When it comes to evaluating our worship, we always want to stand firmly on the Word of God. Though God receives our worship as our Father through the blood of His Son and in the power of the Spirit (and therefore gladly forgives sin and ignores our foibles and ignorance), it should still be a delight to us to know what really delights Him. But once we’ve assembled all the material on the table, as much as we’ve been able to cull from Scripture and the best of what our fathers have handed down to us in their search of the Scriptures, we’re still left with the project of gathering for worship in our communities.
On the one hand, I have some sympathy with the high traditionalists (Orthodox in particular) who insist that the liturgy is not something we invent or create. It’s something we participate in. This emphasizes the fact that worship is heavenly. John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and was enabled to participate in heavenly worship. If we have been granted the same Spirit and we have been seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1), then our worship is simply being ushered into the presence of God, joining with the angels and archangels and all the host of heaven in adoration and praise of the King of Kings. We’re not inventing worship, starting something new, we’re joining the eternal, heavenly reality, that which has always been and will always be.
But interestingly, it’s by the very same token, the very same biblical-theological token that we have to insist that people still have an important role to play. Being anointed with the Spirit and being seated in the heavenly places isn’t an invitation to merely be a fly on the wall of the New Jerusalem. Anointing means responsibility. It means you have a role to play, a job to fulfill. The saints are not a holy blob of warm feelings. This is one of my qualms with friends who have converted to Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism: They want to go limp in the presence of God and just have holy stuff happen to them, like church is some kind of yuppy day spa, only with incense and icons. Which by the way, also occurs in low church settings with throbbing base beats and electrified, trance inducing choruses, orchestrated to enable congregations to reach emotional climax by the third song guaranteed.
And so we must ask: What are we seated in the heavenly places for? What did we receive the Spirit for? I would submit that the answer of the Bible is to lead the world in worship of the Triune God. We are responsible for crafting worship services, writing prayers, composing songs, conducting music, proclaiming the gospel in word and symbol and gesture and deed. That’s our job.
Now there’s a certain kind of finicky perfectionism that’s constantly fiddling with the liturgy. C.S. Lewis says somewhere, he doesn’t care too much what the liturgy is so long as it isn’t changing all the time. There’s a certain kind of fiddling that isn’t helpful, sort of like rearranging the living room ever day of the week and twice on Thursdays. It’s a lot of work and not really worth it. But the fact that our worship participates in the eternal heavenly worship with the entire host of heaven is not at odds with the fact that we are actually expected to contribute, to bring our particular offerings, our particular songs, our particular prayers. All of it must be done in faith in the finished work of Jesus, in obedience to Scripture, and with a love for God’s people — but we still must do it. And that’s part of the grace of worship. Somehow God wants us to lead worship and lead the whole world in worship from our little sandboxes in our little corners of the world, in our language, wearing our cultures transformed by the power of the Spirit.
But this means at the end of the day, somebody’s got to pick which songs we’re going to sing, a sermon text, and what color the sanctuary is going to be painted. And then at some point someone else is going to wonder why we do that and whether we might also think about doing this other thing. Wise pastors and music ministers understand that worship shapes a people, it is one aspect of discipleship. Leading our people into the glory presence of Jesus through praise and prayer, word and sacrament is for the purpose of being transformed from glory to glory, so that as we look on the face of Jesus in His glorious gospel, we might be conformed more and more to His glorious image.
And this means that we must constantly ask whether or not this is happening. And more fundamentally, we have to recognize that something is always happening. People are always being shaped and transformed, but the question remains: what are they being shaped into? What are they being conformed to? Sunday morning worship is not the only factor, but the Bible teaches that it is the central factor. So when it comes to evaluating our worship, we must stand on the Word of God and plead with God to make it sharp in our hearts, giving us eyes to see and ears to hear accurately, so that we might lead our people well. But at the end of the day when we’ve assembled everything on the table and we take a good look at what we’ve got, we need the mind of Christ, His Spirit leading us and directing us. And it’s all well and good to say that, but it turns out there’s you (the Pastor), Youth Pastor Sam, Sally Mae the pianist, and maybe one of the ruling elders.
Well here’s one practical suggestion that we can perhaps develop at another time: Jesus is our prophet, priest, and king. His Spirit is poured out to anoint His people with those same offices in the church. I would submit that people are gifted by the Spirit to tend toward one of those offices in particular. All who have the Spirit have some of each, but people tend to be strong in one of them. But all are necessary. Priests are traditionalists and rule-followers. They don’t improvise; everything is by the book. They like stability and predictability. Kings search out wisdom and make difficult decisions. They keep in mind the frames of the people, but push them to accomplish more than seems possible. Kings are problem solvers. Prophets critique worship. They see the weaknesses, the inconsistencies, the holes. Prophets pray for reformation and greater faithfulness. Prophets are visionaries. That’s just a sketch, but I suspect that every congregation needs at least one worship leader whose strength is one of those offices. This is no fool-proof method for perfect worship, but if wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors and the mind of Christ is the wisdom of God, then this would seem like a safe place to start. And I suspect there’s something deeply trinitarian about it too.