Church architecture matters

Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God

Bob Kauflin. Crossway, Wheaton, 2008. 304 pages.

Christ-centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice

Bryan Chapell. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2009. 320 pages.

In recent decades, the fights that many churches have had over musical styles have been termed the ‘worship wars’—typically cast as a battle between traditionalists on one side, who wish to retain the noble beauty and heritage of historic church practice, particularly in music; and modernizers on the other, who want church services to be contemporary, relevant, engaging, and so on.

In most places, that war is largely over. The peace that has been forged often consists of an agreed (if sometimes uneasy) separation, where a church might run different services with different musical styles to please different groups; in other places, a compromise has been reached, in which some ancient songs are still sung (sometimes with updated lyrics or music) alongside more contemporary numbers.

However, over the past 20 years or so, a ‘worship’ war of a different sort has been bubbling along—not so much about musical style as about ‘worship’ itself; in particular, about whether ‘worship’ is the right word or category with which to think about our singing, or our church meetings more generally.

Without really planning to, I have become one of the combatants in this little skirmish, having written some Briefing articles and engaged in various dialogues on the subject. Admittedly ‘war’ is too strong a word for this discussion—it has hardly rent the church apart. But the ongoing debate about ‘worship’ and music and church has been quite strong at times, and good friends have found themselves on different sides.

For the benefit of those who might be late to this debate, the two positions are basically as follows: one side wishes to use ‘worship’ as the normal word to describe what we do in church. When Christians gather on Sundays, they do so to worship; the meeting or ‘service’ is a service of gathered or corporate worship; and when we discuss what sort of things we do in church, we are discussing the church’s worship. Within this camp, or perhaps alongside it, there are some who particularly attach ‘worship’ to singing, such that the song-leader is called the ‘worship leader’, and so on.

The other side of the argument is a smaller group who regards the designation of church (or singing) as ‘worship’ as unhelpful in the light of the Bible’s teaching. They point out that ‘worship’ is just not the language or category of thought in which the apostles taught about church. And when the apostles do discuss ‘worship’, they apply it more generally to Christian discipleship and ministry, as part of the radical fulfilment and transformation of Old Testament priest, temple and worship language that takes in Christ. Is it too much, this side of the debate asks, that we seek to be more apostolic in this—particularly when there is so much confusion and bad practice attached to the ‘worship’ category?

And so the debate has proceeded, with some degree of bafflement on each side. Being something of a conflict-avoider by nature, I have more than once thought of throwing in the towel, especially when I have found myself on the opposite side of a debate with friends (and luminaries) like Don Carson and Mark Dever. I have found myself thinking: “Does it really matter? Why quibble over what word you use to describe this or that? It’s just too hard, and too many people and churches are used to thinking and talking this way. It’s just a label after all. And aren’t there more important things to be talking about?”

These hoist-the-white-flag-and-move-on thoughts became even stronger when I went to hear Bob Kauflin last year speak at a TWIST music conference in Sydney. Mr Kauflin is a delightful, gracious, godly man who said more sensible, biblical, and helpful things about singing in church than I’d heard in a long time. And he’s without doubt a ‘worship’ guy. His title is Director of Worship Development; his conference is called WorshipGod; and his book (which this article will eventually be a review of) is called Worship Matters. If I find myself in agreement with much of what Mr Kauflin is saying about singing and music, should I really care that he uses the ‘worship’ language?

I will return to discuss Worship Matters below, but it was the other book to feature in this review, Christ-Centered Worship, that persuaded me afresh of the importance of church-as-worship debate.

Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship is a well-written, thoroughly-researched and insightful book, with an abundance of excellent resources and ideas for conducting our Sunday gatherings. In it, Dr Chapell argues that when we examine the liturgies of the Christian church, starting with the ancient Roman liturgy (pre-Reformation), and then proceeding through to Luther, Calvin, Westminster, and on to modern Reformed-evangelical liturgies, we find a great deal of common ground. In fact, despite the important theological differences (especially between the Roman liturgies and the post-Reformation ones that followed), there is a basic ‘gospel shape’ to these liturgies that is not only expressed in history but stems ultimately from God’s revelation in Scripture:

The liturgies of the church through the ages and the consistent message of Scripture combine to reveal a pattern for corporate worship that is both historical and helpful for our time. Christian worship is a ‘re-presentation’ of the gospel. By our worship we extol, embrace, and share the story of the progress of the gospel in our lives. (p. 116)

This basic pattern or shape is as follows:

  • Recognition of God’s character (Adoration)
  • Acknowledgement of our character (Confession)
  • Affirmation of grace (Assurance)
  • Expression of devotion (Thanksgiving)
  • Desire for aid in living for God (Petition and Intercession)
  • Acquiring knowledge for pleasing God (Instruction from God’s Word)
  • Communing with God and his people (Communion)
  • Living unto God with his blessing (Charge and Benediction)

For Dr Chapell, this movement or flow is not accidental or arbitrary; it reflects something basic and theological about the gospel, or more particularly “the progress of the gospel in our lives”. He sees it not only in historic liturgy, but in Isaiah’s encounter with God in the temple in Isaiah 6, in Solomon’s dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8, and even in the structure of NT epistles like Ephesians. He acknowledges that some may argue with the way he has analysed some of these passages (and I would at points), but he suggests that this basic Christ-centred gospel shape or trajectory should guide all our liturgies—not rigidly or legalistically, but as a persistent grace-oriented pattern or template or direction that we centre around and constantly return to.

This is important, Dr Chapell argues, because if we follow this sort of basic pattern, our church gatherings will not only have gospel content within them (as we read and teach and so on), but the very shape and architecture of the liturgy will be a “re-presentation of the gospel”. He makes the excellent point (in his opening chapter) that the physical architecture of our church buildings speaks volumes about what we believe church is about. This is why Luther and the other Reformers were so insistent on using new and different church buildings when they got the chance; because the old buildings were based on Roman theology, and communicated that theology to every person who entered them. And just as the architecture of our buildings says something about us, so does the architecture of our Sunday services. If our church gatherings are ‘gospel-shaped’, then participation in them will have the effect of not only edifying Christian believers and continuing to bring them back to the gospel, but will function as a form of ‘doxological evangelism’, whereby the very order and conduct of our worship will function as a witness to visitors and outsiders who attend.

Dr Chapell is entirely right on this point. The way we conduct and order and structure our church gatherings is very important, and ought to reflect the Christ-centred gospel that binds us together (more on this below). The problem is I’m just not convinced by Dr Chapell’s presentation of what that shape should be.

For one thing, the pattern he discerns and outlines is arguably not so much a gospel-pattern as a sanctification-pattern. It reflects, as above, “the progress of the gospel in our lives” (p. 116). But the progress of the gospel in our lives is not itself the gospel. In fact, it is one of the errors of Roman Catholicism to confuse the two. I am very aware that Dr Chapell himself does not hold to Roman theology—in fact, he wants his liturgical pattern to be a reminder that “worship is a response to God’s grace, not an infusion or conjuring of it” (p. 143). But it does raise the issue: should the shape or structure of our liturgy re-present the gospel itself—the proclamation of Jesus saving lordship, followed by a response of repentance and faith—or should it more reflect the shape of ongoing Christian experience and sanctification? Dr Chapell’s pattern is more based on the latter.

Secondly, it seemed to me that Dr Chapell was more successful in arguing that the historic Christian liturgies shared this broad pattern than in trying to show that it stemmed from Scripture. Once you start with a pattern and look for it in the Bible, it is easy to see it in various places—but just as easy to provide counter-examples. For example, take a classic gospel occasion like Pentecost—where people are gathered and evangelized and converted under the power of the Spirit. It is very difficult to find Dr Chapell’s gospel pattern in evidence. In fact, you could argue that in Acts 2 the pattern is rather different:

  • Prophecy (proclaiming the great deeds of God by the Spirit’s power)
  • Expository gospel sermon
  • Confession and call to repentance.
  • Assurance
  • Repentance and forgiveness (expressed in baptism)
  • Fellowship/breaking of bread
  • Prayers
  • Almsgiving
  • Praise

Now I am not insisting, for example, that a confession of sin must follow the sermon, but merely pointing out that it makes very good ‘gospel’ sense for it to do so—certainly as much sense as placing it earlier in our meetings. This is why I am uncomfortable with locking ourselves into one gospel pattern (even if the one that Dr Chapell has discerned were the true one). There is a variety of ways to preach the one true gospel, and thus a variety of forms or structures that might reflect it. If we look, for example, at the gospel speeches in Acts and the gospel summaries in the epistles, we find a range of presentations, with the the same cluster of ideas ordered and presented in a variety of ways and patterns—sometimes with some elements missed out altogether. Which of these ‘gospel shapes’ should determine our liturgical shape? Should it be the Pentecost order (mentioned above), or Paul in Acts 17 (where he starts with creation and ends with a call to repentance), or Paul in Acts 13 (where he starts with God’s work among Israel and ends with Jesus and the offer of forgiveness in his name)? Should it be the structure of Ephesians or the structure of John’s Gospel or the structure of Revelation? If we want our church meetings to communicate the gospel by their very structure and shape, then there are numerous patterns, orders or structures we might profitably use. These could be shaped by the particular aspect or presentation of the gospel on which we are focusing in this particular meeting, as well as by the context or circumstances of our gathering—just as Paul’s gospel presentations were strikingly different in shape when he was addressing Gentiles rather than Jews.

However, having said what I think might be wrong with Dr Chapell’s thesis, it’s worth returning to the important premise on which his argument is built. And it is exactly right—the way we run church ‘says’ something, and what it ‘says’ ought to proclaim and reinforce our Christ-centred gospel theology. The order and structure of the different activities or elements sends a strong message to those who are participating, just as the architecture of our church buildings screams out to people what we stand for.

This is sometimes called ‘meta-communication’—the communication that takes place above or beyond or around the words we use. It not only goes for architecture and liturgy, but for other aspects of our gatherings. If we dress our minister up as a sacrificial priest, for example, and have him perform elaborate rituals on behalf of the people, then something is very powerfully communicated—often far more powerfully than the actual words that are used. (Those readers who, like me, grew up in Anglo-Catholicism may understand this point: how the very biblical, reformational content of the Book of Common Prayer can be so submerged under Anglo-Catholic meta-communication that you can sit there for years and never ‘hear’ the gospel.)

Those who agree with this premise, and want to do better at structuring their church meetings along gospel lines, will find much in Dr Chapell’s book to stimulate and help them, even if (like me) they cannot quite go with him on his ‘one liturgical pattern to rule them all’. In particular, there is a treasure trove of resources in the second half of the book, providing enough examples, ideas and links to keep you going for some time.

However, Dr Chapell’s powerful argument for the importance of meta-communication also persuaded me afresh of the importance of the ‘church-as-worship’ debate, and (somewhat ironically) revealed the most significant flaw in Christ-Centred Worship. By conducting his entire discussion of what we do in church under the rubric of ‘worship’, Dr Chapell undercuts the Christ-centred gospel emphasis he wants our gatherings to display. This is because ‘worship’ is essentially a response word—it means to submit, to honour, to serve, to make a worthy offering. Theologically, worship is what we do in response to God’s sovereign gracious initiative in addressing us in the gospel.

Thus, by drawing a circle around our church gatherings and typing the label ‘worship’ above it, the meta-communication shouts that we are coming to church in order to offer something to God, to serve him, to honour him. The ‘architecture’ says that the direction is God-ward. But the gospel architecture is quite different; quite the opposite, in fact. It is us-ward—God graciously coming to us in his Son, dead in sin as we are, and speaking us back to life through his Spirit. This gospel theology should shape our ecclesiology. As Phillip Jensen has written: “the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly, that historically has come to be called ‘church’, is made up of those whom God has saved and redeemed in Christ, and who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may persevere and grow in holiness and righteousness…”.1 Or to put it in apostolic language, the gathering is a body with Christ as its head, in which his word dwells richly as we speak and sing the truth in love to one another, so that we might grow up into maturity in him (see e.g. Col 3:15-17; Eph 4:15-16; 1 Cor 12-14).

Just as the gospel is about God coming to us in his gracious word, so church is primarily about us gathering to hear God’s word, and to respond to him together in repentance and faith. To label or categorize church as ‘worship’ is to bring only one side of this dynamic to the fore, and to emphasize our contribution and response rather than God’s grace. It would be like describing our meetings as ‘corporate repentance services’. We’d want to say, “Well yes, there is repentance involved, but that’s not how you’d summarize the whole thing!”

Is this why the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’ (or even ‘corporate worship’)? It was certainly not the theological ‘architecture’ in which they wanted church to be thought about or discussed or practised. Perhaps they realized that to do so was to engage in a meta-communication that just pushes us in the wrong direction.

It certainly has done so historically. The ‘worship’ paradigm has led to church being seen as the place where we approach God, and make contact with him through our activity—whether in charismatic praise-and-worship or in high church sacramental mysticism. In Protestant circles, it has led to a legalistic formalism, where the important thing is for us to turn up to the ‘house of God’ in order to conduct the ‘right’ religious activities in honour of God, and feel that we have done our bit for the week.

‘Worship’ just isn’t the right ‘architecture’ for an evangelical church. Why retain it?

Those who do wish to retain it—and I am thinking at this point of the thoughtful arguments of Don Carson and Tim Keller in Worship by the Book—seem concerned that the loss of the ‘worship’ label may lead to the loss of something important, such as a draining away of a sense of God’s transcendent presence amongst us in Christ (see pp. 204-5). But there is no reason this should be the case, as the New Testament itself demonstrates. If New Testament churches had a strong sense of God’s presence among them in Christ as they met, they did so without any ‘worship’ language or conceptual architecture to sustain it. Why may not we?

Dr Carson does acknowledge that there is potential for confusion or ambiguity in continuing with ‘worship’ language, but is reluctant to dispense with the language all the same. He judges that the risks can be obviated by adding the word ‘corporate’ in front of ‘worship’.2 I must confess, I struggle to see how this changes the meta-communication in any significant way.

In Worship Matters Bob Kauflin is similarly reluctant to dispense with worship language when it comes to singing. Interestingly, he quotes Dr Carson about the dangers of calling song leaders ‘worship leaders’ (from a Briefing interview back in 2000), but then says:

…while I agree with Dr Carson’s perspective, I don’t think we have to lose the term worship leader. It succinctly communicates that our goal is to lead others in praising God. But neither should we exaggerate the significance of the phrase or attach a biblical authority to it. (pp. 52-53)

This decision simply to press on with the ‘worship’ category is a real shame, because the content of Worship Matters is otherwise very good (with some quibbles here and there). Mr Kauflin has read and thought deeply about his subject, and brought a strong biblical understanding to bear. His roots are in Pentecostalism, but (like the Sovereign Grace movement more generally), the trajectory of his thought over the past 15 years has clearly been towards Reformed-evangelicalism. And it shows. He wants singing to be word-centred, to be Christ-centred, and to fit within a theological framework where Jesus is the true ‘worship leader’ who gives us access to God by his blood. He has many sensible, biblical and helpful things to say about choosing songs, leading a music team, and managing the ‘healthy tensions’ that exist in music—for example, between transcendence and immanence, and between head and heart.

However, Mr Kauflin’s ‘architecture’ for singing is still ‘worship’ in the charismatic tradition—a tradition which views singing as a means of encountering God, offering him praise, and experiencing his presence in a special way. In other words, singing is primarily God-ward in this paradigm. It is a way (the primary way in most charismatic churches) for us to approach God, to please him, to experience him, to honour him, to glorify him, and to make an offering of our praise to him.

This residual architecture leads Mr Kauflin into doubtful territory at a few points. Within a paradigm in which singing is primarily directed towards God, as an act of worship, and where our hearts are moved to pour out our passionate devotion towards God, then shouldn’t God-honouring bodily movements (like raising arms) be a natural and normal expression of that worship? As always, Mr Kauflin is moderate and careful as he discusses this, and seeks to anchor what he says about bodily expressiveness in Scripture. But the issue is a minefield, and it’s hard to see why we would need to wander into it if not for the language and category of ‘worship’.

Mr Kauflin’s underlying problem is that while so much of his material is clear, biblical and helpful, the ‘worship’ paradigm keeps undercutting his point. ‘Worship’ is just not the right-shaped container for many of his insights. It cuts in a different direction. While we continue to frame our singing as worship, and understand our song-leaders as ‘worship leaders’, we will continue to communicate loudly to our people that singing is fundamentally about us approaching God to offer something to him.

Singing is so much more than this. It is speech—emotive, supercharged speech, but basically speech all the same. It is a wonderful means to do all kinds of things—to declare God’s greatness (i.e. to ‘praise’ him), to teach God’s word, to give him thanks, to exhort one another, to rejoice and exult in God’s goodness, to pray in lamentation of our sin, and more besides.

It’s a means, in other words, for us to hear God’s gracious gospel word, and to respond in repentance, and in faith, hope and love.

With singing, as with church, this is what really matters.


  1. PD Jensen, ‘What is church for?’, The Briefing 397, 2012, p. 20.
  2. DA Carson, TJ Keller, RK Hughes & M Ashton, Worship by the book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002, p. 49.

26 thoughts on “Church architecture matters

  1. Thanks for a great article, Tony – significantly more than a review of two good books. Your first half dozen paragraphs are a helpful introduction into the “ongoing debate” about “whether ‘worship’ is the right word or category with which to think about our singing, or our church meetings more generally”. My hunch is that this debate is likely to intensify in the next few years.

    Your paragraphs about Dr Chapell “conducting his entire discussion of what we do in church under the rubric of ‘worship’” (page 48, column 1 in the print edition) helpfully contrast the directions of the gospel (from God to us) and of ‘worship’ (our response to God).

    You ask (page 48, column 3), “why the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’?” I have demonstrated (NT ‘Worship’ Vocabulary, University of Cambridge thesis, 1992; summary in Moore College Library since 1995) that, indeed, “the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’ (or even ‘corporate worship’)”. However, I suggest it is out of touch with the apostles to think that the idea had ever entered their heads. Rather, we should be asking ourselves (as I believe they would ask us) why on earth we are doing so! There’s no evidence that the NT authors rejected ‘worship’ as the category for church. Rather, I suggest, it never occurred to them express themselves in this way.

    An historical study reveals that it was not only the apostles and all the New Testament authors who did not express themselves in such terms, but also the early church fathers. It is only a gradual process over the past 1700 years that has brought us to our present way of speaking. The process began with language imported into Christianity not so much from the Old Testament as from the Roman Imperial cult; the last significant step in this process, that of removing from ‘worship’ qualifying adjectives such ‘corporate’, ‘public’, ‘formal’, ‘Sunday’, etc, has happened only very recently, in the second half of last century.

    The apostles did not speak of their gathered activity as ‘worship’ any more than they spoke of those in church ministry as ‘priest’, or their places of gathering as ‘temple’. For them, “the worship” (Romans 9:4) meant what the priests did in the temple, and they knew that had been fulfilled in Christ (the central argument of the Letter to the Hebrews). And just as the apostles re-interpreted these other Old Testament concepts into their new Gospel life context (e.g. taking the Gospel to the nations as “priestly service”, Romans 15:16; our bodies as “temple” of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 6:19), so they re-interpreted ‘worship’ for Christ’s gospel people – applying it not to corporate Christian activity, but to counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus (Romans 12:1).

    At the same time, the apostles were developing and experiencing Christian gatherings, and they spoke of and wrote about such gatherings often enough. Generally they did not use a key label word for their gatherings. (Some people, on hearing that the NT authors did not use ‘worship’ as their label for church, demand to know what word we should use instead. However, we should not assume that there is just one defining word.) While I have ideas about how the apostles thought about their gatherings, I invite other readers to consider that question for themselves – and to base their answers directly on the New Testament evidence, not on what they may have read elsewhere or been taught in theological colleges.

    Here in The Briefing, Carl Laferton’s helpful article Church: Just imagine (The Briefing, 19 March 2012,
    proposes a ‘desert island’ approach to looking at what we do in church. It would be important to apply the same approach to how we speak about, and the purpose(s) of, our Christian gatherings.

  2. Hi Tony

    Thank you for that really insightful and interesting article on the nature of worship language within the church.

    I would like to ask a question. If by calling our services ‘worship service’, the meta communication shouts God-ward (us offering to God) rather than us-ward (God graciously coming to us), what then should we call our services?

    Calling a service a ‘Morning Service’, ‘Family Service’, ‘9am Service’, doesn’t seem to communicate much about whether the service is God-ward or us-ward. Would you by any chance have a word which you would use in place of worship?

    Thank you

    God bless

    • Like Derek I’d love to hear your thoughts on the question as well.

      I almost wonder whether it’s more what we do during our meeting time, rather than what we name it, that’s more significant in communicating any meta-issues like God/us orientation?

      I see it in a few other semantic choices in some churches. Call it a talk all you want, but if it walks like a sermon, talks like a sermon…

      I am still in general agreement though that the words we use to describe things we do as Christians are important and should be well-defined. Thanks for your very detailed and helpful thoughts.

      • Hi Derek and William,

        Thanks for the comments. Andrew Dircks in his comment makes the interesting (and I think correct) point that the NT doesn’t seem all that concerned to find one key label or defining word — apart from the obvious word ‘church’ (Gk ekklesia) which is a common noun for ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’.

        If I’m leading our church meeting, I normally say something like “Welcome to our gathering (or meeting) this morning. We’re here in order to …” and then speak about the purposes (in terms of hearing God speak to us through the word of his Son, and responding to him in repentance and faith).

        Hope that helps.


  3. As pew-sitter and organ-bench sitter I have sometimes thought that Sydney Anglican ministers push the “not worship” line a bit too strongly, but in general I agree with Tony’s argument. What we do in church seems to me to be a very specific and important aspect of our full-time worship of God, and that includes all that we do, not just the music.

    One thing that does not concern me much is the common use of the term “church service”. It may carry some doubtful ideas, but it has long been accepted as a term which means a meeting of saints where one can expect at least prayer, exhortation, reading of God’s word and preaching. To those we may add music as a very desirable but not essential activity, and sometimes we will include the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Using the term “service” saves a lot of words.

  4. Hi Tony,

    While I have no problem with the content of this article, I do have some problem with the heading to it and the accompanying picture in the “latest articles” section of the home page, which I feel is somewhat misleading to potential readers. When I saw the byline “Church architecture matters” accompanied by a bright shiny picture of a church building, I expected that the article would be about, well, church (building) architecture. Instead, the article was about something different. I presume that there was a good reason for doing so, but surely misleading headings are something to be left to the secular media.

    • Sorry about that Roger. I think our esteemed editor was going for ‘intriguing’ and ‘interesting double meaning’ not for ‘misleading’. (You never know, he might even put a new picture!)

  5. I didn’t mind the heading being apparently misleading, but it would be interesting to have a future article about church meeting places, from cathedrals to barns. That would no doubt spark much interest and comment.

  6. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for that. I’d also agree with David’s comment that it would be a good idea about having an article on the architecture of church meeting places. As evidenced by the critique of the new Barny’s building, it’s an area where people have definite ideas about how church meeting places should look, and these appear to be mainly shaped by a mixture of nostalgia and a desire for the building to give them a “spiritual” experience.

  7. Tony, thanks for this article. Like you, I grow tired of battling over this issue of using bible words in bible ways. We can sometimes end up in petty pedantry.

    However you persuade me to continue finding other words to describe our church gatherings.

    In answer to the queries above, I sometimes use the term ‘gathering’ or ‘meeting’ but more often use the word ‘assembly’. “Welcome to our assembly today at St Michael’s.” Or after the pause for notices and greeting (and when the kids go out to Sunday School), I might say, “Can I call your attention back to the front; let’s continue in our assembly.”

    It sounds slightly formal, but I find it is less irritating to those brothers and sisters who find “meeting” so mundane and ordinary that it makes them think of a club meeting or a chance meeting. In a sense, the slightly more formal word does mark out what we are doing is special and important and not just any old casual meeting. Dunno what you think of that.

    Another option is to say, “Welcome to our fellowship today”. Or “our fellowship meets at 10am at the Cathedral”. Sometimes I just say, “Welcome to the 10am congregation today”. I think by using a variety of terms we avoid getting too fixated on one special word as the term of terms!

  8. The other thing to say is this: I don’t want to use the word ‘worship’ as as the catch-all or typical term for what we are doing at church and especially not for music and singing. And I teach others not to use that word or concept as the key paradigm. I also prefer to avoid the word ‘service’ as the main descriptor, (although like David, it doesn’t worry me as much).

    But that said, I don’t think I help the cause by pedantically jumping on people who lead the meeting or lead the prayers every time they use the word ‘worship’ or ‘service’ in passing as they describe what we are doing or to refer to our assembly. After all, Cranmer felt it acceptable to apply Psalm 95’s language, “so come let us worship”, presumably through the lens of Hebrews 3, to the Anglican service (oops, it’s actually ‘Order’) of Morning Prayer.

    So I teach and model the use of other (what I consider) more biblical terms for our church meetings, and occasionally I will suggest to someone exercising some public leadership that they might shift their vocab in this direction too. But if I just jump on every stray use of the word ‘worship’ I irritate people and make them defensive.

    I guess this is just a comment about educative strategy. What do you think?

    • Thanks Sandy.
      I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favourite TV shows QI, and what happens when one of the panellists gives the cliched wrong answer — lights and sirens go off, with words flashing on the screen behind. I’m not suggesting that this is approach we should take when the ‘w’ word gets used carelessly by someone up the front!
      Like all such things, change comes through:
      – teaching and preaching on these subjects
      – your own example (I really like Andrew’s suggestions below)
      – spending time training and mentoring meeting leaders and song leaders to understand and improve what they’re doing


  9. For more than 20 years now I’ve not used ‘worship’ to refer to our gatherings. For the actual gathered times, the New Testament mostly uses verbs (gathering, etc) rather than a noun – see e.g. 1 Cor 5:4, Acts 20:7-8, Matthew 18:20.
    So I’ve also learnt not to construct sentences that require a noun to refer the gathering.
    For example, instead of “welcome to our … this morning”, I’ll say:
    – “Good morning and welcome. It’s great that we can come together in the name of our Lord Jesus. …” or
    “Welcome to [church name]. This morning we’ll …”
    I agree with Sandy’s educative strategy … gently, gently … I don’t jump on people if they say the w word in church. I naturally and often make positive statements about what we’re doing, aligned with New Testament language.

    (For an example of extended blurb about what we’re doing in church without using the w word, though sometimes using ‘service’, look at
    – look not only at that page, but click on each of the boxes at right for the longer blurbs.)

  10. I have never believed that this argument is pedantic; I think it’s far more important than that. Men like David Peterson, who passionately want to keep the language of ‘worship’ for church, do rightly teach us that worship terminology is not used of church in the NT, and also that ‘worship’ cannot be applied only to activities such as singing or prayer. Indeed, the times we edify one another in church, they argue, are also ‘worship.’ So far so good.

    But Peterson and Carson undermine their own argument because they both argue for the use of worship to describe church by citing Revelation 4-5 and Colossians 3, suggesting that we should surely replicate the ‘worship’ of the angels around the throne of God in the heavenlies. The effect of this is to reduce worship to acclamations of praise in song or recital.

    At the very least, the vertical dimension to what we do in church is split off from the horizontal. Now that’s the big problem with their approach, in my view. When we sing we sing making melody in our hearts to the Lord (vertical) AND we sing to one another (horizontal). The mistake comes when we divide one from the other. When we teach one another we are also giving glory to God. There are no elements of our gathering that are ‘the worship’ parts and others that are the ‘fellowship’ or ‘edification’ parts.

    Where does this lead us? To semi pelagian ideas about who we can offer to God our worship, which sadly leads to so many getting caught up in ‘sacred corporate activity’ disconnected from lives of faith and repentance flowing out of God’s grace shown to us in Christ.

    I’ve noticed how often everyday Christians who see church as the time to ‘worship’ think that this somehow brings them to God, and makes them less concerned about living in a godly manner in every part of their lives. Cultic Christianity is dangerous! And, I would argue, it is inimical to what is taught in the BCP.

    So I for one will never raise the white flag on this issue.

  11. Tony and others, how do we respond when friends say something like this. (I am quoting a respected friend from a discussion elsewhere about another biblical term and its uses…)

    Here’s the thing: the biblical inductivists want to say: don’t use concepts in a non Biblical way. The more theological thinkers are happy to say ‘here’s a useful concept that we can use as a theological construct to apply to our reading of scripture’.

    This biblical inductivism is a greatly limiting theological method, in my view, though well motived. Causes all kinds of problems with doctrine of church!

    […] what I am complaining about is the theology=word studies approach…

    I tend to think it’s better – as a default – to use biblical words in biblical ways. So I am probably a biblical inductivist. But I know there are limitations to word studies – concepts allied to a term can be expressed without using that term etc – and sometimes I might get lost in detail, and miss the wood for the trees.

    So what are the strengths and weaknesses of our friend’s quote above.

    Actually I suspect this might be a whole other thread. I might widen it a bit and turn it into a post, since I think the conceptual debate on this biblical inductivism will help us with the particular discussions on ‘church’ or ‘worship’ or ‘sanctification’.

    • Yes, thanks Sandy. I notice you’ve started another thread on this interesting question. Will comment there later today.

    • Sandy, I think you have raised a critical issue here. Tony himself observes that worship in the Bible essentially means ‘to submit, to honour, to serve’. But there is a theological construct or notion of worship that embraces a broader range of terms as well. In the OT this would include words such as ‘sacrifice’, ‘praise’ and ‘obey’, because these words are used in conjunction with the words that are strictly translated ‘worship’ and fill out the meaning of the concept. The discussion about worship and church gets too bogged down at the level of literalism and is, in the end, not sufficiently biblical in scope. No particular word is used in the NT to describe Christian gatherings, though edification should clearly be the aim of everything we do and Acts 13:2 does talk abut a gathering to ‘serve the Lord’. Tony rightly says that ‘church is primarily about us gathering to hear God’s word, and to respond to him together in repentance and faith.’ But he limits worship to the category of response. Of course our service to God can only be acceptable if it is in response to his grace and guided by his revealed will (Rom. 12:1-2). But Paul goes straight on in Romans 12 to talk about our service to God in terms of our ministry to one another in the fellowship of believers (vv.3-8). He also talks about his gospel ministry as his service to God (Rom. 1:9; cf. 15:16). The vertical and the horizontal aspects of service cannot be easily separated. This applies to singing (Col. 3:16) as well as preaching and praying (1 Cor. 14:15-17). I don’t think we should use the word ‘worship’ indiscriminately as Bryan Chapell and Bob Kauflin tend to do in their books. But not to use it at all to describe what we do in church is reductionist and fails to grasp the truly radical way in which the NT adapts and uses the OT terminology.

    • Part of the problem seems to be that we are using English words with perfectly good English meanings (such as “worship”) and trying to imbue them with “biblical” meanings. That, in itself, is a problem. When someone picks up an English Bible and reads the word “worship” they should be able to understand it within the normal semantics of that English language, not be dependent on further word study because the Bible translators have decided to use that English word to translate a range of discrete Greek terms which do not have a close semantic match to the term “worship” (and I’m thinking in particular of λατρεία in Rom 12:1).

      The usual meaning of the English “to worship” in modern usage does correspond quite well to the Greek προσκυνέω and the Hebrew השתחוה, so why use it to translate different terms with different meanings? This just confuses the matter, as I’ve argued here:

      So I don’t think it is correct to say that “worship in the Bible essentially means ‘to submit, to honour, to serve’.” This takes a range of Greek and Hebrew terms, translates them all with one English word which, because it doesn’t do a very good job of translating them all, then needs copious qualification to make plain to English speakers what is obscured by the poor translation choice!

  12. Sandy, you do raise a question worthy of a post of its own. All I’d say here is that I think the criticism is often unfair; those who engage in inductive approaches to reading the Bible are also usually aware of the dangers of word-study approach. They know to look for related words and concepts and to be mindful of what the Bible taken as a whole teaches on certain issues. The quote you give sounds similar to those of some who’ve attacked the Knox-Robinson doctrine of the church, I think unfairly.

    From a theological perspective I think that those who want to apply the term ‘corporate worship’ to our meetings run the risk of a sacred-horizontal divide, and an we-God movement as opposed to God-us.

  13. I think there is also another flip-side that hasn’t been raised too much – which is the group in the corner who says, “I don’t need to go to a church to worship God”. I’m thinking more along the lines of emerging church here. The meta-communication here on what worship is seems to be something rather different and contrary to the discussion at hand. The battle over what the word ‘worship’ entails is critical to understanding the roles of churches as formal institutions and how this should fit into how we are to give due honour and worth to God.

    Perhaps the reason for developing the phrase ‘corporate worship’ is to remind the emergent church movement that Christianity has never been a lone-wolf religion. It has been communal from eternity past in the triune nature of the Godhead.

    I think the question, “Why do you go to church?” might produce an easier answer for some people. “To worship God” was certainly the first answer which came to my head. That entails to encourage and be encouraged through the sharing of God’s Word, to show and be shown love to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, to sing spiritual songs to God, to evangelise, etc.

    Of course my answer is not as though this should be the only time and place to turn on ‘worship mode’ nor is the act of worship the only thing that happens at church. All of this is but part of pursuing a life that is holy and acceptable to God (Rom 12:1).

    The only other thing I can think of that isn’t technically worship which occurs is God speaking to us, preached through His Word. But even still, this meant to lead to a particular act of worship: to receive the word and obey,

    • Samuel, I can’t see that you have engaged with all that has gone before, both in Tony’s original article / book review and in the subsequent comments.
      There are countless modern western English-language Christians who say that “to worship God” is the answer to the “why do you go to church?” question. The problem is, that answer is not to be found in the New Testament. The NT does give answers to that question, but not that answer. According to the NT, why go to church? – to build up the church, the body of Christ (Eph 4:12-16, 1 Cor 14:5,12, 26), to stir up one another to love and good works (Hebr 10:24-25). There are also texts that talk about what the Christians did when gathered (Acts 2:42 etc etc), but again, none of those use ‘worship’.
      These are the texts and the reasons I give when people say to me, “I don’t need to go to (a) church”.
      (It may appear to be using a spiritually superior argument to tell people that it is to worship God that they should go to church, but I believe it is not a biblical answer.)

      In the light of Rom 12:1, and your acknowledgement of it, I guess if you answer EVERY “why do you …?” question with, “to worship God”, then I should be content. “Why do you go to work? Why do you love your neighbour? Why do you eat meals?” etc. But if you answer only the “go to church” question with “worship”, that is both confusing and logically unjustified.

      I’m not sure exactly what you’re suggesting in speaking of “the reason for developing the phrase ‘corporate worship’ “, but that phrase has been around for a couple of hundred years, I think. It is only a recent novelty that has seen people leave off ‘corporate’ or similar adjectives and use just the word ‘worship’ alone to refer to what we do in church. Admittedly, it would be a step in the right direction if the modern Christians who use ‘worship’ to refer to church went back to saying ‘corporate worship’, because they would then at least be acknowledging 1. the corporate nature of church, and 2. that there are other parts of life that constitute ‘worship’. But this one step would not be far enough, because it still easily allows people to think that there are parts of life that are not ‘worship’, but to think like that is not in line with Rom 12:1 and other similar passages.

  14. After reading the article, I was left with one question. Tony, you say that the proper response to the Gospel is repentance and faith, but surely it’s one of worship as well? I think that at times this discussion as to what goes on in chuech becomes one-dimensional, that church must be only about one thing, but there are many things going on and there is not necessarily a main thing. So when I think about the purpose of church, is it about proclaiming the truths found in the Bible? Yes! Is it about declaring the Gospel? Yes! Is it about giving thanks and praise to God for all He has done? Yes! Church is about all these things, and to say that church isn’t about worship fails to see the multi-dimensional nature of what is happening when we gather together.

    • I thought Tony spoke about worship being a response to the gospel in the article. And I’m not sure that Tony would disagree too strongly with what you say should happen when Christians meet together and the multi-dimentional nature of it. At least, that’s my take. It seems to me that the big difference between you and Tony is the name we give to these things. I think Tony defines the term worship differently to you (see article) and is saying there are a number of drawbacks to using this term to describe church, and that such a term doesn’t (helpfully) capture what meeting together as Christians is all about in the NT. Whereas, it seems that you are saying that worship is defined as “giving thanks and praise to God…” and that it’s OK to use the term worship for the purpose of church because we also give thanks and praise to God when we meet together.

      Feel free to come back at me if I have misunderstood you Stephen or Tony.

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  16. Hello Tony,
    Thanks very much for highlighting these books. In the main I agree with you. It’s entirely Biblical to have the proclamation of the Word at the very heart of the worship service.
    Still, I have a question. Methinks the statement: “church is primarily about gathering to hear God’s Word” overstates your case a little. Doesn’t this line of argument contribute to the confusion of the whole and it’s parts?

    Where does that leave people like my grandmother? She came to Australia from Holland at 70 years of age, and never learned a word of English. She came to church twice every Sunday, until the very end of her life, because she understood that her Lord was calling her to meet him, and it was her greatest joy to do just that. She read her Dutch Bible, sang from her Dutch psalter, and participated to the fullest extent, with the exception that she could not understand the preaching of the Word. At the end of the service, her Lord sent her home with his benediction benediction. Was she in some way a second-class worshiper? I don’t think so.
    And what about our daughter? She is profoundly disabled, and probably doesn’t understand a word. But comes to church whenever she can. She loves the singing, takes pleasure out of the fellowship, and also goes home under her Lord’s blessing. And if the man wants to talk, well, let him. Is she a second-class worshiper? Again, I don’t think so.
    I know, these are both exceptional situations. But doesn’t the argument hold for all of our children? I have never been able to accept the rationale for “Sunday School” being held during the worship service. Our children belong in the corporate assembly of God’s people. They are there to worship, to the extent of their capacity, their Lord and Redeemer, no less than anyone else.

    I believe that, in essence, the assembly of God’s people can indeed be characterized as worship. That worship consists of the reading and proclamation of the Word, prayer – spoken and sung, the celebration of the sacraments, the giving of Christian alms, and the exercise of fellowship between members of Christ’s body. As vital as the preaching of the Word is, I begin to worry a little when the other elements are at risk of being treated as lesser add-ons to what is really important.

    Or do I misunderstand you?

    Yours in the Lord,
    Aart Plug

  17. Dear Tony,

    Thanks for this article, I spend an enjoyable lunch break with it today; personally I am not really persuaded by those, such as yourself, who wish to remove the adjective ‘worship’ to what happens in church on the Lord’s Day though I have benefited from Peterson’s book. I prefer John Frame’s take in his Worship in Spirit and Truth in which he differentiates between worship considered both broadly (all of life) and more narrowly (Sunday services). Michael Horton is also beneficial, see my review of People and Place: a Covenant Ecclesiology here. All the best!

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