Sharpening the focus of our worship

Sharpening the focus of our worship

Variety in worship is easy to find. In your neighborhood alone, there is likely a church using modern songs by Bethel and Maverick City. Another worships with voices only. Another boasts two services… a “traditional” and a “contemporary” to please both preferences. EP author and pastor Terry Johnson argues that a church should establish its worship practices on more than just preferences, but on a posture instead. A posture of God-centeredness.

Pastor Johnson wrote on this topic for Ligonier’s Biblestudy magazine, Tabletalkin an article titled God-Centered Worship, which we hope will both inform and challenge your perspective on congregational worship:

What is worship that is not centered on God? Worship that is centered on something other than God is not worship, we answer simply. It may be a religious gathering, it may be exciting, it may be informative, but it is not, by definition, worship. Among the primary virtues of traditional Reformed worship is its God-centeredness. Its structure and content leave no ambiguity about what the people of God have gathered to do: offer publicly to God their sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15). A church gathering to offer traditional Reformed worship assembles to meet, to encounter, to know, and to glorify God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is as it should be. “It is fundamental that we recognize that all true Christian worship must be theocentric,” says Robert G. Rayburn, “the primary motion and focus of worship are Godward.”

Nearly everyone leading worship services claims to be God-centered. What exactly do the proponents of traditional Reformed worship mean when they claim to be God-centered, or theocentric? We mean that our worship is directed to God. Praise is offered to Him, confession is made to Him, petitions are presented to Him, He addresses His Word to us, and He meets with us at His table. Is this not the worship language of the Bible? We “draw near” to God in worship (James 4:8–10Heb. 4:15–16; 10:19–23). We ascribe glory to His name (1 Chron. 11:29Pss. 29:2; 96:7). It is before Him that we bow down and kneel (Ps. 95:6–7). We come before Him with “joyful songs” (Ps. 100:2 nasb). We could go on and on with examples of this. Everything in worship is God-centered and God-directed. Even as the Bible is read and preached, we are worshiping God by receiving and submitting to His Word (2 Tim. 3:16). “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only,” Jesus said (Matt. 4:10 nasb).

Finally there are only two options in worship. Worship can be man-centered or God-centered. Worship is “worth-ship,” to attribute worth to God. Congregations assemble to do other things. Sometimes they meet to conduct business, exercise discipline, or enjoy fellowship; or sometimes they meet to devote time to music, Bible study, or evangelism. These other activities should not be confused with worship, though they may be elements or by-products of worship. Time devoted to worship proper should, in the first place, consist of congregational devotional exercises, which, in the second place, have as their aim the glorification of God. It should be asked of any activity proposed for inclusion in a worship service: Is it legitimately devotional in nature? Is it’s aim first and foremost to please, honor, and glorify God?

This means that for a service to be about God it cannot be about the lost, the saints, or about my experience. A proper worship service will indeed have much to say to the lost, much that will edify the saints, and much that is experientially rich. Indeed, we would claim that traditional Reformed worship is potentially the experientially richest of all worship, thrilling the soul with rich praise of God, deep confession of sin, fresh appreciation of the promises of pardon through the cross of Christ, and the peace and joy and contentment that flow from it. Traditional Reformed worship features intercessory prayer that expresses dependence upon the Spirit for holiness and Christ-likeness. It also emphasizes the soul feeding and satisfying reading and exposition of God’s word. All of this praying and preaching has an impact on the lost and edifies the saints. But it is not “my experience” at which proper worship aims. Fulfilling personal experience is a by-product of God-centeredness in worship.

Ironically, because traditional Reformed worship aims at God, it opens the door for a more true and deeper experience of God’s presence than is likely in a service that aims at experience (or edification or evangelism). The service is about God. This is crucial. Yet it is not about God as an abstraction, but as a Person. Worship is concerned with both His praise and His presence. We are drawing near to Him not only that we might glorify Him but also enjoy Him. True worshipers long to “behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4–5 NASB). They seek His presence wherein they find the “fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11 NASB). They are as the deer that pants for the waterbrook, thirsting for God (Psalm 42:1). “Oh satisfy us in the morning with Thy lovingkindess,” they cry (Psalm 90:14 nasb). It may be that we are making a very fine distinction, but it is one that must be made. The God we seek is a Person. As we seek Him (and not just an experience of Him) we glorify and do indeed enjoy Him.

The Christian life begins when a Copernican revolution takes place when I remove myself from the center of the universe and recognize that God alone reigns there (Matt. 16:24Rom. 12:1–2). Nowhere should this revolution be more obvious than in the worship of the church. Even the detractors of traditional Reformed worship would have to concede that God-centeredness is the strength of traditional liturgies.

On the other hand, the trajectory of contemporary worship is not encouraging for those who wish to remain God-centered. R. Kent Hughes decries the contemporary shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism. Congregational worship, he observes, “has taken the form of something done for an audience as opposed to something done by a congregation.” Stages, theater-seating, programs, “special music,” and the adoption of the posture and gestures of secular performers by worship leaders all suggest that the priority of the contemporary church is entertaining congregations, not worshiping God. Sessions and denominations should ask themselves a very simple question: At what do they want their people to aim when they come to church each Sunday? What do they want their primary intention to be? Do they want the people to see themselves as a “studio audience” providing the backdrop against which the unsaved get evangelized? Do they want them coming to hear a great lecture? Do they want them seeking an exciting experience? Do they want them coming as consumers in pursuit of spiritual entertainment? Or do they want the people coming so that they might meet with the true and living God and offer to Him public praise offered in “spirit and truth” (John 4:7 NASB) and with “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28 NASB)? Is it not obvious that if a worship service is a worship service, then all that takes place within that service must have a God-ward devotional quality. God must be at the center of the whole. He must be the hub, and all else must revolve around Him.