In public and private discussions about worship, often the same questions and comments come up, so it seems wise to deal with some of them here.
1. Our church is very aggressive and evangelistic, and the people are scared to death of liturgy and things like that. How do you explain our success, and what changes would you make?
Every church has a liturgy, whether the congregation likes it or not. A liturgy is simply an order of service. You need one if a group of people is going to try to do something together; otherwise, you would have chaos. I have preached in many churches of the kind you described, and I can assure you that they have a definite liturgy.
The focus of the liturgy, however, does not seem to be the worship of God. It appears to be (and I may be wrong) the conviction of lost sinners so that they will come forward and trust Christ. Please understand that I am not opposed to evangelism or even to public invitations that are led by the Spirit of God. But I do believe that evangelism is a by-product of worship, not a substitute for worship.
As for the “success” of these churches, it all depends on how you measure the ministry. In Revelation 2 and 3, the churches that people thought were failures were praised by the Lord, and the churches that thought they were successful were warned by Him. “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).
How would I change these churches? If I were called to be pastor, I would simply introduce worship and gently teach the leaders and the people in the pews what I have written in this book. I certainly would not eliminate the evangelistic outreach or burden! I would simply put it into the place where it belongs. After all, leading lost souls to Christ is an act of worship (Rom. 15:15, 16), and true worship does involve witness. I would caution soul-winners to watch their motives so that God’s glory, not statistics, would be uppermost.
Let me add that there are aggressively evangelistic churches that do emphasize and practice worship. Evangelism and worship are not enemies; they are friends.
2. Our pastor and worship committee are always making changes, and this has become confusing to us in the pews. What should we do?
It sounds like your pastor and committee members are trying to manufacture effective worship, and this will never work. Someone has called these days “the era of paperback liturgies, ” and I fear it is true. Something new is always coming out and there are plenty of people ready to grab it and try to use it.
Change for the sake of change is novelty; change for the sake of growth is progress. Worship committees that deal only with the accidentals, not the essentials, can never bring about renewal in worship. We are dealing, after all, with theology (what we believe and not just liturgy (how we worship).
Pray for your pastor and the committee and cooperate when you can. Perhaps a loving word of counsel and encouragement would be appropriate. Alfred North Whitehead used to say that real Progress comes from change in the midst of order and order in the midst of change. Good counsel!
3. Occasionally we have visitors in our church who will hold up their hands during prayer (yes, I confess that I am watching!) or during the singing of a hymn. I find this very distracting. What should we do?
There is nothing wrong with uplifted hands during prayer. In fact, this was the way most Jews prayed. “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the LORD” (Ps. 134:2). “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (141:2). When Solomon dedicated the temple, he “stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:22). Ezra fell on his knees and spread out his hands when he confessed the sinS of the nation (Ezra 9:5).
I might add that our practice of folding our hands in prayer is not necessarily biblical, or even putting our hands together as in the famous “Praying Hands” picture. I am not saying that these practices are wrong, but only that they have no biblical precedent.
As for lifting our hands when we praise God, if it is a natural response from the Spirit, I see nothing wrong with it. When we lift our hands in prayer, it is a symbol of our faith in God, that He will give us what we need. When we lift our hands in praise, it is a symbol that we give everything to God because we love Him. The important thing is that we not call attention to ourselves in such a way that others might he distracted.
A Spirit-filled worshiper is not likely to create problems in a local church, so I suggest you not become critical. The fruit of the Spirit is love. According to 1 Timothy 2:8, nobody should lift up his or her hands if those hands are defiled because of sin, if the person is angry with someone, or if the individual is causing trouble in the church. I like the Williams translation: “Lifting to heaven holy hands which are kept unstained by anger and dissensions.”
4. Should our pastor read his prayers?
That is between him and the Lord. Personally, I would rather a minister read a meaningful prayer than utter an extempore prayer that is shallow and routine. The prayers of many preachers are very predictable. My own practice was to think through my pulpit payer on Saturday evening and write out key words and phrases to direct me. However, the danger here is that your pastoral prayer becomes what Spurgeon termed “an oblique sermon.” (By the way, Spurgeon taught his pastoral students to prepare their pulpit prayers.)
The best preparation for public prayer is private prayer and meditation on God’s Word. When the minister is in a truly spiritual frame of mind, the prayer will come, and the preparation will help to focus it on the requests that matter most. I have personally profited greatly from the reading of the prayers of great Christians, and I recommend it as a private devotional exercise.
5. What is a “litany” and how do we use it?
The word litany comes from the Greek and means “supplication.” A litany is a prepared prayer offered by the minister, with the congregation responding with the same phrase at stated intervals. For example:
M: O Lord, we come as Your children, giving thanks for the gift of Your Word.
C: We praise You, Lord, for Your Word.
M: Your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.
C: We praise You, Lord, for Your Word.
Litanies are often used for the dedication of a church building, an organ, and so on. They may also be used for the confession of sin. I know of nothing unscriptural in the use of litanies (see Ps. 136), but we must always beware of empty routine. However, a well-planned litany can be very meaningful if a congregation is taught how to use it properly.
6. Our pastor is getting into the habit of opening the service with a lot of banalities – the weather, what he did on Saturday, something that happened in Sunday school – and I think he is wrong. I like a worship service to start with a definite call to worship, not a weather report.
In some congregations, it is difficult to make the transition between Sunday school and church; often at the beginning of the service, people are moving around and there is noise. Some ministers take the first few minutes, while people are assembling, to share “family news” within the church and to welcome visitors, and so forth. Then, when things have calmed down, the worship begins.
The important thing is that definite word is given that the worship service has begun. It can be a signal from the organ or piano, or a song from the choir; it could even be a call to worship from Scripture. Beyond that point, nobody should be doing anything else but worshiping God, and this applies especially to the worship leaders. I can never understand why the platform people must talk to each other and even be flippant with each other when they are supposed to be leading us in worship. They ought to be concentrating on worshiping God.
Worship must not be divorced from the realities of life, including the weather, but the focus of our attention should be on God. I prefer to open a service on a high and holy note of praise and adoration. The call to worship should center on God and His greatness, and the first hymn should be directed to Him in praise.
7. I am a pastor, and when I went to school, we were not taught how to worship or how to lead worship. How do I sustain a worshipful atmosphere throughout a service?
All of us are human, and it is impossible for human beings to operate at peak performance throughout an entire service that lasts an hour or more. A famous movie producer once said that he wanted his films to start with an earthquake and then work up to a climax. You can do this with celluloid but not with congregations.
We should begin on a high note as we call the people to worship. The first hymn should lift their hearts to praise God, as once more they realize His greatness and glory. The first prayer should ask God for His help as the congregation worships. Psychological false fire will not last: we need the fire of the Spirit of God to warm our hearts and to energize us as we worship.
The various elements of the worship service should be balanced: the prayers, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the sermon, and the offering. Personally, I dislike everything in a service to be devoted to the same theme, except on special occasions when the situation demands it (the ordaining of a minister, the sending out of a missionary, the recognition of a special day, and so forth). The worship leader must know the hymnal as well as he or she knows the Bible.
A worship service has a momentum of its own, and each service is different. You cannot sustain a high pitch of involvement or excitement without wearing out the people. A balanced service will have silence as well as speech and song, participation and rest, the spontaneous and the planned. A worship leader must be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and be willing to follow.
(taken from Real Worship, pg. 194-198. © Used by permission of Warren W. Wiersbe. Do not duplicate – for personal use only.)
©2004 Warren W. Wiersbe.
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).