minutia; everything from the furniture to the type of wood and cloth to be used was give here. The procedure for worship and sacrifice was also painstakingly outlined. Similar detail was also given in Chronicles to David regarding the building of the Temple—a “permanent” Tabernacle as it were.

The New Testament—specifically because of the death of Christ—saw the abolition of the Temple. Sacrifices no longer needed to be made, because Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. (See Hebrews) But what we do see flourishing were the synagogues. The synagogue was very similar in function to our churches today. Little is known about the origins of the synagogue, because there were no detailed instructions given for its use or form; but we do know that Christ taught and even attended the synagogue (Luke 4:15-16), so there is certainly no question that it was a God given institution.

Most scholars actually believe that the synagogue took on strong significance after Israel had settled Canaan. Since the Temple was in Jerusalem and was visited only once a year, any teaching or learning would have most likely taken place in local “congregations”. In fact, the gathering in Nehemiah 8 where Ezra brings the people together and reads God’s Word and gives the people a clear understanding is often called the “Great Synagogue” and is credited as the foundation of that institution.

What Is Expected

Clearly, we are not offering sacrifices at church. The perfect Sacrifice has been given and by Him we have eternal life. So while the function of the Temple is essentially finished, the function of the synagogue lives on. Teaching and worship are still central in a believer’s life; but the guidelines are much more vague than the Temple, for both the church and the synagogue. What elements then ought to be a part of a local congregation?

There are a number of important aspects of the church worship service. Communion is an important aspect of worship. (1 Corinthians 11:26) It is a memorial by which we worship. Baptism another important part of our worship by which we proclaim to God and others the faith in our hearts. (Matt. 28:19) Prayer is vital. (1 Timothy 2:1-2) Edifying each other is important. Preaching is central.

Yet there are many matters of application that are not specifically addressed in Scripture and must be settled by the church leaders. For instance, the Bible is silent on many issues: the time and place of a church gathering, the subject of the pastor’s message, how long the service should be, what songs to sing, what style of music to use. These must all be settled, as with other areas of our lives, in a way that glorifies God and is consistent with principles from His Word.

For instance, there is nothing in Scripture that tells us that we can’t have relay races at the beginning of each service, but it would be inconsistent with the purpose of our gathering. We are gathered together for corporate worship, not exercise or entertainment; and while those two things play have a place in our lives, it would most likely take away from our purpose. Also, imagine if a pastor decided to change the service times to 1 AM; this isn’t specifically prohibited in Scripture, but it would certainly hinder our worship. My sister argues that we’d be infringing on Chinese people’s time with God.

What Is Proper

We cannot forget that our goal is not to satisfy anyone’s tastes; the goal is faithfully communicating God’s Word. We must be sure that God’s Word is not compromised, but we also must make sure that it is being communicated clearly and effectively to all in attendance, and that the channel through which they worship is meaningful and understandable. A worship service that carries no meaning to the worshipper is no worship service at all; it’s just a performance.

I’ll conclude with a quote from John Frame, author of Worship in Spirit and Truth:

“Determining the most intelligible form of worship requires us to ask what people in a particular culture most easily listen to and understand, and that question certainly overlaps the issues of taste. But we are not asking that question to satisfy anybody’s taste; we are asking it so that we may be more faithful in communicating God’s Word more clearly.”