In last week’s post, we explored several particular elements of our worship service at Gateway. The design of the service is our liturgy, which is intentionally structured to form us into God’s people through the things we practice as a body each Sunday. These elements, such as the Call to Worship, and the Confession and Assurance of Pardon, aren’t simply something we do; they each do something to us. They prepare and shape us into people who fulfill our call to bear the image of God in his world.
The elements discussed in that post are practices that not every Christian church implements; thus, they may have been foreign to you when you first came to Gateway. However, even the most commonplace elements of a worship service are complex in their design and structure. Just about every church includes song and a sermon. This week, let’s explore why these practices have been part of Christian worship in all cultures since the church’s inception.
If you grew up going to church, take a step back for a moment and pretend the rhythms of Christian worship are completely new to you. If we’re honest, it’s strange that we get together every Sunday morning and spend a large chunk of our time together singing songs. That’s just not something adults do in our culture. Imagine showing up to a floor meeting in your dorm, and your CA says, “We’re going to start by singing ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ by Taylor Swift.” Or you walk into biology class, and your professor invites you to join in a rousing rendition of “All of Me” by John Legend. That just doesn’t happen! So what’s the deal? Here are three reasons why song is such a vital part of Christian worship:
1) We are commanded to sing praise to God. A Bible Gateway search for the word “sing” in the New International Version brings back 158 results, many of which are commands. Look at the Psalms: “Sing the praises of the LORD, enthroned in Zion” (Ps. 9:11), “Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous” (Ps. 33:1), “For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise” (Ps. 47:7), “Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious” (Ps. 66:2), “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth” (Ps. 96:1). And we could keep going!
Worship is something we give away. Music draws out the various aspects of our personhood. Through the words we sing, we assent with our minds to the truth of who God is. Through the melody, we seek to make our praise a beautiful offering to the all-deserving God. Through the soul of the music, our deepest emotions and feelings are able to be fully expressed. Our worship must engage the whole person, and music plays a prominent role in this pursuit.
2) Music shapes us profoundly. Since we carry the internet in our pockets, we are able to listen to all kinds of music from the most famous celebrities to the up-and-coming local garage band. Still, there’s probably a couple of artists or bands that you listen to over and over again. Maybe there’s a particular album that you’d have worn out, if digital files could be worn out. (Ask your parents.) You are a different person in some way because of those songs. It’s not just the lyrics; it’s not just the way the music flows; it’s not just the artist and the plethora of stalker-type facts you know about their life. It’s the combination of all of those things that connects with us, moves us, and changes us.
Our worship is not only about our expression, but also about our formation. When we sing songs together that tell the story of redemption, that brag of the amazing attributes of our God, and that point us to the hope we have in God’s now-and-coming Kingdom, we are gradually shaped into the kind of people whose very lives sing about these truths.
3) Music binds us together. Just about as far back as we can trace cultures throughout human history, music has been a meaningful part of the identity of every group of people. Even in the contemporary world, with myriad styles of music readily available to us at all times, the genres that we are drawn to also draw us to other people, and distinct subcultures are built around those forms of music.
When we stand together and sing, we are not only lifting our voices individually to praise God, but joining our voices together, as one body, to proclaim that we are the people of God. This is one of the reasons why staying at home on Sunday morning and listening to your favorite artist, regardless of how well their songs help you connect with God, can never replace corporate worship with a local branch of the Body of Christ. When we join in song, we celebrate our unity in Christ.
For students, the idea of sitting and listening to someone talk is nothing new—it’s what you do all week long. But while there are certainly similarities between a professor and a preacher, the preaching of God’s Word is something very different from the teaching of a class.
In a class, or even a TED Talk, the goal is to convey knowledge and understanding of a particular topic. This kind of teaching targets the mind. This certainly happens in a good sermon. We might learn a fundamental doctrine, the meaning of a Greek word, or a piece of church history. (And at Gateway, we quite often learn of the many strange injuries throughout the life of Chris White.) But a sermon isn’t primarily about informing the mind; it is primarily about capturing the heart.
Preaching is the art of taking a passage of Scripture and bringing it to bear on the lives of those in the congregation. That task has more to do with the imagination than the intellect. This is not to say our minds are not engaged when we hear the Word preached, but that this aspect is only part of what happens when we hear a sermon. We gather around Scripture to hear God speak to us. Then we digest the Word through the words of the Sermon by the power of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would continue teaching us (see John 16).
And because God’s Word is the story of his redemption through Jesus Christ, every sermon must be rooted in the Gospel. Chris tells of an old professor, who, in a sharp and delightful German accent, would shout, “The Christ event! We cannot forget the Christ event!” This important dictum is not only wisdom offered to preachers, but a mantra that good preaching offers the Body: as we go forth into the world, we cannot forget the Christ event.
These two foundational elements of Christian worship reflect the daily rhythm we are called to: we listen to God’s Word, and we breathe out his praise in word and deed. And when we join together each week, we sing and we encounter God’s Word as we spur one another on in the pursuit of faithfulness.
—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.