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.