By Chris Smith
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” This well-known quote by the Greek philosopher Aristotle can be applied to many areas of achievement and growth. A famous athlete or musician would most likely tell you that there was no single day or event that led to an exponential growth in ability, but rather years of disciplined work that added up over time. Likewise, the majority of wealthy people are not that way from winning the lottery, but are so because of years of shrewd financial decisions. This being said, these aforementioned areas should be of secondary importance to one’s spiritual health. But unlike the above, people often make the mistake of thinking that spiritual formation is a one-time decision. (Perhaps a heavy influence of church services that urge attendees to make a “decision for Christ” and then offer little follow up has proliferated this ideology). Whatever the cause of this viewpoint may be, it is simply not true. Spiritual growth takes place over time, over years; and for better or worse, this most often occurs within the framework of Sunday morning worship services. Because of this, “what we repeatedly do” in worship needs to be thoughtfully and regularly examined in the context of spiritual development.
Regardless of denomination, most worship leaders have significant influence in two major areas of the worship gathering- prayer and music. These two areas will be the focus of this article, each examined in light of spiritual formation.
In the gospel of Matthew 23:13, Jesus said, “My house will be called a house of prayer.” Years ago, I heard a story of a young boy who had recently received a new watch. It had a timer feature, and the boy loved to time anything he could. One particular Sunday morning, he timed the activities that happened at church. After the service concluded, the boy went up to the pastor while showing him his watch as said, “Today you preached for 43 minutes, and we prayed for one.” Despite the obvious implication (and humor) of this anecdote, this is sadly true of many church services. Author David Peterson offers his thoughts: “Very few service leaders seem to understand that prayer should be the cement holding together the different things we do together and giving a Godward focus to every aspect of the gathering.” The first thing regarding prayer is to make sure it is included in the service. This sounds so simple, but it is often overlooked because of the emphasis on music and the sermon. And sadly, when prayer is included, it is many times used for transition as opposed to spiritual formation. For prayer to have a positive impact on our spiritual development, it must not be an afterthought in worship, it needs to be a feature of our gatherings. However, simply including prayer is not enough, it is just the beginning. How the church prays, and what the church prays for is also constantly forming its congregants. The Bible is clear in Philippians chapter four on offering to God our requests: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Presenting our requests to God often makes up the majority of our prayer lives, but it needs to be more than just asking for our earthy needs. Peterson again states, “Biblically shaped prayer does not simply ask God to meet our material needs but begs him to sustain and mature us as disciples of Christ.” This type of prayer can be offered in many forms- extemporaneous, written or recited, or by a leader guiding the congregation through different topics. Worship planners should strive for variety and avoid the same thing every week. Above all, prayers must be biblically founded3 and be offered in a way that benefits other believers.
Perhaps the first distinction that needs to be made here is that music does not equal worship. Praising God through song is part of worship, but so are other elements such as preaching, fellowship, and communion. Even with this distinction, music still plays a vital role in the worship of the church. But what role is this? For many, music is the main vehicle of outreach for the church; playing music that is culturally relevant to draw in outsiders. For others, music is simply to prepare congregants to hear the Word preached. Another growing trend is using music (along with lights and other technology) to create a certain atmosphere during worship. Despite the role of music being varied by congregation, this time during the service greatly contributes to spiritual formation, either intentionally or unintentionally.
When speaking on worship music, the most common thought is on style. However, in terms of spiritual formation, content is more important than style. The style is likely to determine whether a person does or does not attend a certain church, but adequate or inadequate spiritual growth is not dependent on the style or genre of music. This being said, the content in the music portion of the worship service is almost entirely derived from the lyrics of the chosen songs. But because the music can stir deep emotion5, often times songs are chosen based on how they sound instead of what they say. This can be dangerous, as theology is always present (good or bad) in the songs that we sing.6 Many songs contain concepts out of harmony with Christian truth, unexamined cliches, and references to experiences that are contrary to those of the worshipers. When songs are chosen simply because of popularity or only on their musical merit, the church risks malformation in its members.
There is a breadth of topics on which the church should sing. Songs of praise and proclamation for who God is and what He has done should be continually present, as should songs that retell the gospel story. At this moment, very popular in contemporary praise and worship music are songs that prominently feature the singer overcoming obstacles through the power and provision of our Lord. However, songs of mission, social justice, and lament are often neglected in the repertoire of the church. Without this balance of songs that focus on the needs of others, it is likely that the church will be unintentionally growing a generation of self-centered Christians, concerned with only what God can do for them. Authors Robert Woods and Brian Walrath in their book The Message in the Music, warn against this, “What we cannot rely on is a list of popular worship songs to be our sole guide to finding music that gives expression to that pain and suffering in our own worshiping community.”
For adequate spiritual formation to occur during the music portion of the service, the congregation needs to participate! As contemporary praise and worship has become more popular, there has also been a rise in worship services that look more like concert performances. Mike Cosper in Rhythms of Grace, decries this model, “Rather than worship being a formational process in the lives and hearts of believers over years of gathering and learning, it became an ecstatic experience driven by emotive preaching and decorated with music.” This “concert hall” mentality turns worshipers into passive observers who desire to have their preferences scratched, rather than emphasizing a communal gathering that is shared together10 (to be clear, this can happen in any service, regardless of musical style). Author Mark Powers further stresses congregational participation: “Avoid performance mode and spectator-ism. Creatively include scripture, prayer, and testimony led by many different worship participants.” Churches should always strive for excellence in all of their offerings, especially in the area of music. This notwithstanding, there must be balance between musical excellence and creating a culture of elitism, where only the eloquent and talented are allowed to be visible in the worship gathering. The gospel is for everyone, and God can and will use all who are willing in one way or another; our worship services must reflect this truth.
Spiritual growth occurs over time, and is a result of what is repeatedly done in our worship services. However, without proper planning, it is more likely than not that certain aspects are either overemphasized or underdeveloped. This calls for a renewed focus on intentionality, balance, and communication on the part of those who lead worship. With this renewed focus, our worship services will be better equipped to foster authentic and lasting spiritual formation.
Cosper, Mike. Rhythms of Grace: How the Churchís Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.
Peterson, David G. Encountering God Together: Leading Worship Services That Honor God, Minister to His People, and Build His Church. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2013.
Powers, Mark C. Going Full Circle: Worship That Moves Us to Discipleship and Missions. Eugene: Resource Publications, 2013.
Schilling, Paul. The Faith We Sing: How the Message of Hymns Can Enhance Christian Belief. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983.
Woods, Robert H., and Brian D. Walrath. The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.