When you attend a worship gathering, what is happening? Why do we sing the songs we do? Why do we say the prayers, creeds, and confessions? And who is the service for; is it for believers or is it for unbelievers?
These are loaded and important questions. And while worship is properly understood in one sense as the all-of-life response to God for who he is and what he's done, for this context we are going to speak of worship, specifically referring to the gathering of believers for what is commonly called the "worship service."
Three Important Ways of Thinking About Worship
In recent years, it has become especially common and popular to think of worship as being primarily about the unbeliever. Seeker services were created for the purpose of “doing everything short of sin” to reach the lost. We commonly hear of large churches with the vision of being “the church for the unchurched.”
Not everybody would agree on the extent to which a worship gathering should be aimed towards unbelievers, but without a doubt mission is an important part of what we do when we gather together as believers.
When we gather together in our worship services, while it might not be primarily about attracting unbelievers, it should consider the lost in our midst. We should translate the unfamiliar things into the a familiar language. We should help them belong to the family as they encounter God working in the service.
If God has a mission “to seek and save the lost," one of our goals should be that when we gather that those far from God would be saved. And as we leave, our people are sent on mission with the same message and using the same tools we do when we gather.
When you think about the worship music that tops the charts or go to a worship concert, you will often be experiencing a group that has a high value in understanding worship as an expression. When you go to a Passion Conference or a Hillsong concert, you’re a part of a worship experience. They want you to express your love to God in response to who he is and what he’s done. They want you to embrace the full emotions of the moment.
Expression is an important part of what we do when we gather together as believers.
Emotions are part of the way that God has created us. He’s created us in such a way that we can experience pain and sadness, happiness, anger and all kinds of emotions. Embracing those emotions as we gather together as believers is important.
But relying on the ability for a worship gathering to make you feel in a particular way is not helpful and often can lead to people relying on the ability to manipulate emotions instead of relying on God to objectively deliver the gifts he promises. Embrace the emotions, but don’t trust them.
In the popular evangelical Church, the above two ways of thinking are primary. Both of them are important, but both are often over-emphasized and fail to realize this third important way of understanding worship.
Worship has elements of mission and elements of expression, but on their own we have an incomplete view of the worship service. The problem is that when we focus on mission and expression as the primary ways of thinking, we begin to see worship services as what we come to do and not what God is doing.
Christians cannot forget that worship is also about formation. It is about how God is forming us. In the words we say together, in the songs that we sing, and in the sermon we hear we are being shaped as disciples of Jesus. Understanding worship as formational helps us remember that every thing we do in our worship services helps tell a story that forms people.
Hillsong, in discussing a recent album, has even begun to understand this:
“We [songwriters] are writing the liturgies of the church today...recognizing that in a lot of contemporary churches these liturgies aren't read. And so, the songs of today literally become the confession of the church.”
When we understand worship as formation, the direction of the worship service is not what we do for God but instead what God does for us. God is forming us. He is giving his gifts to us. He is rescuing us. The direction of the worship service, in this way of thinking, reflects the story of the Gospel that we are telling.
"My burden is that a lot of North American Christianity has reduced worship to expressive practice, where the most important thing is that we are sincere in our expression. We think of worship as primarily upward expressions of us to God. Whereas, if you recapture the formative, God-oriented action in worship, in funerals, in baptisms, and in the Lord's Supper, there is something at stake in making sure that the shape of the ritual tells God's story, so it gets planted in us.” - James K.A. Smith
All three of these ways of thinking are important to the way our churches think about our worship gathering.
We cannot ignore the call to reach lost people. This is central to the life of God's people and if our people are embracing their calling as missionaries, it will inevitably lead to them inviting lost people into your church. You have to keep missions in mind as you plan your worship services.
We cannot ignore that our worship services are an expression of people’s worship and adoration. We are putting the words in the people’s mouths and as they sing, they are expressing themselves in their words, in their emotions, and in their actions. They are not only receiving but they are responding with thanksgiving. The music we choose and the style of music is able to work in support or against those expressions.
And lastly we cannot ignore that our worship services are about formation. God is forming our people as followers of Jesus as they gather together in worship. The Word is at work in our people as every element comes together to tell the story and to deliver the gifts that only God can give to us.