Last week I injected a Thanksgiving break in the series I have been doing on some of the major cultural challenges we are facing. For the next couple of weeks, as we move through the sometimes hectic pace of the Christmas season, I will be doing a musical interlude, but don’t worry, you won’t have to listen to me sing.
Recently I had a friend tell me about a guy who had attended their church. He grew up in this area, but had zero church background. After services, the guy commented on how surprised he was that singing was part of a church service. Another friend shared how impactful music was in a Buddhist family they knew coming to faith in Christ. He also shared about an Iranian couple that he and his wife have befriended, and who have started coming to church with them. Last Sunday the service was what you might call an old-fashioned hymn-fest. After the services, the husband commented on how meaningful the service was to him.
Music plays an instrumental part in the worship service for both Christians and Jews. In fact, one of the longest books in the Bible, Psalms, is actually a collection of songs that served as the church’s hymnbook for centuries. As Phyllis and I have the privilege of worshipping with the ethnically and culturally diverse churches that constitute the Heartland Church Network, we have found that the style of music varies significantly from church to church. We have also been around long enough to observe the seismic shifts that have taken place in established churches. The latter at times has been referred to as “The Worship Wars!”
I hope you noticed that I used the phrase “music plays an instrumental part of the worship service”--I didn’t say music was the worship service. I must confess that I cringe inside when I hear someone refer to the music portion of a service as “the time of worship.” What we say and how we say things from the pulpit makes a huge difference. The music portion is a significant part, but it is not the only aspect of a well-constructed worship service.
As much of the reformation movement continued its pendulum swing away from what had become a dry, liturgical service over the past 500 years, some would say it has devolved instead of evolved. One of the most obvious shifts has been from a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament to the symbolic observance of it on a monthly, quarterly, or on an occasional basis. I served as interim pastor of a church that hadn’t observed the Lord’s Supper in a couple of years—probably a little too long between doing “this in remembrance of Me.”
Another obvious shift in worship was away from the liturgical use of the Lord’s Prayer along with other written prayers during each service to more “Spirit-led” spontaneous prayers. A recent shift away from having a formal offering time (worship through giving) began during the seeker-sensitive movement. That trend was solidified under COVID restrictions as many churches no longer include it as part of their corporate worship experience.
Changes in the sermon time and content have also occurred. Two biggies have been the shift away from the use of a Lectionary and the length of the message. My guess is that if you asked your congregation this Sunday what a Lectionary was that only a few folks with a Catholic or Lutheran background could even answer your question. Pastors tend to do either topical sermon series, or they will preach through a book of the Bible. Some do a combination of the two. The idea of preaching annually through the historic church calendar with special sermon emphases during Lent and Advent is not common. We would call the latter two an Easter or Christmas series—although more and more churches have returned to the historic Advent Candle.
The length of the message continues to shift. During the seeker-sensitive era, some pastors moved to a shorter time. With a resurgence of reformed theology in Baptist life, the length of sermons is getting longer, and in some churches longer and longer and longer. I would remind pastors who tend towards the latter of two things - the mind will absorb only as much as the seat can endure. Second, there are only a handful of preachers who can keep people’s attention long enough to do an hour-long message—and you are probably not one of them.
As someone who has the privilege of seeing the diversity in how Baptists worship, I would suggest that many of our churches would benefit from an in-depth study of the theology of worship by its pastor(s) and church leaders: What elements need to be included and why? Once the leadership team has wrestled with the topic, a good sermon series on the elements of Biblical worship would be in order. But let me get us back to my primary topic after a typical Mark Elliott rabbit chase.
The first recorded song in scripture is called the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:2-18). It begins with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously!” It is written in a style we often see in Psalms and in hymns. Then Moses concludes with the words, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” These are words that reverberate in the mind of all of us who have heard Handel’s Messiah:
Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of kings, Lord of lords. Forever, forever, forever…
The second song recorded in scripture is called the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21). Interestingly enough it is written more in the style of a modern-day chorus:
“Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
Between now and the end of the year, I want us to take a look at the first four Christmas carols: Mary’s Magnificant (Luke 1:4-55), the Song of Zacharias (Luke 1:68-79), Simeon’s Song (Luke 2:29-35), and the Angel’s Song (Luke 2:13-14).
Until then, my prayer is that Christmas season 2021 will see you singing the praises of our awesome and incomprehensible God!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.