Again and again we hear it. Some say, “Our worship seems so lifeless! Let’s revitalize it by adding guitar and drums!” Others respond, “No! Worship must be marked by reverence!” The first group counters, “But shouldn’t it also be marked by joy?”
God says that worship that is genuinely vital—alive and enlivening—will be characterized both by reverence (Heb. 12:28) and by joy (Ps. 100:1–2). Why then do we find ourselves trying to choose between them?
Could it be because we imagine that worship is primarily something that we do? We need to understand that the heart of true worship is the living God himself meeting with and working in his people by his means of grace. He alone can genuinely vitalize his church. We need to get out of the way anything that might distract or divert us from his work.
If we do, what will worship look like? First Corinthians 14 provides five touchstones of vital worship.
The Centrality of God’s Word
In vital worship, God addresses his people through his word. The Father draws near through his Son by his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works to draw God’s people in faith near to the Father through the Son’s mediation (Eph. 2:18). He uses God’s word to create this response of faith (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 6:17).
That is why prophecy—the forthtelling of God’s word—was permitted in public worship, while uninterpreted tongues were not (1 Cor. 14:28). Prophecy instructs and edifies (vs. 3). But if uninterpreted tongues cannot be understood, they cannot edify (vs. 2). On the other hand, interpreted tongues could properly be used in worship during the apostolic era because they expressed God’s word in an understandable way (vss. 5, 13, 18–19).
Today, we have the functional equivalent of prophecy and tongues in the reading and preaching of Scripture. The gifts our Lord designed to be central to public worship are those which he gives to teach and edify the church. First, then, the ministry of God’s Word will be central to vital worship.
Clarity and Order
This implies a second touchstone: “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). In vital worship, everything will be clear and understandable, so that it edifies God’s redeemed people.
Third, we tend to think that sincere worship must be spontaneous, but God insists that public worship must be marked by order. Why? Because only God can grant authenticity and vitality, and he “is not a God of confusion but of peace” (vs. 33). Therefore, in worship “all things should be done decently and in order” (vs. 40).
One Voice at a Time
Fourth, worship can be orderly only if one “voice” speaks at a time. In vital worship, God speaks to his assembled people, and the congregation responds to God. These voices are to be clear and distinct.
Those who have the spiritual gifts—and are authorized to use them—speak on God’s behalf. Through them, our Lord addresses his people. “Two or at most three, and each in turn,” may speak (1 Cor. 14:27, 29). Only a few in the congregation may represent the voice of God in worship, and only one at a time (vss. 30–31). Our Lord wants his voice to be clear and edifying. And so verse 31 insists, “Prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”
Accordingly, in elements of worship where God speaks to the congregation, only one voice is to speak at a time. Likewise, in elements of worship where the congregation speaks to God, only one voice is to speak at a time.
This implies, fifth, that vital worship will be marked by substantial silence. Jesus said that in this new age of covenant fulfillment, worship is in Spirit and in truth—by the Holy Spirit and through the mediation of Christ (John 4:23–24). This adds a new dimension and dynamic to worship.
Because of Christ’s accomplished work and the Holy Spirit’s application of it, New Testament worship is personal and intimate in a way that Old Testament saints could only long for.
Our heavenly High Priest grants access to the very throne room of God (Heb. 10:19–22). He graciously makes it possible for you to experience a new and deep interaction with the living God by his Spirit and through his Word. A tremendous amount of activity goes on when, in worship, the triune God speaks to you and you genuinely listen in silence.
This helps us understand 1 Corinthians 14:33b–35, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak….” That prohibition is clear and emphatic. But that instruction applies to everyone’s attitude in public worship. The same imperative—”keep silent”—is given two other times in this context (vss. 28, 30) to men! When it’s not appropriate for you to speak, “keep silent.” That goes for everyone.
How can we follow this principle? First, we must realize that in worship, not speaking does not mean not worshiping. God calls everyone to participate actively during every element of worship. At the same time, the way you do that in most of public worship is by means of outward silence.
As the minister reads or preaches God’s Word, everyone else is to be silent. But when you are really worshiping, a lot will be happening in your silence. You will actively listen for God’s voice. The Holy Spirit will inwardly apply God’s Word. You will respond in faith. You will commune with your Lord by means of his ordinances.
Keeping silent in worship is not the same as not participating in worship. Indeed, in order to participate fully, most of the congregation has to keep silent for most of the worship service.
Second, when the congregation as a whole speaks as a single voice to God, you should add your voice. Your voice sincerely raised together with the rest of the church is part and parcel of vital worship. But so is your silence.
The genuine worship which you offer to God in silence is just as important and just as spiritual and just as vital. When God allows only a few men to speak on his behalf or to speak on behalf of the congregation, he does so precisely to enable you to enter more fully into the essence of worship—the intimacy of Spirit-and-truth communion with the living and true God.
Genuine Reverence and Genuine Joy
We see in 1 Corinthians 14 that vital worship is intensely spiritual. Does this help to explain why we keep finding ourselves choosing between reverence and joy in worship?
Francis Schaeffer observed that it is possible to counterfeit holiness in the flesh, but it will be legalistic and unloving. Similarly, it is possible to counterfeit love in the flesh, but it will be permissive and unholy. But it is impossible simultaneously to counterfeit both holiness and love in the flesh; only the Holy Spirit can produce holy love and loving holiness.
Could it be that our worship dilemma arises because we are too fleshly? It is possible to counterfeit reverence in the flesh, but it will be sterile and joyless. It is possible to counterfeit joy in the flesh, but it will be shallow and irreverent. But it is impossible simultaneously to counterfeit both reverence and joy in the flesh; only the Holy Spirit can produce reverent joy and joyful reverence. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63).
Accordingly, while these touchstones do have implications for our worship practices, the first step toward solving our worship dilemma is not to make external changes to those practices. The first step to cure counterfeit reverence is not to add guitars and drums, nor will counterfeit joy be cured by insisting on solemnity.
The first step is to get down on our knees in repentance for our sinful reliance on the flesh. It is to admit to God that we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” and that our only hope is the grace of God in Christ; it is to seek the Lord for the internal changes that will draw us into close fellowship with him (Rev. 3:17–20).
Vital worship depends wholly upon the living God. He is not limited by external circumstances. He can produce vital worship—Spirit-and-truth communion with himself—in any circumstances, from cathedrals to catacombs, using a whole spectrum of preachers and a whole spectrum of music.
But you will never really enjoy Spirit-and-truth communion with the living God unless the Holy Spirit regenerates you. It is impossible for you to participate in the spiritual intimacy of new covenant worship unless you are in living contact with the living Christ. Apart from that, vital biblical worship will always seem boring to you.
Moreover, unless you are also abiding in Christ, vital biblical worship will still seem boring to you. You’ll go to worship just to meet other people, or to be entertained, or to be intellectually stimulated, or to be emotionally stirred, or to be motivated to action. But you’ll miss the main point. Worship is first and foremost about communing with the living, life-giving God.
By Larry Wilson, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (Indianapolis, IN). Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2009 with permission.