From general observation, one can conclude that attendance at public worship in Christian churches is on the decline in many parts of the world. For example, even in the early 1960's, Gaines Dobbins declared, "On a typical weekend in the United States more than a quarter-million ministers will conduct religious services in places of worship attended by approximately one fourth the population." The percentage had certainly been much higher in previous decades and has declined even further since Dobbins's quotation. A contributing factor could be the competing activities so readily available in today's society. There is no end to sporting events and other entertainment offerings where one may spend leisure time. In previous days, the churches provided one of the main means of diversion for the people of a community. Another possible reason for the decline in church attendance is that public worship does not hold the meaning that it did for many people in earlier times. Indeed, scholars speak of parts of the world as now living in a post-Christian era.
It seems relevant, then, to consider the question of the importance of worship to people at this juncture in history. In pondering it one needs to gain understanding of what worship means to the average person in this culture. Then one needs to study its importance in the life of the minister. The findings should assist the believer in devising ways of revitalizing worship today. The need for such revitalization seems apparent. Dobbins observes, "No matter how ministers may rationalize, congregations apologize, and cynics criticize, when church attendance falls off in a community or a nation, the threat of ruin grows more imminent."
To find the reasons people give for attending or not attending worship services, Gaines Dobbins and his class on worship at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, took a survey and found the following representative answers. From those who attended church, the responses included: "I feel better when I go," "I like the music," "I want to be with God's people," "The Bible teaches me to go," "Going to church is my witness for Christ," "I like to listen to the sermon," and "I gain spiritual strength for the week ahead."
A sampling of responses to the question from those who did not attend church revealed things such as "Going to church depresses me; I feel uncomfortable when I go," "I was compelled to go as a child and declared I would never go again as an adult," "My parents were not churchgoers so I never got into the habit," "Going to church is not necessary to be a Christian; I can worship just as well at home," "Too many churchgoers are hypocrites," "Most sermons are dull and boring," and "Sunday is my only day off; I need it for other things."
Interestingly, all of the responses in the survey discussed above have a common theme. It concerns the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity in worship. Objectivity places the focus on God in every aspect of worship in a Christian assembly. That emphasis declares that the Lord is the audience in the sanctuary rather than the people. Subjectivity fixes its focus on the people and their needs in worship. In the examples above, people seem to attend or not attend church for what they get or do not get out of it. Therefore, the focus in both categories of responses is obviously the subjective.
With that in mind, should church songs be mostly subjective or objective? What light do the songs of the Bible shed on the question? The Book of Psalms, the songbook of the Bible and the guide for faith and practice as to church music, indicates that the songs of the redeemed should include ones of an objective nature. Psalm 19 is a good example. Focusing on God, the author begins with, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps. 19:1). In a camp meeting that I attended some years ago, Howard Carter, noted British minister and writer, chided American Pentecostals about the content of their songs. He said, "I note that Pentecostal songs in America focus on ‘I.' By contrast, British Pentecostal songs focus more on ‘Jesus.'"
Though the Book of Psalms indicates that church songs should include some with an objective focus, the book also contains many that are primarily subjective. In fact, the psalms include a wide range of virtually all possible human emotions. Randy Peterson says, "The range of situations in the Psalms gives us a wide range of reasons to praise the Lord." In a similar comment, Ralph Martin declares, "The wide gamut of human experience in its heights and depths is covered by the Hebrew ‘Book of Psalms.'" Commenting on the worship in the Book of Revelation, chapters 4 and 5, Donald Guthrie observes, "Clearly there is no intention that heavenly worship should by-pass human needs. Indeed John's tears and the concern of the elders to comfort at once make the whole scene intensely relevant." These facts, then, lead to the conclusion that biblical worship should include some songs that focus on God and other songs that emphasize the believer's testimony.
In addition to determining the importance of worship in the lives of people in the congregation, we must also look at its importance to the minister. The senior minister, or pastor, is the director of worship. Some in today's world conclude that the Minister of Music has that duty in the larger church. In the smaller congregation they may think the song leader is the worship director. Actually, however, there is a great difference between leading singing and assisting people as they participate in biblical worship. Of course, the more help the pastor receives from such assistants, the fewer actual duties he must personally attend to in the service of worship. Still, as with everything in the church, the final responsibility rests with the pastor. I once heard C. M. Ward, long-time speaker on the Revivaltime radio broadcast, make a profound observation about all this as he addressed a monthly ministers' fellowship meeting. He declared, "As I travel around this country I am becoming concerned that our pastors are more and more mere masters of ceremonies and less and less men of God who lead people in worship in our sanctuaries."
In Christian education, it is the pastor who is charged by the Lord to "preach the Word" as well as to "feed the lambs and sheep" in the flock. To fulfill such duties adequately, the minister needs the assistance of several persons in the congregation who can take sub-groups, usually formed on the basis of age, and dispense to them the spiritual food that they are able to receive. The minister's main personal task is to feed the flock through pulpit preaching. Otherwise, he or she discharges teaching duties by supervising the educational work of the church from the background. For example, the pastor must keep a close eye on curricular materials to assure that the people receive instruction in the Bible in a comprehensive and systematic way.
The modern minister has many responsibilities. He or she wears several hats. A study of Scripture reveals that the pastor has no less that a dozen biblically assigned duties. In a sense, like Jesus, this individual is a prophet, a preacher; a "king," an administrator; and a "priest." It is the last of these roles that makes a pastor the director of worship in a church. Of course, pastors are not priests literally, such as those who ministered in Israel during Old Testament times or as some church bodies employ today. They do function, however, similarly to Jewish priests in that both leaders speak to man about God and speak to God about man, as well as aiding individuals in seeking after God personally. Like the Jewish priest, a major duty for a pastor is assisting the worshiper in approaching the Lord in the sanctuary. Unfortunately, some ministers fail to recognize that responsibility. John Broadus says, "I notice that many preachers seem to give their whole thought to their sermon, and think nothing of preparing themselves for that high task, that solemn, responsible undertaking" of directing people in worship.
I learned through personal experience that being the director of worship is no small task. I spent my first years in the ministry as a traveling evangelist. My single responsibility in that role was preaching the sermon. Then the day came when the Lord made me a pastor. I soon discovered the vast difference between sitting in a service with only one duty and sitting there with all the responsibilities for the success of a meeting resting on my shoulders. In the latter, the list of duties was anything but short.
The pastor is responsible for such routine duties as making everyone feel welcome, seeing that each is comfortably seated, and assuring that there is proper ventilation, heating, cooling, lighting, and sound volume. Further, the pastor gives tactful guidance on the manifestation of spiritual gifts in a meeting. He or she considerately attends to the problem of a crying baby in the sanctuary and determines what to do if the youth write notes or otherwise disturb congregants in the house of worship. The pastor is the one who takes charge if there is a tornado alert or if a fire breaks out in the church building. If he or she has given no forethought and has no plans for such emergencies, a tragedy can easily occur, the responsibility for which would sit squarely on the pastor's shoulders. Charles Spurgeon, for example, suffered great criticism from the press on one occasion when seven people died in a stampede after someone yelled, "Fire," in the rear of the massive Surrey Music Hall, where 12,000 were in attendance at his meeting.
To be effective as the leader of worship, the minister needs to be convinced that there are adequate reasons for maintaining public worship in the first place. Then the pastor must prayerfully find ways to revitalize public worship for many.
Many people deny or misunderstand the true value of public worship. Severe critics sometimes charge that public worship is merely a means for maintaining an outdated institution. Cynics may say that the Church serves simply as a psychological crutch for the neurotic. Others suggest its worship meetings do no more than provide a place for some to sit, relax, and think in peace for a period every week. Perhaps, they say, public worship provides a momentary feeling of security. Some seek to justify the existence of Pentecostal and Charismatic worship just because it gives people an opportunity to experience emotional release. Others contend that church meetings provide a place for some to find a social outlet. In a southern town where I once lived, for example, a lady of high society in that small city expressed pleasure when she heard that the poor had started a church down on the river behind the levee. She stated that it was a good thing that the "river rats" now had a church of their own to attend!
The fact is, though, that the Church is not an outdated institution serving only such purposes as the critics claim. It is the only institution on earth that assists mankind in finding peace with God. Regrettably, the work of other service organizations has gradually encroached on what was at one time the Church's domain. A notable example of this is in the area of counseling. In bygone days troubled individuals tended to look to the clergy to find a solution to their problems. Now more and more they seek secular counselors.
The Church of Jesus Christ will never cease to exist. It will continue to serve mankind and God's purposes throughout time, during the Millennium, and into eternity. Yet, even pastors at times wonder if maintaining public worship is worth all the effort. They preach their hearts out and see little evidence of a response in the lives of their people. They deliver kill-or-cure sermons only to discover that their messages neither killed nor cured anyone! Not as many are being saved or baptized in the Spirit in their ministry as they would like. They drive the wheels off their automobiles in going to pray for the sick, yet they see few miracles. Everything seems so routine. They may have passing thoughts about discontinuing the church services and getting out into the community where the action is.
They remain faithful, however, and with the passing of time, they learn that the Lord was doing much more through the ministry of the church than they realized. Rarely if ever are individuals conscious of what God is accomplishing through their lives in the present. They have to move on, walking by faith rather than by sight, and years later they look back to see that God was doing much more through their ministry during that period than they were aware of at the time. Once, upon leaving a pastorate and stopping to look back, I was surprised at how many miracles had occurred during the ten years I was there!
I suspect that if a pastor were to shut down all activities at a church for a couple of years (assuming no other worship services were available to the congregation) he or she would be alarmed to find how few had remained faithful and vibrant Christians by the end of the period. Paul makes clear that the spiritual life of a body of believers is maintained largely through the means of grace that are available in public worship. Speaking of Christ he writes, "From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16). Certainly, one can remain a believer without attending public worship regularly, but he or she misses a lot that the Lord would have provided.
Revitalizing public worship involves much more than just tinkering with the order of service. Nor does it consist of merely finding "creative ways of worship." Rather, it centers on helping people find true meaning in worship. The aim of this series of articles is to assist in that process.
In the first place, pastors help members of their congregations find meaning in worship through the example they set before the people. After all, ministers need to worship God for themselves in the sanctuary just like any other believers. They are not mere actors on a stage, illustrating how others should worship. If that attitude is behind what pastors do, the people learn to "act" in worship, too, rather than worshiping in sprit and in truth! Furthermore, pastors need to beware lest their unconscious aim becomes simply to teach their congregations to act religious, including acting Pentecostal. In that connection, I long ago ceased to promote what is known as "old-time religion" in the sanctuary. Instead, I want to direct people toward true biblical worship. Where that overlaps with old-time religious practices, well and good, but my base is Scripture, not cultural religious ritual.
Specifically, then, the pastor helps people to find meaning in worship by preaching on that subject from the pulpit. Christian education activities also serve as a tool for teaching on worship. Regrettably, sometimes what is taught in such activities can have a negative impact. For example, if the weekly Royal Ranger meeting has a constant "rumpus room" atmosphere, the boys learn an unacceptable manner of worship. Informal instruction on worship also occurs at the altar. Whatever an altar worker says to a sinner coming for salvation becomes that new convert's first lesson on how to worship. The same holds true for those seeking to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, then, the pastor needs to screen and train the members of the altar team. The minister's personal presence there as people are seeking the Lord also makes possible guidance in particular cases where it might be needed.
Finally, the pastor helps people find meaning in worship by promoting the family altar in services. Spurgeon concludes that family worship is more critical in the lives of its members than even public worship. Today's pastor can encourage it by preaching about its importance. He or she may also offer guidance on approaches people can take in family worship. The church will do well also in providing devotional material designed for worship in the home. Christian bookstores offer an ample supply of devotionals for adults, youth, and children.
In conclusion, the question of the importance of worship to people at this juncture in the history of the world is extremely relevant. One needs to gain understanding of what worship means to the average person in today's culture. Then one needs to study its importance in the life of the local pastor. Knowledge in these areas should help the Church devise effective ways of revitalizing worship for believers today.
Broadus, John A. "Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, 11-29. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Dobbins, Gaines S. The Church at Worship. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962.
Guthrie, Donald. "Aspects of Worship in the Book of Revelation." In Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige, 70-83. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
Martin, Ralph The Worship of God. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
Peterson, Randy. Giving to the Giver: Worship That Pleases God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.
Spurgeon, Charles H. "The Blessing of Public Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, 31-43. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography. Vol. 1. Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962.
Donald Guthrie, "Aspects of Worship in the Book of Revelation," in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 79.