McDonald’s sells more than burgers, Amazon sells more than books, and a AAA membership offers far more benefits than just roadside assistance. We easily associate a brand name or well-known company with a limited sample of its products or services when it actually produces or offers much more. If we’re not careful, we do the same thing in the church when we view or portray worship as the musical part of Sunday morning gatherings. I say this because worshiping God encompasses so much more than music.
We often describe the musical part of church gatherings as though there’s worship (i.e., music), then there’s everything else: announcements, giving, preaching, prayer, and so on. We inadvertently give the impression that when we’ve finished singing, we’ve transitioned from worship to preaching, as though preaching is not worship but music is. We say things like “Praise God for that uplifting time of worship this morning! Now let’s turn our attention to the preaching of God’s Word.” Though we don’t develop this subtle dichotomy deliberately (after all, we do call the entire gathering a “worship” service), we imply or suggest this distinction nonetheless. When we do, we encourage a deficient perspective on what we’re doing when we gather as a church on Sunday.
In this article I hope to remind us that we should approach the entire Sunday gathering, not just the musical part, as worship. I will also suggest some ways to promote a more complete perspective on worship in your church. Are you ready? Let’s go!
The Meaning of Worship
The word worship originates from the Old English word weorthscipe (“worth-ship”). I. H. Marshall explains that this word describes “the action of human beings in expressing homage to God because he is worthy of it.” This concept connects closely with several key words in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments. For instance, Old Testament Hebrew vocabulary features the word hawa frequently. Hawa means “to bow down” and often describes some sort of submission, as when people bow in the presence of a powerful or prominent political or religious figure. Most importantly, this word describes our proper response to God, Who is the most powerful and prominent person of all (Gen. 22:5; Ps. 96:9). A second word, yareh, expresses “a sense of terror and awe” and is often translated as reverential fear, especially in response to an encounter with God (Deut. 10:12–13; Job 28:28). A third word, abad, means “to serve,” as in performing formal religious ritual activities (Exod. 20:5; 23:24–25). Together these words give us a more complete, well-rounded view of worship. Worship requires an attitude of awe and reverence for God, a heart of submission and surrender to Him, and a readiness to serve and obey Him. In short, worship is the proper response to the truth and presence of the one true God. We should revere Him, submit to Him, and serve Him.
Several New Testament words also connect with worship. Like the Hebrew word hawa, the Greek word proskuneo means “to fall down” with adoration and reverence (Matt. 2:8; John 4:24). A second word, latreuo, speaks of “service that is always religious in nature” (Rom. 1:25; Acts 7:7). A third word, sebo, describes the kind of respect and reverence that a “God-fearing” person exhibits (Matt. 15:9; Acts 16:14). A fourth word, leitourgia, from which we get our word liturgy, means an act or routine of “service or ministry,” often of a religious nature directed toward God (Luke 1:23; 2 Cor. 9:12). Like their Old Testament counterparts, these words also show that our worship of God should include an awe-inspired and reverent attitude, a submissive heart, and a readiness to serve and obey Him.
So how do these Biblical words relate to our Sunday gatherings, our corporate worship as a church? Corporate worship is the proper response of a gathered church to the person and presence of the triune God. This response requires an accurate presentation and understanding of God’s goodness and greatness that is informed by Scripture and illumined by the Spirit. This response should be characterized by an earnest, focused attitude of awe, devotion, confidence, and submission to God that results in obedience and service to Him. Does this describe what you and your fellow church members experience when you gather for worship? Does this describe how your church responds to God not only through the musical segments of your gathering but throughout the entire service (or “liturgy”) as well?
Key Elements of Worship
Key elements of worship encompass far more than music, though music is certainly a significant element. Nine key elements of worship are (1) public prayers, (2) vocal and instrumental music, (3) public testimonies, (4) financial contributions, (5) public Scripture reading, (6) expositional preaching, (7) observing the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Table), (8) speaking words of spiritual encouragement, and (9) confessing faults. When you gather as a church to worship God, you should engage in all these activities, and you should do so with an attitude of awe, a heart of submission, and an expectation to serve. Though not every worship gathering will feature every one of these elements, all these elements should regularly occur in our worship gatherings to one degree or another.
Public prayer plays an essential role in church worship. It provides a crucial way to bow down in our hearts to the Lord and acknowledge His presence as we speak to Him by expressing our praise, gratitude, and requests. From the beginning of the church, believers prayed together, not just in private (Acts 2:42). Paul promoted this as a high-priority activity for the church, calling it “first of all” and encouraging all kinds of prayers for all kinds of people (Eph. 6:18; 1 Tim. 2:1–10). Such prayers include formal prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or the model prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), and “Maranatha!” (“Our Lord, come!” 1 Cor. 16:22). They also include spontaneous impromptu prayers, all of which may be offered by men and women alike (Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 11:13). Properly understood, public prayer is just as much an act of worship toward God as the songs that churches sing.
Worship suggestions. Pray multiple times in a service, each time with a different focus, such as preparing for worship, making requests, seeking God’s blessing on the preaching, and asking for wisdom to apply what has been learned. Plan to ensure that each prayer is focused, varied, and theologically rich.
Vocal and instrumental music
That ancient Israelites featured music in their worship is no secret, but early churches featured music in their worship too (Col. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:15). Believers should “speak to one another” and “teach and admonish one another” through songs the congregation sings. These songs should include psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18–20). “Spiritual songs” likely refers to Christian songs in general or songs produced by those of us who follow Christ. “Hymns” refers to more poetic, formal, theologically dense songs about God and His work of redemption. “Psalms” likely refers to the Old Testament psalms, many of which were intended to be accompanied by instruments.
Segler and Bradley suggest in their book Christian Worship, “Paul probably used the combination of the three terms to commend a variety of forms and musical styles in his multicultural churches, which were comprised of Jews and Greeks. He affirms Jewish forms (psalms) as well as Greek forms (hymns) in the worship of these communities.” It goes without saying that church music should accurately reflect Biblical truth. As Keith Getty emphasizes, “Every time you sing, you are expressing something about what kind of a church you want to be, and what kind of church member you are going to be.”
Since music plays such a prominent role in worship services already, the better question to ask is not whether we’re singing, but whether our singing expresses genuine worship of God. When you hear or participate in music with your church, does your awe for Him, submission to Him, and resolve to serve Him increase?
Worship suggestions. Emphasize congregational singing, and encourage all who are present to sing. Begin a service with songs that exalt the attributes and works of God; then, as you get closer to the sermon, choose more personal songs of reflection and surrender.
The Old Testament encourages God’s people to make public statements about His works in their lives (Ps. 71:15–17; 107:31). The New Testament seems to do the same when it encourages believers to “[give] thanks always for all things” (Eph. 5:20) and to “[give] thanks to God” (Col. 3:17). Therefore, it is important to give church members opportunities to tell the church how God has intervened in their lives by protecting them, answering their prayers, and providing for their needs. This is an important but overlooked element of worship because it draws attention to God by reminding us about how He is active in our lives today throughout the church. Done well, testimonies shared in a worship service will deepen our awe of God and submission to Him.
Worship suggestions. Pass around a mic so members can share spontaneous testimonies of something God has taught them from His Word or done for them recently. And when you give announcements, don’t just announce upcoming events, but praise God for unmistakable evidence of His blessing in previous events as well.
First-century believers viewed weekly Sunday worship as an opportunity to contribute financially to the needs of the church (1 Cor. 16:2). This shared giving routine met the needs of pastors, widows, itinerant teachers, and other believers, ministries, or churches (Acts 2:44–45; 6:1; 2 Cor. 9:6–7, 10–13; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:9–10, 17–18). Franklin Segler suggests that Paul’s instructions for giving implied that such “giving is motivated by worship of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 8:1–8). Like a submissive citizen or soldier who enters the throne room of a king, we should bring our monetary gifts to God with a heart of awe and service to Him. Understood properly, financial contributions in a worship service are more than a duty to fulfill; they are an expression of worship.
Worship suggestion. Display a slide during the announcements each week that charts the annual giving of your church, both to the general fund and any key projects. Celebrate God’s faithful provision with comments to that effect. Also announce the Sunday offering by saying something like “Let’s worship the Lord through giving!”
Public Scripture reading
Like public testimonies, public Scripture reading is often minimized or neglected. We tend to relegate this practice to a moment before the sermon, then we read through the passage quickly as though it’s merely a technicality to get out of the way and not an essential element of worship to savor. Nevertheless, in the early church, Scripture reading was a normal, more prominent practice (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). In fact, Paul gave clear instructions to ensure that this would be the case, saying, “Give attention to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13). This emphasis on public Scripture reading continued throughout church history as well. Knowing this, churches should not view public Scripture reading as a tacked-on detail to rush through, but should feature it as a treasured moment in the worship service. We should read Scripture prayerfully and engagingly. This practice should not be dull or boring, but should bring the congregation face-to-face with God through His Word and should inspire awe, submission, and a desire for service before the sermon even begins.
Worship suggestions. Establish a Scripture reading rotation of volunteers. Meet periodically to practice reading Scripture together and teach them how to read in an engaging way. Select a suitable passage of Scripture to read as a call to worship at the start of a service, then read a passage related to the sermon sometime before the sermon begins.
Since worship is our proper response to God’s revelation of Himself as given in Scripture, expositional preaching provides us with a careful and informative understanding of this revelation to which we can respond. Gary Gromacki describes the essence of expository preaching as “explaining the meaning of a Bible text in its context.” This description corresponds with Paul’s instructions to “rightly [divide] the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), and “[hold] fast the faithful word as [we] have been taught” (Titus 1:9).
Without expositional preaching, the church has no theological anchor. Therefore, worship gatherings should feature a steady diet of preaching that reads, explains, and applies the Bible. Churches should learn to hear and respond to preaching, not as something that follows worship or is superior to worship, but as worship itself. Preaching should do more than inform the mind. It should awaken a greater sense of awe, a stronger sense of submission, and a deeper motivation to obey and serve God based upon a more accurate and vivid awareness of what He has revealed in His Word.
Worship suggestions. Remind the congregation that listening to a sermon is an act of worship, not entertainment or merely Biblical education. Stick closely to the text and remind people that this is what God says, then ask helpful, probing, and specific questions throughout the message or at the end that help them take the first steps to respond to the sermon with obedience and service.
Observing the ordinances
Christ Himself commanded that believers in the church perpetually practice two New Testament ordinances. This dynamic duo is baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Table.
He instructs us to baptize new believers once, upon the testimony of their faith in Christ (Acts 2:41; cf. Matt. 28:19). Then He instructs us to observe the His Table on a recurring basis (Luke 22:17–20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–26). Both of these acts occur in the presence of the gathered church, and they both provide us with instructive and reflective value that heightens our awareness of God and His works.
In Baptist Distinctives, Kevin Bauder explains that “baptism is a picture of the gospel. It is a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” While the Lord’s Table also draws attention to Christ’s redemptive work, it provides an opportunity to look within as well. It helps us to reflect on our true spiritual condition before God while also looking forward to the hope we share in our Lord’s future coming, Kingdom, and new creation. Together these ordinances serve a vital role in enabling us to properly respond to the truth about God and His works. Baptism and the Lord’s Table should be more than mundane rituals we perform out of duty, but should themselves be acts of worship that inspire within our hearts greater awe, submission, and service to God within the church.
Worship suggestions. When baptisms occur, remind the congregation that believers choose to be baptized in obedience to Christ’s command, which is worship. When your church observes the Lord’s Table, do so in a heartfelt, reverential manner. Provide time for self-reflection, but also provide time for public prayers and songs that allow participants to respond to God with awe and surrender. Provide adequate time so the observance isn’t hurried.
Speaking words of spiritual encouragement
The writer of Hebrews urged believers to gather regularly and persistently as a church so they would be able to “exhort” one another, something that cannot be done in isolation. This word, parakaleo, means “to cause someone to be encouraged or consoled, either by verbal or non-verbal means” (Louw and Nida). Verbal encouragement may take the form of words that correct an error or words that provide comfort (1 Thess. 3:2; 2 Thess. 3:12; Titus 2:15). Both are needed in the church and should be viewed not only as social interactions between fellow church members, but also (or primarily) as worshipful responses to God. Any words of encouragement that Paul offered to the churches he served, for instance, were rooted in God’s gracious nature and gracious acts (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; Philemon 3).
As any believer knows, there is no true encouragement apart from the grace of God. Therefore, when believers gather for worship, they should expect to exchange words of encouragement with one another out of awe, submission, and service to our gracious God.
Worship suggestions. When you attend church, go intending to encourage the people you speak with. Do more than engage in chitchat about mundane things. Also, look for opportunities to encourage people with truth about God. What have you been learning from His Word? What has He been doing in your life? Share these things in your conversations. Also, listen carefully to what people tell you, and respond in encouraging ways that show you were listening.
In his letter to the church, James encouraged believers to speak honestly with one another about their faults and failures (James 5:16). This does not mean we must confess our sins to a priest, as Catholics do. Instead, it teaches us to apologize to one another for offenses we’ve committed against one another and to provide those who’ve offended us an opportunity to do the same (Matt. 5:23–24). Corporate worship also includes church discipline as necessary, entailing not only the removal of a member from fellowship but the restoration of that member whenever possible (Matt. 18:15–22; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5–11). This “confession of faults” should also include being honest with one another about our personal tendencies and weaknesses so believers may pray for one another to overcome such things and be free from hypocritical, secret lives. Such honesty among believers is a necessary element of worship, for we worship a God from Whom nothing is hidden. Such openness is an evidence of greater awe, submission, and obedience to Him.
Worship suggestions. When someone offends you at church, be sure to speak with that person graciously and be quick to forgive completely. When you’ve offended someone, be quick to apologize and deepen your friendship with that person. Conversations like these should not be abnormal or difficult when we understand that we are gathering to worship God.
Reevaluating Your Worship
Altogether, these nine features provide tangible, necessary ways for believers to worship God more authentically and completely. They remind us that a proper response to the person and work of God in worship encompasses far more than musical expression (though musical expression is crucial). They also challenge us to reevaluate how we plan our worship services to discern whether we are overlooking any of these vital elements of worship in the church.
After reading this article, what elements of a worship service do you believe your church is doing well? What elements does your church minimize or neglect? How can you contribute to more comprehensive and wholehearted worship with your church that encourages greater awe and submission? After all, the entire service is worship! And did I mention that our entire life is worship too?
This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 Baptist Bulletin. Copyright © 2021 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.