Leading worship:

A biblical perspective

Denton Rhone, PhD, DMin, is the lead pastor of the Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church, Houston, Texas, United States.

Am I wrong or is there a growing restlessness over worship in our churches? In every church I have been a part of at least one voice has complained that the worship assembly was too boring, too predictable, too formal or informal, too unpredictable, or too unsettling. If the voice became a chorus, the leadership might tinker with the order of worship—another song or two here, a prayer there—but the restlessness [continues].” So begins Dwight Robarts’s review of the late Wheaton College professor Robert E. Webber’s classic, Worship Old and New.1

We are aware that the love and worship of God is the most important command. Jesus stated categorically, “ ‘For it is written, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve” ’ ” (Matt. 4:10).2 The execution of that worship, however, so often remains objectively unsatisfying and subjectively unfulfilling. A common mistake in the planning of worship is to assume that traditionalism and conservatism are measures of spirituality. Robarts concludes that the solution to the unease lies less with tinkering with aspects of liturgy and more with grasping “the biblical and theological underpinnings of what the church does in public assembly . . . Biblical worship arises from a sense of the majesty and mystery of God.”3 Indeed, Webber recommends “a turning away from all shallow and uninformed approaches to worship.”4

In making decisions about what to include or exclude in the worship service, the guiding question of the worship committee or worship leader must be, “How is God honored in the use of gifts, talents, or creativity in worship?” A diverse and capable worship committee can help mitigate monotony and lack of creativity in services. It can also assist in preventing the worship service from degenerating into cultural or personality exclusiveness. Creativity should be encouraged. Methods change over time, from culture to culture, and from personality to personality, but the focus on the glory of God alone must remain unchanged. Managing this process calls for humility, a spirit of grace, and prayerful consultation with the Word of God.

The worship experience versus worship service

There is a distinct difference between the worship service and the worship experience. The worship experience is a mystery that the Holy Spirit administers. A holy transformation takes place that brings about a conviction, a conversion, and a sanctification that transcends emotionalism and lies outside the control of human leadership (cf. Ps. 22:3). On the other hand, the worship service is within the control of human management, prayerfully creating an environment for meaningful interaction to take place between the human and the divine.

God created the worship experience and the worship service (Exod. 25:8). He came down on Mount Sinai and spent 40 years supervising their implementation. God has given the execution of the worship service to us to manage, as illustrated by the details in the building of the temple and the extensive instructions given to Moses. Worship must be done with the appropriate attitude: reverence, humility, and earnest devotion, prayerfully focusing on the glory of God alone. God did not outsource these instructions—He gave them Himself.

The history of Israel documented in books such as Judges, the Samuels, the Kings, and the Chronicles shows the people’s relationship to worship as revealed to Moses. What made David very special to God was that his heart was committed to glorifying God. He was always in prayer; many of his prayers were eventually placed into the assemblage of the Psalms.

Leading the worship service

I propose seven elements to be included in a well-planned worship service.

1. Praise. Music was created primarily to ascribe glory and praise to God. When the music service is done properly, the glory of God fills the hearts of the worshipers. This is the reason for the joy and gladness that sometimes result in the lifting of hands, amens, and even shouts that cannot be logically explained at times. God “inhabits the praises of [His people]” (Ps. 22:3, MEV).

2. Prayer. Prayer is not so much about how we sound and the words we use; it is about making meaningful contact with heaven. This cannot always be controlled by human eloquence. Sometimes “the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26). When God’s name is invoked, it is time for the worship leader to guide the congregation to take their proverbial shoes off their feet, for the place where they are standing is holy ground (Exod. 3:5). Methods of doing this vary by culture, tradition, personality, education, and experience.

3. Proclamation. There is a distinct difference between a sermon and a speech. A speech is the speaker’s opinion, while a sermon is a declaration from God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Worshipers congregate with an attitude of spiritual expectancy: “ ‘Is there any word from the LORD?’ ” (Jer. 37:17). The preacher must fill that expectancy with the response, “The word of the LORD came to me saying” (Jer. 1:4). The role of preaching is to move the congregation away from the human agenda and on to God’s agenda. When the distinctive focus of the preacher is on the Cross as the apex of God’s soteriological and eschatological agenda, authentic preaching is happening.

4. Testimony. The story of the converted woman at the well who ran into town and led the entire village to the Lord by her testimony is a template that could be used in the worship service. After the Lord had moved mightily in her life, she could not contain herself; she had to testify to everyone: “Come, see a Man” (John 4:29). Her joyful testimony led an entire village to surrender themselves to Christ. God is always moving in the lives of a plethora of individuals, and sharing their experiences can strengthen and even convert others within the congregation. Personal testimony gives witness of God’s power as being real and active today among us and provides a balance to theology. People can argue with theology but not with a personal testimony.

5. Stewardship. We are not authors or owners of ourselves; there is a Creator who made the heavens and the earth, the seas that all that in them is (Ps. 146:6) and rested on the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:2). Stewardship is a call to worship God with our time (Deut. 5:12), talents (Matt. 25:14–30), treasure (Mal. 3:10; Lev. 27:30), and temple (1 Cor. 6:19). Faithful stewardship can only be practiced from a heart that acknowledges the Creator and knows the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

6. Fellowship. Fellowship is demonstrated in the book of Acts (chapter 2) as an integral part of the worship experience. Humans are social beings—they need camaraderie. Each time individuals are publicly acknowledged and invited to greet one another, it is an invitation to fellowship. An example of a fellowship service is the baby dedication, which many relatives, friends, and coworkers attend to support their loved ones. This opportunity can be used to expand the friendships and membership of God’s church by praying together, helping one another, and listening to and sympathizing with one another. It is about building togetherness. This could be another reason why God, in the formation of the Hebrew culture, insisted that part of their distinctiveness as His peculiar people was to go out of their way to be kind to strangers (Gen. 18:1–8).

7. Service. Worship does not end with the benediction; rather, it begins. “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out” (Deut. 28:6, NIV). Some churches have on their doors, “Enter to worship, depart to serve.” Properly planned worship services will lead worshipers to ask God to provide opportunities for them to represent Him in service. This is done as an act of devotion and worship to Jesus Christ, who left heaven to serve us. At the end of the worship service, the worship leader can creatively encourage worshipers to go out and be of service to their neighbors.

It is to be noted that while seven elements are suggested as part of the worship service, each element, or a combination of elements, can stand by itself in worship depending on the objective of the worship exercise. In a fully comprehensive worship service, all elements can be explored.

Implementing the worship service

The role of the worship leader and the participants is to ensure that the implementation of these elements of worship is focused exclusively on the glorification of God. The knowledgeable worship leader guides the planning of the worship service to be inclusive and creative. Spiritual gifts are placed within the congregation by God (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:8–10, 28–30; Eph. 4:11) and, when carefully employed, can enrich the worship service. If the use of a gift does not conflict with the Word of God, it can be used. The worship committee decides on the use of gifts in worship when the question Is Christ being glorified (Luke 9:49, 50)? is answered. Once their gifts are identified and persons are asked to participate in the worship service, they should be guided to devote themselves to prayer, reading the Word throughout the week, and preparation before carrying out their task.

The climax of worship, both as a service and an experience, will be realized in heaven. Then there will no longer be a need for a temple, for God and Jesus Christ Himself will be the temple (Rev. 21:22). In this worship experience “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9), “ ‘from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall come to worship before [the LORD]’ ” (Isa. 66:23).

The book of Revelation is an eschatological narrative of what worship will look like in the new heaven and the new earth. While we wait for the New Jerusalem that is coming, where worshipers will sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, we are commanded to “ ‘Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water’ ” (Rev. 14:7). This clear reference to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8–11), informs us that we have the privilege of practicing properly planned worship here on earth as a prelude to worshiping in heaven.

  1. Dwight Robarts, “Worship Old and New, Robert Webber,” Leaven 1, no. 1 (January 1990), 57, https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss1/14.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New King James Version.
  3. Robarts, "Worship Old and New," 57.
  4. Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 3.

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Denton Rhone, PhD, DMin, is the lead pastor of the Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church, Houston, Texas, United States.

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