Christianity Today interviewed theologian, author, pastor, and former Covenant Seminary president Bryan Chapell about one of his recent books, Christ-Centered Worship. Dr. Chapell helps point us away from our personal preferences, and ask for God’s preference of glorifying Jesus to be the main thing when we gather for worship. You can read this article at the CT site here.
What is—and is not—Christ-centered worship?
Christ-centered worship is not just talking or singing about Jesus a lot. Christ-centered worship reflects the contours of the gospel. In the individual life of a believer, the gospel progresses through recognition of the greatness and goodness of God, the acknowledgment of our sin and need of grace, assurance of God’s forgiveness through Christ, thankful acknowledgment of God’s blessing, desire for greater knowledge of him through his Word, grateful obedience in response to his grace, and a life devoted to his purposes with assurance of his blessing.
In the corporate life of the church this same gospel pattern is reflected in worship. Opening moments offer recognition of the greatness and goodness of God that naturally folds into confession, assurance of pardon, thanksgiving, instruction, and a charge to serve God in response to his grace in Christ. This is not a novel idea but, in fact, is the way most churches have organized their worship across the centuries. Only in recent times have we lost sight of these gospel contours and substituted pragmatic preferences for Christ-centered worship. My goal is to re-acquaint the church with the gospel-shape of its worship so that we are united around Christ’s purposes rather than arguing about stylistic preferences.
How does liturgy facilitate corporate worship in a Sunday morning service?
Liturgy is simply another term for the order of worship. Every church has a liturgy, although it may vary from being quite simple to very ornate. Understanding the gospel-shape of worship allows us to make Christ-centered choices about how the aspects of each church’s liturgy—an opening song, a prayer of confession, or a benediction—are furthering the gospel message in our services. There is no “one right way” to acknowledge the goodness and greatness of God. But knowing that the beginning of the service has this goal allows us to make appropriate liturgical choices about the songs sung, the scriptures read, and/or the prayers offered in the opening phases of a worship service. The same will be true for those aspects of worship that involve confession, assurance, thanksgiving, etc.
What encourages you about contemporary worship trends?
The most enduring and edifying worship is a combination of rootedness and reach. Because every generation is building on the insights God has given previous generations, it is appropriate that we understand and honor the roots of our worship. At the same time, worship should not idolize the past. God has more to teach his people and more people to reach. Each generation should be making its own contribution to worship with commitments to rootedness and reach so that our children honor their forefathers and are able to minister to their children. I am thankful for many of the contemporary worship discussions that seek to fulfill these goals by considering the ancient and future practices of the church. New tunes for old hymns, new words for old tunes, a resurgence of interest in the profound expressions of the early church, and a zeal to understand the communication pattern of the rising generation—all are signs of a new balance and maturity in the worship of the church.
What is the greatest misunderstanding of worship in evangelical churches today?
Many evangelical churches—perhaps most—only think of worship as “the opening stuff” prior to the sermon, or the style of music that predominates. Worship will fulfill its greater purposes of honoring and proclaiming the gospel when church leaders and worshipers understand that just as the sacraments re-present the fundamental aspects of the gospel in symbol, and the sermon does so in words, so also the worship of the church re-presents the gospel in its pattern.
The so-called worship wars have split many evangelical churches and divided churches from one another. How can worship encourage greater unity among evangelicals today?
Most worship wars are driven by personal preferences regarding style of music or variance from traditional practices (whether the deacons should wear suits, the doxology should be sung after the offering, or drums are allowed anywhere). These preferences are largely formed by what people grew accustomed to in their early Christian experience. Understanding the history of those practices, and the gospel-goal of the worship service, should make everyone more open to varieties of style and more committed to the mission of worship.
If church leaders try to establish a style of worship based upon their preferences or based upon satisfying congregants’ competing preferences, then the church will inevitably be torn apart by the politics of preference. But if the leadership is asking the missional questions of “Who is here?” and “Who should be here?” in determining worship styles and practices, then the mission of the church will enable those leaders to unite around gospel goals that are more defensible and uniting than anyone’s personal preference. These gospel goals will never undermine the gospel contours of the worship service, but rather will ask how each gospel aspect can be expressed in ways that best minister to those present and those being reached for Christ’s glory.
What is the relationship between Christ-centered preaching and Christ-centered worship?
Each makes the gospel of the grace of God in Christ central to its purpose. Christ-centered preaching enables God’s people to see his hand of grace throughout Scripture so that their love for him motivates and enables the Christian life. Christ-centered worship re-presents the content of the gospel to enable God’s people to honor his grace even as they are strengthened by it for their mission in the world.
“Worship cannot simply be a matter of arbitrary choice, church tradition, personal preference or cultural appeal. There are foundational truths in the gospel of Christ’s redeeming work that do not change if the gospel is to remain the gospel. So, if our worship structures are to tell this story consistently, then there must be certain aspects of our worship that remain consistent.”
(Christ-Centered Worship, 85)
Which historical figures have influenced your view of worship, and what have you learned from them?
Christ-centered Worship looks at the central figures of the ancient church, Reformation, and contemporary worship discussions to find commonalities that demonstrate the gospel always forms its own container. That is to say, worship that is gospel-true has a consistent shape despite historical and stylistic variations. Think of it this way: Just as trucks that carry eggs and trucks that carry gasoline have different shapes to accommodate their contents, so also the best worship is always shaped by the gospel it contains and proclaims. And because the basics of the gospel never change, the shape of Christ-centered worship remains the same through the centuries. The central figures from the past that taught me this are Luther, Calvin, and the Westminster reformers. The writers of more recent times who have affirmed these great truths are Hughes Oliphant Old, Robert Webber, and Robert G. Rayburn. The best contemporary statesmen for me have been John Witvliet, Tim Keller, Don Carson, Mark Dalbey, Bob Kauflin, Ron Man, and Scotty Smith.
If pastors could make one change to their worship service next Sunday, what would you recommend?
Structure the aspects of worship to reflect your understanding of the gospel and tell people (briefly) how each component advances that understanding.
Check out this article at ChristianityToday.com. Or go explore more about Dr. Chapell’s book, Christ-Centered Worship, here.