Author: Phillip Jensen

Evangelicalism is caught today in a great controversy about worship. Many evangelicals do not know the controversy is occurring. Consequently, many evangelicals are choosing to turn away from the evangelical faith when it comes to their worship. Our worship should reflect our theology. In fact it nearly always does reflect our theology. Unfortunately sometimes what it reflects is confusion in theology. When we say we believe in evangelical theology and yet worship in a different fashion it reflects our lack of understanding of our own theological position.

The controversies of today are not the same as the controversies of last century about high church and low church (these terms are inaccurate descriptions of the different parties and positions of previous generations). There are still the traditionalists who find evangelical worship unacceptable. But now some of the traditionalists, very sadly, are themselves evangelicals. The controversy today is with the mystics, the aesthetic irrational experientialists.

Evangelicals believe in symbolism. We did not reject Anglo-catholic ritual because we did not believe in ritual but because we did. The rejection of ritual practices was really a choice of alternative ritual. Actions that take place repeatedly in a church meeting, artwork, the choreography of the clergy, symbols of status, position and importance, and architectural design all contribute to expressing one’s theology. They do it very powerfully. That is why evangelicals protested so vigorously against the Anglo-catholic movement of the 19th century with its attempts to change the ritual of worship within the church.

Today the traditionalists in the evangelical world wish to continue with the symbols of a previous century. Within this previous century they were a clear expression of evangelical theology. Within our century the symbols were an expression of antiquarian anachronism at best and non evangelical theology at worst. Thus, for example, in the 16th century the bread and wine were to be eaten by the priest at the end of the Lord’s Supper in order to demonstrate that there was nothing special in the elements and to prevent people from carrying the elements around for worship, reservation, or later idolatry. However, by the 20th century the priestly eating of the bread and wine at the end of the Lord’s Supper gave the distinct symbolic impression not of their unimportance but of their enormous importance. Nothing else could be seen to be treated with such significance that it had to be consumed there and then in the building. The normal methods of getting rid of unwanted and surplus food at a meal was considered to be unholy when it came to something as important as the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Thus yesterday’s symbol of evangelical theology becomes today’s symbol of non evangelical theology. Likewise, the wearing of a surplice, the long white gown, was a symbol in the 16th century of not being significantly different to the layman. By the latter part of the 20th century only clergymen were left wearing the surplice as most robed choirs have moved away from such a cumbersome and inconvenient garment. Thus by the late 20th century it becomes a symbol of being a clergyman and when moves were made to remove it the traditionalists insist that it can be removed for lesser services like morning and evening prayer but must be retained for the Lord’s Supper. Thus the traditionalists, even though they are evangelical, are turning the symbol of no distinction between layman and clergyman into the symbol of priestly sacramentalism!

Symbols are powerful communicators of one’s theological understanding. They are inevitable in the context of meetings and buildings especially when a group continues to use the same meeting place and format. Thus it is important for evangelicals to safeguard the character of their church gatherings so that the gospel is truly presented symbolically by the way in which they meet.

Evangelical Worship is total commitment. The idea of worship as every teenager in church has ever been taught, is to give God his worth. God can never be worth less than all we have got to give. What God requires of us is a broken and contrite spirit. He calls upon us to repent. The person He esteems is the one who does not worship by his own method but who listens and trembles at His word. It is those who do the word of God who worship God truthfully and spiritually. Thus our spiritual worship is to present our whole lives to God, for it is as living sacrifices that we respond to the graciousness of God found in the gospel. Thus we are to lead lives that are worthy of the Lord, even seeking to find out what will please Him.

While there are many passages of Scripture that teach the ideas in the preceding paragraph, Isaiah 66 is one passage that we need to pay careful attention to. In this chapter Israel is condemned for worshipping God in ways that seem to be consistent with the law. But for God they are totally unacceptable. For what God requires is for people to hear and obey His word. This is true evangelical worship. To rightly respond to the gospel is evangelical worship.

Thus the nexus between church and worship is not made in the Scriptures but in the history of Christianity. We worship God in all of life, not specifically in church. Because church is part of all of life, worship is also part of church activity. Indeed the whole of our church activity should be worshipful. But it is no more worshipful than the way we drive to church, or clean our teeth before we come to church, or take our grandmother to lunch after church. Worship is the way in which we live in obedience to the word of God. When we come together in church we gather to hear His word, to encourage each other to love and good works, to sing His praises, to pray to Him and acknowledge our faith in His name with His people. All these are good, right, proper  and true activities of Christian congregational life. However, that is not what the Bible means by worship, for worship is the broken and contrite heart that obeys God in every aspect of life. Thus it is misleading to welcome people to church by welcoming them to our ‘worship service this morning’. Or to persuade people that they need to go to church because they need to worship God.

But what are the alternatives? Whenever evangelical worship is put forward people always ask: ‘but what of … ?’ Sometimes it is: ‘what about the beauty of holiness?’, by which they mean the holiness of beauty. Frequently there is the appeal to art, music, dance, silence, drama and the songs of the book of Revelation. The variety of activities within congregational life can be enormous. But the purpose must be that of edification. The purpose is not to put us in touch with the divine. It is the gospel word that puts us in touch with the divine. The reading of Scripture is our touch with God for it is God reaching us. If drama, music or art are going to be helpful in building us in our Christian life then by all means let us be musical, dramatic and artful! However most of these activities are not in fellowship particularly edifying. To gather together in order to sit in silence is not a particularly edifying sense of fellowship. It may have a moment of helpfulness in order to get us ready to listen to what the word of God has to say or to spend some time thinking about it before we should speak to each other, but we can sit at home alone in silence just as satisfactorily and it is very hard to love and stir each other up to good works by being silent.

Yet the reason these things are argued for is not that of edification and fellowship, but of worship. People think that God meets them in the great silence. They desire to have art and beauty, music and dance because they confuse their aesthetic perceptions and sensitivities with godliness. The middle term of the confusion is that of spirituality. Platonic spirituality is to put you in touch with the immaterial. Christian spirituality is to put you in touch with obedience to God’s word. Art, music, silence, pageantry, crowds, etc put you in touch with Platonic spirituality not necessarily godliness.

Alternative worship forms reflect alternative theologies. Liberal theology leads to church meetings based on discussion, debate and argument. Their primary concern will be that of the trendy moral issues of the culture and age in which they live. Their activities of worship  will be those of social action such as involvement in politics, public debate, writing articles and books.

Institutional religion will be expressed in a worship of ordered, authoritarian rituals that give full place to pomp, prestige, place and priestcraft. Royal weddings are great examples of godless authoritarian religion, the kind of show that millions can watch in awe on television boxes all over the world. It can make people feel that religion is very wonderful. All the while it is legitimising adultery.

But it is the mystic religions that are really causing evangelicals confusion today. It is the creating of worshipful experiences. The appointment of worship leaders who are people gifted in making the congregation aware of the presence of God amongst them. It is the use of colour and light, of sound and moods, of dance and silence, to sensitise people to the reality of the immaterial. Within evangelical circles all these activities can be baptised by gospel jargon. People will find going to such church services uplifting, exhilarating, awe-inspiring, powerful, loving and exciting. But they do not reflect the evangelical theology of gathering together to hear the word of God!


Draw up a Youth Fellowship programme for next Sunday evening which will be a workshop on worship.

A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.

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One response to “Ministry Training Paper: Evangelical Worship

  1. I’m writing a book; working title, ‘UNTANGLING Christian Worship and Christian Church’.
    It’s grounded in my Uni of Cambridge thesis: a comprehensive academic study of the ‘worship’ vocabulary of the New Testament. The book notes the current semantic and vocabulary confusions, and gives a brief history of the current very widespread tangling of ‘church’ and ‘worship’.
    My conclusions are substantially aligned with the material above by Phillip.

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