Stott on Worship and Then Some

“The worship which is pleasing to God is offered by his people together, who have assembled in order to do so. Our Reformers understood the implications of this principle, namely that everybody should participate. Whereas the medieval mass was celebrated by the priest at the high altar, and the lay people were spectators, the Reformers deliberately brought the action down from the chancel to the nave and ensured that the lay people were not merely spectators but participants” (John Stott, The Living Church, IVP: 2007, p38).

How might this inform our modern Protestant worship gatherings? We may not celebrate mass, but are we guilty of locating worship in the chancel (i.e. on the stage) all the same? Can we truly call our gatherings participatory, or are we merely spectators of a different kind?

In my humble experience, excessively accompanied praise bands/teams tend to drown out congregational singing. My attention is drawn to the “worship” of those on stage rather than the voices of my brothers and sisters. I’m all for a variety of instrumentation (something for which we’re praying at our church!), but keep it simple. Make sure the instruments supplement, not dominate, congregational singing. They should help the church sing better, not make the songs sound louder.

In my humble experience, busy services tend to locate worship on stage more than in the Spirit. I know there’s pressure to accommodate our services to our short-attention spans. Keep it movin’, or you’ll lose ’em. I wonder if doing so makes worship about the zippy pace on stage rather than the Spirit’s pace in the heart.

In my humble experience, excessively-used screens encourage worship “watching” rather than participating. I’m all for a screen (something for which we’re hoping at our church!). It helps people sing robustly with their heads up. But when everything is on it we become lazy spectators. We’re not obliged to flip our own Bible pages or help our neighbor find Haggai. We just simply look “up there” and voila, there it is. No participation or personal responsibility.

In my humble experience, the above with their various sister elements detract from the preaching. In preaching we are commanded to engage our hearts and souls in the exposition of Scripture. It is the “foolish” focal point of the church’s gathering. Paul loved songs, hymns and spiritual songs in their proper place, but when he entered town he didn’t organize a cantata or direct a skit. He preached. We must discipline our minds to enter into the hearing of God’s word, which God has ordained for that moment to benefit our growth in godliness.

If typically everything else in “worship” is done for me “up there,” then I’m less inclined to participate in the sermon. Instead, the preacher has a few minutes to serve up something easy or else I’m gone to Carolina in my mind. Keep it snappy or I take a nappy (okay, that’s corny).

How steeped are we in (to use Stott’s language) chancel-centric worship? Just imagine what your congregation would do if your song leader didn’t lead from the stage. Would they know what to do? Would they sing with less enthusiasm? Do they expect to be performed to or share in what God has performed in Christ?

We’ve done a few things in our congregational worship to encourage participation rather than spectating. Perhaps they’d spark your own ideas.

1. Our songs are led from the floor, off to the side near the pianist. He’s more heard than seen, and our congregation has learned that we are the choir. Our attention is drawn away from the stage to focus on lyrics before us and voices around us. Our congregational singing has drastically improved.

2. We e-mail our order of worship to the church by Friday afternoon. Not everyone reads it, but hopefully more and more will. This gives the whole church time to contemplate the songs, Scripture readings, sermon text, etc. When we gather we’re less dependent on a stagehand to tell us what to do next. Rather, we’re already prepared and can help each other through the service.

3. We keep our services intentionally simple. There’s just no busyness with people up, down and around. Perhaps we’re regulative principle-with-a-small-r folks. Prayer, reading, singing, preaching, (monthly) communion. One, we don’t have a wide array of artsy folks to do much else. Two, we don’t want our worship to be swallowed up by the service. While some may equate simplicity with boring, we could not disagree more strongly.

4. We encourage children to sit in congregational worship as early and as much as possible. There’s nothing like children to keep the gathering participatory. They’ve not yet learned the fine art of our pious formality. We should help them sing the church’s songs, listen for certain words and train their minds towards the preaching text (all of which we know because we’ve gotten the order ahead of time!).

I doubt any of this may be relevant to you. But maybe there are a few boring folks out there who may empathize.

4 thoughts on “Stott on Worship and Then Some

  1. You are singing from the same sheet of music my Brother! I have been saying this for years. In fact, I wrote about this two years ago when it suddenly struck me at a church service I was attending that I was reading lyrics I knew deep in my heart without need to read them… I suddenly realized that while I was turning the pages to my Bible everyone else, including the Pastor of this mega-church were looking up… and reading. The Pastor had this hip-trendy-cool powerpoint with interactive screen pointers and magical filler-outers that faded into the blank space conveniently and efficiently. For some reason, it broke my heart. People are coming for a concert and an experience rather than to experience Jesus Christ in repentance and forgiveness and grace. If the band is off that day, so too is our “connection with ‘the experience.” That is problematic. It was on that day I vowed that whenever and wherever I preached from that day forward that I would do so without fancy notes, magical appearing words to fill in the blank to my hip-trendy-cool powerpoint. I would study hard. Pray harder. Preach deeper with full faith in God that when in the churches I preach revivals and conferences (churches of varying sizes but most with elaborate sound systems, interactive powerpoints, and several big screens projecting the scriptures, words to praise songs, and sermon notes on the screens “weak too “weak.”) The attendee’s of my revivals would be accustomed to fancy and hip, and that is what the Pastors of these churches would request of me. I would tell them succinctly when they asked for my powerpoint by Wednesday before the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that I was to preach: “Here’s the deal sport – say that in a Jack Nicholson voice-
    I don’t have any slick presentation, but what I do have is the Gospel about/of Jesus – the Wonderful Child, so lowly meek and mild bringing new life, new joy and hope to a sinful generation. I have the Word of God, 66 Books of pure awe every page bearing the image of Christ – the Man upon whom I place ALL my trust and faith – Who died on the Cross for a smelly sinner like me…He is ALIVE! I will be well practiced, well-prayed, and well-intent upon trusting the Spirit of the Living God to imbue me with His power not for my glory but for His. WE need Him. HE does not have any need of us.”
    “What praise songs would I like?” I say, “Does you pianist know Amazing Grace – can they add some blues sound to it? I will sing the first verse for the audience in case they are unfamiliar with the tune…”
    Pastor Barry, I said this before, I will say it again: You should be teaching prospective pastors the art of involving God in their ministry – it is clear you get it. I love you dearly and I, in the echo of your dear sweet Mother, am so proud of you.

  2. Barry,

    Great thoughts. I’m boring too.

    We’re so often tempted to forego the beautiful simplicity of God-ordained worship. There is a constant pull to turn the service into a “production” which then undermines true worship.

    Our small group just came through Jay Adams’ “Be Careful How You Listen” book, encouraging the congregation to be actively involved in the preaching of God’s word. It’s a great book and has encouraged us to be both listening and praying for God’s word to change us, the hearers. There are a couple parts I disagreed with (namely his view of young children as “distractions” in worship), but overall it was helpful.


  3. SMG,

    Man, warn me before you launch into a tear-jerking rampage. Thank you, brother, as always.

  4. Jeremiah, my fellow brother in boredom:

    Thanks for your kind patronage. I haven’t read your aforementioned Adams book, but will put it on my list. I’m not sure children are any more a distraction in worship than a guy falling out of window and dying (Acts 20.7-12), snoring deacons or yappy teenagers!


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