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Issues in Worship Renewal (I) (Bible Study)

The theme of worship is very prominent in the Scriptures. Many of the references are calls to worship in which God's children are told that worship is their joy and their privilege. But many other passages indicate that the worship life of the church requires constant assessment. It can get off course and need to be redirected; it can face new opportunities and need new forms; and it can benefit from new insights and experiences.

Lesson 6                                   See all lessons
Scripture: Isaiah 1:10-17; Luke 5:33-39


Rare is the church that isn't thinking about, talking about, or maybe arguing about its worship life. The past twenty years have seen a rapidly accelerating self-consciousness within the church about how it worships, and this process has been marked by a growing readiness on the part of worshipers to examine why and how they worship. This examination can create a healthy movement that leads to wholesome renewal, or it can become a risky movement that gets the church off course. Those who serve on worship committees and planning teams experience this openness as both an opportunity and a danger.

The church that is humble enough to ask whether some of its practices have been displeasing to God instead of honoring him will open the door to healing and health. The church that is open to learning new ways of praying and singing may find new joy in communicating with God and a new level of relationships within the body of Christ. The church that talks and studies together about how to worship biblically will grow in the sanctifying work of the Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13). But the church that is so eager for something new that it uncritically adopts new ideas and fads just because they seem attractive or currently popular may be borrowing trouble. The church that is not careful to biblically evaluate and discern new movements and ideas may regret these decisions in the future. And the church that is not careful to study and grow together may find itself polarized, divided, and weakened by conflict.

Worship change is happening in many churches across the land. Some are richer and healthier for it. Some are more divided and polarized. Some are weaker. The need of the day is for biblical discernment—to identify the issues, to measure them against God's instructions, and to practice mutual love and encouragement toward one another.

Biblical Counsel

The Scripture passages cited above have healthy insight and guidance for us.

The first reference is a very disturbing passage. Isaiah 1 contains God's complaint against his people for their rebelliousness. "I have reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me," God says (v. 2). The prophet explains God's displeasure at their sinful behavior. And he even has to tell these people that their worship is worthless before God unless some fundamental changes are made. Their disobedience and idolatry have corrupted their worship. Reread verses 10-17 and imagine how distressing it must have been to hear that! Their worship needed renewal; but before that could happen their hearts needed renewal. And unless that renewal took place all their worship was like so much wasted, even harmful, effort.

Renewal of a different sort is in view during Jesus' conversation in Luke 5. Jesus is engaged in a discussion with some religious leaders about the purpose of his ministry. The conversation turns to religious practices such as fasting and praying (v. 33). This occasion becomes the opportunity for Jesus to explain that a "new time" has come (vv. 34-35). It is the time of the kingdom's coming, when the bridegroom is coming for the bride. As a result some new practices and disciplines may be necessary. He explains the wisdom of this with a parable: Old garments and new patches don't mix. New wine and old wineskins don't work well together either. So the day of newness in the gospel's work requires new practices, represented by new cloth and new wineskins, yet always protecting and preserving the wine.

Renewal Issues

Churches are talking about and evaluating many issues of worship today. We aim to list the major issues under consideration in this lesson and the next one. The length of the list of such issues illustrates that those in worship leadership have their hands full! Not every church is dealing with all of these issues (we certainly hope not!), but all of us are dealing with some of them. The issues we identify are these:

1. The primacy of worship.  

Is worship the primary work of the church or is it one slice of the pie? There is a renewed awareness and conviction today that worship should be primary and that the worship life of the church fills and invigorates all the other ministries of the church. In other words, the church that worships well will find its other ministries have greater vigor and vitality.

2. Full and active participation by all worshipers.

It may have been true in a previous day that many worshipers were willing to come as "spectators" and remain silent in the pew, but not today. Many worshipers today are impatient with being passive. Worship should be thought of in terms of a verb, an action that is to be carried out.

3. Congregational song as the voice of the people.

Churches are generally the last place in society where group singing takes place, and most churches today sing more than they did a generation ago. The place of singing in the liturgy has found new meaning, and it is increasingly recognized as the beautiful expression of the voice of the people of God. Therefore it should be guided very carefully.

4. A balance of structure and spontaneity.

A certain amount of form is necessary for worship to function as a group event, but how can we leave room for freedom within that form? All form and structure seems deadening. All freedom and spontaneity seems risky. How can we balance what is planned carefully with what leaves room for the Spirit-led expression of the moment?

5. An integrated liturgy.

Worship that seems to move in multiple directions or incorporates a variety of unrelated themes and events fails to be satisfying and nurturing. However, a liturgy that has a central theme woven throughout speaks more effectively to both our minds and our hearts. Its integration reinforces the theme of the service. However, planning such integrated liturgies requires the loving, coordinated efforts of all planners.

6. A reexamination of the role of the sacraments in worship.

Many churches are asking questions about the sacraments that haven't been asked for a long time. How often should we schedule the Lord's Supper? How can we experience the real presence of Christ at the Table? What is the most meaningful way to observe the Lord's Supper? Should children be welcomed? How can we best remember what our baptism signifies? Should we reaffirm our baptism from time to time? How?

7. Including the full range of human emotion.

Life for all of us involves a wide range of experiences, and so those who come to worship on Sunday morning come with such a wide range of emotions. Not all are ready to praise. All need to confess whether they realize it or not. Some prefer to quietly contemplate. Some would like to lament. How do we honor, respect, and make room for each of these activities?

8. Worship that is intergenerational.

Since worshipers of different ages experience life so differently, is it possible (and worthwhile) to try to keep them worshiping together? Or should we encourage different ages to worship separately, allowing each to experience worship in terms of its own language, concepts, and needs? What light does the Bible have for us on this matter? What are the pros and cons of the different approaches?

Those eight already give us a lot to think about. Perhaps you can add more. Next month we'll add another list fully as large. The point is this: Churches today are vigorously talking about worship matters to a greater degree than many previous generations.

Tips for the Discussion Leader

Please do not assume that it is necessary to talk about (and solve) each of these issues in this discussion! No group can do that in a short time. The aim and purpose to hold before the group for this half-hour discussion is to become aware of the renewal process that is happening in the church today, to understand why there is so much debate and discussion, and to identify and become knowledgeable about (but not solve) the main issues under consideration.

Encourage the group to remind themselves of these eight issues, and then to study your congregation in its worship life. Finally, attempt to reach some consensus about which issues are most pressing among you. Only identify them at this point. Let your list of them shape the agenda for discussions and studies in the coming months.

Discussion Starters

1. Assess the spirit within your congregation. How ready and eager are the members of your congregation to examine and evaluate its worship life? How ready are they to accept change?

2. Are there issues here that you have already dealt with? Which ones?

3. Review the "Issues of Renewal" listed above. Can you identify two to four of these that are most pressing in your work as a committee? Are these same issues being felt by the members of your congregation?

4. How can those issues be helpful for your worship life?

5. How could they be dangerous?

6. What can you as leaders do to aid the congregation in dealing with these issues in a way that will serve the health and welfare of your congregation positively?

Further Reading
Worship Seeking Understanding by J. Witvliet (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), especially chapter 12, "Making Good Choices in an Era of Liturgical Change", pp. 269-278.

Lesson 7
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