Christians are a singing people.
Muslims don’t gather to sing. Neither do Hindus, Buddhists, or Rastafarians. Christians do. Also, while not everyone preaches, or leads in prayer, or publicly reads Scripture, we all sing.
But what can we say about the nature of a corporate Christian song? What should it be like? Can we sing any kind of song when gathered together?
WHAT A CONGREGATIONAL SONG SHOULD BE
Whether our corporate worship is subject to the regulative principle or simply the principle of conscience, the exercise of singing ought to be seriously considered in light of Scripture. And Psalm 96 offers some crucial perspectives regarding the nature of a right song and its effects. Originally written for the covenant people of God for the entry of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (see 1 Chr. 16), this Psalm offers us much regarding the practice of singing today.
A Congregational Song Should Focus on God
God is at the center of a Christian song. When God calls his people to sing, it is a qualified type of song. In Psalm 96:1, God says, “Sing to the Lord.”
When the church is gathered together in the name of God, the glory of God is the aim of our melody making. We are to sing to him, about him, and for him. We don’t sing merely as the world sings of created things, our song is elevated to the Uncreated One. The songs of the church proclaim the character, attributes, and ways of the God of our salvation.
For those who choose songs for corporate worship, this is a task to be carried out with sobriety. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander give this advice to pastors: “As the main teaching pastor, it is your responsibility to shepherd the congregation into the green pastures of God-centered, gospel-centered songs, and away from the arid plains of theological vacuity, meditations on human experience, and emotional frenzy.” If our songs are never set above vacuity, human experience, and emotions, we have fallen short of our goal. God must be the center of our worship; therefore God must be the center of our songs.
A Congregational Song Should Be Biblical
The songs of the church ought to be built on, shaped by, and saturated with the word of God. Singing is a unique way to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us (Col. 3:16).
In Psalm 96:2, we see that we are to bless his name. Apart from God’s revelation, we would not know his name, or how to bless his name. Our singing and the whole of our worship must be biblically informed in order to carry out these commands. The songs of the church should be intentionally biblical.
We might think of singing as a form of exposition that uses poetry to teach the word of God. When Isaac Watts published Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, this was his intention. His goal was not to sing Scripture line by line, but to create poetic and emotive renditions of Scripture that allow a church to sing the truths of Scripture.
Songs are sermons. They don’t work like homiletical exegesis, but they articulate, exegete, and pronounce biblical truths. Our hymns teach and shape the way people view God, man, Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel.
One way to ensure our singing is biblical is to comb through our songs to see if we cover the breadth of themes presented throughout the canon. Our songs should be held up to the light of God’s word to ensure we are singing the glories of its truth.
A Congregational Song Should Point to the Gospel
The contours of the gospel should shape our hymnal. We should “tell of his salvation” (v. 2), so that the gospel rings forth as the theme of our songs. If we are convinced of the primacy of gospel-centered ministry, we should surely practice gospel-centered singing. The songs of our churches must be fluent in the gospel.
One approach toward gospel-centered singing is to build on the framework of God, man, Christ, response.
- We sing to God as the holy creator of all things, who is worthy of worship.
- We sing of man and our sinful nature, our alienation from God, and our need of forgiveness.
- We sing of Christ who is fully God and fully man, who lived a sinless life and died on the cross to bear the wrath of God.
- We sing a response. In these songs of consecration and repentance, faith and praise, we joyfully respond to the good news of Jesus.
A Congregational Song Should Be Congregational
The preface to this Psalm says it is to be sung by both Asaph and his sons (1 Chr. 16:7). Christian singing is congregational at its core.
The song of redemption is not meant for one, but for many. In the torrent of individualism and self-help, the people of God don’t sing as a collection of individuals, but as one people united to Christ. Christian singing is not meant to highlight the talented few, but to include the voice of the many. Congregational participation protects the gathering from pageantry and pomp, and provides an environment for an exultant, grace-infused response to the revelation of God.
This choir of the redeemed lift a collective voice of praise as a testimony that we have been reconciled to God and to one another. Singing together in worship is a mark of unity within a church. The song of the redeemed is to be sung by young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak. Verse 7 reminds us that families of peoples will ascribe praise to God: peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation on the earth.
A Congregational Song Should be Evangelistic
While worship is theocentric, it is also declarative. Our singing is aimed at God, but it also rings in the ear of our neighbor. God-centered worship is proclamation. As we sing of the glory of God we understand that all have not seen his glory. As we sing of the goodness of the gospel, we realize that it is not good news to all.
Spurgeon called this Psalm the “Missionary Psalm,” and for good reason. In verses 10 to 13, we see that God-centered singing intrinsically works as a declaration to the lost. God-centeredness and evangelism are not two competing targets but one inside of the other. The worship of God is the aim of evangelism.
In the same breath, we sing of the love and wrath of God. In the same melodies, we declare his holiness and the grave effect of sin. Christ is the king who will come to judge the world in his righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. We say among the nations “The Lord reigns!” in the hope that men and women will repent of sin and trust in Christ.
A HOLY PRACTICE
The church has been given a song to sing, and Christ is its author, its substance, and its aim.
A church’s songs are not a mere preamble to the sermon. Singing is not filler time to warm up a congregation. Singing is a holy practice. We sing because God has commanded us, and our songs should fill our hearts with delight.
Matt Boswell is pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.
 Thanks to Collin Hansen for articulating this idea in a conversation.
 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 85.
It appears to be biblical theology month here at 9Marks, with 9Marks at Southern starting February 28 and Logos giveaway of an eBook version of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. In that spirit, we asked Michael Lawrence, senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, a few questions about biblical theology.
9M: Why is it important for Christians to understand biblical theology?
ML: Whether they realize it or not, Christians are doing biblical theology all the time. They are relating the Old Testament to the New Testament, Israel to Jesus and the church, the law to the gospel. That’s the work of biblical theology.
So if you're going to be doing something anyway, if it’s inescapable every time you pick up your Bible, then I think you should know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then it’s not that you won't do biblical theology. It’s simply that you’ll do it badly.
The Scriptures are the power of God for salvation. Therefore, we don’t want to misinterpret or misapply them. Biblical theology is essential if we are to faithfully do both.
9M: Jim Hamilton defines biblical theology as learning to read the Bible like the apostles did. What do you think of that definition?
ML: I like Jim’s definition a lot, because I think biblical theology is essentially a reading strategy. For over two centuries now, the academic community has taught us to read the Bible in increasingly atomized parts, like pearls on a string. Certainly paying attention to the distinct voice of John or Jeremiah has had many benefits. It has taught us to pay attention to context, and has kept us from flattening the Bible out into a simplistic univocal message.
But there’s no doubt that this strategy, particularly in the hands of skeptical unbelief, has also done a lot of damage. Not least it has obscured the single voice of God, speaking through the multiplicity of human voices and yet telling a single story of judgment and redemption. In other words, in rediscovering the individual trees of the Bible in their unique beauty we’ve lost the biblical forest in its majestic grandeur.
When we talk about biblical theology as the reading strategy of the apostles, we’re talking about a perspective on the canon that the apostles learned from Jesus himself (Luke 24:27). But it’s not just their reading strategy for the Old Testament; it was their writing strategy for the New Testament as well. Again and again, they wrote to show that what happened in and through Jesus was the fulfillment of what had already been written (e.g., Matt. 1:22, 2:15; John 12:38; Acts 1:16). But it wasn’t just Jesus that the OT pointed forward to. They also wrote about the identity and nature of the church in the same way (e.g., Acts 2:16, 1 Cor. 10:11ff., Heb. 12:18-24).
So biblical theology is not just an apostolic reading strategy for the Old Testament, it’s an apostolic reading strategy for the whole Bible. And we read it that way, not only because the apostles told us to read it that way, but because it’s the way the Holy Spirit inspired it from first to last.
9M: What are you planning to talk about at the upcoming 9Marks at Southern conference on biblical theology?
ML: What I’m hoping to speak on is the way in which biblical theology is necessary for the formation of Christian identity. There are several favorite and well-known phrases from the New Testament that we use to describe ourselves: we’re aliens and strangers, sons and daughters, the bride of Christ. I want to show that we can’t understand any of those crucial identity markers without biblical theology, and that with biblical theology they become profoundly rich in ways beyond what we typically attach to them.
That’s my goal anyway. In the process, I hope to show just how useful biblical theology is to our work of counseling and discipling, which is the ministry context in which we typically lean most heavily on those identity images.
Interested in reading Michael’s book? Check out our bookstore.
My first exposure to biblical theology was back in 1984 as a seminary student. One of my professors assigned us Biblical Theology by Gerhardus Vos. I found it heavy sledding, but formative all the same. Later I dove into Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption.
Then, as the years piled on, I encountered Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, as well as an assortment of other works in the same discipline. In 2004 I made my own attempt at bringing biblical theology down to a child’s level with The Big Picture Story Bible. Suffice it to say, I’ve been intrigued with the ballast biblical theology can provide to pastoral ministry for over 30 years now.
Yet a fundamental shift is underway regarding how the content and concepts of biblical theology are delivered to those looking to grow in preaching and teaching. Gone are the days when pastors simply picked up a book as the only way of making progress. Rather, people are becoming increasingly convinced that the kind of training they need requires something that not only informs them, but helps them work on their own work. And for that, the world is increasingly turning to online platforms for help.
To this end, the Charles Simeon Trust (which I serve as the Chairman) has created an interactive online course called Preaching and Biblical Theology. And with fifteen HD video lectures delivered by the likes of Greg Beale, Don Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, Vaughn Roberts, Michael Lawrence, and others, we think it is one of the better things going! It combines the best of classroom instruction with hands-on interaction and assignments.
Already, people across the country are taking it as individuals or in groups. And the feedback we are getting back is encouraging. It is accomplishing the goal of putting some ballast back into pastoral work. Some are even taking it for seminary credit.
There are not many other comprehensive tools for receiving this level of training on preaching and biblical theology. So, if you want a free sample of what an online lecture is like, check out this talk by Greg Beale. For more information you can visit simeoncourse.org or email email@example.com.
In these three posts, we have explored how biblical theology is meant to put ballast into your preaching. The tools of plot, theme, typology and analogy have been introduced, and an online course has been made available. The only thing that remains is for us to commit to taking in the ballast that our preaching so desperately needs.
David Helm is one of the pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, Chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust, and the author of Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (forthcoming from Crossway, April 2014). Joel Miles is the Director of Training at the Charles Simeon Trust and a pastoral resident at Holy Trinity Church.
Would you recognize antinomian theology if you heard it? How about if you preached it? Almost anyone who moves in Reformed Christian circles, whether traditional or young and restless, knows that antinomianism is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet judging by the little attention paid to it, many don’t seem to view it as a major threat.
I suspect that most of us would consider legalism a much weightier accusation than antinomianism. Indeed, we might even wear the charge of antinomianism as a badge of honor. After all, didn’t people hurl this same accusation at the apostle Paul (Rom. 3:8; 6:1)?
It seems that for many contemporary pastors, antinomianism is like smallpox: extremely dangerous, but thankfully rare in our day. After all, how many people really teach that Christians don’t have to obey Jesus?
In his book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?, Mark Jones seeks to persuade you that antinomianism is more prevalent than you think. As Reformed theology’s unwelcome guest, it springs up like tares wherever sovereign grace is rediscovered and proclaimed. And according to Jones, the contemporary Reformed resurgence is no exception to this pattern. As a historical theologian, Jones wants you to recognize antinomianism when you hear it—whether in podcasts, blog posts, or in your own sermons. By the time you’re done, you may realize that you’re more antinomian than you think.
Click here to continue reading.
When a solo pastor recognizes the need for an additional hire it’s both an exciting and fearful proposition. Exciting because your church has grown to the place where you can afford another person to serve the congregation. Fearful because you can only hire one.
Consider the options. Last year Ryan Townsend suggested your second hire might be an administrative pastor. There’s much wisdom in that and Ryan makes a good case for it. Some would recommend a pastor-evangelist as your second hire. After all, you’re adding another salary so you’ll need more people in the church to support the additional financial burden. Others might make the case for a children’s pastor, especially when the demographic of your church is largely young families. Still others would opt for a youth or family pastor, for similar reasons.
But what about a music pastor? Many people today choose churches based on the music as much as the preaching. Wouldn’t it be wise to have someone who can effectively manage, lead, and train musicians? That could be as effective, if not more so, as hiring an evangelist-pastor.
Here’s where I come down on that question. If your church has grown to the size where it’s ready for a second hire, you should hire a pastor. An overseer. A shepherd. Someone who meets the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Someone who can lead and care for the flock. That is essential.
Now, if he happens to be skilled in leading congregational song, that’s great. But not crucial. Scour the New Testament all you want and you won’t find a position devoted entirely to music. That doesn’t mean a church shouldn’t ever hire full time musicians. But it does suggest that as a church is starting out, the focus should be on the roles God has spelled out, not on secondary or strictly specialized positions: music, media, admin, and so on. An exception might be a part-time administrator who will help a pastor do everything he does more effectively.
Being a pastor and a musician who has participated in two church plants, I know the advantage of having a paid staff member who can lead worship in song. But I’m also aware of many young churches are led well musically by volunteers.
Having a musician as your second hire is appealing because many pastors would love to simply hand over the musical responsibilities to someone who has more gifting and time. But leading congregational song is a pastoral function before it’s a musical one. Every senior pastor should be very aware of what songs are being sung in his church. If the individual you’re considering to lead the music in your church isn’t willing and eager to follow you in this area, call someone else.
It’s no small irony that C.J., the pastor who has taught me the most about leading congregational song, is not a musician. Some of the values I’ve learned from him are the importance of esteeming God’s Word, understanding lyrics, emotional engagement, expression, spontaneity, pastoring through song, and more.
Obviously, musical skills are helpful for leading congregational song. It’s nice to know what keys are best to sing in (a rare skill these days), what songs go together musically, and what songs are out there. But all a church’s pastors together are responsible for the teaching diet of the church, and that includes the songs your congregation sings. Hiring a full-time music minister won’t free you from the responsibility of knowing what lyrics you’re singing and how music is serving the Word.
A second hire depends on a number of factors including the present pastor’s strengths and weaknesses, the available candidates, the needs of a congregation, and relational considerations. Rather than limit the field to someone who can lead worship in song, ask God to give you the individual who will serve and care for the church most effectively.
And if he happens to be a great musician, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Bob Kauflin is the director of Sovereign Grace Music and one of the pastors of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.
Good writers of story have an innate sense of how to take on ballast to accomplish their intended aim. In this respect, good writers are recognized as such, in part, for their ability to front-load characters or objects with traits or functions that take on greater significance later on. This subtlety is what makes us want to reread a book or watch a movie a second time. Early details, unnoticed when first exposed to them, are later recognized as relating to the story’s climax and resolution. Their significance is revealed when the author’s complete intention is fully made known.
It would appear that God, in his infinite wisdom, front-loaded his story by sovereignly endowing certain people, objects, and events with functions and traits that take on greater significance in the gospel. Because of this, good preaching will require the facility to recognize those correspondences in the story that provide ballast.
In the first post in this series we mentioned two, plot and theme. In this post we look at two more, typology and analogy. And it is best to consider them together.
TYPOLOGY AND ANALOGY
These correspondences may be broad—in which cases we simply call them analogies—or they may be narrower. When a person, event, institution, or object in the Bible narrowly anticipates some aspect of Jesus Christ, we call this typology. There are many complex definitions of types. In simple terms, a type is usually a person (like Moses, or David) or an object (like the ark or sacrificial lamb) that anticipates or prefigures Jesus.
Because there are more types in the Bible than are explicitly named, preachers must be careful in how they approach typology. First, as preachers, it is easy for us to make more of typology than we should. Just because we see an object in the Old Testament that shares something in common with an object in the New Testament, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have found a type.
For instance, just because Rahab’s cord is described as being scarlet, it doesn’t mean that God intends for us to connect it to the blood of Christ, as though both being red proves that God intended for us to bring them together. This is a fallacy. Ask yourself, if it had been green would you have been right to connect it to new life? Or, what if it had been purple? Would you have argued that God wanted us to tie it to the sign of Christ’s royalty? No, of course not.
Second, preachers often make the mistake of confusing typology for allegory. Gerald Bray explains allegory as “a method of reading a text by assuming that its literal sense conceals a hidden meaning, to be deciphered by using a particular hermeneutical key.” This, also, is easy for preachers to do.
For example, we might suppose: “The five stones David picked up from the river bank are not intended to be stones at all. Rather, they are emblems for spiritual warfare that go by the names of faith, hope, prayer, courage, and fortitude.” Clearly, this is a mistake, yet one we commit all too frequently. And when we do, we actually work against the kind of ballast typology and analogy were intended to provide.
The principle is this: our use of analogy and typology should be rooted in textual and historical realities. Acts 7 provides us with a good example. Stephen concludes his sermon by rebuking the Israelites for acting like their fathers and killing Jesus. Interestingly, this rebuke is grounded in a set of typological connections. Stephen argues, from the lives of Joseph and Moses, that although God’s chosen ones were rejected by their own people, God nevertheless exalted them.
In a profoundly more important way, Stephen identifies the rejection and exaltation of Jesus as the climatic fulfillment of that pattern set down in the Scriptures long ago. The fate and glory of Joseph and Moses prefigure the fate and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the lives of those two leaders were intentionally front-loaded with characteristics that were intended by God to anticipate the person and work of his only Son.
Learning to preach well will require taking on the ballast that typology and analogy provide. And in this short post, we have observed some common mistakes as well as an example of a better way. Preachers would do well to know the difference as well as to know how to improve.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Those who do it well begin making progress by asking a series of questions in their preparation:
- Does my text seem to make use of typology or analogy? And if so, what makes me think that this type was intended by the Holy Spirit?
- Do I have textual or historical grounds to believe that this is something more than merely a creation of my own imagination?
- What is the textual and historical warrant for this type?
- Can I trace a pattern of this kind of type in the Bible?
We are all looking to add some ballast to our preaching. Another way of saying this is that we need to make good use of biblical theology. So far, we have explored four tools that will assist us toward that end: plot, theme, typology, and analogy. These four tools are introduced in greater detail in Expositional Preaching, a soon-to-be-released book I have written in partnership with 9Marks and Crossway. In the final post of this series, I intend to introduce you to an online resource that was also designed to help you make progress with biblical theology.
David Helm is one of the pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, Chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust, and the author of Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (forthcoming from Crossway, April 2014). Joel Miles is the Director of Training at the Charles Simeon Trust and a pastoral resident at Holy Trinity Church.
 These correspondences for typology come from Walter Eichrodt, “Is Typological Exegesis an Appropriate Method?” in Claus Westermann (ed.), Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics (trans. J.L. Mays; Richmond: John Knox, 1964), 224-225. The list is picked up by several others, including: G.K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 44; Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 103; and Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 254-255.
 Gerald Bray, “Allegory,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed., Kevin Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 34.
 See Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 102-103.
 See James M. Hamilton Jr., What is Biblical Theology? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 44.
My local church is in search of a worship leader. To that end, our senior pastor cobbled together a group of twelve members for a Worship Leader Search Committee. Despite my musical ineptitude, I was among those asked to serve.
I suppose I’m equal parts grateful and terrified. After all, the title “worship leader” is nowhere in the New Testament. This fact tempts even the most levelheaded toward the subjective and superficial, where already drawn lines and white-knuckled commitments merely evidence what we’ve previously seen, known, or been comfortable with.
So I wanted to pass along a few thoughts I’ve developed as I’ve prayed through what my church is undertaking in the coming weeks, and what your church may be going through right now. I’ve unoriginally titled them “Nine Marks of a Healthy Worship Leader.”
NINE MARKS OF A HEALTHY WORSHIP LEADER
I’m convinced these nine things are must-haves for anyone leading a congregation in song week after week. Far from exhaustive, they are a set of traits, postures, and characteristics I believe are informed by Scripture and ought to transcend culture and denomination.
1. Your worship leader should meet the biblical qualifications of an elder.
This is important. Even if he won’t be called an elder, the congregation will likely treat him like one. And it’s important to remember the qualifications for an elder/pastor/shepherd include being “apt to teach.” This is what worship leaders do, and their aptness to teach (or lack thereof) is evident every week in the songs they select and the way they facilitate the congregation’s worship.
I need to add a caveat here. Depending on what song-leading looks like in your particular congregation, meeting the qualifications of an elder may be unnecessary. A friend of mine helpfully pushed back on this point and offered a helpful distinction: “A person who is simply leading musically needs to have the biblical qualifications of a deacon/deaconess. A person who is leading that portion of the service which includes songs, prayers, and readings needs to have the qualifications of an elder.” I agree, under the assumption this second scenario naturally propels the “song leader” or what have you into a more pastoral function.
2. Your worship leader should be musically capable.
This is obvious, I know. Perhaps a more specific and helpful exhortation would be that he should select songs within his skill set. You really love that new riff on that old hymn? Yeah, me too, but it’s hard to sing along when I can’t decipher the words or melody as easily as I can the oh-boy-gotta-catch-up look in the drummer’s and rhythm guitarist’s eyes.
Also, it’s unwise to let this qualification steer the ship; in fact, it should be subservient to almost everything else. A godly and mediocre musician will serve our churches far better in the long run than a sublime talent who reads his chord charts more than his Bible.
3. Your worship leader should be invisible (almost).
A guest leaving the Sunday gathering should be more struck by the corporate witness of the congregation praising God in song than by the ability or presence of one man. “Whoa, those people love to sing about Jesus!” is always better than “Man, that guy is great!”
4. Your worship leader should be committed to gospel-anchored liturgy.
I’m using “liturgy” in a general sense, as in the “flow” of the gathering, not a rote, recited form of standing and sitting and singing that must be repeated weekly. Every church gathering follows some kind of liturgy; the question is whether it reflects the character of the God and the content of the gospel or just the “whatever strikes us” approach.
Anchoring liturgy in the gospel may mean scripted transitions between songs that help to move the congregation through the service. Scripture readings, prayers, testimonies of God’s grace tethered to the theme of the passage about to be preached—all of these till the hearts and minds of those present. Prayerful, thoughtful preparation beforehand cultivates an appropriately intentional culture in a church. Don’t assume the Holy Spirit only works “in the moment.”
5. Your worship leader should work in close tandem with the preacher.
The worship leader doesn’t make decisions on an island. Every song should be in service of the preached Word. This reminds the church of an important truth: the preacher is a worship leader, too. One worships God no less through hearing a sermon than through signing a song.
This isn’t to say the themes of the sermon and the songs must be identical in a narrow sense. But if, say, your pastor is preaching on the resurrection, sing songs which unpack the meaning of that event as opposed to songs that refer to God’s goodness in his general interactions with his people. The latter is a more-than-worthy topic, of course, but the resurrection is a specific event that reveals specific things about God and us. This kind of cooperation between song and sermon provides an opportunity to praise God specifically and uniquely in response to his revelation.
6. Your worship leader should be committed to the expression of a vast range of emotions.
Every Sunday gathering should have moments of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, celebration, and the like. The church should be a space where a range of emotions are acceptable: guilt, shame, sadness, joy, thankfulness, and so on. When we only sing upbeat songs about how happy we are to be in the house of the Lord, or how we’re going to serve our guts out this next week because Jesus is awesome, we tacitly teach people that feeling sad or guilty or downtrodden is somehow sub-Christian, a posture unfit for praising God.
There are many songs that extol Jesus while also being honest about feeling sorrow and pain. I’ll never forget singing “Be Still My Soul” a few days after hearing of a friend’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Though somber and designed to elicit emotions perhaps few present were feeling, this song hoisted me into the loving arms of Jesus. Can happy songs can do that, too? Of course. But when there’s never any seasoning of sorrow in our gatherings we risk broadcasting a counterfeit, sub-Christian message about what it means to be a human pursuing Christlikeness in a fallen world. We’re communicating to both our members and our visitors that Christians are always happy and that a relationship with Christ eradicates grief. We’re setting people up for disappointment or unpreparedness in the face of difficulty.
7. Your worship leader should be committed to the explicit worship of Jesus.
This is less about the tone and more about the words of certain songs. The vast majority of a church’s music must be distinctly Christian—exalting not only the characteristics of God but the truths of the gospel. We should sing few songs an unconverted Jew could happily sing—that is, we should sing about Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Words like “sin” and “gospel” and “cross” should come up frequently and perhaps even be explained for those in attendance who, frankly, don’t know the difference between a Baptist church and a Jewish synagogue. Assuming all present are Christians and know what words mean is a recipe for confusion.
8. Your worship leader should encourage and enlist congregational participation.
In addition to encouraging loud congregational singing, the worship leader could also ask various church members to pray during the service. This provides opportunities for visibility and participation for many, not just the few with musical talent.
9. Your worship leader should be chiefly concerned with honoring God and upholding Jesus and the gospel, more than reaching the next generation or any other pre-determined demographic.
Every church needs to be culturally informed (this is why you likely avoid African tribal songs), but no church should be culturally driven. If conversations about fruitfulness begin displacing those about faithfulness, then the first step has been taken toward a mindset of man-centered worship that will need updating in a few short years.
Apart from Christ, every generation from the root of Adam is dead in their sins, in desperate need of the enlivening words of Christ. Because of this, after leaving your church on Sunday, no one needs to think to themselves, “Man, that music was great!” More than anything, they need to have heard the gospel clearly and explicitly; they need to be have been made aware of their dire situation apart from Christ and—even more—his held-out hand as their all-sufficient and ever-gracious Savior.
 The parlance for this kind of job is amorphous: music minister, pastor of music, pastor of music and arts, director of contemporary arena jamz and the occasional traditional dirge, defense against the dark arts teacher, etc. I’m only using “worship leader” since it seems to me a catch-all.
Note: An earlier version of this article was posted at the TGC Worship blog.
Alex Duke lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife Melanie. He is a student at Southern Seminary and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @evanalexduke.
“How do I find the point of a biblical text?”
This is a question I often hear from small group Bible study leaders and student leaders in the church where I serve. And nothing would give me greater pleasure than telling them (and you) that I have a magic formula that will take them from their text directly to its point, or better yet, its application.
I don’t have that magic formula. I do, however, think there are a handful of things that you can try to find in your text, no matter where you are in the Bible, that will help you find the point.
1. STRUCTURE AND EMPHASIS
First, consider the passage’s structure and emphasis. I like to start with the structure, or how my passage breaks down into different sections of verses that work together.
Of course, how we find the structure will depend a bit on the type of text. If I am looking at a narrative, plot and characters are helpful. I will look for the setting, the climax, and the resolution. If I am looking at a speech or letter, I will look for a flow of ideas with a logical point. If I am looking at poetry, I will try to identify the different stanzas and begin to summarize them.
And no matter what section of the Bible I am in, I always, always, look for repeated words and ideas. A literal translation will help you here. The diagnostic question I like to use is: “How has the author organized this passage?” And once I have started to sketch out a structure, I ask myself what emphasis is being revealed by this structure.
Second, consider the context. No passage of the Bible exists alone. Rather, every text is part of an argument, story, or collection of passages that has purposefully been arranged by the author.
What comes before my passage and what comes after are important, and will help me to understand what is in my passage. It may help to realize the topic the author is addressing. It may help me to see a larger section in my book. It may provide a helpful correction to something I have been misreading in my passage. It may even help me to understand the historical situation of the first audience.
Context is key. And my diagnostic question is: “Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?”
3. BOOK THEME
Given what I just mentioned about context, it only makes sense to zoom all the way out and ask about the book. What is the author’s agenda with this book?
Of course, it takes some work to really understand the theme of a whole book. Nevertheless, I think it is an important step to ask: “How does my passage—and particularly that emphasis I found in the structure—relate to this bigger theme of the whole book?”
In Luke 24:13-49, Jesus teaches that the whole of Scripture points to his death and resurrection, and the results of this gospel are repentance and forgiveness of sins. Without understanding this, we run the risk of interpreting a passage only moralistically or somehow separated from the gospel.
So, it is important to use all the tools of theology (especially biblical theology) to ask: “How does my passage relate to the gospel?” Of course, there are a lot of ways to do this badly. So, it is important that we make legitimate connections between our text and the gospel.
Once you’ve done your work in structure, context, book theme, and theology, it is time to start synthesizing. Whether you call this the main point, the theme of the passage, or the big idea, it is important to take this final step. The question I like to ask myself is this: “What is the author trying to teach his first audience?” What is he saying? What’s his main point?
Don’t kid yourself: this is not an easy process. For me, this represents an hour or two of preparation for a small group—and probably 12 hours of preparation for a sermon! But whatever time you have, I think it is helpful to work this way.
Of course, once you’ve discerned the main idea, you still need to think through application. Still, as far as working on the text, this is where I start:
- How has the author organized this passage?
- Why has the author put this passage here, at this point in the book?
- How does my passage relate to the theme of the whole book?
- How does my passage relate to the gospel?
- What is the author trying to teach his first audience?
For a little more on this process, see David Helm’s book Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway, forthcoming April 2014).
Robert Kinney is University Minister at Holy Trinity Church and Director of Ministries at the Simeon Trust, a ministry for training preachers.
Put a cargo ship out on the high seas without any ballast and it will roll. It will simply go belly-up, that is, until it sinks. Worthy sea vessels get ballast by taking water into holding bins beneath the waterline. Once the compartments are filled, and the hatches are closed, the ship is ready for the open waters.
There is a lesson in this for preachers. Sometimes, the thing that keeps your preaching afloat is a discipline otherwise hidden. Good preachers have holding bins that lend weight to their words, ballast found beneath the surface. And that ballast is biblical theology.
In recent years, evangelicalism has seen a wave of resources produced in the area of biblical theology. This is a good thing, because the discipline of biblical theology is uniquely suited to teach us how the Bible progressively unfolds the redemption plan of God in Christ. That said, simply ending a sermon with Jesus does not mean that one is truly preaching Christ. Sidney Greidanus explains:
Preaching Christ [is] preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work and or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.
To deliver Christ in a sermon requires authentic integration of the message of the text with the work of Christ. In other words, it requires ballast.
Our goal in this series of three posts is to introduce tools of biblical theology so that you might put some bulk in your preaching. In this first post we will discuss how plot and theme serve to make preachers Word-worthy vessels.
The Bible has a plotline. It tells one story through 66 books that, under the authorship of the Holy Spirit, all arrive at the same port: the person and work of Jesus Christ. This plot is not simply a literary device, but is an historical unfolding of the progressive revelation that culminates in Christ. According to Graeme Goldsworthy,
It is the nature of biblical revelation that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstract. [The Bible] does contain many timeless principles, but not in abstract. They are given in an historical context of progressive revelation.
God did not choose to bring his Son into the world immediately after the fall. Rather, he chose to progressively reveal himself and his plan throughout human history. The result of revealing himself over time, and through the hard and happy history of Israel, was to ensure that when his Son did come we could recognize Jesus to be the fulfillment of all God was doing in history.
This means we can authentically integrate texts in the Bible with the message of Christ by rightly seeing their place in the plotline of the Bible. Texts are not springboards or foils to get to Christ.
Here are some questions that probe the amount of ballast you have in your preaching: How well do you know the plotline of the Bible? Where are its major turning points? Who are the significant characters and what role do they play? What are the different episodes, acts or epochs that show how the Bible’s story is divided?
These are vital and important questions for you to be able to answer. And, in the final post in this series, we will point to great resources for helping you.
As preachers begin to learn to read the Bible through the lens of an historical plotline, themes will emerge throughout, some of which will find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Defining a theme is not easy. But we find it helpful to think of themes in terms of established ideas or concepts that develop throughout the plotline. Themes are more than words that merely get repeated, though a repeated word can be helpful in summarizing a theme.
A good example of a theme is the temple. The temple represents the idea of God’s presence throughout the Bible, which finds its fulfillment in Christ, whose death opens up the way for us to be in the presence of God. The preacher with ballast will learn to handle this theme from places in the Old Testament that are not limited solely to where the word appears, or the ancient structure is mentioned. Rather, they will see the idea in places like the tabernacle or in the Garden of Eden.
A host of themes are present in the Bible, and all of them, rightly taken on, provide much-needed weight for our preaching. They include covenant (how God relates to his people), kingdom (how God orders and rules over his people), exodus (how God saves his people), exile (how God punishes his people), and many others. These all find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Preaching that is worthy of being out on the open waters is done by those who know the value of questions like: Are there any themes in my text this week that find fulfillment in Christ? Do I even know the major themes of the Bible? Can I show how these themes are developed and find their fulfillment in Christ?
In the next post we will look at two more tools that will add ballast to our preaching: typology and analogy.
 Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 10.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22.
David Helm is one of the pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, Chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust, and the author of Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Forthcoming from Crossway, April 2014). Joel Miles is the Director of Training at the Charles Simeon Trust and a pastoral resident at Holy Trinity Church.
So, what exactly is the worship set? And should it be a given in our churches?
Simply put, the worship set is a consecutive group of deliberately chosen worship songs or hymns. It reflects forethought and creativity. It’s a far better option than picking a few popular songs and tossing them up on the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Similar to a meal with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, the worship set follows a dynamic arc or storyline. A set might begin with a call to worship or song of invitation. This song sets a particular theme and invites worshipers to praise God. Next, a couple more songs develop the theme both musically and lyrically. This is the “entrée” portion. If the first song focused on the character of God, these selections might move the church to consider our sin and redemption in Christ. The final song of the set is the theological and musical climax. It could consist of a celebration of the resurrection, or a call to respond in faith and discipleship, or simply a declaration of praise. Bob Kauflin argues for this kind of deliberate thematic development in his book Worship Matters, and he outlines a number of helpful worship set frameworks to try.
On the whole, I think the worship set is a wonderful idea if it is used well. In a former church, serving as director of worship, I devoted substantial time each week to crafting and preparing sets of music. My hope was that this process would aid believers in responding to God in robust praise with their heads and their hearts, and I believe God blessed this effort.
The worship set can be a God-glorifying approach because deliberately shaping the order of songs aids in “the strengthening of the church” that is to characterize our corporate praise (1 Cor. 14:26). It unifies the songs around a central concept, which promotes understanding. If used well, the worship set prepares the congregation for the specific questions and priorities that the sermon will address. Like a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, a worship set can capture our imagination and help us engage with God through the implicit story being told in the sequence of songs.
THE WORSHIP SET: POTENTIAL PITFALLS AND SOLUTIONS
So I don’t want to declare that the worship set is a terrible concept altogether. But I do want to take that glass sculpture off grandma’s shelf and see if it can be improved.
Why? While the worship set has much to commend it, it’s not without dangers. Here are three potential pitfalls it presents. For each, I’ll identify some ways to think and move “beyond” the worship set.
1. The worship set can fragment the order of service.
First, the worship set can fragment the order of service. If pastors and other leaders aren’t careful, using a worship set can subtly convey that the worship service basically has two parts: the singing and the sermon. The worship leader presides over the first half, then passes the baton to the pastor for the message.
I fear that because of this, many evangelicals have a bifurcated picture of public worship: the music part of the service is geared at those who relate to God through emotional experiences, while the sermon exists to engage heady, left-brain types. At worst, this false dichotomy can also perpetuate the common misconception that worship through song is the church’s worship, leading to comments like, “The worship (read: music) today was incredible, but the sermon was a bit dry”—as if preaching is not doxology too.
However we structure our services, we must take pains to convey that both music and preaching (and other elements—see point 2) are properly “worship” to God, and that they’re essential for all Christians.
Here are some suggestions to circumvent this danger. First, if your services usually fall into the “30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of preaching” formula, then change up your order of service regularly. Consider breaking up the music set with prayer, Scripture reading, or silent reflection. Try occasionally placing the sermon closer to the beginning of the service and leaving most of the singing for after the message.
Have an individual other than the worship leader or preacher, preferably an elder, lead the whole service. Call this man a “host,” an “MC,” a “service leader” (that’s the term we use at my church), or whatever you like. But make sure he’s not the music leader or the preacher. If this individual gives the welcome and announcements, introduces the songs, presides over the offering, leads the prayers, and so on, then he can bring unity to the whole service.
Pick a theme for the service based on the theme of the sermon text. Ensure that the songs, prayers, and even the announcements relate to this theme. When the congregation realizes that the whole service is about “the faithfulness of God” or “knowing Christ in suffering,” it will mitigate against the feeling that the worship service is merely a concert followed by an unrelated talk.
2. The worship set can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements.
Another danger of the worship set is that it can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements. Paul told Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). He instructed the young pastor to lead his church in offering up “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 2:1). His expectation was that the members of the Corinthian church would set aside their offering “on the first day of every week” (1 Cor. 16:2), from which many have inferred that giving was an integral part of the New Testament church’s public worship. Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples (Matt. 28:19), and he gave them his Supper so they could proclaim his death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). There’s a lot more to do in church than sing and preach.
The danger with the worship set is that these other elements of biblical worship can fade into the background. If the congregation expects (or even demands?) to experience a well-rehearsed, creative musical progression, that can force out these other mandated expressions of worship. Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone intentionally sidelines biblical elements of worship. I only mean to highlight a pattern I’ve noticed: when a church privileges worship through song by giving it the lion’s share of time and focus, these other elements of worship tend to become thin and perfunctory.
How can pastors and those who lead worship through song work against this tendency?
If you use a worship set, resist the idea that the set must only contain music in order for it to have maximum impact. This isn’t a concert. Intersperse prayers and readings between the songs.
Promote a culture of worshipful, robust prayer in your services. If you devote substantial time to prayer during the public meeting, it shouldn’t be a surprise if your church members learn to prioritize prayer in their private lives.
How do we bolster our public prayers? By saturating them with scriptural truths: “Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don’t we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout.”
There is also a correlation between rehearsal time and value. If your church values well-crafted music, it’s likely that your band or choir spend hours in rehearsal. Why not spend as much time and effort on preparing public prayers?
Finally, promote a culture of worshipful Scripture reading in your services. If we believe that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) let’s take it out of the sheath and let it do its work. Read in such a way that the majestic truths of Scripture echo in the ears of your congregation. Consider training up a number of congregants to read Scripture well: with meaning, emphasis, gravity, and joy. We hand out Tim Challies’ excellent article on how to read Scripture publicly to everyone who reads at our church.
3. The worship set can foster an entertainment culture.
Third, the worship set can foster an entertainment culture. This danger is ironic, of course, because one of the purposes of the worship set is to unify a group of songs along the lines of theological content. But I fear that often, what the congregation experiences as they sing through a worship set is not a new appreciation for a biblical theme, but a concert-like journey through a stirring series of songs.
Although I’m not against creativity and emotion in public worship, I believe it is possible to so prioritize the emotional response that comes from music that biblical truth is overlooked rather than illuminated. One implication of Colossians 3:16 is that if the word of Christ does not dwell in us richly as we sing, then something about the way we’re singing needs to change.
As Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death, entertainment has become the dominant discourse of our age. While the church must recognize this fact, it shouldn’t capitulate to it. Our services don’t have to feel like a concert or TV show, even if those modes of discourse define the manner in which postmodern people experience the flow of ideas. Rather, we have the opportunity in our services to model a different type of discourse, one that begins with the self-revelation of God. Our worship—whether contemporary or traditional, high church or low—should eschew man-focused experientialism and embrace the transcendent God.
So, if a worship set can help people adore, treasure, and understand more of our holy Creator, then by all means use one. But if in your church the worship set tends to place more focus on the artistry of the band than on the awesomeness of the Redeemer, something needs to change.
How can we resist the way a worship set might slowly pull a church toward entertainment-ism?
Do all that you can to prioritize the congregation being able to hear one another sing. This is a basic biblical principle, given that Paul exhorts believers to speak “to one another” with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). But it also goes a long way in cultivating an atmosphere of joy and engagement with the lyrics.
Awareness of others in corporate worship, and of how the volume and expression of your own singing actually encourages others, helps to thwart self-centeredness. Practically, this may involve turning down the volume of the band or orchestra, and instructing the musicians to focus on tasteful, simple accompaniment rather than complex or virtuosic performing.
Provide a framework that helps to interpret the worship through song. For example, instead of beginning the service with dark lighting and a reverb-heavy guitar line (which feels a lot like a concert), begin with a call to worship from God’s Word or a brief prayer.
Before the music begins, have the service leader give a few words of instruction or exhortation to set the song(s) in context. This interpretation of what is about to come is invaluable not only for believers, but also for unbelievers who may not know what to make of the music they’re about to hear. (See 1 Corinthians 14:24 on the priority of making the service understandable to non-Christian visitors). Yes, it might feel a bit wooden and awkward to have a few remarks before the singing. But even this speed bump in the service is a good thing, because it engages the congregation’s minds and inhibits the passivity that an entertainment culture thrives on.
Also, keep the main lights turned up. Darkness, smoke machines, and spotlights all scream that the focus should be on musicians up front. In contrast, bright lighting and modest staging—even placing the musicians off to the side if possible—convey that what really matters here is not the choir or the worship team, but the content of the songs and the whole congregation’s participation.
See silence as a friend, not an enemy. If there are a few moments of quiet between a song and a prayer, or between the offering and the sermon, it’s not a disaster. After all, this is a gathering of Christians for praise, not a TV production. In fact, allowing silent space in transitions can refresh people’s mental palates and allow the church to reflect on what has come before in the service. In addition, use planned moments of silence for reflection and prayer. Sitting in a room with dozens or hundreds of other believers and simply being quiet before the Lord is bracingly countercultural in our noisy, distracted age.
MORE TOOLS IN THE TOOLBOX
In all of this, I’m not trying to make the worship set a bogeyman. It’s a useful tool. But for these three reasons, I don’t think it should be the only tool in our toolbox. And if we do use a worship set, we should do so in a way that unifies rather than divides the order of service, that highlights rather than downplays other elements of worship, and that promotes awe before God rather than an entertainment experience.
When it comes to planning a worship service, there is much freedom with regard to the forms and circumstances in which a congregation reads the Word, sings the Word, prays the Word, hears the Word preached, and sees the Word in the ordinances. I pray that as pastors and music directors think beyond the worship set, God would give us wisdom to lead our congregations in offering him an appropriate sacrifice of praise. I pray that our churches, filled by God’s Spirit, would increasingly delight in God’s Son, the one who gave himself for us that we might be worshipers of him.
Matt Merker is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where his responsibilities include music and service preparation. You can find congregational worship songs he has composed at www.capitolhillbaptist.org/
 Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 114.
 Terry Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is according to Scripture (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000), 35.