Archive for February, 2011

Some Things to Consider Including in your Worship – Stand-Alone Scripture Readings

February 25, 2011

I can’t imagine that readers of this blog attend churches where the Scriptures are never read during corporate worship. However, we may find that many attend churches where the reading of Scripture is not practiced as an end in itself.

In many churches, the Scriptures are read simply before the sermon, or to preface the sermon, as it were. The Scripture reading becomes merely a bridge between the singing and the preaching. I grew up in a setting where a separate, stand-alone reading of Scripture was never practiced. I’ve come to see the tremendous value of this practice, for several reasons.

First, it’s commanded by precept and example. Paul commanded it in 1 Timothy 4:13 and in Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27. It seems John expected the public reading of Scripture too, judging by Revelation 1:3. Early church practice confirms this.

Second, in giving a specific time to the reading of the Word, we testify to our belief in its inspired nature and power to convert. The Word is not merely a tool for our use. The Word itself preaches, when it is read. The Word has intrinsic power. (One member of my church was converted simply by reading the book of Matthew.)

Third, we revere God’s revelation in our midst when the only sound heard is the Word of God being publicly read. When the Scriptures are read, we call attention to the God-centredness of Christian worship. Christian worship is entirely a response to what God has revealed about Himself. In the act of stand-alone Scripture readings, we become slow to speak, and quick to listen, so that our worship is a matter of appropriate response, not creative innovation. I have heard this only anecdotally, but it is said that at a certain point during corporate worship in certain Puritan churches,  a large pulpit Bible would be marched through the center of the church building, held aloft, while the members all stood in reverence. This is not bibliolatry; this is revering the fact that God has spoken.

Scripture readings might include the text to be preached on for that day, particularly if it is a longer portion. If not, it is a good practice to include more than one reading, perhaps from both Testaments, that deal with a theme similar to that of the text to be preached.

Of late, some helpful tools have emerged, encouraging a careful and skillful approach to the public reading of Scripture. The person who reads Scripture should ideally be one who is skilled at reading and speaking, and is able to communicate the text with the inflections and emphases appropriate for the genre of literature, and for the subject being addressed. No one is pleased with a flawless, but colourless reading of Scripture. Likewise, we want a fluency and freedom in reading that directs our attention to what is being said, without tripping over how. This might be natural to some; it is a skill that can learned and improved in most.


Some Things to Consider Including in Your Worship – Silence

February 18, 2011

Our fathers had much to say about stillness, and by stillness they meant the absence of motion or the absence of noise or both.

They felt that they must be still for at least a part of the day, or that day would be wasted. God can be known in the tumult of the world if His providence has for the time placed us there, but He is known best in the silence. So they held, and so the sacred Scriptures declare.

(A.W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares)

The Scriptures do insist on the value of silence in worship, but we seem to fear it. A worship service that is nothing more than an unbroken chain of vocalisations seems like an assault on the ears, to say nothing of the worshipping heart. True worship requires some silence to think, confess, respond, admire. Having a human windmill behind the pulpit giving us a play-by-play of every moment in the service is distracting, to say the least. I’ve written before on the strange habit of making worship into a charge from beginning to end.

We might face an opposite error, in our effort to restore some contemplativeness to worship. We might introduce silence in an arbitrary fashion. Silence in the wrong place is not quietening; it is merely awkward. Instead of using the silence to contemplate, we might merely contemplate the silence, and become even more aware of small noises. Instead of directing the gaze of the soul to God, we might become intensely aware of ourselves, so that we do not break the silence.

Silence should be natural. Sometimes it might be in slightly longer pauses between elements. Instead of rushing to fill every possible gap with a breezy, chirpy commentary, we might allow a few moments after a song has been sung before moving on. Sometimes it might be during a public prayer, in which the speaker addresses God with natural pauses for thought and admiration, instead of a strange, unpunctuated monologue found nowhere else on earth. Sometimes it might be allowing the congregation’s restlessness to fade before beginning the call to worship, or the reading of Scripture. Sometimes, it might be a minute’s silence after a sermon, to read over the text, pray and make applications, commitments and confessions where necessary. Perhaps it might be in a moment’s silent prayer before or after the service.

However it is done, we need to give worshipping hearts time to worship, and give restless hearts time to squirm their way into disciplined silence. From there, perhaps they, too, will worship.


Within the Holy Place

His priest am I, before Him day and night,
Within His Holy Place;
And death, and life, and all things dark and bright,
I spread before His Face.
Rejoicing with His joy, yet ever still,
For silence is my song;
My work to bend beneath His blessed will,
All day, and all night long—
For ever holding with Him converse sweet,
Yet speechless, for my gladness is complete.

Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769)

The Map

February 14, 2011

Once there was a Cartographer who was committed to mapping all the islands in the South Seas. He apprenticed many junior cartographers, and equipped them with his Master-Map, a map that contained the size, location and shape of every island in the South Sea. He sailed with his apprentices to those islands in the ship Geloof, taking many months to arrive. His ship would leave the junior cartographers on one of the islands for several months, and then return for them. Their task was to study the island’s features and return their work to the Master Cartographer.

His Master-Map was invaluable. In fact, were it not for the Master-Map, the junior cartographers would not have been able to orient themselves to the landscape they were looking at. They would have been simply overwhelmed by all the details of the land. With Master-Map in hand, they understood what side of the island they were on, recognized coast-lines, and gained a good sense of proportion and direction. Their work would have been impossible and meaningless without the Master-Map.

Once on the island, the cartographers set up camp and began their work of studying the features of the island. They measured inland lakes, noted topographical features, sketched the paths of streams, and returned each evening with their diagrams, measurements and calculations. Around a hearty supper and fire, the cartographers would compare notes, and imagine how the Master Cartographer would put it all together.

However, after several months, a change came over some of the men. They began becoming very restless with the whole exercise. They started withdrawing, refusing to go out in the morning with the others and instead sketching their own pictures and diagrams in their make-shift huts. The others continued to go out each day to do the hard, sweaty work of exploration and mapping.

Inevitably, these differences came to a head, and arguments broke out. The Reclusives began accusing the other cartographers of denying the sufficiency of the Master-Map. They said that such men were inserting their own subjective views of the island as authoritative. They claimed that respectable cartographers would trace the Master-Map and do nothing else. Cartographers who honored the Master-Cartographer would re-draw the Master-Map in miniature, or in sections, or some other way. But only arrogance would cause a cartographer to draw his own map and dare fit it into the Master-Map.

To this the other cartographers responded with some puzzlement. After all, they replied, had not the Cartographer given them the assignment of understanding the islands he sent them to? Did he not want them to discover the details of the islands first-hand, and return with that knowledge?

One cartographer, Engel, tried to placate the fears of the Reclusives. “We are not trying to contradict the Master-Map, or even adjust it in any way. Indeed, its presence is what makes any other mapping possible. If we discovered something that contradicted the Map, we would doubt our own senses. But the Master-Map was never meant to function as an intricate guide to all the details of the islands. These we must discover by investigating the islands themselves.”

“Our point exactly!” said one in response. “If the Master-Map did not include those details, then they do not matter. The Cartographer himself would have included them had they mattered. If the details are not in the Master-Map, they must be features that are changeable, and not worth recording. ”

Engel tried to keep his tone even. “The Master-Map does not include those details because they are not the reason for the Master-Map. This does not make them insignificant. For example, just yesterday we discovered a ravine with a sheer drop of 150 feet. This is not on the Master-Map, but it does not contradict the Master-Map. It is important that we know this and return with such knowledge. It will perhaps spare many lives, if we do so.”

“Nonsense. The Master-Map provides all an explorer needs for life and healthiness.  For all your sophistry, you men are subtly denying the final and ultimate authority of the Map. The great battle-cry of modern exploration has always been de kaart alleen.”

With that, the Reclusives went back into their huts and rejoiced in their commitment to the Map alone, and congratulated themselves for the fact that they were not like their misguided fellows, who were so given to the debating of areas on which the Map was silent.

The others went on studying each day, trying to understand the island, by comparing what they discovered with the authoritative Master-Map.

And then the Cartographer returned.

Some Things to Consider Including in Your Worship – The Singing of Psalms

February 11, 2011

The singing of psalms has all but disappeared from many congregations, unless you count the “As the Deer” chorus as a singing of a psalm. (Lifting the first line from a psalm and adding words about your desire to eventually worship generally doesn’t count.) One cannot help feeling that many congregations treat their hymnal as if it is the New Testament, and the psalter as if it is the Old: nice, but not really for us.

Psalms by themselves are not adequate for all that New Testament worship aims to be. That is, much as I respect people who want a strict practice of the Regulative Principle, I don’t think exclusive psalmody is the way to go. Being Old Testament revelation, psalms do not contain all the Christological themes that we want to consider as New Testament believers. However, mixed in with “hymns and spiritual songs”(Eph 5:19, Col 3:16), they are an important part of the worship we ought to offer God.

Why should we return to including psalms in our worship?

  1. The psalms were meant to be sung. They are certainly to be studied and taught as the rest of Scripture, but psalms perhaps do not have their fullest effect until clothed again in melody. The psalms are songs, and songs which God’s people should sing.

  2. Psalms represent the universal experiences of the redeemed. Who has not read a psalm and found David or Asaph’s heart-cries resonating with his own? The psalms are experts in experiential theology, an experience of the redeemed across dispensations and ages.

  3. The psalms are inspired poetry. If we want to view unseen realities properly, there is nothing better than poetry that it inspired by God. The images chosen by God are specifically selected to shape the believing imagination.

  4. Psalms cover a variety of themes, from celebration, to confession, to expectation, to cries for deliverance, to wisdom. Therefore, psalms can function as calls to worship, confession before the Lord’s Supper, preparation before the preached Word, hymns of adoration or thanksgiving, hymns of promise, or even benedictions.

To this, one might add Doug Wilson’s plea for psalm singing as one of the means for reversing the feminization of worship that has occurred in the last century. He says,

The fact that the church has largely abandoned the singing of psalms means that the church has abandoned a songbook that is thoroughly masculine in its lyrics. The writer of most of the psalms was a warrior, and he knew how to fight the Lord’s enemies in song. With regard to the music of our psalms and hymns, we must return to a world of vigorous singing, vibrant anthems, more songs where the tenor carries the melody, open fifths, and glory. Our problem is not that such songs do not exist; our problem is that we have forgotten them. And in forgetting them, we are forgetting our boys. Men need to model such singing for their sons. (Future Men, p98)

Of course, no one sings a psalm precisely as originally given. Psalms are first translated from Hebrew to our mother tongue, and from there a metrical, rhyming and often abridged version is made. Nevertheless, we are still singing the substance of the psalms.

Where to find them? There is certainly a revival of psalm-singing in some sectors. Some are re-working the psalms into contemporary metrical tunes. Occasionally, one finds a section of a psalm that has been put to a pleasant and helpful melody, making it something of a cross between a psalm and a spiritual song. Some hymnals, include most of the psalms. The Book of Psalms for Singing, (Crown & Covenant, 1998), has all of the psalms, many of them set to hymn tunes with which a hymn-singing congregation would be familiar.

Some Things to Consider Including in Your Worship – A Call to Worship

February 4, 2011

In this series, I hope to highlight the benefits of certain worship practices that are sometimes missing from the free-worship traditions. I do not mean to patronize those already doing so; I hope to show how a wise use of these practices can only improve the worship we offer God.

A Call to Worship is often missing from the free worship tradition. Instead, worship in many such churches begins with a warm and friendly welcome, a comment or two about a sports game, the weather, and how happy and blessed the church is that all have graced the church with their presence. From this chatty start, one is usually directed to a rousing ‘opening hymn’ – an anthem intended to spiritually caffeinate the still-yawning parishioners.

A Call to Worship is not a prescribed element of worship; it is one of the applications of a prescribed element of worship. The prescribed element of worship is the reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). A Call to Worship is a useful and wise use of the reading of Scripture to prepare the congregation for worship. There is nothing wrong with a warm greeting or welcome, and even a preliminary announcement or two. However, beginning corporate worship with a Call to Worship achieves many things in one.

Firstly, it calls believers’ attention to their purpose in coming. Certainly, as David Peterson argues in Engaging With God, believers worship in all of life. However, I’m not convinced that every time we meet, the primary task is edification. There are many times when we meet for edification, instruction, fellowship and service of one another. However, I do think there are times when believers meet for the explicit purpose of hearing and responding to God’s Revelation in worship. This is why we are called a spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:5), and changing (or extending) the image, priests offering up praises to God (2:9). This is why Luke says that the church was worshipping in Acts 13:2. The point is, the church does sometimes meet specifically to worship, and at these times, it is necessary to make it known that believers are together for that purpose. Edification, fellowship, instruction will all be part of that time, but worship is the primary reason for those meetings.

Secondly, it sanctifies the time. The Call to Worship is like cordoning off a section of time. In doing it, we announce, “What happens here is no longer ordinary. Do not profane this time by treating it as ordinary or common. This time is specially set apart for knowing and magnifying God. Stop your normal way of thinking and acting and turn your entire attention to God.”

Thirdly, it arrests attention. The Call to Worship is analogous to the blowing of the shofar. At the blowing of the shofar, an assembly was being called, or an announcement was being made. When the words of Scripture call for worship, they simultaneously call for a halt to other activities (including chatting, sipping coffee, and texting). This stands in stark contrast to chatty transitions which are aimed at slowly ‘warming up’ disinterested believers. The Call to Worship breaks into the distracted state of how most enter a church service, and demands attention.

Fourthly, it demands a response. The Call to Worship is , in fact, a call. God has worship that is due to Him (Ps 29:1-2); the call to worship calls us all to joyfully pay our dues.

The Call to Worship could take more than one form. It could be a simple reading of a portion of Scripture that calls for worship, such as Psalm 95:1-2, 96:1-3, or 100:1-4. It could be a text that celebrates the privilege and joy of worship such as Psalm 84 or Psalm 122. It could be a responsive reading between leader and congregation, such as Psalm 118:1-4 or any other appropriate Scripture. A musical Call to Worship could involve the singing of a Scriptural call to worship God by choir or congregation. Because choir ‘numbers’ are often evaluated as performances, I would take special care to direct the congregation to the words being sung, so that it truly performs its function of calling the congregation to worship.

The key is, worship ought not to feel like a movie with several trailers before it really begins. We don’t need to transition people into worship with a chatty commentary. When corporate worship is about to begin, it should begin with the authoritative announcement of Scripture. When that is made, believers are now responsible to enter into the posture of corporate worship.