A Theology of Worship

Originally posted at The Gospel Coalition by Kevin DeYoung

There is nothing more important in life than worship. We all worship something or someone. The only question is whether we will worship the right One in the right way. At University Reformed Church we want all of life to be worship to God (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:31). He is worthy to receive glory and honor and power (Rev. 4:11). In particular, we want our worship services on Sunday to be pleasing to Him. We want our corporate worship on Sunday to inspire and instruct our all-of-life worship Monday through Saturday. To gather with God’s people on the Lord’s Day to worship at God’s throne under the authority of God’s word is our solemn duty and joyful privilege.

It is with that supreme goal in mind that our church holds to a number of values when it comes to corporate worship. The list below is far from comprehensive or complete. Rather, it is meant to provide a brief summary of the most important principles undergirding our theology and philosophy of worship. Please consult the numerous appendices to see many of these points spelled out in further detail.

1. Glory to God – Worship is ultimately for Him. He is the most important audience at every service. Corporate worship is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly gathering of God’s people. The grand scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are both present and future. We too should direct all our attention to the throne. We too should sing of Christ’s work. We too should be earnest and uncompromising in our devotion to God. Our weekly gatherings—whether small or large, beautiful or forgettable—are meant to be a sweet foretaste of the heavenly worship we will one day experience for ages unending.

2. Focused on the Gospel of Christ – The gospel—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection— is what makes worship possible. The gospel is what we proclaim in worship. The gospel is what we sing in worship. The gospel is what calls a people together in worship, inspires a people to praise in worship, and sends a people out in a life of worship. Every Sunday is another opportunity to sing about the cross, glory in our Redeemer, and marvel at the good news that is Christ for us and in us. Jesus Christ is at the center of all biblical thinking about worship. He is the mediator between God and man. His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross is the propitiation for our sins. He is the procurer of salvation and blessing for the nations. He is the new temple in which and around which all true believers gather. Christ draws us to himself in worship and through him a new relationship with the Father is made possible. While our corporate worship is not specifically focused on unbelievers (as if they were the audience we need to please most), our focus on Christ means that we certainly want the gospel presented credibly and intelligently to non-Christians. We are privileged to have visitors every Sunday, some of whom are not converted. One of our prayers each week is that unbelievers would hear Christ’s call to faith and repentance, and that God would seek and save those who are lost.

3. Biblical – The whole service teaches God’s people, so everything—the prayers, the songs, the preaching—must be biblical. In corporate worship we read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible in the sacraments. Every element in the service must be evaluated based on God’s revelation in the Scriptures: are we singing, saying, and hearing what is true? Because of this conviction, we also affirm that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF 21.1). This “regulative principle” should not be the source of endless conflict and idle speculation, but an opportunity for God’s people to find unity and freedom in worshiping God as he wants to be worshiped.

4. Edifying to God’s people – Corporate worship is set apart from all-of-life worship in its focus on edification. Because of this focus, there are many activities that are appropriate for the Christian in all of life that aren’t appropriate in a worship service. There are many art forms that can be practiced and performed to the glory of God which would nevertheless not be suitable for corporate worship. Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 14 is that corporate worship must strive for maximum shared intelligibility. This means, among other things, that the worship service will not only be Word-centered, but also full of words.

5. Emphasizing the ordinary means of grace – God can work in many ways, but he has committed to being with us and transforming us through certain “means of grace.” He communes with us through prayer, through the word, and through the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Our services emphasize these ordinary means whereby God promises to give us more grace. We come to worship to give God glory, but even more so to meet with him and receive a blessing from his hand (Num. 6:24-26). The central act in the worship service is the preaching of God’s word. We believe this is best accomplished through the careful, Spirit-filled exposition of Scripture. Normally, this means working verse by verse through a book of the Bible. No matter the approach, every sermon should flow manifestly from Scripture and proclaim the gospel of God. Through all this, we hope that every worshiper will want to cry out, “Surely the Lord is in this place” (Gen. 28:16).

6. Congregational Singing – Choosing the appropriate musical composition and lyrical content for corporate worship is a task which requires careful attention to musical principles and even closer attention to theological fidelity. We believe there are new songs to be sung to Jesus. We also believe there is a great heritage of church music that we should embrace. We have no problem projecting words on a screen. But we also believe in the abiding value of using and learning from a good hymnal. Our services use music from different genres and different centuries. We use a variety of instruments, everything from guitars and drums to the organ. In all this, the most important sound is that of the congregation singing.

7. Liturgical (Worn Lightly) – Almost every church has an order of service and a familiar pattern of doing things, which means almost every church has a liturgy. Even though we wear our liturgy lightly, we still want it to be rich, rooted, and biblical. Our service has four parts: praise, renewal, proclamation, response. We see this pattern in the covenant renewal ceremonies of Scripture and in various divine encounters. In Isaiah 6, for example, Isaiah comes before God and praises him; then he confesses sin and seeks renewal; God then speaks his word to Isaiah; and finally Isaiah responds with commitment to God. This is also a gospel pattern: we approach God in awe, we see our sin, we hear the good news, and we respond in faith and obedience. Our services do not look the same every week, but neither are we trying to invent something new every Sunday. Within these four “acts” (praise, renewal, proclamation, response) can be found basic liturgical elements like a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon, a long pastoral prayer, Scripture readings, and flexible forms used for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

8. Reformed – The Church has been thinking about how to worship for centuries. We want to learn from our spiritual ancestors and build on their models. To that end, we are eager to employ the Ten Commandments, creeds, confessions, catechisms, responsive readings, and other forms that have been common in church history. We want our services to be comprised of more than an opening worship set, a sermon, and a closing song. As a PCA church, we resonate with the guidelines outlined in The Directory for the Worship of God (see the PCA BCO, Chapters 47-63). We want our worship to be winsomely—that is to say, not archaically or obnoxiously—Reformed, rooted in history and true to the Scriptures.

9. Prayerful – Our services include many different prayers. Often you will find a prayer of confession because we sin every week and need gospel mercy every week. We usually have a longer congregational prayer, which is an important time to pray for the needs of our church family and for the world. Other prayers are common too: a prayer of adoration at the beginning of the service, a prayer of illumination before the sermon, and a brief prayer after the sermon. We typically have a prayer service on the first Sunday evening of the month. It will be hard for God’s people to know that they must pray, or see that they can pray, or learn how to pray if prayer is not a significant part of what we do when we gather for worship.

10. Undistracting Excellence – In corporate worship, the focus should be on the gospel and the all-surpassing glory of Jesus Christ. If the guitars are out of tune, and the sound system screeches, and the preacher fumbles over his sentences, and those leading up front make everyone else feel a bit nervous, then our focus will be in the wrong place. Because doing things decently and in order is helpful to others and pleasing to God, we should seek to “do worship” with excellence (1 Corinthians 14:40). But it must be undistracting excellence (to borrow John Piper’s phrase). If the guitarist goes off on some fantastic riff, and the sound system includes sub-woofers under every seat, and the preacher waxes overly eloquent, and those leading up front make everyone else feel a bit like they are enjoying a performance, then our focus will be equally in the wrong place. The goal is to lead in such a way that we are neither so clumsy nor so clever that the glory of God is all but forgotten.