What Is Christian Worship?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
header for What Is Christian Worship?

Worship wars. Just the mention of those two words brings back bad memories of US church life in the 1980s, even into the present time. The desire for cultural relevance and commercialization created a perfect storm when it came to incorporating new music and artistic styles in the public gatherings. Ian Malcolm, the intrepid mathematician in Jurassic Park, reminded the scientists in that story—and I’m paraphrasing here—that just because you could do something doesn’t mean you should. Applying that question to worship-service debates may have helped us avoid some unfortunate worship-practice developments.

What does God want when it comes to worship? He tells us His desire in John 4:23–24: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” What does it mean to worship “in the Spirit”? It means to worship through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit by virtue of our union with Christ. What does it mean to worship “in truth”? It indicates that the Father desires worship informed by the prescriptions found in Scripture. Notice He desires both Spirit and truth—not just one or the other.

Worship is ascribing worth, majesty, and glory to God as an expression of our identity in Christ.

Worship is ascribing worth, majesty, and glory to God as an expression of our identity in Christ, in line with the prescriptions of Scriptures through the Spirit’s empowerment (Ps. 96:8; Isa. 6:1–8; Phil. 3:3; Eph. 2:18; Col. 3:15–17). This occurs on the personal level as we pray and offer songs of thanksgiving and praise. However, the primary area of concern is the worship gathering—when a local church comes together for their weekly service. This corporate gathering of the family of God should ascribe worth, majesty, and glory to God through singing, praying, reading Scripture, and preaching the gospel. Responses should include giving money, confessing sin, encouraging others through testimonies, and sending forth missionaries. The proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper should also occur. There are still plenty of opportunities to develop worship practices sensitive to one’s cultural setting, but this core provides an integral starting point for a Spirit-empowered worship of God in the manner He desires. This results in a fully Trinitarian approach to worship. But this raises the question: How do we determine the manner in which we embody this? This is where the regulative and the normative principle can help.

There are two principles in regard to public worship in the church, and while some traditions, such as the Reformed, make explicit use of these guidelines, they are present in all expressions of Christianity—even if they do not use these terms. The regulative principle states that a public worship gathering should only include what Scripture explicitly enjoins, while the normative principle supports the idea that diverse practices may be included in a worship service as long as Scripture does not explicitly forbid them. Some try to offer a middle-of-the-road principle: the normative principle that does not squeeze out the regulative aspects. This approach maintains a close adherence to Scripture in terms of worship practices, but then allows for more diversity in relation to cultural practices and new expressions in the public gathering. Indeed, much of the debate over church leadership and the ordinances reveal an underlying perspective on this issue.

The key ideas concerning what should be included in a public worship service, from a regulative-principle perspective, include the following. First, God knows best how He desires to be worshiped (John 4:24). Second, Scripture provides for us all that we need for determining the orderly and appropriate way God desires to be worshiped (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:26–40). Third, in light of these two ideas, only what Scripture explicitly warrants the church to do should be part of the public gathering. If there is no explicit text for a practice, then it is not to be included.

The basic concepts for the normative principle include the following. First, God knows best the way worship should be designed. Second, in light of this, God regulates certain aspects of the worship service, but He leaves significant components of the service to the discretion of the local church. These would be areas of indifference. Third, the local church has the freedom to decide in these matters, though it cannot go against Scripture. Fourth, there is no need for an explicit biblical command for a worship practice; it’s permissible unless it’s forbidden.

Why does this matter? If you’ve attended more than a couple of churches in your Christian experience, you’re likely aware that what we are describing as the normative principle of worship has become the dominant position among evangelicals in the United States. Many worship services are organized without considering the scriptural basis for its practices, or even if a practice may go against a scriptural command. The suggestion here, then, is that the normative approach to worship—so long as it doesn’t neglect biblical prescriptions whereby God reveals the way He wants to be worshiped—is a better way forward. Getting this definition right matters if we want to be God-centered in our worship— which hopefully we do.

I like to tell my students that if their study of theology doesn’t form them into better worshipers, then I’ve failed as their teacher: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).

For Further Reading:

50 Most Important Theological Terms

by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner

Theology can be intimidating, full of big words and lofty ideas. Yet theological terms aren’t just for professors to argue about in the...

book cover for 50 Most Important Theological Terms