Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good show is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
—C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, 4
The basic unit of meaning on Sunday morning is not the sermon but the service.
—Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 215
I am grateful for an instructive experience I had near the beginning of my work as a liturgical choral conductor, hearing comments of four worshipers after a service in which my choir had participated. The first, obviously either a veteran chorister or former drill sergeant, remarked: “That choir’s procession was as precise and symmetrical as any I have seen.” The second participant commented: “I loved the exuberant style of that choir.” The third observed, as if making a new discovery: “I couldn’t believe how each piece of music went so well with the Scripture readings that preceded it.” The fourth, in a noticeably reflective tone, added: “My husband died six months ago, and tonight through your music, I finally have been able to pray.” These comments each illustrate a different level of attention and analysis. The first addresses matters of mechanics, the second matters of style, the third, the form of worship; only the fourth evokes worship’s deep meaning and purpose.
—John D. Witvliet, “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice by John D. Witvliet” (in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, ed. Dorothy C. Bass & Craig Dykstra), 137
No parent, no spouse, no friend—and no pastoral leader—can be fully present or emotionally engaged all the time. That may be because of any number of very legitimate reasons: depression, sleeplessness, or an overwhelming concern for a member of one’s own family or congregation. What we can aim for is a Spirit-shaped constancy, in which healthy habits of engagement carry us through when we are not “feeling it” in the moment. Such constancy is no less a gift of the Spirit than a vivid emotionally engaged experience of worship.
—John Witvliet, Reformed Worship 116:45
The content of public worship is of immense importance. P. T. Forsyth said, “The preacher is not there to astonish people with the unheard of, he is there to revive them in what they have long heard.” What is so for preaching . . . is also true for the context in which preaching takes place. Every element of the public worship of the people of God must communicate the true content of the faith, which finds its focus on the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.
–Noel Due, Created for Worship, 235
Pastors and ministry leaders in the local church have an enormous stewardship in shepherding the lives of the people who attend services each week. People in the pews hand over sixty minutes of their week to be led in meaningful corporate worship. Sometimes I fear that worship leaders forget to ask themselves the “what’s at stake” question, unwittingly prompting a congregation to respond to them – the worship leader- rather than the One worthy of worship.
The following statement by A. W. Tozer solidified in my mind the stakes on Sunday mornings:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.
What’s at stake on Sunday mornings? People’s view of God. Worldviews diametrically opposed to the gospel barrage our people weekly; corporate worship should help people recalibrate their hearts and minds towards God. If Tozer is right that the most important thing about a person is their view of God, then every aspect of a worship service–the songs’ texts, the spoken transitions, the prayers and even the announcements–should point people to a clearer, more focused and biblically-informed understanding of who God is.
Bryan Chapell writes in his book, Christ-Centered Worship: “This is more than a matter of choosing music that is properly respectful or adequately relevant. Our worship should show the face of Jesus to those who have gathered and to those who need to gather to worship Him.”
–Dr. Joseph Crider (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville) (from a blog post at doxologyandtheology.com)
The purpose of a worship service is to do as much as necessary and as little as possible in order to help authentic worship take place in every heart of all who have gathered.