Imagine yourself, if you will, standing in your church foyer, atrium, narthex—or whatever else you might call your central gathering space—following a Sunday morning worship service. Congregants, having just exited the service, now gather to greet one another and discuss the news, sports, and weather of the week past as well as the service from which they’ve just emerged. What do you hear? More specifically, in what ways do you hear the word, “worship” used within this conversation?
“I loved worship this morning! That song leader has a tremendous voice!”
“Worship was too loud today! I don’t understand why we have to use so many instruments up there!”
“I don’t get anything out of worship here. I think next week I’ll just come late and be here in time for the sermon.”
Somewhere along the path of the past many years (certainly, no one can say where, exactly), the word, “worship,” has become synonymous with “music” throughout much of Christendom—which is troubling on a number of levels, but specifically as it isolates and attempts to identify music as the totality of worship. What of the other actions of Christian worship which are rooted in biblical praxis and which have been part of the Christian gathering and offering unto God throughout history? The Scriptures remind us of the richness and diversity of these actions of worship.
In 2 Chronicles 6 and 7, the Israelites gather to worship God in the newly erected temple. Their worship is not devoid of music—it involves the sounding of trumpets and the utterance of praise by the people, which may, in fact, have been in the form of chant or song. But in addition to these components, the text is also clear to point out the inclusion of the presentation of burnt offerings to God (7:1, 5, 7), the prayer of blessing over the people (6:3), and the prayer of dedication of the temple to the Lord (6:14-42).
In Nehemiah, Chapter 8, the Israelites gather again for worship. In this account, their gathering is clearly centered around the reading of the law (8:2-3), including Ezra’s acclamation’s of praise (6:6a –which, again, could have come in the form of songs or perhaps his own exegesis of the law), and the people’s response (6:6b–postures of submission and adoration along with the verbal, AMEN). Were these not actions of worship?
Fast forward to the book of Acts, Chapter 2, where we read that the worship of God was centered around the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship of believers, the breaking of bread, and prayer (2:42). Additionally, the performance of miracles and offering of possessions to the needy were also actions of worship.
Yet today, we are somewhat fixated upon musical worship and it’s centrality to our services. Music is an enormously influential and persuasive part of culture, so it’s no surprise that we employ its beauty in worship. Likewise, music is also demonstrated and called for within the Scriptures.
From the song of praise offered to God by Moses and Miriam following the Israelite’s safe passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) to the chorus of voices and instruments offered in praise in Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:11-13), music has offered God’s people an expression of worship. From David’s Psalms to the Christ Hymn penned by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2, songs are a part of the Christian expression of worship to God.
Certainly, the fullness of our worship of God is a mosaic of textures and expressions—biblically rooted and historically engaged. By perpetuating the notion of worship being equivalent to music alone (or even passively continuing to use these words synonymously), I wonder if we are hindering our congregation’s attitude and actions in worship? This is especially true for preaching pastors, who’s every word is esteemed by nature and authority of the pulpit. Think about it, what other action of worship do we, as evangelicals, designate as much time to in a service as preaching? And while significant biblical, exegetical, and culturally relevant content in these sermons have great power to assist the Holy Spirit in the transformation of souls, so too do the casual words and phrases used within the pulpit shape our congregations and a greater understanding of the ecclesia.
If our understanding of worship truly is enhanced or diminished by our language, then preachers play a tremendous role in helping to reform and reshape the congregation’s understanding of worship. While any worship leader would tell you there is wonderful value in a preacher taking on the topic of worship, teaching a congregation about its biblical, historical, and theological roots, there is also profound value added when the preacher is vigilant in the use of the word, “worship.”
So instead of beginning a sermon by saying, “As we conclude our time of worship, please turn to today’s text in your Bibles,” why not try: “As we continue in our worship of God this morning, let’s turn to today’s text in our Bibles.” In this way, look for opportunities to highlight and augment the role of various actions of worship within the texts you are preaching. So often, our congregations understand worship only from a modern-day point of view. By highlighting the various biblical and historical actions of worship engaged in throughout biblical and church history, we aid in the expansion of our people’s comprehension of the many facets and actions of worship.
When a disgruntled congregant complains that they “don’t like what’s happening in worship,” don’t immediately assume they are complaining about the music (even if you know they probably are). Perhaps, ask the person to first evaluate your sermons, the amount of time your congregation spends in corporate prayer in worship, or the frequency with which your church celebrates the Eucharist. If the complaint really is about the music, the congregant will get there! But the moments you spend redirecting and reminding people that worship is much more than music have the potential to be significant in reforming and reshaping your congregation’s understanding of this foundational action of the church.
Emily Vermilya is the Worship Arts Director at College Wesleyan Church