Expanding Worship – Substance & Style

This is my final posting of discussion of points I raised in my July 8 sermon on the topic of worship.  The sermon highlighted four pairs of values that often seem in tension with each other.

SUBSTANCE vs STYLE

One of the most divisive issues for churches today, involves the way we worship. Substance refers to WHY we worship God.  We can’t change out his role in Creation.  We can’t deny Jesus’ death on the cross.  We dare not change the message of salvation by grace, through faith.  We can’t forget that we look forward to Christ’s return.  We must always keep God at the centre of our worship and worship in ways meaningful to Him.  However, for our worship to reflect our heart, the style must contain meaning for us.

Substance questions our purpose of gathering each week.  Do we assemble to encourage each other and be encouraged? Do we come together to spend time with God? Is our corporate worship the best venue to introduce the unchurched to Jesus?

As an example, many churches have praise teams.  Anecdotally, praise teams often reduce the number of people in the congregation who participate in singing as they’re now more content to listen to good singers.  A substance question asks, “How important is congregational singing? Is congregational singing an expectation of God? are we encouraging people not to worship if they only listen and don’t sing?”  These are substance questions, not style.

How we answer the worship substance questions goes a long way toward revealing our congregational priorities and identity.  I don’t want to say that our worship service has a singular purpose (I hope my previous posts in this series demonstrate that) but I do believe that God himself must be central.

Styles have always changed: fashion styles; music styles; art styles.  Likewise we no longer sing Gregorian chants, or a majority of hymns from the 1600’s.  Some churches have the Lord’s Supper before the sermon, and some have it after.  Some emphasise formality, others emphasise free worship in the name of authenticity.

Worship styles impact issues like: appropriate clothing, the choice of songs, the tempo of songs, the age of songs, the number of people up front leading singing, (lots of singing), the animation of the preaching, the use of powerpoint, the use of video and other media, how much people say “Amen, etc.” during a sermon, or in acapella churches “vocal percussion”.

Styles will always be controversial because they reflect personal preferences. The most consistent criticism I hear of worship styles is that the church has transitioned from worship (God focus) to entertainment (us focus).  I’m really not sure that style indicates this.  That seems to me to be a heart question, not something tied to a style of worship.

I’ve heard many people connect the conversation about styles with the age of the worshipers.  I would tend to agree, except I know that the Pentecostal and various charismatic churches with “rock bands” also have older members. So that connection seems void.  The variety of music across the spectrum of the radio demonstrates that people like different music with different rhythms and rhymes.  Given this variety, it’s a great challenge for any church to attempt to implement a one-size-fits-all style of worship.

I believe that the answer to this conflict is to keep the substance central, and the styles secondary.  Since the second command is to “Love your neighbour”, then there’s no more important place to apply that than in the midst of a gathering focused on worshiping God.  How nonsensical are we when we attempt to worship God (substance) while begrudging our neighbour over style.

I recognise that there are many discussions that arise out of this topic.  Here’s a few:

  1. Is it better to have two services with different styles so that each person can worship in a style that is most meaningful to them?
  2. Is it better to have one service and include both styles and encourage members to “consider one another”?
  3. Can we can tell when a service is more about entertainment than worship?
  4. How do we best categorise songs: old vs new; fast vs slow; hymns vs choruses; deep vs shallow; or thematically?
  5. Is the style of worship overly influence by songs? Do other elements of worship need to be stylistically consistent?
  6. Is it always possible to distinguish style from substance?
  7. If I have trouble worshiping from my heart due to worship style, is it a heart issue or a style issue?

Lastly, I want to point out that worship style isn’t just about singing. I know some churches that take the Lord’s Supper using different styles here’s a sample:

  1. In the context of a real, actual meal; (Read a description of such by John Mark Hicks here, and review his book ont he topic here.)
  2. In small clusters around the auditorium, passing the bread and cup around the circle and looking at each other;
  3. Family style (no children’s worship in the NT) with children and conversation as part of the remembrance (still in the auditorium);
  4. Come to the front and be served by an elder;
  5. And, of course, the traditional “pass it down the row”;
  6. Although, some who pass it down the row still have different styles by including singing or reading while the elements are being passed.

Again, each of these say something about the personality and identity of the church.

  • How important is style of worship to you?  Would it impact your choice of church home if you faced a choice?
  • Do you think there’s really much variety in the answers to the substance questions, or are most differences just over style?
  • Why do you think singing is so important to worship? (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complaint about the way a church prays.)
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4 comments

  1. Josh

    This is a great take on the subject. I hardily agree that substance is what is core. I tend to think substance and style should (and do) go hand in hand we however, feel there is great tension between the two because in general we judge substance based on style (or behavior) of worship. As you noted we end up asking “substance” questions such as “is congregational singing demanded by God? Are we encouraging people not to worship if they don’t sing and only listen?” I think if we want to get to substance we have to ask is the act of singing the end goal or can we have an auditorium full of people everyone of which is singing but none of which are worshiping. If I sing the words to a song I don’t understand while playing tetris on my phone am I worshiping or singing?

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “How nonsensical are we when we try to worship God while begrudging our neighbor over style”. Whether or not I am worshiping is more a matter of the substance of my heart then anything else.

    The challenge congregationally then is how do we engage hearts and measure growth of personal substance rather then the growth of personal style (IE conforming to behavioral norms).

    • ozziepete

      Thanks for your thoughts Josh. The substance questions tend to be the more important, and the style questions the more emotional. A tough road to navigate. 🙂

  2. Kim

    Why is singing so important? For most members, singing is the only consistent, active participation they have in the worship service. You preach every Sunday, and in some churches there are men called to pry or serve on the table every week, but for most people singing is their most active form of worship. That said, just because I’m not singing doesn’t mean I’m not worshipping. If its worship to sit and listen to your sermon and worship to sit and listen to another man pray, why is it not also worship to sit and listen to a praise team or congregation (or both) sing. I may appear to be uninterested, but I may also be praying or meditating on the words, like the rest of the service.

    As far as age and style of worship. I agree that there isn’t always a direct connection, but I do think generally younger adults prefer more upbeat worship. I have spoken with parents and grandparents in their 50s who don’t necessarily like the style of worship at their church, but know their children/grandchildren prefer that style and so they sacrifice their preference in favor of passing on faith to the next generation.

    As to having 2 services, if you’re already going to 2 services because of size limitations then yes, by all means have 2 styles so more people are comfortably and meaningfully worshipping. However, to add a 2nd service for the purpose of having 2 separate styles seems divisive.

    While style of worship wouldn’t be the most important factor, it does play a role in choosing a church home.

    • ozziepete

      Thanks for the conversation Kim.

      I agree with your assessment of singing. The fact that it’s one aspect of worship (along with Lord’s Supper) that everyone actively participates in seems to give everyone a vested interest in the style. I do also think that the habit of changing the channel when there’s a song/style on radio we don’t like contributes to our attitude toward it. We have less tolerance for music we don’t enjoy.

      In contrast, no one I know has a favourite style of prayer, or method of taking up the collection.

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