I look back with amazement when I think of the churches I’ve been a part of since my childhood. I must admit that I’ve been a church hopper of note, although most of them were even before my conversion. What has been of great interest though as I look back is the different styles and forms of worship that my church hopping exposed me to.
Days when I attended Sunday school in a small township Baptist church where we would sing from Icilongo leVangeli , listen to a long sermon about ‘holiness or hell’ and shake everyone hands at the end of the service, to days when we would being led by a rock band to Hillsong music and listen to a pastor deliver a 25 mins motivational sermon. Oh, how can I forget when we would ‘praise and worship’ for almost 2 hours, have tithes and offering collection for another hour (it would take time mostly because the pastor is not happy with the initial offering), then an hour sermon mostly about ‘My season…’
As much as I believe that our worship gatherings should be different, in terms of style and cultural context, I also believe they should be similar in terms of content. I believe we should have a guide line on the non-negotiables with regards to what we do for our worship gatherings. In fact, we do have that guide line, the Word of God. We might be different in our cultural context and denominations but as long as we would consider ourselves a Christian church the Word of God has been clear with regards to some elements of our worship. Such elements are reading and preaching of God’s Word, singing, prayer, and sacraments. In addition, elements such as creed readings, vows, and offerings have also been recognized in church history. Historically these guide lines of worship have been called the regulative principle.
Furthermore, all these elements should have a focus on proclaiming or displaying God and His gospel.
I would like to briefly explain more on these elements on how we can faithfully flash them out regardless of our cultural context:
Reading of God’s Word: It is with shame that there [are] churches where the worship gathering will end without God’s Word being opened and read. When the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy on the matters of the church, he clearly tells him not to neglect the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13). Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Let us devote ourselves to this. As my pastor once said, Scripture reading is the only infallible proclamation from the pulpit.
Preaching of God’s Word: ‘Preach the Word, be ready in season and out of season; reprove; rebuke and exhort, with complete patience and teaching’ 2 Tim 4:2. Paul could not have been clearer. The preaching of God’s Word should rebuke in some days and others exhort. It baffles me that we have preachers that insist that they specialize in feel-good messages. Paul also instructs that the ‘full counsel…’ of God’s Word should be preached. If this instruction by Paul was obeyed, we would not have ‘breakthrough’ messages every week in churches. Preachers should devote themselves in teaching that seeks to expose God’s people to the whole redemptive history; the person of God and creation, the fall and its implications, God’s wrath towards sin, God’s sovereign plan of redemption, and future consummation of all things. These truths should be the main diets of our pulpits. Preachers should refrain from sharing unnecessary things in the pulpit, just because you think your suit is the best thing since the solas doesn’t mean you have to spend 20 minutes talking about it. Preach the Word!
Prayer: ‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.’ 1 Tim 2:1. In case we tend to forget, the house of God is ‘a house of prayer’. Corporate worship should always be marked with different kinds of prayers. Prayer of invocation, prayer of intercession, prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of illumination, prayer of confession, prayer of adoration and prayer of benediction. These are some of the prayers we should devote ourselves to in our corporate gatherings. Our prayers should also be orderly.
Singing: ‘Oh, sing to the Lord a new song, Sing to the Lord all the earth, Sing to the Lord, Bless His name, Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day, Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples.’ Psalm 96: 1-3. We see God commanding us to sing to Him through this Psalm. He doesn’t only commands us to sing but He also shows us what kinds of songs we should sing. Songs that are God-centered, Trinitarian, and Gospel-centered. Our singing should also be congregational; this implies that we don’t need superstars performing to us in our congregational worship. Our songs are not meant to be entertainment or a distraction from God. As God’s people the primary content of our songs, as we see in Eph 5:19; Col 3:16, are Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Choosing the songs to be sung on a given Lord’s Day should be intentional and done with great considerations. ‘As the main Teaching-Pastor it is your responsibility to shepherd the congregation into the green pastures of God-centered, Gospel-centered songs and away from plains of theological vacuity, meditations of human experience and emotional frenzy…’ Mark Dever.
Sacraments: ‘Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately constituted by God, to represent Christ, and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong to the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to the Word.’ - Westminster Confession. Sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are among the means of grace for God’s people. Baptism identifies us with Christ and His people. In the Lord’s Supper we eat and drink in Christ spiritual presence, to remember His death, receive present nourishment, and look forward to the great banquet to come. Some churches have come to neglect the administration of these sacraments, brethren, these are not optional!
It would be unfortunate to see these elements carried out uniformly across every nation and tongue. The regulative principle should not confine us to uniformity but to free us from cultural captivity. We don’t have to follow the latest trends, we have the guide line. This is not about style, it’s about substance. When I’m gathered with God’s people in Livingstone, Zambia or when I’m in Soweto or Constantia, Pretoria, I would not expect a similar style and everything to look the same. ‘Our God has created diverse peoples, and any attempt to erase that diversity opposes His wise design.’ Trip Lee.
As we seek to bring biblical worship to our townships let us not compromise what’s in the Book, and on the other hand let us not pretend that context doesn’t exist.
Written by Sihle Xulu