I think some of the silliness passing for “worship service” in many evangelical churches could be solved by those in the planning stages asking better questions, which is to say, more first principle, self-reflective questions. I have some suggestions, naturally. Of course, these aren’t the only questions worth asking, but I think they provide some good guardrails for those involved in the entire liturgy of a worship gathering, from sermon prep to music selection to sacrament to announcements and all the other nuts and bolts of a service.

1. Is there support for this service element in the Scriptures?
Even if you’re not a regulative principle church, this is a non-negotiable.

2. Is this element comprehensible to outsiders?
Total understanding of every element is not possible, of course, and spiritual acceptance isn’t possible for those outside the faith, but unbelievers and other visitors should be able to discern what you’re doing, even if they don’t know why you’re doing it.

3. Is this element edifying to believers?
Not simply: Is this entertaining or amusing, or will this attract attention or provoke? But: Is this edifying? Is it conducive to the building up of the saints in Christ and God’s love?

4. Is this element offensive, alienating, or marginalizing to any section or subsection of the church body?
People scoff about music being too loud, but so often this is a legitimate concern for older folks. People may disregard music or sermons that are boring or boringly presented, but so often this is a legitimate concern for younger folks. You obviously can’t please everybody as it pertains to preferences, but our service elements should not be approached insensitively or with disregard for the reality of the body. In other words, we do not challenge the stylistic idolatries of one demographic by satisfying the stylistic idolatries of another. What serves? What ministers? What appropriately allows for participation in the service across the body of Christ? On that note:

5. Does this element exalt God or man?
Apply as needed to everything from sermon points to special music. It’s not about denigrating man, or not recognizing people for various achievements and the like. It is just a good question to ask as it pertains to the focus of a worship service. It could have come in handy in the planning stages of a worship service I once attended where a song about our being able to change the world with our own two hands was part of the worship set. It occurred to me then: “Wait– who am I worshiping right now?” And on that note:

6. Does this element adorn the gospel?
Is this element in service of the gospel or some other message or focus? Or, alternately, Does this element in the worship service make Jesus look big?

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21 thoughts on “6 Questions Worship Service Planners Should Ask”

  1. Chris Land says:

    It is tragic that some churches take time to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries within the congregation during the worship service. They shift from God-center to man-centered worship back to God-centered.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Chris, depending on what you mean by “during the service,” I don’t find recognizing birthdays and anniversaries tragic. We do that at Middletown during our announcements time (before the call to worship). It’s a neat way to commemorate milestones in the life of our community. We especially find it important to honor wedding anniversaries, and the little ones like when we share their birthdays. :-)

      I tried to make allowance in that section of the piece for good recognition of folks, and I don’t think all recognition of people is idolatrous. It’s usually in the how and why and the “way” it’s done.

      1. Darren Blair says:

        That’s also how it’s done in most of the Mormon (re: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) congregations I’ve been in – services kick off with a block of announcements, during which time such things are brought up.

        Then we have communion, at which point the sermons begin; under normal circumstances, said sermons are usually only interrupted by planned hymns.

  2. Josh Perry says:

    Super helpful Jared. Thanks.

    My understanding of regulative principle is that you only should do what you see commanded or used in Scripture. So if you’re a non regulative church wouldn’t you be “allowed” to use certain elements so long as they meet the criteria of questions #2-6?

    Thanks again. You’re post always encourage me and you rock twitter on Sundays.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Josh, yes. What I was trying to say is that non-regulative churches shouldn’t assume that anything goes. So it’s theoretically okay to include elements (instruments, and the like) that don’t appear in the Bible, but we should still acknowledge possibility of elements that conflict or have no grounding in Scripture. (I’m thinking of some of the wild stunts we see in some of the attractional churches (dirt bikes jumping over the stage, etc) and of the flamboyance found in some charismatic churches.)

      1. Josh Perry says:

        Thanks Jared. Helpful. Go Steelers!

      2. danny says:

        I also had a problem with your first point in that it needed more. I’m with you on dirt bikes, but by your point it’s hard to know what you mean. Are there ways we see people worship God in the Bible, but not in a “congregational” setting, that could be used in a congregational setting? I know of a guy in Nor. Cal. that does what he calls “chalk talks” where he preaches sermons while painting images of the concepts he preaches. This stirs affections for God and in-beds concepts deep in the heart, but do we see a basis in Scripture? I think the list is great but more clarity on point #1 is needed.

  3. Jason Dollar says:

    Thanks, Jarod. I would say that honestly answering these six questions would like improve the quality of most worship services immensely. Some of these are obvious, but need to be stated (is it for God or for man), but #4 is the one people often neglect and ignore. However, I think it is a critical question to ask because it pertains to how we are loving one another within the context of a specific community of Christ.

    I’ve noticed at our church(and I’m thankful) that the older generation may not like the Tomlin-ish songs, but I watch them and notice how much they enjoy watching the younger crowd worship God via those songs. I’ve also noticed that when we do the traditional hymns, even when we sing them in a tradition style, the younger people act respectful, and I hope even worship sincerely through those songs.

    I believe God is honored when this kind of thing happens in the body.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.

  4. Simon says:

    Jared I’d be interested to know, in relation to point #1, if you think that worship practises not mentioned in Scripture are permisable. For instance, no where does Scripture say that we are to follow a lectionary (this may have simply been taken for granted by NT writers). Is this liturgical practise permitted under your guidlines above? Furthermore, is it right to say that any worship form is ok, provided that it is in some way Christ-centred and does not conflict with Scripture? It should be clear that the Bible no where prescribes in detail what corporate worship should look like (although there are hints). I don’t think it intends to do this. Does this mean that we can conclude that worship styles are optional?

    I’m leaning to the view that liturgical worship forms are most correct, both Biblically and historically (every Church dating from antiquity engages in a set liturgical form, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Assyrian, Ethiopian etc). This guards against so many excesses we find in modern evangelical worship. E.g. following the lectionary guards against the minister setting his own agenda each week. It also means that Scripture is used as it was intended – to be read aloud for the congregation of believers to hear, undiluted by the words of men. The Psalms and the Eucharist also take a central role in worship for the very earliest churches – this is also clear in the New Testament. St Paul assumes that the Lord’s Supper is taken every time Christians meet. So I understand your concern. However, I think the wisdom of the early Church’s liturgical practises are the best way to guard against the sort of nonsense we find in some evangelical services.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      in relation to point #1, [do] you think that worship practises not mentioned in Scripture are permisable?

      Simon, yes, depending on the practice. I’m not a lectionary guy, for instance, but I believe following the lectionary is compatible with biblical worship.

      I think the wisdom of the early Church’s liturgical practises are the best way to guard against the sort of nonsense we find in some evangelical services

      I totally resonate with this point, but I’d say the Bible is sufficient for guarding against nonsense in worship services, given people actually consulting it. We don’t need the liturgy of the fathers to discern the dumbness of opening a worship service with “Highway to Hell.”

      1. Darren Blair says:

        Or there’s the youth minister who got the bright idea to ride his dirt bike into the sanctuary; three guesses how that ended.

        And yes, someone was filming it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFfUGgRUJho .

      2. Simon says:

        Thanks for your replay Jared. Good points. The only think I’d add is that apparently the Bible isn’t enough to ensure sensible corporate worship. All those who engage in strange and outrageous corporate worship are Protestant or stem from one or another Protestant denomination. You even see a few Calvinist mega-churches engaged in unorthodox worship practises. The explanation offered is that Scripture does not provide detailed descriptions of corporate worship i.e. how often to take the Eucharist, which Scriptures were to be read, the alter replaced by the pulpit (man-centred?) etc. But the Bible doesn’t answer these questions, so I don’t think we can simply jump to free-form because it is not directly addressed. It may not have been addressed because it was not in dispute. We have to look at the historical practises of the Church. And the witness of every orthodox church from antiquity testifies to this – liturgy not free form. I’m still convinced that this is the best and, perhaps, only way to guard against the excesses we see in evangelical worship.

  5. These are great points. I couldn’t improve on them but I can suggest two more:

    #7 Does this element encourage passive spectatorship or active engagement? (So many modern services are like going to see a movie).

    #8 Does my planning leave room for the Holy Spirit to adjust the service as we go? *

    * This comes from my charismatic background (although I am quite a moderate one, i.e. not crazy!) I believe in faithful, thoughtful, Biblical planning but sometimes the Lord can adjust our plans. Making room for impromptu testimony for example or spontaneous congregational prayer.

    Thanks for this fine list, Jared!

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      #8 Does my planning leave room for the Holy Spirit to adjust the service as we go?

      Steve, this is a great point, and of course one that cannot be totally followed when the sermon is on video and every element of the service must fit into a pre-determined by-the-minute slot.

  6. Annie says:

    Jared,

    Thanks for this post. The part I would like to comment on

    “4. Is this element offensive, alienating, or marginalizing to any section or subsection of the church body?
    People scoff about music being too loud, but so often this is a legitimate concern for older folks.”

    This is something younger people do scoff at but it happened in the case of my own mother. She belonged to a wonderful church for more than 25 years but left when her issues with the loudness of the music went ignored. She then attended a different church, with a musical philosophy she enjoyed, but by then she was older and a widow and just never really plugged in. Now she is something of a shut in and watches “church” on TV (somewhat random).

    I watched, pretty much helplessly, from 1400 miles away, as her spiritual life degenerated. We went through a difficult family conflict about divorce and remarriage that could have benefited greatly from the care of the community from which she once belonged. She was floating out there, untethered from the covering of a convenantal community. I was not a person she wanted correction from (understandable to some degree) though I tried my best to speak in love and respect. Still, I failed. I lamented the lack of pastoral oversight that she could connect to and trust.

    We are still in the painful process of recovery, 5 years later.

    It’s not a small thing, though it may seem so at the cursory glance. So thanks again Jared. I so appreciate your thoughtful ministry. Carry on brother.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Annie, that is heartbreaking.

      I would follow up to say that while music being too loud is a real thing that happens, I wonder how much alienation could be avoided if when the complaint is made, the person bringing it up isn’t dismissed or ignored or written off as being too old or too traditional or legalistic or uncool or whatever. This is worse than having loud music, which isn’t really wrong per se, just kind of silly. Again, there is a real caution to be sounded about turning worship music into an “experience” that drowns out the congregation, but the deeper concern for me is the message behind the medium. In too many churches the old folks are thought of as past their prime and unnecessary. The church idolizes the young and hopes old folks will get with the program, shut up, or get lost.

  7. Jon Swerens says:

    “We do not challenge the stylistic idolatries of one demographic by satisfying the stylistic idolatries of another.” And AMEN.

  8. Aaron Wong says:

    I could think of one more bullet point:

    Does the elements help congregation to expend what worship is in their mindset. For example, if worship is how we live to glorify God, then worship should not be limited in text and language. So, why should special music at church need to be hymns or songs that people can sing along? Why don’t we do a Bach Tocatta or Mozart’s piano sonata? What about make a joyful noise? Just noise, shout. How about dancing? You can’t look at the Bible and say we shouldn’t dance at church… The church needs to continually teach people what part of worship that they are missing because of traditions and personal preferences.

    xx Aaron

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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