By Matthew Ward
Anyone who comes to this site is concerned about right worship in his or her church, however that might be defined. At the very least, we want our worship to be biblical and pleasing to God—but we all know that the Bible doesn’t seem to answer all of our questions in the forms in which we ask them. What color should a pulpit be? How large should a communion table be? What kind of amp should a bass player use? (Those might be a bit extreme, but you understand my point.) Most of us approach those kinds of questions in one of two ways: either we claim a God-given liberty in those areas or we apply our own theological/philosophical framework to find the answers.
In this article, I want to offer a tool you can use to guide your church through all of these considerations – one that every church can use. It’s called a worship hermeneutic.
Most of you have heard the term ‘hermeneutic’ applied to the Bible. It’s the lens you use to understand and interpret the words and truths in the Bible (consciously or not). It’s also why there are so many different interpretations of the Bible. Churches and worship leaders apply a hermeneutic to their worship services (again, consciously or not). If we take a conscious approach to a single, unified worship hermeneutic, we can answer a lot of the supposedly unanswered questions and take our worship services down meaningful and exciting paths.
Many Starting Points
Let’s use the illustration of a theology textbook. If you’ve read more than one, you know that no two are alike. Every author starts the same elements – the Bible itself with its teachings, lessons, and events, church history and tradition, and so on – but he chooses to arrange and emphasize those elements differently. The same is true of a worship service. We all start with the same elements – songs, prayers, preaching, and so on, some from the Bible, some from tradition – but we choose to arrange and employ them in a way perhaps unlike, say, the church down the road.
The challenge is that we don’t always know why we have made the decisions we have made. We expect theology textbook authors to be very intentional about the choices they make (their hermeneutic). Why would we not be just as intentional with a part of Christianity every bit as important as well-written theology? All we have to do is understand our own worship hermeneutic.
(By the way, if your church uses a written liturgy, that obviously changes your perspective. There is an obscure field called liturgical hermeneutics which is very interesting, and even there you will find that there are still a number of ways you can use the ideas in this article.)
In other words, know that there can be a guiding and unifying principle that you can apply to all of the decisions you make in structuring, ordering, and executing your church’s corporate worship. Ideally, this will be the same principle that your church uses. Every church has some kind of guiding priority it uses to make decisions about ministries, events, staffing, and so on. Some churches are more intentional about it than others, which means that the first (and sometimes hardest) step is to identify your church’s guiding priority. Here are a few examples: making a Bible-based disciple (which might emphasize expository preaching and scripture songs), making on-mission evangelists (which might emphasize testimonies and training), celebrating the glory of God (which might emphasize prayer and vertical worship), focusing on the church’s social mission (which might emphasize action and opportunity). This is not something that you or your worship team can do on your own – this takes the entire church.
These examples may be complementary, but they are not identical. The second step is to word your church’s particular guiding priority in a way that makes sense in a worship context. That then becomes your worship hermeneutic. Should not your church’s worship services reflect your church’s priority? Robert Webber spent many years convincing us that the church’s worship was the ultimate crucible of spiritual formation. In the next article we will investigate how to apply your worship hermeneutic to your church’s services. But hopefully the possibilities are already clicking in your head.
Importantly, realize that we are only talking about the externals of corporate worship. You cannot program worship in spirit and truth. But you can work to keep your external framework in line with the priorities and beliefs you have established as foundational for your church. Every part of your worship service can and should be intentionally directed toward forming members in that principle which guides your entire church through its mission on earth. With full understanding of your worship hermeneutic, you can help make this happen.
Matthew Ward is the minister of music, education, and technology for Retta Baptist Church in Burleson, Texas. He has a PhD in Baptist and Free Church Studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is married to Shelly, and they have two kids, Micah and Sarah.