A Vision for Corporate Worship
by Rev. Dr. Larry D. Ellis
Worship as God desires it brings us into His presence. We experience Him in communion with us. As Christians, we need to experience both private and corporate worship. However, both expressions of worship must be personal. The Scriptures repeatedly teach us that worship is a participatory event, not a spectator sport or entertainment. Our role as worship leaders is to help our congregations experience the presence of God. Toward that end I believe that the vast majority of our worship elective decisions should be thematic taken from the sermon text, lessons of the day and/or the liturgical seasons. Some worship leaders want the Sunday morning services to be structured for great freedoms, while other rely upon the prayer book and worship is styled with dignity and majesty that is pleasing to God. We must be personal but not casual. This distinction is critical. Worship is for fellowship with God not each other.
The largest choir in the church is the congregation. Leading the congregation in exciting hymns is absolutely essential for worship, since praise is much desired by God. Leading congregational singing with the organ is very much alive. The rumor that is being circulated among Christian musicians that the use of the organ in worship is not effective or relevant today is completely untrue. Choral, handbell, brass descants and a cappella singing will add tremendous enthusiasm to congregational singing.
While many choirs learn to sing with musical excellence, which is very important, few musicians take either the congregation or the choir beyond the aesthetic level into the spiritual realm. It is the habit of some leaders to pass out the Sunday bulletin at choir rehearsal and worship even as they rehearse the hymns, service music and choral music for the upcoming services. Musicians are then preparing themselves to be the prompters in corporate worship. Rehearsing musicians can share our prayer requests and it is common to keep in contact about prayers and rehearsal details through emails to the choir members during the week to keep them up to date.
The Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20 the calling of all Christians to lead others into a personal faith in God and to help nurture them into an ongoing personal spiritual journey. This vision of spiritual maturation should be a part of the worship ministry. Worship leaders are called not only to the work of music ministry, but to encourage others to develop their gifts in this area as well. A long-term goal is to impact others and impart our faith in Christ and visions for music and worship to others, that will in time move into similar leadership areas of ministry. Consider asking the Lord to provide persons from time to time who could capture our vision and eventually be a missionary to other congregations and thereby enriching the Kingdom of God.
The choir can be a major vehicle for incorporating people into the church. Church choirs often sing many of the great works of choral literature both in the original languages and others only in English. Musical excellence of the group is often contagious, because people are attracted to a group when they feel secure singing music that is considered difficult. Many less-proficient sight-readers learn to read music well through positive teaching and long-term encouragement. The ministry of music can become one of the most unifying and incorporating ministries in the church. I also believe that this ministry within the church must be only one of the many critical expressions of ministry from the people of God. Therefore, since people and parishes have limited time as well as other resources, it is imperative that just with all other ministries within the church, all programs should be designed and coordinated to accomplish the overall mission to which a particular parish is called. Sometimes choirs enjoy the benefit of several paid singers. These are generally auditioned from interested vocal music majors at a nearby university. Their small stipend assists in their music education expenses and they provide a great musical inspiration and confidence to others singing within their choral section.
Worship of our Lord Jesus Christ has many facets. Under the broad heading of worship, we can place more limited areas of ministry. These are such things as musical composition, singing or playing music, prayer that has both confession and praise, and teaching and preaching when these activities take us into the presence of our Heavenly Father. Since the scriptures say so much about music in particular, we see the ministry of music as one of the primary means for us to worship God. Music is important in its own right not just because it may be supplemental to any other form of ministry or produce a desired end result for a church.
In I Chronicles 16 we see that God calls specific people to lead play and sing in choirs on behalf of all the brethren. II Chronicles 5 details how the true ministry of music can make God’s presence known in a powerful way. It says that the singers and instrumental musicians played with thanksgiving and praise to the Lord. The glory of the Lord filled the house. It was so great that the priests could not even stand to minister. Music is one of God’s means to make known to us the manifestation of the Glory of God. Lethargic, dull and unimaginative music and music that is poorly performed are some of the greatest obstacles to true corporate worship of God. Many worshipers find the use of applause completely out of place in corporate worship. One of the greatest strengths of liturgical style of worship is that almost all time together is spent speaking to or listening to God, not drawing attention to ourselves or talking to and with one another. Those times are important but not appropriate in worship. In fact they tend to undermine our worship experiences. The scriptures have many commands to praise God with music. Music can minister to our own spirits in a significant way at those times when the written or spoken word does not seem to minister to us. I will always recall a point in my life, when I was amidst an unimaginable personal crisis. I could not pray; I could not read my bible. I could only listen to a recording of “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” over and over. “Grant us wisdom; grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.” I could almost, but not quite, mouth the words with the tune as tears flowed down my cheeks. It was in that experience that God continually quieted my heart, comforted me and brought me assurance that He would get me through the circumstances.
Genesis says that we are made in God’s image. The very first attribute of God that we see in the scriptures is his creativity. God has designed us to express our love for him and for others through different expressions of creativity. This creativity can be expressed in writing, playing and singing music as well as visual arts and the theater just to name a few areas. When expressed as a response to God, these acts can become expressions of worship.
I see that music is a language and that today most churches need to be multilingual. I desire to find expression in musical worship in both the classical literature that has proven to be true praise of God through the centuries as well as nineteenth and twentieth century hymns and choral literature. While I support a broad style of music within the Christian community, I believe that it is a serious mistake to stretch the blending of musical styles to attempt to be inclusive of all styles in all situations. As an Episcopalian, I would not support the departure of traditional Episcopal liturgy or Anglican musicology for our principal Sunday morning worship. However, there are venues that can provide for regular expressions of music of varied tastes, particularly with the youth. This should be strongly supported. Because praise and music is important to God, our young children need to experience and learn about it at all ages. A part of our ministry strategy must include our children and youth singing praises to God. I serve as a resource to support those who would nurture this part of our Christian ministry.
I will not dwell on this subject, but having come from the cerebral/cognitive worship environment where the “teaching” was the centerpiece of the “worship” experience, I have found it to be severely lacking. Sharing and community life experiences and spiritual teaching are important, but they should not be seen as or substituted for worship. Having memorized much of the scriptures and studied the bible on a personal level for decades, my experience of God was woefully inadequate to meet some of my life traumas. It was in these times that I discovered a missing dimension in my life, the mystery of contemplative fellowship with God and sacramental worship.
The musical style within a particular church will generally be a reflection of personal tastes that are present within that church. I believe as ministers of music, we are stewards of God’s music not curators. We are to equip our musicians and congregations to enjoy and employ a historical style of music and worship traditions. We must guard against short-term fads. We are to stimulate and create opportunities for all to share the gifts of music that God has given to some of us. It is important to have our churches provide a worship environment that stands in contrast to the secular community and banal Las Vegas style delivery that is stripped of the distinctively powerful anointing by God that is described in I Chronicles 16, under the guise of being “too churchy to attract the secular person.” Anytime the worshiper’s attention is drawn more to the performer than to God, the musician has done a great injustice. This user-friendly style of “worship” will eventually be acknowledged for what I believe it is, counterfeit worship.
Robert E. Webber founder of the Institute for Worship Studies taught that worship will reflect the cultural preference in musical style, but that worship is never about the style of music employed. No matter whether it is in a Gothic Episcopal Cathedral or a small town Methodist or Pentecostal church there should always be four distinct part to our community worship. First there is a gathering – the transition environment from the outside world into the community of God. The second element is the Word. This means learning from the Scriptures through reading, teaching, and preaching. The third element is a response to that word shared. This most often takes the form of communion, or in some cases some response as a new commitment to God. The final part of corporate worship is to be missional. This is a dismissal process to send the worshipers out into the world to do the work of Christ. The style of these elements will vary from church to church and country to country, but all four elements should be present within a worshiping church community.
(I appreciate that some of my thoughts expressed here are controversial. Please let these thoughts stimulate your ideas.)