FAQ: Balancing Worship Service? Thornbury



The Genevan Order of Worship

Call to confession and prayer
Assurance of Pardon
Hymn (1st table of the law sung)
Prayer for obedience
Hymn (2nd table of the law sung)
Prayer (concluded w/ Lord’s prayer)
Prayer for illumination of the Holy Spirit
Scripture Reading
Prayer (including intercession)
Explanation of the Lords Prayer

Many conscientious pastors today feel severe pressures from the culture with respect to worship service planning. Such pressures, of course, are exacerbated by the heightened expectations of church members who live in an entertainment-driven culture. The question of a proper mixture of the elements of worship is indeed an urgent one.

Listed above is the Genevan order of worship developed by John Calvin. If you want to know what Reformation worship looked like, here it is. Since Calvin wanted the church to be reformed by Scripture, he structured the worship of God to revolve around the Word of God, focusing attention on corporate prayer and praise. True to his conviction, Calvin (and the tradition which followed him) struck a biblical balance in worship.

I provided an outline of the Genevan order of worship not as an infallible template, but as a trustworthy guide. I trust it will help to focus my following comments, which are offered as observations concerning proper balance in biblical worship. Setting aside the centrality of biblical exposition for a moment, let us first consider prayer and music.

The regulative principle (i.e. all elements and activities in worship are drawn directly from Scripture) requires serious emphasis on prayer and hearty congregational singing. An analysis of the New Testament reveals that the prayers of the people of God are to be earnest, steadfast, and constant. (Rom. 12:12; 2 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 1:19, 4;6; Col. 4:2;1 Tim. 2:1, 4:5;) We must keep in mind that the apostle Paul wrote his epistles first and foremost to the local church as a corporate body. Therefore his exhortations should be taken in the first instance congregationally, a word for individual devotional life, yes, but one especially for the local church.

I believe that of the elements outlined above, the importance of congregational prayer and singing are currently the most undervalued elements of worship in evangelical churches today.

With respect to the former, most prayers in worship receive attention only so far as their inclusion in a bulletin or order of service. Stated differently, many prayers suffer from little forethought. What we normally hear is some sort of opaque stream-of-consciousness. (What routine prayer, for example, wouldn’t be crippled if the word ‘just’ were removed from the English language?) Given the emphasis of the Scriptures listed above, prayer in worship must be earnest (not an afterthought), central (as opposed to ancillary), intercessory, remembering the specific needs of the saints and the world (rather than non-descript), and humble before God (not presumptuous or florid).

Take another look at the Genevan order above. Note how much time is given to prayer. Notice the different types, all of which play a critical role in the corporate worship of the people of God.

I once asked Geoff Thomas, a pastor in Aberyswyth, Wales, about his impressions of the American church growth movement. I remember him saying that when he arrived at his church some 26 years before, there were only 3 men he could trust to pray in public worship. Currently, he explained, there are 85. This, he averred, was a true barometer of growth. I remember being struck with the great seriousness with which Geoff Thomas approached the subject of prayer in public worship. How many of us show in practice the same concern?

Another under-emphasized element of worship is singing as a conscious and valuable act of corporate worship. In Eph. 5:18, Paul stressed the importance of congregational singing, stating that we as the gathered church should be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” In congregational singing, church members “address one another.” The shared theological confession expressed in singing with all one’s heart encourages a fellow brother or sister. It is our opportunity to exhort one another, and bear witness to the world.

Sadly, inspired congregational singing has fallen on hard times. Once churches acted on the idea that they deserved their own version of Ira Sankey or George Beverly Shea, congregational singing gave way to something more like audience participation. Today, people increasingly rely upon the intensity or performance of a music leader or praise team. Churchgoers now customarily expect “special music” as opposed to the ordinary, supposedly non-special congregational kind. Our hope may be that there is now so much “special music” that congregational singing might yet become “special” once again. To what extent must a congregation be “led” in worship? Many church leaders now breezily refer to their Sunday morning assembly in McCluhanesque terms as mere “audience.” “Virtual worship” services promise further extensions of this idea. Such ideas are alien to biblical conception.

Finally, since the content of the Word of God defines biblical worship, the majority of time must be given over to Scriptural exposition. We know that it was the preaching of the apostles which formed the core of the corporate worship meetings of the early church. And no, preaching cannot be extended to encompass other supposed didactic activities. One cannot even imagine the apostles doing drama or interpretive movements. Rather, the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

This brief article has not even touched upon other pressing matters of concern. But if we keep our scriptural and congregational responsibilities ever before us, we shall not go wrong by far.

Recommended Reading:
Mohler, R. Albert, Jr. “The Whole Earth is Full of His Glory: The Recovery of Authentic Worship [Isa 6:1-8; convocation address, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Spring 1998].” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2 (Winter 1998), 4-15.

Muller, Richard. The Unaccommodated Calvin. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gregory Alan Thornbury

Gregory Alan Thornbury is the president of The King’s College in New York City. You can find him on Twitter at @greg_thornbury.

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