Worship is supposed to be central to the New Testament Christian faith, though the approach to worship found in many Baptist churches would persuade many thoughtful onlookers that such is not the case. I was recently at a gathering in which the goings on did not in any way reflect the notion of worship that is found in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Sad. The exclusive Hebrew word translated worship in the Old Testament refers to bowing down oneself, prostrating oneself before God. Similarly, the Greek word used most often in the New Testament refers to expressing (in attitude or by gesture) one’s complete dependence on or submission to God. Implicit in both the Old and New Testament concepts of worship is humility, with God resisting the proud and giving grace to the humble. With these things in mind, think for a moment about the most recent worship service you attended or conducted. Were those in attendance drawn toward any expression or attitude of humility toward God that would show dependence upon Him or cultivate an attitude of submission to Him? Genuine worship should produce such in the lives of those worshiping God.
Sadly, however, there is profound confusion in the lives of most church members concerning what worship really is. And this is no surprise since most pastors are without a clue concerning worship. I remember the first time as a relatively young pastor I went to church while on vacation with a friend. During that midweek service I experienced two things for the first time that left a horrifying memory: First, those present were informed that a young woman would lead the congregation in worship. Second, the way that young woman led the congregation in worship was by leading in the singing of hymns and choruses. That, my friends, is confusion. Congregational worship is supposed to strengthen and reinforce God’s pattern for the family, and God’s plan for the family does not include wives leading their husbands. Additionally, worship is not the song service. When pastors are confused about the worship of God, they exhibit their confusion by surrendering the leadership role in worship to women and by ignorantly portraying hymn singing as worship. Hymn singing is not worship. Hymn singing can prepare for worship. Hymn singing can even be a contributing factor in worship. However, hymn singing by itself is not worship.
History is so very important to the child of God, yet so many believers are profoundly ignorant of history, and it shows. As well, history is crucial for the gospel minister as a means of protecting both him and those he leads from tragic errors committed in days gone by that should not be repeated, and will not be repeated except by those who are ignorant of history. Additionally, too many Baptist pastors concern themselves with Baptist history while studiously ignoring Protestant history. I cannot imagine why, unless it is thought that what Protestants were up to is irrelevant to Baptists. What folly.
Among the giants of English Baptist history was a man named Benjamin Keach. He was a towering figure who had been a General Baptist before embracing Particular Baptist principles. He was also the primary author of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, and his son Elias figured prominently as a founder of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (from which just about all Baptists in the Americas can trace our lineage). He is most famous to us as the second pastor of the congregation that was eventually served by John Gill and Charles Spurgeon. Important to us at present is that few modern Baptist pastors are aware that early English Baptists did not sing hymns during worship because of Protestant practices regarding hymn singing. Benjamin Keach was among the first (if not the first) to introduce to his congregation the singing of Psalms after he had prepared them by preaching on the subject for more than ten years. Even then, when his church began to sing (after the congregation was dismissed with prayer so those uncomfortable with singing could depart), it led to a split in the congregation. What does this show us? It shows us that singing was at one time considered a nonessential part of worship in Baptist circles in England and the British colonies of North America. Thus, to completely turn things about to make worship into hymn singing is something Baptists of Keach’s day simply would not have agreed with.
But there is something else history can teach us, especially if we are not neglectful of Protestant history. One of Protestantism’s original criticisms of Roman Catholicism was related to singing. Catholics would not allow ordinary folks to sing in church, relegating that privilege to the clergy. Protestants objected by insisting on the right of the laity to sing. Baptists before and during the Protestant Reformation abstained from singing altogether to avoid any semblance to Roman style worship. It was left to the courageous Benjamin Keach to reintroduce singing to Baptist worship by reasoning that it was not that singing was like Catholic worship but that restricting singing to the clergy was like Catholic worship. Therefore, if singing is done rightly, it can be pleasing to God. Little would Baptists of Keach’s era recognize what has happened in some congregations, especially bigger ones, with attempts made to emulate Hollywood singing style having become so successful that many in the congregation no longer attempt to sing, but merely watch the professionals do their thing. At this point, I would recommend “A Musician’s Perspective On Contemporary Music” written by a professional musician named Neil McGovern, that appeared in Sword and Trowel 2015: Issue 1. It is quite simply the best article on the topic I have ever read. A free copy is available to you on written request.
It really boils down to this, if my occasional musings are of any benefit: Worship should rightly be understood as giving to God the honor and reverence that is due Him on the occasion. What is due Him when the congregation gathers? First Corinthians 14.24-25 suggests that Bible preaching that is rich in content is crucial since that will nourish and satisfy the brethren and reflect well on the unconverted present. What about music? Music is acceptable but hardly necessary since for much of Christian history worshipers had to be quiet for fear of discovery. One can always sing when alone or in small groups. But what is indispensable in congregational worship is Bible preaching.
I greatly fear the consequences of most modern approaches to worship. So much music is so expertly done and exhibits such marvelous talent that ordinary folks are reduced to almost no participation, but merely observation. However, worship is something that we are to all engage in. It is a corporate activity that is easily engaged in when God’s Word is preached properly and listened to properly. Again, an advertisement for a free brochure from a sermon I preached titled “How To Listen To A Sermon,” from Acts 10.33. In oral cultures, people know how to listen well. However, in our day listening is a lost art that can be reclaimed by those who approach listening to a sermon with the right attitude.
Why are so many leaving? Could part of the problem be their almost complete nonparticipation in worship? They observe the singing because much of it is so good that it is too good for some to relate effectively to. Too slick. Too much talent. Too stylized. Production values are way too high. So folks watch without participating because the singing is so very good. They have become an audience and are not a group of worshipers. Additionally, with so much invested in the music, so little is invested in the preaching. Thus, while the people in the church are unskilled listeners because we are no longer an oral culture, but a visual and reading culture, there is little motivation to become a good sermon hearer because so many sermons are so shallow, so devoid of profundity, so lacking in spiritual investment. Spend more time in your study. Spend more time on your knees. Spend more time learning how to be a story teller and a verbal illustrator. Spend time getting feedback from those who listen to you so you can discover what they thought you said when you said what you said.
I fear some are leaving because they are unfulfilled in worship, either because they do not really know what worship is or because there just isn’t much provided that would encourage anyone in the room to fall on his face before our great and glorious God.