by Andrew Coburn
Interact Magazine 1999
Volume 10 Number 2
A mother and her young son are attending a Sunday church service. Being bored, the little boy’s mind wanders and his eyes start to scan for something of interest, the worshipping congregation now becoming no more than a background hum. Dull yellow plaques on the walls catch his attention. Tapping her leg, he asks his mother. ‘What are those things on the wall?’ After a quick glance, she answers distractedly, ‘Those are lists of people who died in the Service.’ The boy, eyes now wide with wonderment, asks, ‘Mummy, was it the morning or the evening service?’ The joke is so old it has mildew around the edges, but the shocking thing is that this joke is often not far from the truth! The Sunday worship service sometimes becomes the major battleground within a church. The times on Sunday when God’s people gather to acknowledge His worthiness can become the times when fellowship is broken over a chorus or a hymn or a buzzing sound system, and that which should unite us – the glory of God is trivialised.
I would like to share with you some of the things we have learnt at Georges River Community Baptist Church as we have grappled with being authentic as a community in worship. Many lessons have the polish of hindsight. Many lessons we still need to learn. For us the journey continues and will always do so. There is always a new song (Ps. 33:3) because we have a heart to always tell of the infinite greatness of God who has revealed Himself to us and redeemed us in Christ.
Georges River Community Baptist is a church in the south of Sydney. The congregation is approximately divided into thirds based on age – under 30, 30-50 and 50+. The church has grown significantly over the last four years. The evening and morning services have been different for many years: the morning services have been more traditional and the evening ones more contemporary. This trend has continued, however the morning Family Service has developed a more contemporary flavour.
I would like to share with you seven insights we have gained in our journey of learning how to honour God in our worship. (For those of you who like acrostics the first letter of each point spells out the word ‘WORSHIP’.)
Where are your people?
No matter who we are (a pastor, a worship leader, a regular worshipper) there is a subconscious tendency to view worship in terms of our own perspective and needs. In so doing we distort it in a number of ways. Firstly, worship is not primarily about us having our needs met. It is about honouring and serving God, through Christ. Secondly, we can fall into the trap of thinking that the way we like to worship is ‘right’ and the way other people like it is not as good. Because of this tendency to assess it from our own perspective a key question to ask on the journey of being God-honouring in worship is, Where are the people? What is the heritage and history of the believers within our church? What do they mean when they say, ‘I like wor-ship’, or ‘I don’t feel comfortable in worship’? What is their theology of worship – whether worked through and systematic or just absorbed through being a worshipper for many years? People’s opinions need to be truly heard and the love of Christ is to be shared with them (John 13:34,35).
A church leadership that takes this to heart will help a church navigate through the uncharted waters of worship as we approach the year 2000.
Occasionally you hear the sad tale of a church where the Sunday services have become the battleground. Love lies as a wounded victim as Christian gunslingers, with hymn books or Hillsong overheads drawn, fire volleys at each other as they justify why their form of worship is ‘true worship’. Genuinely listening to the gathered community is a key step in a church maturing in worship.
Open up the Bible
Having listened to the people, a church leadership needs to do some solid Bible study. It seems too obvious to even state, but practice and experience do not lay the foundations for worship. Worship is understood through God’s word, the Bible. Only God Himself can declare how we can honour Him. Having listened to the people, the leaders at Georges River started a process of defining biblical worship. After much reading, prayer and discussion we came to understand that worship is a rich and wonderful concept that involves a whole-of-life attitude towards God and not just an hour and a quarter on Sunday. Jesus summed it up when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only’ (Matt. 4:10). Genuine worship is an amalgam of adoration, thanksgiving and surrender as we live for God moment by moment (Rom.12:1; Heb.12:8).
We came to realise that the Sunday worship services are just the tip of the iceberg of our daily worship/service – a place where, as a gathered community, we acknowledge the greatness of God revealed through Christ. They are to be times that include both God’s revelation and an opportunity for us to respond to Him. We cemented our study in a paper outlining our understanding of what the Bible says about worship. Our Philosophy of Worship is available to anyone who would like a copy. The process of getting it down on paper clarified our thinking and provided us with a resource for evaluating worship within our church.
Reveal God’s Truth
After grappling with worship from a biblical perspective we came to appreciate the importance of revealing God’s truth to the wider congregation. We circulated the paper we had written on worship, shared it more fully with those on the worship team and brought it to the wider church for discussion and approval. At the same time I preached a six week series on worship, expounding the biblical principles of worship.
We came to realise how crucial and difficult it is to communicate clearly. Some people didn’t want to read an eight page document with references; they just wanted the bottom line – how would this change next Sunday’s services? Others became enthused. For still others the paper barely rated a blip on the radar screen – why make it such a big issue? However, to clearly articulate biblical worship is one way of ‘being devoted to one another in brotherly love’ (Rom.12:l0). As people appreciate more fully the breadth and depth of God-honouring daily worship/service their lives are enriched.
Set a clear direction
From Scripture we moved to strategy. How were we to apply what we had learned about worship within our local church setting? James reminds us of the importance of moving from biblical principles to godly practice (James 1:19-27). We quickly came to appreciate that a number of key decisions we needed to make involved cultural and age issues, eg the target age for the morning congregation. We opted for families with young children while at the same time praying that we could keep our worship relevant for our older members. What instruments should be used in worship? The Bible reveals no prohibition on musical instruments and so again we had a cultural and age decision to make. We opted to slowly introduce many instruments while still retaining the organ. We outlined our strategy in a short paper called Worship That Transforms which also contains a Worship Statement that encapsulates our understanding of worship: ‘Through the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit we will provide meaningful and biblical opportunities for our church family to express their love and commitment to God in ways that honour Him, focus on Jesus Christ, and are relevant to our daily walk.’ The worship strategy was discussed and approved by the wider church.
Setting a clear direction is essential. If implemented with love, clear direction brings less hurt than the confusion of no direction. It also provides clear guidance for those who are involved in ministry within the Sunday worship services. Again, communication is a key. We have found, more from neglect than good practice, that we periodically need to re-communicate the biblical foundation and strategy to the church. Each time more people understand and appreciate the key elements of worship.
Honour all Age Groups
This is a biblical imperative that should find its way into our worship services (Eph..5:2l; Titus 2). Although church services may target a specific age it is important that they have meaning and relevance for all age groups. This is not easy to do and I am so thankful to God for the godliness of many of our older members who have put the future growth of the church above their personal wishes. One lady summed it up for me when she said, ‘At times I struggle with the changes in morning worship but today a little child came up to me and put up her hands and gave me a cuddle. I like seeing the new families in the church.’ I praise God for the genuine love and care of many of our mature Christians. They have played an important role in godly change within the church.
Honouring all age groups also brings us face to face with considering the role children play in our worship. Do they stay in church during the service or do we send them off to Sunday School? Can they play an active part in the worship service? Children are often the neglected age group when we consider worship.
Honouring all age groups is also important when introducing change in church services. Change ought to be clearly explained and gradual. Steamrollers may be OK when constructing a road but have no place in the growth of God’s community. In implementing change it is very helpful if you have a number of people from each age group whose judgment you trust. In meeting with them you can gain insight into how change will be received. Many a hasty action can be averted by a quiet word with a trusted friend.
Implement the Worship Direction Within the Services
Worship is not about a Sunday Service; it is about being a servant of Jesus. Worship is a whole-of-life attitude of response to God for His graciousness to us in Christ. It is far more than what we do as we gather on a Sunday. However what we do as we gather is very significant if we are to be God-honouring.
There are three points to consider as you implement the direction of worship for the church.
Firstly, train your worship team members to think biblically about worship. Whether this team is one organist or a number of people this is a crucial first step. Comments and thoughts like ‘We have always done it this way!’ and ‘I’ve seen this work really well!’ need to be replaced by ‘Is this consistent with the Bible?’ and ‘How will this help people know and live for Jesus?’
Secondly, respond to people not by drawing up battle lines but by applying the principle of love. It is so easy to label people and respond to them in a superficial way instead of seeking to understand their point of view. Far too often people ‘dig in for the fight’ on secondary issues or misunderstandings.
Thirdly, be consistent. Don’t do one thing one week and then the opposite the next. Inconsistency leads to confusion and uncertainty.
Pray and Pastorally Care
Rich, vibrant, God-honouring worship cannot be manufactured by human effort (Col.2:23). It is a work of God in our midst, His very presence in the midst of His gathered people (Matt.l8:20). Because of this, prayer and caring for the congregation are key elements of the worship service. This is especially true if you are introducing change in the services. Pray for the congregation and care for them as they get used to differences in Sunday worship. Prayer and pastoral care are to undergird worship whether you are implementing change or not.
We at Georges River Community are still very much on a journey of grappling with being authentic as a community in worship. We pray that some of our insights may be helpful to you.
Martin Luther once asked, ‘How has it happened that in the secular field there are so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs, while in the religious field we have such rotten lifeless stuff?’ He then went on to say, ‘We must read, sing, preach, write and compose verse, and when-ever it was helpful and beneficial I would let all the bells peal, all the organs thunder, and everything sound that could sound.’ Like Luther, may we seek to honour God in all we say, sing and do as His gathered community, the church.
‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe’ (Heb.12:28).
Andrew Coburn is Senior Pastor at Georges River Community Baptist Church, NSW
© Andrew Coburn (1 July 1999)