Gospel Centered Worship

When many people think of worship their mind immediately goes to the singing or music portion of a church service before the preaching, some may think of hymnals while others think of electric guitars and lights. While these things can take part in our “worship” they are not in and of themselves all of our worship or all that we do or intend to do.

Bob Kauflin has said that,

Singing and preaching aren’t incompatible or opposed to each other in any way.  Both are meant to exalt the glory of Christ in our hearts, minds, and wills. Then the whole meeting is worship; the whole meeting should be filled with God’s Word. And the whole meeting should be characterized by the Spirit’s presence.

Therefore, worship shapes thinking. We need to allow the Word of God to call, inform, and shape how our churches worship and how we lead. The songs we sing stay with us and the structures convey messages about what we believe and how we worship and encounter God. The songs and ideas displayed in our services get stuck in our heads. They resonate in our hearts. They implant their messages deep within us and instruct us just as much as the sermons we hear.

In his book Christ-Centered Worship Bryan Chapell says that,

Structures tell stories.

We have seen this displayed throughout history through many types of structures Chapell explains,

Luther preached ‘the priesthood of believers,’ and his structures conveyed the same message. The placement of the pulpit silently explained that the preacher was not more holy than the people. He ministered among them because all were fulfilling holy callings as they served God in the occupations for which He had gifted them.

Chapell writes,

In every age, including our own, those who build churches have been forced to consider how their understanding of the gospel gets communicated by the structures in which it is presented.

So… we don’t create worship; we don’t manufacture services. Rather, we respond to a person. Effective worship is never a result of our efforts.

Below we will explore some avenues to Gospel Centered Worship. Let’s think together.

  • Liturgy

“Liturgy” refers to the structures of a church’s worship service. Many people might think of liturgy only in terms of the traditional structures found in Catholic or Anglican churches, but all churches that gather together to worship have a liturgy– even if it’s a very simple liturgy. In his book Chapell explains that,

The biblical word for all that’s included in our worship is ‘liturgy’ and it simply describes the public way a church honors God in its times of gathered praise, prayer, instruction, and commitment.

Therefore, whether we realize it or not, our worship patterns always communicate something. This gives us reason to examine what exactly is being communicated and we as worship leaders must be very intentional and very careful to communicate the Gospel correctly and clearly through our liturgies. We must remember when creating liturgies that,

Christian worship is always a response to truth, the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Let me suggest that we seek to structure worship services in such a way that the Gospel is communicated through the very structure of our service and order. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, In fact, I would say that this has been the case throughout the history of the church. Chapell says,

Because they understood the importance of our worship, early church fathers designed an architecture for worship that is still reflected in churches today. As early as the second century, records indicate that the church divided its worship into major segments: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Upper Room… By moving from Proclamation to Communion in the order of worship, churches through the ages retell the story that those who truly hear God’s Word will share his love.

Chapell claims that our goal should not be to replicate historical liturgies but to,

Learn how the church has used worship to fulfill gospel purposes through the ages so that we can intelligently design worship services that will fulfill gospel purposes today.

Worship is a holistic practice. The promise of the new covenant is that Jesus is the true and better temple, the true and better mount to stand upon. The regulations of time and place have been fulfilled in Christ. The law has been fulfilled through the work of Christ. This means we are a continually worshipping people, in heart, soul, and mind. The way the church has adopted the use of the word worship is a difficult reality we are faced with. When our people say they enjoyed the worship, I understand they mean the singing, and Scripture reading, and time of confession. At the same time, when we walk with a robust view of what congregational worship is, everything falls rightly into its place. The singing of songs is not elevated to a level it is not meant for, and the Scripture readings are not demeaned as a necessary obligation. When we look at a liturgy from beginning to end as the people of God gathered to engage with Him and rehearse the Gospel, an unbroken chain is formed.

  • Balance

Every element of a worship gathering is an important tool in the hand of God. At the center of the church gathered is the one element absolutely necessary: the Word of God laid open in the midst of His people. The Gospel should not just “inform” our worship design, implementation, and leadership… it should consume it, and all that we do in worship, whether corporately or individually, should be focused and centered on the Word of God and the Gospel story.

Chapell conceives of the corporate worship service as,

Nothing more, nothing less, than a re-presentation of the gospel in the presence of God and His people for His glory and their good.

This definition has a strong vertical dimension of God’s story being re-presented in God’s presence for His own glory, but Chapell also believes the inward and outward elements should have bearing on the Sunday service. He argues that concern for God’s people to understand His glory and grace should lead us to design worship that ministers to the “necessities and capacities” of God’s people.

While church leaders have a responsibility to preserve the necessary elements of the Gospel story, these Gospel truths will not lead to worship or transformation into the image of Christ if people cannot understand them. Discerning the balance between the necessities and capacities of worshippers (the balance between sensitivity and compromise) is sometimes a difficult task, but one with which we must wrestle.

I personally advocate for a strong partnership between the vertical dimension of our worship (us and God) and a horizontal dimension (us together) in the worship service that reflects the Gospel story of God’s love to one another through sharing our praise, praying for one another, corporately confessing sin, encouraging one another in song, tithing, receiving instruction together, demonstrating concern for the lost, and communing together.

Our worship should not ignore the needs of the members of the body… yet at the same time worship choices cannot ignore the needs of those God has yet to gather into the body of Christ. A few weeks back we discussed whether our worship can be evangelistic. If you disagree with my stance on that topic then the rest of this paragraph isn’t for you… Christ-Centered Worship advocates a liturgical model that builds upon Scripture as well as church history, taking into account the upward, inward, and outward priorities of church. Done properly our worship can create and encounter, a union, and a message to be shared.

Our worship and theology should come together to engage in God’s mission. The relationship should be one of harmony and consistency. If God’s mission for us is to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light as it says in 1 Peter 2:9, and to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything he commanded us as it says in Matthew 28:19-20, we must be those worship leaders who worship the Lord personally and corporately, who study the Word of God and hide it in our hearts and who are constantly reminded of his mission, making every effort to proclaim His gospel. The Gospel should infect every aspect of our lives and then we might stand a chance of leading with Gospel centrality. Right theology leads us to rightful doxology, and both propel the mission of God within our churches and out into the world. As John Piper rightly says,

Worship is the fuel and goal of missions.

Our worship must be rightfully centered on the glory of God, because only then are the desires and needs of man informed and met. As we exalt Christ and glorify God, we are professing things that are true to those in our gatherings who are separated from God by sin. The aim of the mission of God is that all the peoples of the earth would glorify God. God’s mission in the world is accomplished when He is the praise of every tribe, and tongue, and nation.

  • The Journey

In practice Gospel centered worship can be difficult to do properly. In this journey what I have come to realize is that the Gospel shouldn’t just be a few key words in a song, but it should inhabit and inform my entire structure, design, and leading of corporate worship. I believe Kauflin says it best in his book “Worship Matters” when he says that,

Singing God’s Word can include more than reciting specific verses in song. If the Word of Christ is going to ‘dwell in [us] richly’ (Colossians 3:16), we need songs that explain, clarify, and expound on what God’s word says. We need songs that have substantive, theologically rich, biblically faithful lyrics. A consistent diet of shallow, subjective worship songs tends to produce shallow, subjective Christians.

The songs we sing matter.  When we stand before our church to lead in worship the songs we choose must be Biblically faithful. We must strive to make our songs and structure theologically forming and informing. They must be Gospel-centered. In the end it isn’t solely the melodies of the songs or the musicality within the transitions that are of utmost importance, but it is the lyrics we choose to worship with and the message we convey through our overall structure. The content by which we choose to both inform and shape our worship. In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, we see the Gospel as the issue of “first importance”. 1 Corinthians 15:3,4 says,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

As we lead worship, there is a great responsibility for us to place the Gospel at its rightful place in our church service – at the blazing center of everything.

Wherever in the church Biblical authority has been lost, Christ has been displaced, the gospel has been distorted, or faith has been perverted, it has always been for one reason: our interests have displaced God’s and we are doing His work in our way. The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is far too common. It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful. As a result, God, Christ and the Bible have come to mean too little to us and rest too inconsequentially upon us.

Worship matters and it must be anchored entirely on God’s truth. Worship should be anchored on the entire truth about God, which He has revealed about himself within His Word. Our worship is a matter of infinite importance. If the truth of God and the Gospel is not at the center of our worship services then we are not truly worshiping the God of the bible but a “god” of our own imagination or creation. An incomplete foundation to our worship leads to an incomplete understanding of all that God is.

It is a matter of eternal consequence when people get worship wrong, as a result they do not worship God acceptably however well meaning they may be.

God does not exist to satisfy human ambitions, or our own private spiritual interests. We must focus on God in our worship, rather than the satisfaction of our personal needs. God is sovereign in worship; we are not. Our concern must be for God’s kingdom, not our own empires, popularity or success.

We should work to know the Gospel… to memorize its foundations and contours. We should allow our thoughts, our prayers, our affections, and our songs to be informed by the glories of the gospel. Constance Cherry has said that,

Our understanding of Christian worship starts with our understanding of God.

The second greatest source of theological teaching in the local church comes from the songs that it sings. While theology is taught, more often it is often caught… through song. In the end, we do not want to create worship services that simply make Christians want to return to our worship services again; instead you want to create worship services that make Christians long to be with Christ and live out the Gospel.

John MacArthur says,

Worship is not an addendum to life, it is at life’s core. You see, the people who worship God acceptably enter into eternal life, but the people who do not worship God acceptably enter into eternal death. Worship, then, becomes the core. Time and eternity are determined by the nature of a person’s worship.

As we pursue this journey into Christ-Centered or Gospel-Shaped worship together I will leave us with this thought,

Worship is an invitation and not our invention.

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