Worship: Function, Elements, and Forms
David W. Hegg
Many of the challenges churches face in the so-called “worship wars” stem from a failure to recognize the difference between the forms and elements used in worship, and the function worship demands. Let’s take a look at these three crucial issues as they pertain to the New Testament church.
The function of worship is engagement with God. That is, the engagement of the believer with his God that produces humility, praise, conviction, confession, learning, joy, and a host of other responses that coalesce into a life of obedience, which is the greatest display of worship.
Technically, worship is not confined to the corporate gathering of the church. In reality, worship is the minute-by-minute breath of every Christ-follower. As we “inhale” the reality of God’s truth, displayed in creation and Scripture, we “exhale” praise and obedience. This is the engagement with our God that we all worship.
This function is defined and demanded in Scripture, as seen in John 4:24:
John 4:24: God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
This paper is too short to be a full-blown theology of worship, but one example may prove beneficial. In Genesis 4 Adam’s two sons demonstrate their worship through offerings. A careful reading of the text shows God having regard first for the man, and then the offering, as seen in Genesis 4:4,5:
Genesis 4:4,5: And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
It was the condition and attitude of the heart that made the offering an acceptable element of engagement with God. This is of primary importance. No element, and certainly no form provides an acceptable opportunity for engagement with God apart from a heart of love and devotion to God
The function of worship can be facilitated through the use of different elements including, prayer, meditation, preaching, singing, service, generosity, and many more. Each of these can make use of numerous forms.
These elements are variously described in Scripture. For example, in Acts 2:42 we see the elements of biblical teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer:
Acts 2.42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Colossians 3:16 speaks to the use of music as an element through which worship can be facilitated:
Col. 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
There are many other elements that God has given to us as Christ-followers to facilitate our engagement with him. And, as we will see, each can be used in different forms.
While the function of worship, and the elements used in worship are presented in Scripture, the forms these elements may take are not defined. Yet, most of the controversy in churches today stems around an emotional attachment to a certain form.
Perhaps the greatest problem in this area of forms is found when we discuss music in the church. In every church there are those who have a preference and an emotional attachment to a certain musical form, be it music using only piano, or piano and organ, or an orchestra, or guitars and a rhythm section. Some churches even choose a form where instruments are forbidden, or where only Psalms are used.
All of this misses the point that, while the function and elements are prescribed and somewhat defined in Scripture, the forms these elements may take are left to the wisdom of those leading the church. Historically, the church has changed the forms as necessary to make the undiluted message of Scripture more accessible to the people of its day.
Conclusion: When we become primarily focused on certain forms the various elements of worship may take, we will necessarily veer away from what must be our primary concern: the function of engagement with God that is worship.
Too often we allow our preferences for form to side-track us. We become champions of form rather than function.
Historically, the church has never dealt well when the forms of musical worship were changed. Early on, when congregational singing overtook professional choirs, there was a cry that worship had become too common. When the organ was replaced in many places by a piano, again those dedicated to the form of organ music were sure the church would never recover. I could put forward many more examples, but the one most of us know about is the transition from what has been known as “traditional” to what is labeled “contemporary.”
This transition has, primarily, been about form although there are good arguments for saying too much of the “contemporary” music is devoid of theological correctness and insight. Then again, much of it has been used by God in the lives of people every bit as much as the hymns were used by him in their heyday.
What is needed is a recommitment to the function of engagement with God as it can happen in a corporate setting involving a multi-generational congregation. This will mean:
• All must recognize God uses various forms of musical elements in worship. Just because an old hymn was a form God used in your life doesn’t mandate that it is the form God must use in the lives of the succeeding generations.
• All must love their brothers and sisters in Christ so much that they are joyful when they engage with God, even if it is through the use of musical forms they themselves may not appreciate.
What is all comes down to is a sense of self-denial for the purpose of preserving the unity of the Body in worship. I can do no better than to end with Jesus’ words to us all:
Luke 9.23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
And if you’re wondering what Jesus would sing, and enjoy musically if he came to one of our corporate worship times, it is certainly best to understand he would primarily be looking at our hearts, and not the instrumentation.