Christian Worship – What is its purpose? What is its form?

“Orthodox Protestant” in the comments has asked a few great questions. (You can see more of them on the comments toolbar.) The most recent was this.

So,,,is the purpose of worship for the people of God to assemble corporately to hear the gospel preached, confess our sins and partake of the sacraments? Or is evangelism the purpose of worship? To the former I say yes and the latter, no. Worship began its wobble when churches began to feel the need to cater to the world….Classic protestant who loves orthodoxy

The first thought is that evangelism and worship cannot be allowed to be defined against each other. It must be a false dichotomy. The great commission is Matt 28:18-20 – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them…” As Christians that is our mission in the world – to find the lost. That is God’s mission in the world. Jesus came from Heaven, leaving the glory that was his from eternity (John 17:5), to find, call and save sinful humanity. The Father and the Son send the Spirit to continue that mission (John 16:7-8). Saving the Lost is the very mission of God. If you put something up against that, guess which one takes priority?

But the direct question is what is the purpose of Christian Worship? Orthodox Protestant’s definition – the purpose of worship is for the people of God to assemble corporately to hear the gospel preached, confess our sins and partake of the sacraments – is correct. (Hence why it must be a false oppostion). Christian Worship is not about what we give to God. We have nothing to give to God. Christian Worship is about what God gives to us in Christ and through the Spirit – strengthening of faith and forgiveness of sins.

But now you get to the really sticky question. What form does this worship take? Some things like the sacraments are very prescribed in the scriptures with the words from Jesus himself (baptism – Matt 28:19; Communion -Mark 14:22-25). But other things like the Word are not prescribed in scripture. We have many descriptions of sermons given in Acts (Peter at Pentecost Acts 2:14-40, Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, Paul in Athens in Acts 17:16-32). We have Paul’s directions to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:2-34. The first part of that description (verses 2-16) is usually taken today to be arguing for respect, but not binding in particulars (i.e. It is no longer the cultural expectation that women have headcovers, and so God’s churches are free in this regard. The principle holds, but not the particulars.) In regards to music we have desciptions in Acts 16:25 when Paul is in prison, in Ephesians 5:19 where Paul encourages the singing of Psalms and Hymns and in Colossians 3:16 where we “teach and council (i.e. practice the ministry of the Word)…with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” The picture that emerges is of a very strict sacramental ministry, but a ministry of the Word that is culturally bound. Respectful worship, but done in Christian freedom. And here might be a fundamental difference between the Lutheran confession and the Reformed tradition. In the Lutheran Confessions, in things that are not prescribed by scripture, we have freedom.

The Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Formula Concord actually address this problem of worship style. It came up during the Interrims, which were the periods of Roman Catholic dominance after Luther’s death. Epitome article ten addresses it directly.

2. We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God.

5] 3. Nevertheless, that herein all frivolity and offense should be avoided, and special care should be taken to exercise forbearance towards the weak in faith. 1 Cor. 8:9; Rom. 14:13.

So…the church has a great amount of freedom in it worship practice. Arguably, like Paul’s advice to the Corinthians regarding women’s headware, the church’s worship practice should be a valid cultural expression not to cause offense to those outside the faith or to interfere with the primary mission to save the lost.

But here is the really hard part. That culturally valid expression should not offend the weak in faith. There are other interesting parts like what about freedom in a time of persecution (take a look at Ep X.4). Ultimately it is left to every generation to faithfully carry out the ministry of the Word in a valid cultural expression for their time and place. That is a high and tough calling.

And from that stems my bigger concern. The church used to set the tone of the culture. It found places for the creatives of society and gave them the challenge of faithful cultural worship and the expressions of the faith. Too many churches of the reformation since at least the 19th and 20th century have lost those creative people. Lack of opportunity, hide bound tradionalism and a suffocating form of cultural orthodoxy caused many of those formerly faithful to go elsewhere. They are not the better for that split as the creative tension of art in service to God has been lost and art for its own sake has degenerated into just strange expressions. And the church is poorer for that split as we have lost our ability to talk to very important portions of society.

Part of any vision for the modern church must include a healing of that split – A church that can effectively carry out its mission to the lost with creativity while maintaining faithful worship.

5 thoughts on “Christian Worship – What is its purpose? What is its form?

  1. Thank you for the very thorough and compelling reply. I did not mean to say that we give anything to God in worship other than our obedience in doing so. I absolutely agree with you that everything in the worship service is for the worshiper’s benefit; the reading of our confession, the absolution, the prayers, the preaching and the sacraments, all are for our benefit. Worship should be a humbling experience before God that is pleasing to Him. You are correct. There is a difference between the Lutheran and the reformed traditions. You stated the Lutheran position as <>. The reformed tradition is much more rigid and restricts worship to only what we see revealed to us in scripture, nothing more. Can you imagine Luther and Calvin debating the issue? But even with freedom in worship, I am still not happy with the contemporary-style worship in many evangelical churches where so-called worship bands distract from worship and heighten emotions. Much of the music is cheesey anyway.

  2. Excellent post, Parson Brown. Could you explain better what you mean by <> Are you speaking about the church’s overall impact on the culture at large or are you speaking about the church’s artistic expression, e.g. the Roman Catholic preservation of good art and music?

  3. oops. The quote didn’t seem to be included. Let me try again. Excellent post, Parson Brown. Could you explain better what you mean by, “The church used to set the tone of the culture. It found places for the creatives of society and gave them the challenge of faithful cultural worship and the expressions of the faith. Too many churches of the reformation since at least the 19th and 20th century have lost those creative people.” Are you speaking about the church’s overall impact on the culture at large or are you speaking about the church’s artistic expression, e.g. the Roman Catholic preservation of good art and music?

  4. I’m really speaking about the culture at large. The emergent church conversation and words such as post-christian get thrown around a lot and what I think most of them describe is the church’s state of exile or estrangement from the culture at large. For centuries, even in times when the preaching of the gospel was weak and heresy strong, the church defined the boundaries of the culture both high and low. In most “Christian” countries, parliaments and governments gave a pinch of salt to their authority being derived from God whether directly or through the people. That authority came with responsibility and granted the church a teaching role in the larger culture and even in govenment. As late as the 1950’s/60’s it was the preacher Martin Luther King who could reference St. Paul in prison when he wrote A Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The cultural conversation about communal values and shared understandings if not explicitly Christian was implicitly formed by the church. MLK could have the impact he did because he was pointing out the gap between religious confession and cultural expression and urging people to live up to their confession.

    Today that implicit forming has turned into at best outright denial (i.e. the debate regarding the redefinition of marriage to include same sex brides/grooms) and at worst almost no voice at all and complete irrelevancy (i.e. the hollywood/entertainment industry). And I am most definitely not arguing for a Christian ghetto or a sub-genre as that just deligitimizes the message that is to go out to all peoples. We do not have a spirit of weakness, but one of strength. The church has important things to say and not to a small niche. To be effective at that communication requires people gifted with creativity. Too often our doctrinal filters have filtered out those people, or refused them a voice with the church instead of ecouraging faithfulness while admiring the creativity. And it is not that the doctrine is wrong, but that we have become wedded to a particular expression of it that just does not speak to the culture today. The absurd reduction argument is why don’t we read the Greek New Testament in our churches? Yes, we don’t speak Greek, but that is the original language and culture of the Scripture.

    The culture asks certain questions or has certain felt needs – presenting problems. Too often the church never even attempts to answer those instead retreating inside comfortable words and patterns and casts out those who do try to engage the culture.

    None of that speaks to worship itself though. I’m going to put up another post walking through some of that.

  5. You said >>it is not that the doctrine is wrong, but that we have become wedded to a particular expression of it that just does not speak to the culture today.<< Are you suggesting the possibility that the liturgy itself could one day be declared outdated? What about the creeds? Liberals use language as a tool for change. E.g., the “War on Terror” is now the “Overseas Contingency Operation.'” So, who can we count on to safeguard the liturgy in a climate of change?

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