What's missing in your worship service?1
Tim Challies wrote a short article this past week that got my attention, "The Missing Elements of Modern Worship." His point is simple: elements that used to be hallmarks of Christian worship over the centuries have gone missing in many contemporary American churches. What are some of these missing elements? He identifies five: prayer, scripture reading, confession of sin & assurance of pardon, congregational singing, and expositional preaching.
If his observations are even close to accurate (and I suspect they are), then American Christianity faces a troubling reality. After all, as Challies pointedly asks, "If a worship service includes no prayer and no Bible reading, can we even recognize it as Christian worship?" It is a legitimate question to ask. After all, you can't read the Bible without facing the reality again and again that God cares not only that we worship him, but how we worship him. And if we hope that our worship will be glorifying to God, it should certainly include those elements of worship that he himself has set forth in his Word.
What are these elements? The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 21 lists five activities that the Bible teaches should be part of the "ordinary religious worship of God." They are (1) Prayer, (2) The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, (3) The sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word (4) Singing of psalms with grace in the heart, and (5) The due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ. In addition to these five the confession lists several other religious practices that should be done as necessary and on special occasions: religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings. According to Challies, four out of the five essentials have "gone missing" from many Christian worship services today. This is tragic and has massive implications for the American church moving forward if not corrected.
First, biblical illiteracy within the church will continue to increase. The statistics on this are already dismal, but should not be surprising if the Bible is indeed not being opened, read, or expounded on Sunday morning. It is truly a sad state of affairs if the one institution that Jesus founded in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ is not even reading his Word publically on a regular basis.
Second, and more to the point, Christian worship will lose power for both building up believers and reaching those outside of the church with the good news of the Gospel. There is a sad irony present here. For, as Challies correctly highlights, the primary reason that these former staples of Christian worship have gone missing is because church leaders fear they just don't work anymore. In Challies own words:
I am convinced that most of these elements have gone missing for pragmatic reasons—they do not accomplish something the church leaders wish to accomplish in their services. Instead of searching God’s Word to determine what elements should or must be present in a worship service, leaders are judging elements by whether or not they work (according to their own standard of what works).
In other words, the move away from things like prayer, scripture reading, expository preaching (in favor of purely practical and topical preaching), and congregational singing (in favor of a concert oriented atmosphere), have little to do with biblical fidelity and much to do with what (we think) will get people in the seats and excited about Christianity. But that is precisely the irony. No matter how well intentioned, it won't work, and will have the opposite effect in the long run. When we remove from worship the ordinary means of grace that God has established and promised to bless, the power of our worship will go with it. Things like prayer and scripture reading may not be as flashy, hip, or cool as the latest worship trends and techniques, but God promises to work through these means to "convince and convert sinners, and build up believers in holiness and comfort through faith, unto salvation" (WSC 92). Consider, after all, what God promises through the prophet Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)
The Word of God is powerful. Whether that word comes to us through reading, preaching, or congregational singing, God promises to bless it so that it accomplishes what he intends for it to accomplish. It is "Living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb 4). Why would we ever let it go missing?