I had been a pastor for just a few months when a faithful church member sought me out to discuss the use of media in the services. He had led previous pastors to incorporate video and sound clips, and he wanted to be of help to me. He started off with a question kind of like this:
“So, what do you think about movie clips in the services?”
“Well, I really hadn’t planned on using media in the services.”
“Really? I’ve been involved in worship for quite some time, and it’s a pretty effective way to communicate.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt that. But I’m afraid it might distract people from the heart of the service, the singing, preaching, and praying of the Word.”
“I wouldn’t think of it as a distraction, more of an addition, it makes the whole service better.”
“You might be right, but I really want our focus to be on the power of God’s Word to engage and excite us, so I’m going to stay away from movie clips.”
That’s about how the conversation ended. We were two grown men who both love the Lord but with different viewpoints on what would most honor God and be helpful to this local church. If you were in my shoes, how would you have answered his question?
Over the years, I’ve been asked to weigh in on many such issues related to our Sunday morning service.
Should we have Independence Day bunting? I said no, after figuring out what bunting is.
Christmas decorations? I said yes.
Dramatic Scripture readings? No.
A children’s choir? Yes, a couple times a year.
A collection box in the foyer? No.
Movie clips? See above.
As you can probably tell from these examples, I came to an established church with its own customs and traditions. If you are planting a church, I suppose you are more likely to be asked your opinion on incense, an art gallery in the foyer, and cutting edge or even secular music.
I’m less concerned that you reach the same conclusion I have on any of these examples. What I do want you to realize is that Scripture is not silent about corporate worship.
FIVE GUIDELINES FOR MAKING GODLY DECISIONS
The regulative principle helps me answer these kinds of questions. The regulative principle says that Scripture regulates what is permissible to do in public worship. And those who hold the regulative principle will approach each question carefully, asking not merely “What will God allow?” but also “What does God prefer?”
The following five guidelines, rooted in the regulative principle, have helped me to address which practices appropriately honor God and help his people in our weekly gatherings.
1. Corporate Worship Is Word-Centered.
First, corporate worship is Word-centered. After Paul told Timothy of Scripture’s power to change lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17) he offered this simple exhortation: “preach the word” (4:2). My most important pastoral duty is to lay Scripture before my church, confidently knowing that the Spirit can apply it to people’s lives and produce spiritual maturity.
A Christian gathering should not be merely “biblical” in some general, abstract sense. It should be so saturated with Scripture that it is obvious to everyone that we believe God works powerfully through his Word, as we preach the Word, sing the Word, and pray the Word. I don’t want to endorse anything that will distract us from Scripture.
2. Corporate Worship Is Gospel-Centered.
Second, corporate worship is gospel-centered. Paul boasted in the fact that he preached Christ: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). To proclaim Christ means to unveil the gospel before the church. A dull saw can’t cut down a tree, and a gospel-less service can’t produce spiritual maturity. Corporate worship should lead every participant to revel in the accomplishment of Christ for sinners.
3. Corporate Worship Is Congregational.
Third, corporate worship is congregational. Once again, Paul gives clear instructions: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). I’m struck by the congregational nature of these commands. We, the church, are commanded to sing songs to “one another.” It reminds me of how the first chair violinist in an orchestra plays not only for the audience, but for the other violinists, and how the others listen to the first chair. So members of the congregation minister to one another throughout a church service, even as they pray and sing to God
4. Corporate Worship Is for the Church.
Fourth, corporate worship is for the church. Let’s face it, there’s a serious difference of opinion today about the primary purpose of a church’s corporate gathering, and that’s going to affect how you structure your service. Many churches stress that they exist for non-Christians. They tailor their music (secular) and their messages (short) to appeal to the lost.
Other churches, like mine, recognize that they will often have unbelieving visitors, but they focus on equipping the saints to reach the lost. And I believe we see the latter approach in Scripture. New Testament churches focused on edifying the body (1 Cor. 14:12, 14, 26), building unity in the body (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and encouraging members of the body (Heb. 10:24-25).
As someone leading our services, I try to make non-Christians feel welcome by explaining to them what’s happening throughout our time together, by addressing potential objections to Christianity in the sermon, and by winsomely and clearly sharing the gospel.
Nonetheless, when I think about what we should do when we gather as a church, I’m not fundamentally concerned with attracting unbelievers. The church gathered is to honor God by edifying the body of Christ. The church scattered is to honor God by evangelizing the lost.
5. Corporate Worship Is Led.
Fifth, corporate worship is led. Elders should shepherd under God’s authority without domineering over the flock (1 Pet. 5:2-3). Congregations should follow them, striving to make their jobs easier (Heb. 13:17).
What a gift godly leadership is (Eph. 4:8ff.)!
I’m thankful to lead with a body of elders who see our corporate worship service as part of the teaching ministry of the church. We know that the decisions we make may not always be popular. Some want a choir. Others want contemporary music. A decision must be made.
It is important, therefore, to find godly men who can think through what is most honoring to the Lord and most edifying to the congregation, and then to trust them to lead accordingly.
FIVE TEST CASES
It’s time to crawl into the batting cage to see a few of the pitches that might come our way.
1. Is it appropriate to have visual arts, like skits, in a morning worship service?
In the best-case scenario, a skit is a dramatization of a scriptural passage. In the worst-case scenario, it is a shameless attempt to grab the congregation’s attention. I would treat the latter like nuclear waste—don’t get near it! As for the former, I’m open but cautious.
The danger is that dramatizing a passage pulls the rug out from under the plain power of the spoken Word. Ravi Zacharias made a statement I’ll never forget: “In the beginning was the Word, not the video.” Congregations should rely upon the spoken Word because God has always used his Word to build his people and grow his church—this is obvious from Genesis to Revelation.
2. What about baby dedications?
Once a year, our church recognizes new parents during the Sunday morning service. As a church, we want to encourage parenthood and pray for the salvation of these little ones. Nonetheless, because corporate worship is congregational, we also ask the members of the church to publicly promise to hold these parents accountable to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
3. How much should we recognize cultural holidays like the Fourth of July?
I approach this question with the conviction that our gatherings are for the church, and the church consists of believers with one thing in common: salvation by faith in Christ alone. Therefore, I don’t plan services around cultural themes. Though I’m sure to thank God for religious liberty on the Fourth, and though I always pray for moms on Mother’s Day, I don’t lead us to have a Fourth of July or Mother’s Day service.
4. Should a congregation recite creeds together?
There are many good reasons to incorporate orthodox statements of faith and church covenants into our public services. They remind us that God has been at work for centuries, making his Word clear. And in a world where truth is considered relative, it’s helpful for congregations to go against the grain and publicly unite around biblical teaching.
If creeds are incorporated into a corporate worship service, it has do be done in such a way that the authority of the Bible is emphasized. A service leader might say something like, “This morning, we want to confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, joining with Christians throughout the centuries who have understood the Bible to teach that Jesus is, and always has been, God.”
5. Should we have multiple services divided by musical preference?
For example, should we have an early morning “traditional” service, mid-morning “contemporary” service, and late-morning “modern” service? Leaving the ecclesiological question of multiple services aside, I do have concerns about the prudence of dividing the congregation based upon musical preference. A gospel-centered service should bring believers together. If we are willing to divide over the style of music, what does that say about the power of the gospel to unite us? My fear is that it says the gospel is not enough.
FOR OUR GOOD, WE’RE NOT FREE
Not everyone is going to like how I swing at these pitches, and that’s okay. The nitty-gritty details of church life and corporate worship will undoubtedly vary from context to context and church to church. Those who hold to the regulative principle will undoubtedly disagree over some of the details.
Yet we need to keep in mind that we are not free to do whatever we want, whatever works, or whatever the people ask us to do. For our good, God has given us parameters. Corporate worship is to be Word-centered, gospel-centered, congregational, for the church, and led.
Aaron Menikoff is the senior pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia.