The Shape of Worship

In the ten years I have served as Director of Worship & Music Ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention I have had numerous opportunities to consult with churches in the area of evaluating worship environments and developing steps toward adjusting the worship design for their worship services.  In fact, I tried to figure an estimate the other day and concluded that I have probably worked with about 100 churches a year on average.  That is a lot of churches, and includes many communications – phone calls, visits, church services attended and assessed, and emails.  In some form or another this is probably what I do as much or more than anything else in my role at the TBC, week in and week out.

I regret to say that far too often the conversation centers around secondary issues, especially style.  In my book on worship renewal I point to Robert Webber’s emphasis that the priority issue of worship is first and foremost a question of content or substance.  Indeed, any discussion of worship must begin and find a constant analysis rooted in being certain that the substance, the content of worship (subject and object) is God in Christ.  This theme is so central to any discussion of worship that I am convinced any discussion that does not begin with such a foundation is illegitimatized by its absence.  Some pastors and other church leaders may want to presume this foundation in worship discussion, but such omission leaves participants open to wandering further and further away from the very core value upon which all of worship rests.  I recently participated in a church discussion regarding the worship life of a church in which the pastor stated that he did not want to get into theology.  The declaration left me in such a state of disbelief that I found myself speechless, which may have been just as well under the circumstances.  In fact, if any discussion of worship is not rooted in biblical authority and saturated with theological foundation, then it runs the risk of following our culture’s drift to root everything in personal authentication.  The danger here is masked relativism – sometimes without much of a mask.  It leaves us to what I sometimes call “Burger King worship” – aka “Have it your way.”  Such a spirit is contrary to the humble spirit called for in scripturally sound worship.

Webber notes the second tier of consideration in worship design concerns form.  The form of our worship is shaped by the content or substance of worship.  Bryan Chappell helps us understand a Gospel-shaped liturgy form in his book, Christ-Centered Worship.  Designing congregational worship around the Gospel provides a sound format for interaction (communion/engagement) with God.  Beginning worship with a recognition of God’s character, His invitation, and the very Presence of the Risen Lord, sets worshipers on solid ground to experience worship as response to something God has done and is providing, as opposed to something they just decide to do on their own.  God’s presence demands a confession of our human condition and character, which would make it impossible to come into the presence of a Holy God were it not for the provision He has made for us, a provision of grace.  Through assurance of His grace and pardon worshipers are moved to respond in faith to such a gracious God who has provided means of meeting with Him.  Through the Word instruction is given to move worshipers toward obedience with accompanying covenant for blessing.  Worshipers’ response to God occurs in the worship gathering itself, but extends as they are sent into the world to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” serving so as to bring God glory.

The question of style is best fleshed out when seeking to serve God in the substance and form of worship liturgy.  Addressing style as a first order priority causes us to plan worship gatherings based on what attendees like above that which reflects the character of God and serves to facilitate our communion with Him.  The question, “How can we please God in our worship?” is replaced with “What do we want from our worship?” or in the case of those seeking to “attract people” through their worship, the question may be “Who do we want to attend our worship?”  These value systems are contrary to Christ-centered worship and deserve to be pointed out and addressed.

Gospel-shaped worship interacts with God at His initiation, responds with appropriateness at each step of revelation, and results in life service to His glory.  The style of worship music and even environment is likely to be different from place to place, but in Gospel-shaped worship there should be no doubt as to the substance of worship, nor should there be confusion as to the flow of worship conversation/communion with the God of all grace and hope!

Here are a couple of blical examples of Gospel-shaped worship: 

Isaiah’s Gospel Worship (Is 6)

God’s character recognized (vv 1-4)

Human character confessed (v. 5)

God’s grace exhibited (vv. 6-7)

Response of thankful devotion (v. 8)

Instruction for obedience (vv. 9-12)

Promise of covenant blessing (v. 13)

Spiritual Worship (Romans 11-15)

Recognition of God’s Character (Rom 11:33-26)

Acknowledgment of Our Need of Mercy (Rom 12:1)

Assurance of Mercy (Rom 12:1)

Thankful Response (Rom 12:2)

Instruction in New Obedience (Rom 12:3-1:14)

Communal Care for One Another (Rom 14:1-15:12)

Charge and Benediction (Rom 15:13)

Trusting the God of Grace and glory,


Explore posts in the same categories: Leading Worship, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts

2 Comments on “The Shape of Worship”

  1. Rich Says:

    really like this post. stuff like this can’t be discussed enough in the church. thanks paul

    • pclarkjr Says:

      Very true, Rich. Would do us good to keep this as center of our worship discussions, rather than banter over style. Thank you for your comments.

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