Making God the Center of Congregational Worship

The Right Mindset

I often wonder what kind of mindset people come through the church doors with. Are they coming out of habit? Has a family been less than loving toward each other all the way to church? Has someone been cultivating private, individual worship before God throughout the week and are therefore ready to celebrate and bring glory to God through their praise? There are so many different scenarios (probably a different one for each person that enters our main auditorium). I know there have been times that I have come to lead worship and have not had proper motives (namely, I just wanted the morning to be over and done with), so I know there are many in our congregation who don’t walk through the doors ready for life and worship to be all about God. Chances are, many are struggling with life being all about themselves (and I’m sure all of us can relate). As hard as it is to hear criticisms like, “I wish we’d sing more…(you fill in the blank)”, “The songs repeat too much”, “Why don’t we sing less”, or “I don’t come to the first half of the service because the music doesn’t really prepare me for worship”, the fact of the matter is it gives great insight into a person’s focal point in worship. There are a whole lot of “I” and “we” in just those few phrases, which tells me, one of the hardest things to do in a corporate worship setting is to make God the center of attention.

God is the Center

God must be the center. If you asked the average person in my congregation who the center of attention is in our worship, hopefully they would say God. Yet, there are so many evidences that reveal He is not the center. Our preferences, our pride, our traditions, and our cultural norms so easily become the center of what we call a worship experience. It can get to the place where people actually believe that they can’t worship unless all of their proverbial planets align. God being at the center demolishes preference. He demolishes pride and rote tradition and cultural norms. This to me is the starting point for congregational worship that effectively connects with the power of the Holy Spirit and has the potential to lead to actual communion with God.

Titus Curtis
Titus has a degree in cross-cultural ministry and was on staff at Faith from 2000-2012.
  • Dustin Folden

    Amen Titus, there is a battle to focus on God when everything else can consume our thoughts. A question I need to ask about myself each Sunday is, What about God has changed? The answer is nothing. His glory is the same, His love shown at the cross is the same, He is the same, so I need to focus on his unchanging glory, and change my mind to view Him as He is and always was and will be. That leads me to minimize preferences and distractions and worship Him as the eternal one worthy of my total focus.

  • Marta

    “God being at the center demolishes preference” Some questions to ask:
    1. How does one determine what is preference and what is not according to scripture (see the Westminster Confession on the regulative principle)?
    2. Can this statement be used as an argument to establish that whatever the worship team decides is the only biblical preference to the exclusion of real concerns about the music being biblically accurate?
    3. What music best enables the congregation to worship from the heart (music assisting worship by being able to be sung with biblical words instead of ones that are superficial)?
    3. Is there truth to some of the above criticisms about repetition and the nature of the music as being truly worshipful?

    • Titus Justus Curtis

      Hey Marta,

      Thanks for posting. I’ll do my best to address your questions:

      Philosophically I would lend toward the normative principle, but that
      doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study Scripture and give proper weight to
      examples that have been given to us. Quite the contrary. When it comes
      to determining preference in a worship setting, there are so many
      different factors to consider. The important thing when it comes to
      congregational worship is that we’re cultivating an attitude of
      deference to one another. I’m sure there will always be some level of
      tension as we push and pull. But if God is as the center of the
      equation, our personal preferences will serve their intended purpose.
      If He is not at the center, we’re likely to hold our personal
      preferences in too high esteem.

      2. I suppose it could be
      construed that way, but that was not the intent of the post. Our
      leadership team strives to use elements in worship that give people an
      opportunity to meet with God. Many of these elements (including musical
      selections) are chosen by people in our congregation who are not part
      of our leadership team. In a group as diverse as ours, I’ll admit, it
      is a struggle to facilitate an atmosphere that is worshipful for
      everyone. In the 9 years that I’ve served as Pastor of worship
      ministries, I’ve not experienced any lessening in this struggle. At the
      end of the day, our team has to make a decision based on our
      understanding of worship and the needs of our congregation.

      Biblical content is always the number one priority in the songs that we
      sing. Some songs are what I call meat and potato songs. They have
      deep content, and usually a lot of content. Some songs give more space
      and time for rumination, response, and possibly have simpler (yet still
      biblical) content. Both are necessary as we seek to approach God in
      worship. There are extremes in both emotionalism and catechism and we
      have to be careful not to fall into either ditch.

      Absolutely. I’m sure that our style of worship is a distraction and
      makes it very difficult for some people to worship. We certainly don’t
      ignore comments or criticisms like the ones I mentioned, but at the same
      time, I think it’s healthy for us to have conversations and make sure
      we’re setting ourselves up to grow in grace as we defer to one another
      in a congregational setting. Trust me, the post was directed at me
      first. I need to grow in this area as much as anyone.

      In the
      end, I absolutely stand by the concept that God being at the center
      demolishes preference. I’ll leave you with this passage, which is
      really what I was driving at and probably should have mentioned in the
      original post.

      1 Cor 9:19-23
      19 For though I am free from
      all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20
      To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who
      are under [h]the Law, as under [i]the Law though not being myself under
      [j]the Law, so that I might win those who are under [k]the Law; 21 to
      those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the
      law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who
      are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the
      weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means
      save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may
      become a fellow partaker of it.

      • Jeri

        Hi Titus, I followed the link in Challies’ a la carte to your blog. I’d like to comment on this issue of music/singing in the church, because I think it’s so vitally important.

        I appreciate the thoughtfulness that you and others are trying to show in being sure we don’t make too much of our own preferences in music. I know that to do so is for the purpose of being loving and biblical, and those are great motives. But the truth is, we need to more carefully consider God’s will for our singing together. We should more closely look to Scripture and at church history; something greater than our concerns about human preferences is at stake. What is God’s preference?

        The church, from its beginning and for pretty much the next 1200 years, by and large used no musical instruments (on the rare occasions when a church brought something in there was sure to be a vehement response.) (The CoC and the Primitive Baptists have perhaps made a caricature of forbidding musical instruments, but what really matters is what is God’s mind about it.) The apostles did not instruct the use of musical instruments in the church for a reason. Hebrews tells us that the types and shadows of OT temple worship have passed away. Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians that the NT church is to sing, and that the “making of melody” (psallo, “plucking the strings”) is to be in or with our hearts and to the Lord. Our melody-making is now simple, unhindered and spiritual, not bound to a place, a building, or to musical instruments either!

        Obviously God loves the voices of his people lifted together in singing the word of Christ to each other. Christ himself sings with the congregation: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Hebrews 2:12). We are to sing the praises of God with our elder brother, Christ himself, singing with us in our midst. With what care and reverence we should approach and yes, regulate our singing!

        If we’re free to do anything we want when we gather as the church (i.e., according to the normative principle), then we can certainly have nothing to say against reintroducing the use of dance and incense, or any other non-sinful activity. To bring back elements of OT temple worship that suit us and leave out the ones that don’t is arbitrary. Thankfully, the gospel has come to set us free from all that would constrain and hamper us in our singing together in the church.

        I believe it’s simply true that when the local church sings together in such a way that its human voices are lifted together and we can hear each other singing these words to each other and with Christ, spiritual unity is helped (or at the least, it’s not harmed.) Freedom from musical instruments best serves unity in congregational singing- songs with melodies and styles that can stand on their own (i.e., that don’t need a rhythm section) will tend to be used, and those are often the more timeless, non-divisive, singable ones. Remember that “a capella” means “in the manner of the church.” The church sang without musical instruments for over a thousand years before their use began to creep back in little by little. Two great books I’ve read that shed light on different aspects of this issue are Pastor John Price’s book “Old Light For New Worship,” and “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns” by T. David Gordon.

        Thanks, Titus, for the invitation through comments to share these thoughts. I know they seem quite foreign and strange to the ear now, but we have lost quite a bit of ground since the days of reformation. I believe there’s a lot of hope for the church in this area and am interested in sharing these thoughts with those who help the church with her singing. I am a singer and musician, and was always a member of the praise team in churches I was in. I see it so very differently now, and I saw it in the Scriptures.

        Many blessings.

      • Marta

        The scripture reference is sometimes applied to what happens in the church. Paul is actually talking about evangelism outside the church, not worship in the church. What is important in worship is not offering strange fire (could be skits, special father’s and mother’s day music that has nothing to do with a focus on God) that is not commanded by the Lord but only worship as he prescribes. When it comes to worship, the church is not a bridge builder between the church and the community to be relevant. Worship is about coming before a Holy God in a way that glorifies Him.

  • Mark Frankian

    Thanks, Titus, great reminder. Reminds me of Ephesians 2 and how if it weren’t for “But God” of verse 4, I’d still be lost and without hope. He’s God and Savior, not me or another idol.