By Steve Barton

Each local church must strive to minister in a variety of ways to fulfill the purpose and mission of the church; therefore its ministries will grow and develop in many contexts. At a minimum, each local church must minister to believers who are a part of that church and to the unbelievers in the community who are not yet a part of the Body of Christ (evangelism). This seems like ministering in our Jerusalem. Among other requirements for the local church, evangelism, worship, edification, and fellowship are among the main priorities. Each area brings different challenges and blessings as they meld into the whole of ministry. I would like to focus on one of these areas for the purpose of sharing some observations of challenges and joys that have been important in our ministry to those who are in our Jerusalem.

Biblical foundation pieces we consider in worship

Those who are God’s people are commanded to worship God in the Old Testament (Ps. 99:5). Even those who don’t know Him (“the peoples”) are called to praise Him even without knowing Him intimately (Ps. 99:3). The theme is further developed in the New Testament, where worship by God’s people is expected and desired by God; for the believer, this carries the force of a command (John 4:23, 24).

Understanding the truth is part of what is required for acceptable worship to happen (Matt. 15:9). True, acceptable worship will not ultimately happen from hearts that are far from God—whether those people profess to be near or not (John 4:23, 24; Matt. 15:8, 9). Worship needs to be characterized, among other things, by being filled with (controlled by) the Spirit, accompanied by speaking to one another, singing, and making melody in our hearts to the Lord, giving thanks to God, and submitting to one another utilizing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18–20). Worship must focus people on God, and never obscure Him or distract attention from Him (Exod. 34:14; Deut. 11:16; Col. 2:23). Believers’ faith, knowledge of the truth, and love for one another should naturally increase (2 Thess. 1:3; 2 Peter 1:5–7 ; 3:18).

Wisdom worship practices for our church based on the foundation

The following statements are not all-inclusive, but an attempt to demonstrate how we use the truth declarations of Scripture with the wisdom principles of Scripture to forge a process for choosing how to carry out the Biblical imperatives in worship in a way that fosters unity and growth in the body and enables unbelievers access to the praise and worship of God that they are missing.

  1. God must be the focus in every worship element.
  2. We must make the truth prominent in all worship elements, and we must strive to help believers to join together in spirit and truth.
  3. The more believers participate in worship appropriately, the better (whether leading or being led).
  4. Utilizing instruments that people play is conducive to encouraging more people to serve in worship, and that’s a good thing.
  5. We know what the Psalms are because they have been preserved, but we have only precious few hymns from the early church, and we don’t have clearly defined spiritual songs laid out as such in Scripture. We definitely do not have melodies, harmonies, rhythms, or original instruments for them either.
  6. God did preserve titles of melodies, tunes, and other musical markers in the Psalms, but He did not preserve their styles, sounds, or instruments (except voices).
  7. The music selections we choose must include the Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our only options for the hymns and spiritual songs are those that have been written and composed within the confines of preserved music. That includes music that is hundreds of years old and music that is one year old. This also means that melodies and harmonies for the Psalms need to be a part of available music.
  8. The musical elements and the truths they convey should match aesthetically within the best understanding of the “musical culture” in which your church resides. This means that one culture will have a different understanding of “aesthetic match” from another. This is a subjective analysis that changes from culture to culture. The spiritual leaders of each local assembly should carefully assess what fits best in order to do the work of the ministry. (The culture in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., where I minister, differs greatly from the culture of downtown Chicago, which differs greatly from Brussels, Belgium.)
  9. Worship music for the church should always be guided by and many times contain the truths of Scripture as understood based on a proper hermeneutic.
  10. When making musical selections we must use wisdom to understand the people of our culture, practice patience, and use kindness for those who hold a different cultural aesthetic understanding and teaching to help those with differing cultural understandings within our church come to unity and patience and still worship in spirit and truth at the same time.

Understand what your Jerusalem is like, and grow together.

Understanding what the people of your Jerusalem are like (including those in the church and those who don’t yet know Christ) is important to determine what is to be communicated. It is for the purpose of understanding how to communicate what God in His Word has given us to teach, exhort, admonish, and share. Understanding our audience then is an activity to foster better and more effective communication of the truth we hold. It will require a patient, humble acceptance of styles and preferences that are not personally comfortable for us in worship. It will also require a patient, humble teaching that each end of the style spectrum must bear with one another in love for the purpose of helping those who are a part of our Jerusalem. It will also require teaching about the need to change personal preferences and styles for the sake of promoting unity, not because the styles and preferences are defined in Scripture (because they aren’t).

Cultural obstacles

In the worship arena is a growing education and literacy dearth. Poetry is something that might be studied in school, not entered into for pleasure or normal thinking patterns. This means that the beauty of excellent poetry in some songs can actually obscure the truth that is conveyed. For some, repetition and simple truth concepts cause a disdain for a particular style or music type. For some, Elizabethan language and poetic devices are too obscure and detract from the effective communication of the truth. With the media saturation of our culture in general, many people have not disciplined themselves to concentrate on or think deeply about truth, and when asked to, some do not possess the skills needed to follow a logical progression of thought.

Cultural opportunities

There is an underlying desire for authenticity and relevance that perfectly fits the intent of the gospel and the teaching of the Word of God, so if we can communicate in worship in ways that allow the participants to understand and enter in, they will respond to the Word’s inherent power. Many people in our cultures generally have music available to them all the time. Music (of varying styles, content, and quality) has become a normal mode of expression and connection. This means that music can be used to communicate truth. It also means that greater discernment and careful study will be needed to help and be kind to all those who are a part of our services, and we might not employ everyone’s preferences in every service, but over the course of time, each person will find an opportunity to easily utilize a form of their preferred style. It also means that each person will have to work harder to do the purpose of worship when their style or preference is not employed.

Promote unity in the body of Christ locally, nationally, and globally.

Because each Jerusalem is different, we must be gracious, patient, and kind in our interactions with others who clearly share our doctrinal distinctiveness and passion for the clear sharing of the gospel. We must, loving each other, believe always that fellow believers are attempting to understand and minister to their Jerusalem effectively when we know they share our commitment to the Word, even if their choice of a style or preference is different from ours. If there is a question about the Word or the gospel, then gentle, humble questions will help us understand how to foster the unity in the larger Body of Christ, which is our Savior’s desire.

Worship is one area of ministry in which an understanding of truth, our cultural communication forms, and our personal desires have to be wed together in a way that accomplishes the ministry God has called us to in a way that pleases Him. This process needs to be carried out in many ministry places, such as how to do outreach, what fellowship looks like, and what choices we make for how to teach and build up believers in the truth.

Steve Barton is pastor of outreach and worship at Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.