In worship we commune with God. That’s number one. But does it matter what elements we include in worship, or even in what order? We’re all familiar with the old adage about changing the medium but not the message, but in truth the medium colors the message and will either enhance or diminish the truth that is presented.
Because worship is primarily about connecting with God on an intimate level, the words we say and the things we do reveal something about who we believe God to be. In my experience, this can be most readily observed in the correlation between formality/informality and transcendence/immanence. Churches that tend to emphasize a transcendent view of God also tend to utilize more ritualized actions and formal language, while those who understand God as primarily immanent will often use informal language and almost no ritual. As with all generalizations there are plenty of exceptions, but on the whole, a more or less formal a service tends to be reflective of a congregation’s view of God as primarily high and exalted or close and intimate. God, for his part, is both most high (El Elyon) and with us (Immanuel), and we must strike a balance that recognizes him as both. It is the same for practically every divine attribute in that we have some that we love to dwell on and others we’d rather not, but we must worship God as he is, not how we would prefer him to be.
It’s pretty easy to see the impact that what we say and do has on the overall feel of our worship. But what about the order? Does it really matter if the songs come first or the sermon? What about confession or the table? Actually, confession makes an interesting case study. For churches that make confession a regular practice, they generally do it in one of two ways. One tradition places confession early in the service because they understand that for worship to truly happen the hearts of the people must be cleansed to be in the presence of God. The other places confession after the sermon as a response the preaching of the word in preparation for the table because they understand that it is the Spirit’s use of the word that reveals our often hidden sin. They are both right in a sense but choose to highlight one view over the other. And what they choose says something about what they believe.
Our acts of worship not only declare what we believe, but also reinforce those same beliefs. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between what we profess and what we practice. In those cases it becomes imperative to change the practice to be more in line with the beliefs of the church. In the context of worship, however, this problem is not always obvious. The trend over the past several decades has been to whittle the service down to a block of music followed by a block of preaching. Any other actions like prayer or reading Scripture have become almost incidental in that they are often short, spontaneous, and performed from the front. The danger here is at least two fold: 1) it reduces worship to a spectacle to be observed and 2) it has the potential of become more about our subjective emotional response to the music and message than about reveling in the truth of the gospel which restores us to relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who is this God we worship and what does he require of us as we come before him? Then we must measure our worship practices against those answers. When we prayerfully do this we honor the One we serve and better proclaim his greatness to a world in need.