What Is Leading Your Worship?

By W. Jackson Watts

Sunday is coming! This simple truth shapes so much of what happens in pastoral ministry. Unlike some vocations, pastoral work culminates on a specific day. It’s no wonder so many people joke about pastors working only one day a week. People are reflecting on the public view of the ministry they see.

Though it’s a limited view, pastors do perform most of their public ministry as they lead Sunday services. Of course, far more than Sunday shapes what pastors do before the congregation. Every day matters. A funeral is preached Monday. A hospitalized church member is visited Tuesday.  On Wednesday, a midweek Bible study is finalized and delivered. Thursday, a couple is counseled from the precipice of divorce. Incomplete sermons are tended to Friday. Saturday may mean a wedding, but hopefully, a day off for renewal. So, what does Sunday look like? How does it feel? What should it be after such a week?

Many experiences and ideas shape Sunday. An illustration emerges from a humorous moment at the wedding. A prayer request (or two) follows Tuesday’s hospital visit. What the music minister heard on the radio Monday may influence his song selection for Sunday. Rather than considering who is leading the service, pay closer attention to what is leading worship. If it isn’t Scripture and scriptural engagement with our world, we’ve left our congregations with something less than true worship.

Circumstances or Formation?

Our experience in God’s world should translate to corporate worship. It borders on hypocrisy for a pastor or church member to struggle through the week and then wear an artificial smile Sunday. We come boldly and honestly to the throne of grace when we pray and sing, though we don’t have to vent in the foyer to do this. The experiences of life also inform interactions with others believers. We listen to fellow strugglers talk about their week, seek counsel, and even weep. When we sing “Victory in Jesus,” it’s best sung by people fighting to trust His victory amid apparent defeat.  

However, we can be authentic without allowing unchecked emotion to cloud our ability to think. Scripture instructs us to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ. Simply put, when we plan or participate in services, we shouldn’t check our brains at the door. We need to think about what we’re doing. What are we preaching? What are we singing? What Scriptures will be read? Who is going to pray? 

Sometimes emotion is a helpful indicator, but often it’s a horrible master. Life circumstances and the feelings they engender can be poor guides to worship. Instead, Scripture should define the content and shape of worship. It should have free reign over our thoughts while we worship. We let it reorder our emotions so that the Word of Christ will dwell in us richly. Worship is much more about our formation into certain kinds of disciples than about our self-expression. 

Trends or Heritage?

Free Will Baptists are an associational people. This is historically and biblically inescapable, though we have work to do to recover and renew this practically. One implication of living in community is that we learn from one another. 

I attended the Free Will Baptist Leadership Conference this past December for the first time in several years. I came away from it thinking, “I’ve missed this.” Relationships were forged or renewed, and ideas were exchanged. We learn, grow, and flourish in godly community. Likewise, worship is enriched when we’re rooted in a tradition bigger than the last 15 or 20 years. Talking to others in the family of God, pastors or not, clarifies our past, present, and future.

Historical appreciation can run amuck, though, when Christians idolize a specific moment in the past, and equate that heritage with God’s very best. Looking honestly at our Judeo-Christian heritage gives us wider, vital perspective. For example, studying Christian worship from the most intense seasons of persecution should inform preaching, singing, praying, and ordinances. Why, for example, do we tolerate so much griping about the length of worship services? The same complainers never leave a concert or football game saying, “That was way too long!” The perseverance of our ancestors should motivate us to encourage focused, grateful worship. 

Trendiness is a related influence we need to resist. If some pastors or laymen are guilty of venerating a narrow slice of the past, others serve at the altar of trends. Should sermon quotes mostly come from whoever is on the current cover of Christianity Today or Outreach magazine? If a Christian musician suddenly dominates YouTube, should his or her songs automatically make the order of service? Being Scripture-driven and rooted in a deep, diverse tradition helps us discern when these choices are edifying, and when they are simply forms of worldliness. Remember, worldliness often comes in the guise of religiosity. We’re able to welcome innovation wisely when we are Scripture-driven and historically rooted. 

Sola Scriptura?

In 2017, many Christians observed the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This historical moment shouldn’t be minimized. Where would we be without the courage of Christians in 15th and 16th century Europe who said “enough is enough” to the religious establishment? What was the heart of their cry? Let Scripture define the faith, not unbiblical tradition.

The problems confronting the church today are similar. Manmade traditions come in many different forms. Sometimes they wear masks labeled contemporary or traditional but look much the same underneath when subjected to biblical scrutiny. Since much of the Reformation was a reformation of Christian worship, let’s conclude by focusing on worship.

Church leaders or members involved in planning worship need to consider the influence of Scripture throughout a service. Is it minimal, or is it everywhere? Is it simply used, or is it received and considered? What about singing? A song doesn’t have to use scriptural lyrics to be biblical. However, the content or message of the song should be thoroughly consistent with Scripture. “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” suggests some degree of diversity in congregational singing. However, music must not only be singable for a congregation, but instrumentation shouldn’t drown out congregational voices. After all, their voices are “to teach
and admonish in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). 

Another practical consideration is the function of prayer in the service. We teach people about biblical, corporate prayer by modeling it. When we pray, do we take our time, or are we hurried? Do we only focus on needs, or do we offer confession and repentance, even lament? Or is prayer artificially inserted by the music minister or pastor, allowing ushers or instrumentalists a chance to “get into place”? Pastors must consider what these seemingly insignificant details teach people about prayer and worship.

We also need to pray in biblically thoughtful ways. Prayers don’t have to be written. However, writing them down may be helpful for those just learning to lead congregational prayer. Pastors certainly shouldn’t make a layman feel unspiritual if this would be a helpful start. If we do, perhaps we also should discard our sermon notes. After all, are we really preaching “from the heart” if we have to write it down?

Finally, we need to pay closer attention to our language. It’s common for pastors or music ministers to say after a non-
musical part of the service, “Let’s stand and worship again.” This statement gives the impression that the congregation has just finished doing something besides—or even less than—worship. The implied question: “If what we were doing wasn’t worship, then why did we include it in the worship service?” 

Second, I think churches should carefully consider the titles of staff members. The title music minister or music director has gradually evolved into worship leader or worship pastor. It’s certainly a blessing for a church to have someone who works alongside the pastor to plan meaningful services each week. (I’m so thankful for the person who helps me do this each week!) However, we need to ask whether our modern vocabulary is consistent with Scripture. 

I caution against the title worship pastor if the person himself isn’t actually a pastor. As Dr. Picirilli has reminded us in his writing, pastor, elder, and overseer are interchangeable New Testament terms for the same office. If pastoral gifts and calling aren’t recognized and affirmed in the person leading music, then perhaps a different title should be chosen. 

The problems that led to the Reformation didn’t happen overnight. They resulted from a series of small choices, seemingly insignificant decisions that eventually led to the need for radical reform. My prayer for 21st century churches is that we will let God’s Word more fully shape our worship, and that our ongoing dialogue on this topic will take us to Scripture again and again. 

About the writer: W. Jackson Watts, Ph.D., has served as pastor of Grace FWB Church in the greater St. Louis area since 2011. He also serves Free Will Baptists at the district, state, and national levels, particularly as a member of the Commission for Theological Integrity.

Read more from Jackson Watts at the Helwys Society Forum


< Return to PULP1T Magazine | Summer 2020