The Centrality of the Word in Christian Worship

I get to serve both as a professor of Greek and theology as well as the worship pastor at my local church. I am thankful for each of these posts since they each uniquely contribute to the other. As I thought about what should be the topic of my first post in three years, it was an easy decision. What’s more important than the Bible when it comes to the gathering of the saints to worship?

To be sure, this isn’t earth-shattering, but I think that the Word ought to be central in Christian worship for at least three reasons: [note—what this is not about is the matter of the regulative principle; that is for a future post]

FIRST, the highest point of the worship meeting is the preaching of the Word. Everything else prepares us for that, flows from that, and is a response to that. All worship leaders need to sit and think on this one. Do the songs, readings, prayers etc. prepare the peoples’ heart for the preached Word? We are not competing with the sermon, and thus are there to serve the people by all that we do. When I lead, I want to whet the appetite for the Word. I want there to be pressure on the preaching to “deliver the goods,” as it were. As a worship pastor who also gets to preach and teach, I see it from both sides. It is the Word that transforms. True, we are to sing the word as well (Col 3:16; cf. the Psalms!), but the Lord has ordained that the preaching of the Bible is the apex of our gathered worship.

SECOND, the songs that are sung are to be biblical. This is perhaps overly simplistic, but it seems that not everyone has gotten the message, so I will repeat it here: the songs that are sung are to be biblically and theologically accurate. To be sure, there will be figurative language befitting the genre, and I have plans for several posts regarding the hermeneutics of worship, but if the people of God are to be full of the word of Christ, then the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that are sung must meet the “sniff test” when it comes to content. The musical portion of the service ought to flow from and drive people to the Bible.

THIRD, Paul tells Timothy to “attend to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13). What is a more delightful sound to the ears of the Lord than his people reading His word aloud as an act of worship and adoration of the triune God? Be it a Psalm of praise to call the gathered church to a service of worship, guiding them through a passage of confession and pardon, or ending with a glorious benediction, reading of the Bible should actually be part of our worship. The Bible must be central to our corporate worship. To be sure, it means more than these three things, but certainly not less. May the Lord be honored in all that we do when we gather in his name!

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Posted on May 10, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Timmy Marsee

    Thank you for this post. I had never thought much about the “call to worship” that I see printed on the church bulletin. It is enlightening to see that the whole point of the “worship experience” is to drive people to the Word. I love it!

  2. Agreed, Barry. Great post. We no longer sing/chant/responsively read the Psalms, the foundational hymnody of the Church. Consequently we get “Jesus is My Girlfriend” followed by “God is My Grandpa” and gnostic silliness.

    Sigh.

    Furthermore, it is made worse that the churches that DO sing the Psalms are often exclusivistic and funeral-esque.

    • Ron, truth be told, you were on my mind when I was writing this post. Your Word-centeredness has always encouraged and challenged me.

      Thanks for the Easter card. There sure is a lot of estrogen in your house! The girls are beautiful.

      BCJ

  3. I’m looking forward to following this blog since my passion is music and creative presentations of the Gospel.
    Thanks for your emphasis on keeping the Scripture as the vital content for our worship and singing.

  4. Good thoughts, Barry.

    Of course I affirm the centrality of God’s word in Christian worship – but I wonder if it’s a tad shortsighted to say that the gathered worship of the church should “drive people to the Bible.” I agree that our worship should “flow from” the Bible, as you say, but it seems to me that it should ultimately “drive people” to Jesus himself.

    The content of worship should certainly be Word-centered (and perhaps, more specifically, “gospel-centered”), but the ultimate aim of corporate worship is not greater appreciation for the Bible (although that may be a good by-product), but a deeper affection for and dependency on Jesus.

    I also have a question about the sermon-centeredness of corporate worship. Isn’t this a more Reformation-influenced worship pattern than a New Testament-influenced one? It seems that early in the history of the church (and even today in some traditions) the Eucharist was the center of Christian worship. I may be wrong on that, and I don’t feel strongly that the New Testament doesn’t indicate the preached word as an important element of Christian worship – but I wonder if it’s more cultural than biblical to make a 30+ minute oratory on the Bible the central act in gathered worship. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. And I’d be totally OK if your thoughts were to completely dismantle this argument. 🙂

    Glad to have you on the blogosphere, bud.

    • Kyle,
      Bro, so good to hear from you. I can’t wait to hang out in MD in August. I’ve been pining for WG11 for two years. It is always good for my soul in a number of ways.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, too. I always learn so much from you. Perhaps we are shooting past one another on the first matter. When I say, “drive people to the Bible,” I am making no real distinction between the written word and the word made flesh. In my mind, to drive people to the Bible is to drive them to Christ. Perhaps it is one of semantics? To be sure, I know that a bound book is not the same thing as the second person of the ontological and economic Trinity, so I could likely stand to be more clear. My intention is that when I lead, I lead them in, through, to, and from the word, and thus to Jesus. Does that make sense? When I use such terms, what I fundamentally mean is “gospel-centeredness.” In my mind, that may be the best phrase. Bible/Christ/Gospel is the telos, since it all revolves around and points to Christ. Thus, I think I am using the term more generally. (For example, when you say “dependence on Jesus,” I know what you mean, and that you are not channeling the spirit of Bultmann!)

      As to the matter of the sermon, I don’t know for certain if that has its roots in the Reformation, especially since that’s how I read Paul. As you well know, there is a paucity of NT instruction concerning the form of the gathered “worship service,” so when I read the pastoral epistles and hear Paul say to Timothy (in both letters) to preach the word in and out of season, and to give attention to its public reading, that tells me that preaching and exhortation is central. As to the centrality of the Eucharist in the ancient church, we declare the gospel of Christ through the elements, so I am not sure how far apart preaching and the Lord’s table are in terms of Gospel declaration. Both are expositions of the Word.

      Let me know what you think. You are a valued conversation partner, my brother.

      BCJ

      • I think the first matter may be one of emphasis. I’m not sure I’d say it’s merely “semantics,” but it probably does have more to do with how the heart of Christian worship is articulated, than with what the heart really is. I doubt we’re divided on that issue at all. But, to drive home my point about articulation: If someone asked me what the heart or goal of corporate worship is, I wouldn’t say, “To point you to the Bible,” whereas I may in fact say, “To point you to Jesus.”

        Your point is well made on the matter of preaching as central in corporate worship. Perhaps my only follow-up question, not just to you but to the American Evangelical church as a whole, would be: Why aren’t we declaring the gospel through the elements of the Lord’s table more frequently? If both preaching and Communion can be seen as expositions of the word, would you be comfortable with a service that truly was centered around the Lord’s table, with no real Scriptural “exposition,” as we would call it? If not, why not? My suspicion is that many pastors and churches assume the centrality of preaching, to the degree that a communion service without a sermon leading up to it may seem incomplete.

        Clearly I’ve taken this discussion to another topic, so it’s probably best to leave this matter for another day. But thanks for interacting with me anyway!

        Kyle

  5. Thanks for the good word, bro!

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