The World in Our Worship

Choices in Worship

Church historian Bruce Shelley reports on a speaking engagement he had with a group of senior adults about recent changes in evangelical churches. When he mentioned drums in worship, he said, “even the breath-taking surroundings [of the Colorado Rockies] couldn’t suppress the sanctified outrage” he heard. “Like a match dropped on a haystack,” he said, “the room erupted first in a corporate groan, followed by an outburst of laughter.”{1} Clearly such changes don’t sit well with many Christians. Those who appreciate a more traditional approach to worship are concerned that the contemporary style of worship risks diluting the message of the church by modeling itself on the secular entertainment industry in its style, and thus risks the accommodation of the message to the ways of the world.

On the other hand, those who believe the traditional approach has become outdated are accepting contemporary worship widely. For some, the change is simply a matter of taste: they like contemporary music and a relaxed atmosphere. For others, contemporary worship seems like a better approach to reach today’s generations. In his book, The Second Coming of the Church, George Barna makes this startling statement: “After nearly two decades of studying Christian churches in America, I’m convinced that the typical church as we know it today has a rapidly expiring shelf life.”{2} The church is not effectively speaking to its surrounding culture, he says, and is becoming largely irrelevant. Adapting worship services is one part of addressing this problem.

Still a third worship option for evangelicals who are tired of traditional worship but think the contemporary style is inadequate as well, is that of liturgical worship. Through the ceremony and ritual of liturgical services conducted in settings with objects rich with symbolism, some Christians look for a special encounter with God. The October 6, 1997 issue of Christianity Today had on its cover a picture of a woman with a glazed look in her eyes. Above her head was the question: “Missing God at church?”{3} A student interviewed in the cover article said this about her church background: “There was no imagination, no mystery, no beauty. It was all preaching and books and application.” Another student spoke of the loss of the sense of the divine in worship today. “Gymnasiums and impermanent buildings” have replaced “the splendor and holiness of cathedrals,” she said. “Plastic cups and folding chairs aren’t enough,” she continued. “There has to be an environment that communicates God’s holiness to my senses and to my spirit.”

A fourth option for worship is one championed by Robert Webber: that of blended worship. This is especially appealing to young people. It reflects, to a degree, postmodern thinking. We are no longer restricted to choosing one style over another. Now that the rigid demands of modernism have broken down, people feel free to choose facets of different styles to form something new.

Some might think that differences between worship services are really merely stylistic. Each person has his or her preferences regarding worship, right? Some prefer one style, some another. But are the differences only stylistic? Is it true that worship style is basically a matter of individual preference? Are there any objective criteria for corporate worship? If there are, then we can look for the necessary elements as we consider a certain style of worship.{4} On the other hand, we can also look for things to avoid in worship, things that would hinder true worship. Are influences from secular culture coming into the church and adversely affecting our worship?

Let’s consider first some goals of corporate worship. Following that, we’ll consider three cultural forces that serve to undermine proper worship.

Three Goals of Worship

In her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down,{5} Marva Dawn says there are three goals of worship: praising God, building up the community, and nurturing the believer.

Praising God

The obvious answer to the question “Why do we worship?” is, “To give praise and glory to God.” Said the Levites, “Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed and exalted above all blessing and praise!” (Neh. 9:5). In praise we have our focus on God and not ourselves. At least we think we do.

However, too often our thoughts about God center around what He has done for us, for me. Consider, for example, the songs many of us sing in church. So many of them have I as the real subject. God is praised for what He means to me.

Is it wrong to praise and thank God for what He has done for me? Not at all! Of course, we should do this. The problem is this: we come to worship God in His fullness, but we end up praising Him for what we’ve experienced. The being and work of God is reduced to the limits of our own experience! But we’re dealing with the transcendent One here! The One who spoke the stars into existence, who cares for all others in His family the same as He cares for me, and all at the same time! God’s project is bigger than I am. God’s being is bigger than what I have personally experienced. In addition to praising God for what He has done for us individually, we should be worshiping God for the things He does that have nothing to do with us in particular. By worshiping Him in His fullness we open ourselves up for riches we didn’t expect and maybe never even imagined.

Building Up the Body

In worship we also build up the community of faith. We are part of something much bigger than our own church or denomination; we are part of something which began two millennia ago and which will continue to grow until the Lord returns.

What does this have to do with worship? First, when we come together for worship we are a worshiping community, not just a bunch of individuals gathered in the same room. When we are together we can turn from our occupation with ourselves and focus on the development of God’s people as a body. We are not to mirror our narcissistic and individualistic society, but rather to turn outward to the community. Says Dawn, “Worship that draws all its participants into a common understanding of God will develop vibrant communities–and then the communities in turn will also deepen the character growth of their members.”{6}

Second, in worship we can also hear from members of the church from generations past through their writings and art. In turn, we nurture and protect that which we have inherited so we can pass it on intact to succeeding generations. Worship aids significantly in this project. Says Dawn, “Worship forms us; all the elements of the service develop the character of believer in us. And worship forms the community if it unites us in common beliefs, traditions, renewal, and goals. Worship schools us in the language of faith as we listen and sing and participate in its rites.” She continues: “We can only pass on the faith if it has nurtured our character to be its carriers and if we are part of a community, the Church, that has carried the faith down through the ages.”{7}

So, when we sing, for example, do we draw into ourselves and enjoy our own private worship? Or are we purposefully singing with other believers, lifting up one sound of praise to God? Do we come to church with our focus on what we hope to get out of the service? Or are we thinking about how we are going to lift others before the Lord? Are we listening to Christians from ages past who have dealt with some of the same ideas and issues we struggle with? And are we thinking about those who will come after us, about the legacy we will leave behind?

The individualism of our age fights us here. It sets us up to be a lot of little Christian islands in a sanctuary or auditorium. We are not many individuals who just happen to have a religious bond. What we are really is a body made up of many members. Worship that recognizes God as the subject will be worship that builds up His body.

Nurturing Character

Another goal of worship is the nurturing of our character. Worship should transform us as a result of being brought into the presence of the living God. It was entering the sanctuary of God that gave Asaph a right understanding of God and His ways with men, which took away Asaph’s bitterness (Ps. 73). Think of Isaiah, who was made whole and prepared to serve after beholding the glory of God and his own sinfulness (Is. 6). This isn’t just a matter of growing in faith and going deeper in our prayer life. It’s also a matter of becoming good people, people whose character is like that of Jesus!

Too often, however, our idea of being transformed is leaving church feeling good! We want to feel better about ourselves, to be lifted up! Yet, we all know in the normal course of life that building up often means tearing down first. This is especially the case when we think about being conformed to the image of Christ. In fact, Marva Dawn says that worship ought to kill us. What does she mean by this? She says:

“In a society doing all it can to make people cozy, somehow we must convey the truth that God’s Word, rightly read and heard, will shake us up. It will kill us, for God cannot bear our sin and wants to put to death our self-centeredness . . . . Once worship kills us, we are born anew to worship God rightly.”{8}

Worship, then, serves to praise God, build up the community, and nurture our character.

Subjectivism: Worship Beginning With Me Rather Than With God


Let’s begin looking at three forces, which work to undermine proper worship: subjectivism, self-focused individualism, and dumbing down the message. Our critique will not be focused on any particular worship style. Indeed, these problems can be found across the spectrum.

“Me” As Subject

Let’s begin with subjectivism. This is a common attitude today. I find what is true and good within myself. My personal experience is what counts.{9} Therefore, I am the judge of what is worthwhile in my worship. I expect the sermon to be on my level (none of that heavy theology stuff), the music to suit the tastes I’ve already developed, and the service time to not be too long. And the service is evaluated by how I feel when it’s over. What matters is my spiritual experience now.

Seeing God As Subject As Well As Object

The problem here is that the center of worship is I, not God. Although I might be directing my thoughts toward God, I am patterning my worship so as to satisfy myself. The effect is that my understanding of God is restricted to what He has done in my life; my view of God is thus limited by my experience. When my experience of God sets the limits, I’ll have a shrunken view of God.

The key to getting God fully into the picture is to see Him as the subject of worship, and not just the object. What do I mean by this? Says theologian Marva Dawn, “The gifts of worship flow from God the subject and return to God as the object of our reverence.”{10} The content of our worship comes from Him; He is the source. He gives us Himself, tells us His characteristics, and informs us of His plans. Having received this we turn back to God and make Him the object of our worship, giving it all back to Him in praise. As one writer puts it, “Worship . . . is an encounter in which God’s glory, Word, and grace are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration.” In our worship, we “recognize a Lord whose majesty evokes strong praise, petition, and transformation.”{11} When we worship, we are reflecting God back to God. In filling our vision with God, we are met by Him. If we engineer our worship to meet our needs as we see them, on the other hand, we risk missing out on being touched by God in unexpected but vital ways.

I’d like to make one other point. With God as subject or source of worship, grace once again becomes central, for grace is the theme of His works on our behalf. When we are the subjects, however, our actions are the focus making law central. This leads to an emphasis on what we must do, rather than what God has done.{12}

On Worship Killing Us

With God as the subject of worship, it then becomes a vehicle of transformation in His hands. As I noted earlier, worship ought to kill us. It ought to make us see the great distance between God and ourselves. Once in God’s presence our sinful nature is put to death. Then we are ready to be infused with His life.{13}

Worship is a subversive act, Dawn insists. We don’t come before God to get His stamp of approval on our interests and agendas. God intends to turn us upside down. As Dawn says, “If the Church’s worship is faithful, it will eventually be subversive of the culture surrounding it, for God’s truth transforms the lives of those nurtured by it. Worship will turn our values, habits, and ideas upside-down as it forms our character; only then will we be genuinely right-side up eternally.”{14}

When we have the attitude that the worship service is provided primarily to fix our individual problems, we get the cart before the horse. We aren’t interested in being brought low before God. But it is only in being brought low that we can be lifted up, because it is only then that we both see our real need and surrender ourselves to God to do with as He pleases, not as we please.

We thus recognize God as both subject and object of worship, as the One who fills us with Himself, and as the One upon whom we shift our focus for our time of corporate worship.

Self-Focused Individualism: Worship Focused on Me Rather Than on the Body

One of the weaknesses of the church in modern times has been the failure to give due recognition to the fact that we are part of a community of faith. Ours is a narcissistic age; we’ve been taught to be self-absorbed in our “I did it my way” culture. Marva Dawn notes that in her observation of the church today Christians “rarely . . . think in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.”{15}

The Body Present, Past and Future

We aren’t just a bunch of individuals thrown together in some loose confederation. We are a body that extends geographically around the world at the present, and which extends back in time 2000 years and forward until the Lord returns.

How can the church address this individualistic attitude? Dawn believes “that worship which keeps God as subject is the most important key, for God is the Creator of community and the preserver of the Church. . . . [W]orship that draws all its participants into a common understanding of God will develop vibrant communities–and then the communities in turn will also deepen the character growth of their members.”{16} In our worship we study Scripture together, we speak the words of the great creeds to each other, we sing as one voice, we agree in prayer. Such things foster in us a sense of oneness, of being part of a unity.

As we are part of the community present in our own day, we are also part of a community that began with the apostles and that will continue until the Lord comes. In our worship services the past can remain a part of the present through the inclusion of the wisdom of our forefathers through their writings, prayers, and liturgies. As I mentioned earlier, there is a new interest in liturgical worship among young people. Ancient writings “are seen as providing needed maturity as well as a connection to the faith of the church historical.”{17} Also, the awareness that we are leaving a legacy for those who come after us provides an encouragement to transmit and maintain a correct understanding of God in our worship. A renewed understanding of the importance of the community of faith, then, gives us a foundation upon which to stand, and makes us aware of our responsibility to others.

Speaking to our Society

There is positive change in this regard in churches attuned to the situation of the younger generations. One of the characteristics of modernism was the psychological isolation it produced. We have been thinking in terms of personal needs and choices rather than in terms of obligations to the group. Against the existential idea that my experience now is what makes me what I am, leaving me essentially rootless and radically free, Christians find their identity in the enormous body of believers made alive through faith in Christ. Today, however, young people are crying out for community, and churches are meeting this challenge through various means. This is a key area where the church reveals its eternal relevance to the human situation; to ignore it will impoverish the church body, and will make Christianity seem truly irrelevant to the younger generations.

Dumbing Down the Message

A third problem sometimes found in churches today is that of “dumbing down” the message in an effort to make it understandable to everyone equally, even to non-believers who may be visiting.

While we should welcome nonbelievers into our churches, we have to ask whether keeping our worship on an elementary level is worth the cost of holding believers at the level of nonbelievers or new believers.

We need to remember first of all that the church is . . . well, the church. It’s the body of Christ made up of those who have been taken hold of by the Savior. It isn’t unbelievers. Worship is the work of believers, and the worship service should be geared toward them. It should not be governed by what the general population finds acceptable. As Martin Marty has said, “To give the whole store away to match what this year’s market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know least about the faith determine most about its expression.”{18}

Bringing People Up Rather than Dumbing the Message Down

Part of the mission of the church is bringing people into the kingdom, and our worship services can be good places to do this. But if in our worship we water down the message, we are robbing the visitor of the full truth he or she needs to hear. If we don’t give visitors an idea of how big God is, in the long run we won’t keep them. Why should they stay if they get little more than they can get outside the church? Church historian Martin Marty said this:

This writer fears that we are on the verge of seeing happen what happened in the 1950s to mainstream Protestant churches; they retooled for people who were casually attracted and liked big parking lots, spectacle, and low demands; and the people left as easily as they came.{19}

One of the problems of the liberal church this century was that in its effort to be timely and relevant it “plunged more deeply into the needs and wishes of human beings–or a God sculpted more closely to the image of man.”{20} The attempt to keep God up-to-date winds up allowing “the world to call the tune for God.” It ignores the complexity of God; it forgets “the tensions that must exist between human’s wishes and the Creator’s intentions.”{21}

We must relate the message in accessible ways, but we needn’t assume that people can’t learn or aren’t willing to be stretched. The things of God, not the sensibilities of contemporary culture, should be the measure of our worship.

On Christians Getting Their “Meat” Elsewhere

Some might say that Christians can get their real “meat” in Sunday schools or in other separate study time. We forget that we learn about God through all parts of worship, and not just from the didactic teaching of a sermon or Sunday school class. To suggest that Christians get the “meat” of the faith in Sunday school is to reveal a modernistic bias in favor of head knowledge; i.e., the idea that knowing is simply a matter of adding to our mental database. Some might say that we are worshiping in Sunday school when we are being taught facts and ideas. But this is only a part of worship. Corporate worship is a special time for interaction with and getting to know God on multiple levels.

What is lost by not developing our understanding of God in the context of worship? Worship takes us beyond mere head knowledge; there is interaction between God and man and between Christians. In Sunday school we listen; in worship we listen and then talk back to God. It is like the difference between reading about someone and talking with him or her.

The goal in all of this is to see God as fully as we can and be touched by Him. We use words and images and whatever else we need to lift us up to God, to let Him speak to us through whatever means are available.


Although someone will be hard pressed to find in Scripture a clear description of a proper worship style, we can find principles of proper worship, which apply whether one uses electric guitars or organs or no instruments at all. Furthermore, we can be careful to weed out of our worship-indeed, out of our thinking generally-ideas and attitudes that do not accord with what Scripture teaches. Subjectivism, individualism, and the dumbing down of the Word of God should not characterize our worship. It is hard to stand against one’s culture, especially since we’re all influenced by it. But we need to do it, for the health of the body and the individual, and for the advancement of the kingdom of our Lord.


1. Bruce L. Shelley, “Why Does Worship Keep Changing?” Christian Reader, December 1996. This article gives a brief overview of the changes in worship since the Puritans. See also Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), pp. 97-101.

2. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church: A Blueprint for Survival (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), 1.

3. Gary Burge, “Missing God at Church,” Christianity Today, October 6, 1997, 20-27.

4. See Jerry Solomon, “Worship,”.

5. Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.)

6. Dawn, 133.

7. Dawn, 149.

8. Dawn, 206.

9. See Donald G. Bloesch, “Whatever Happened to God?” Christianity Today, Feb. 5, 2001, 54-55.

10. Dawn, 80.

11. Burge, 22.

12. Dawn. 236.

13. Dawn, 206.

14. Dawn, 58.

15. Dawn, 131.

16. Dawn, 133.

17. Daniel Harrell, “Post-Contemporary Worship,” Leadership Journal, Spring 1999. on Jan. 11, 2001.

18. Martin E. Marty, “Build a Parking Lot, and the People Will Come (and Go),” Context 25, no. 4 (15 Feb. 1993): 3-4. Quoted in Dawn, 258.

19. Marty, “Build a Parking Lot,” quoted in Dawn, 258.

20. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 113. Quoted in Dawn, 299.

21. Turner, quoted in Dawn, 300-301.

©2001 Probe Ministries.