An Unbalanced Focus in Worship: Overemphasizing the Sermon - Seedbed

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An Unbalanced Focus in Worship: Overemphasizing the Sermon

On a recent Sunday morning, I was having breakfast when I turned on my t.v. to watch a well-known local church’s broadcast.  As I came to the right channel, I was greeted by the image of stage lights and a multi-piece band.  Instead of what would normally be an opening praise song, the band started into the Bon Jovi 80’s classic, You Give Love a Bad Name.  After the initial shock wore off, I double checked the channel I was on.  Sure enough, this was the church service I was looking for.  As the song finished, a member of the pastoral staff came out from behind the stage.  After making a somewhat crude joke about hot flashes, he announced that the morning’s message would be on arguments in marriage.  The staff member exited the stage while the band started into a worship song.  With the band leading the church in two worship songs, I was left asking myself, “What in the world just happened?”

In a way, it is understandable what the church was trying to do.  They wanted to get the congregation focused on the message by using a song containing the message’s theme.  It is a common practice that many churches utilize today, traditional and contemporary alike.  In either case, the music is tied in with the sermon topic to provide a theme for that day’s service.  This method of planning worship services certainly has benefits, including the reinforcement of the sermon.  However, there is an inherent danger in using this method every time a worship service is planned.

The TV broadcast mentioned above demonstrates an extreme in worship planning.  This church is somewhat known for using secular songs related to the sermon as a call to worship.  In this instance, they turned to a rock song whose lyrics speak of being hurt in a relationship.  This song’s theme directly related to the sermon topic for that morning.  While the very thought of a secular song being used in a worship gathering is enough to cause controversy in some circles, the danger this congregation is flirting with goes much deeper than the use of one song in a service.  This church was so focused on reinforcing the message that, while externally polished, the intrinsic quality of worship was sacrificed.  They did not make time for prayer in their service and placed little emphasis on Holy Communion.

People are intrinsically designed to connect with God on many levels.  Scores of people have been impacted through the centuries by hearing powerful sermons and homilies.  Additionally, innumerable hearts have been led into God’s presence through mighty hymns and contemporary worship songs.  These hymns and songs have been the catalyst for outpourings of the heart onto God and have fostered many times of prayer.  In worship, there must be a balance of what I call the Spoken Word and the Living Word.  The Spoken Word is hearing a sermon/message/homily preached from the Scriptures and receiving from it.  Some traditions would call this, “The Word Proclaimed.”  The Living Word consists of coming to God in prayer, singing from the heart, and taking part in Holy Communion, e.g. the “hands-on” part of worship.  This would be the more experiential part of worship where a congregation would be actively participating in the service.

 A healthy church knows what it is to give equal weight to the Spoken and Living Word.  A vital church also knows that there are instances when the Holy Spirit will direct that one be given more emphasis, e.g. more time, over the other.  However, churches that consistently give one more priority over the other run the risk of not only robbing their members of a full worship experience in the presence of God but also presenting an incomplete picture of Christian worship to unbelievers.  The fact that we believe in and worship a God that is alive is what separates us as believers from other world religions.  How we worship our Lord communicates to the world what we believe.  A church that has unbalanced worship conveys its lack of spiritual depth, and no matter how flashy we try to be in our church services, unbelievers are not as spiritually and intuitively naïve as we sometimes think they are.  They can tell when something is not right within the church walls, and they will run from it.  People are looking for something more than another message to tickle their ears.  They want something that is real and that they can experience for themselves.  A church that focuses only on its sermons robs people of additional ways to encounter the Living God and also robs God of other ways to speak to people.  Going back to the church mentioned above, their use of a secular song at the beginning of their service took time away from the opportunities to commune with God through prayer or worship music.  Because they desired to emphasize the Spoken Word, the Living Word suffered by having reduced time.

Let me conclude by posing this:  what is the first question you ask when you plan worship?  Is it, “What is the sermon about this week?”  Are all aspects of the worship service being consistently and intentionally united with that week’s sermon topic?  Are the prayers prewritten to match the message?  Are all the opening and closing hymns/praise songs being chosen simply because the title/lyrics relate to the sermon?  Or is the first question asked, “Lord, how should we worship you this week?”  Is substantial time being spent in prayer over what hymns/songs to use?  Is there a time of spontaneous prayer set aside to allow the Holy Spirit to direct the hearts of those in attendance?  Your congregation, and even the entire world, depends on the first question asked in worship planning and how it is answered.  May we all have the spiritual sensitivity and courage to ask the right question and follow the Lord in our worship no matter where He may lead.

Chase Franklin

Chase Franklin

Chase is a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God. His current research interests include issues in Biblical Hebrew grammar and the book of Ruth.
  • Guest

    Im so thankful the first words i hear at church are “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Thoughtful piece Chase. Thanks for it.

  • joshuatoepper

    Im so thankful the first words i hear at church are “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Thoughtful piece Chase. Thanks for it.

    • Chase Franklin

      I’m thankful you hear that as well, Joshua. I appreciate your comment!

  • Andrew Dragos

    “Lord, how should we worship you this week?” This is a refreshing perspective which the pentecostal/charismatic community has gifted the church with.

    • Chase Franklin

      There are many things that mainline churches can learn from the pentecostal/charismatic community just as there are things pentecostals can learn from mainline churches. It truly is a beautiful thing when traditions can learn from each other…thanks for the comment!

  • To Liturgy And Beyond

    From the perspective of a Christian educator, I deeply resonate with this piece. Worship and learning within the church must be a multisensory and multifaceted experience that forms believers holistically, inscribing a “habitus” within our hearts. A fine piece.

    • Chase Franklin

      Ben, I completely agree with you in regards to worship and learning being a multifaceted experience. We often times have to find that proper balance among all senses, which is what I was getting at in the piece. Thanks for the comment!

  • jdwalt

    Thanks Chase– I have written a number of times on this theme– Sermon centric worship vs. Story centric worship. This is why following a calendar built around the story of God in Christ is so essential to worship design.

    While I appreciate your question– Lord, how should we worship you this week– I think it runs the risk of falling into the same trap– that of planning our own way. I suspect that most people who are leading theme driven worship are seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit in determining their themes and sermon series.

    Worship is immersion into remembrance.

    Thanks for stirring our thinking with this insightful post.


    • Chase Franklin

      I can definitely see where you’re coming from, JD, and I agree with you. No matter how you go about planning worship, you have to be careful of planning things based on your own personal preferences. While my own tradition rarely follows a liturgical calendar, I think it can be a great starting point for organizing worship services.

      One thing that bothers me in worship design is many churches I’ve seen, ironically, forget to remember (one of many reasons why I think Communion should be celebrated at least once a week). Relating to Ben’s previous comment, I think we remember best when we remember with all our senses.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave feedback!

  • robert

    Good article, Chase. I grew up in a small Pentecostal church. Later in life I went through the (in my case revolving) door of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have seen both the pros and cons of free worship and liturgical worship. Both can be transforming, and both can be idolized to the point that Christ is not the center of our worship, but golden calf of “worship” (contemporary, traditional, liturgical) is worshiped in His stead.

    • Chase Franklin

      Robert, I’m sure both of these churches aren’t the first to do that. After the shock wore off, my heart was broken, and this is what led to my writing this piece. I completely agree with you about worship becoming idolized. It too is something we have to safeguard against in worship design. While I personally prefer a more free/contemporary form of worship, I occasionally use liturgical/traditional aspects, especially when celebrating Communion. Thanks for your comments!

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  • Bob Almond

    Good piece. But I’ve also been distressed when the tone, the character and the emphasis of worship songs have not connected with the central thrust of the sermon at all – they’ve been prepared without reference to each other. The entire service needs to be planned (or discovered) as a single thing – much like a musical composition – with different elements, different passages and speeds, different themes, but ultimately harmonious. Even parts in a different key – but working well within the whole. Oftentimes, the theme of the sermon will indeed determine the other elements – if you’re looking at a lament in the sermon, then it’s not often possible to make the opening worship upbeat. But discerning where God wants you to be at that point is indeed vital.

    If you had to ask me to count – I think ‘too disconnected’ has been my experience much more than ‘message dominated.’

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