Worship is a Verb: Eight Principles for Transforming Worship (Revised)

(Paperback - Sep 1995)
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Worship. It isn't an entertaining showcase for a talented soprano or a lecture on textual criticism or a pleasant weekly reunion of friends and family. Instead, true worship is a joyous celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And as we actively turn our hearts toward God in earnest praise of God's great works, God in turn speaks to us and blesses us with a healing and renewing touch.

In this life-changing and dynamic book, Robert Webber declares that worship is not "something done to us or for us, but by us." It is the most exhaustive demonstration of our faith and the most intimate form of relationship we can have with our Savior. Complete with a guide for group of personal study, "Worship Is a Verb" will show you how to leave the dull confines of the pew and enter the courts of the Living God.


  • SKU: 9781565632424
  • SKU10: 1565632427
  • Title: Worship is a Verb: Eight Principles for Transforming Worship
  • Qty Remaining Online: 1
  • Publisher: Hendrickson Publishers
  • Date Published: Sep 1995
  • Edition: #2
  • Edition Description: Revised
  • Pages: 240
  • Age Range: 18 - UP
  • Grade Level: College Freshman thru Up
  • Weight lbs: 0.85
  • Dimensions: 8.90" L x 5.90" W x 0.70" H
  • Features: Price on Product
  • Themes: Theometrics | Evangelical;
  • Category: CHURCH LIFE
  • Subject: Institutions & Organizations

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Winds of Change

Vic Gordon and I were sitting in a booth at the brightly lighted Wheaton Restaurant, a favorite haunt of faculty and students of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Vic smiled as he ordered his breakfast. And so he should. After all, he was only thirty-one years old and had just been appointed chaplain of the college.

He leaned toward me, and with an eager sense of anticipation in his eyes, he said, "Bob, we've got to do some worship in chapel. I mean something different than the ordinary hymn, prayer, sermon, and prayer sequence." He was talking to the right person because that's exactly how I feel about college chapel and the Sunday morning service of the average church-both are too much like another classroom monologue. He continued, "I want you to take two chapels this fall. Speak on worship in the first service and lead us in worship in the second one."

When the day came for me to speak in chapel, I began by emphasizing the need to rediscover the focus of worship. "The focus of worship," I said, "is not human experience, not a lecture, not entertainment, but Jesus Christ-his life, death, and resurrection."

Several students in the back shouted, "Amen," which is almost unprecedented at Wheaton. I stopped my sermon and spoke directly to the "Ameners." "I like it when you respond," I said. "One of the problems of evangelical worship is the passive nature of the congregation. We just sit and never do anything except sing a hymn or two and put money in the plate." To this statement a whole slew of "Amens" resounded. The rest of my short talk was punctuated by interactive remarks which made me realize that more students than I would have guessed felt the need to break through passive worship and become more active and involved.

What happened in chapel that day exemplifies what is happening in the larger evangelical community. Such an occurrence suggests to me that we may well be part of an exciting change-a change from passive worship to active worship. I hope this book helps this transition along and provides a guide that will lead a congregation into an active and more fulfilling worship. In other words, WORSHIP IS A VERB. It is not something done to us or for us, but by us.

In order for worship to become a verb, I am not suggesting that we deny either our convictions or roots. Rather, I am suggesting that we consider restoring some essentially evangelical practices in worship which, when regained, will restore an active quality to our worship. In no way am I suggesting the use of faddish, innovative gimmicks. Rather, it seems to me that active worship can and will be restored as the Holy Spirit opens before us certain biblical and early church insights and practices.

It was about ten to fifteen years ago that I first became aware of my need for a deeper worship experience. I was no longer satisfied to sit passively in the Sunday morning service. I wanted to be more involved, to be more than a mere observer, to do something more than watch and listen. I felt the need to participate-to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and move as I worshiped the Lord.

This growing feeling of inner dissatisfaction caused me to reflect on my feelings. And, after some pondering, I was able to identify four things that were disturbing me about so many of our worship services.

First, I began to see that much of our worship is dominated by the pastor. From early childhood, I have been accustomed to the pastor doing everything. But in the past few years, I've noticed that I have become particularly sensitive to pastor-dominated worship services. Whenever I worship or speak at a church where the pastor is the focal point, I feel dominated and stifled. I find myself longing to participate, to be involved. I want to respond to what's going on, to say "Amen" or "Thanks be to God" or give witness to my faith or pray. But in churches where the pastor-figure is central, any response is often looked at as odd or inappropriate. In this situation my stomach actually feels tied up in knots, my muscles tense, and my whole body feels trapped, even caged in. My spirit and thus my worship is affected. I feel as though I'm not worshiping; I'm not actively participating. Rather, the pastor is doing everything for me. I'm simply a receiver, a passive recipient of the actions of one other person.

Second, I began to feel that the congregation was little more than an audience. It is true we live in an "audience society." We sit passively and are entertained by television or radio or stereo. As spectators, we listen and watch, but we seldom participate actively.

This same mood is often carried over into our church services. We simply transfer what we do at home in front of the television set to what we do in church and let the pastor become our entertainer.

In my conversations with pastors I've found a growing awareness of this problem. Pastor Loren McLean of Geneva Road Baptist Church in Wheaton said, "I feel like I'm producing a program for people to come and watch." Layman Jim Young, director of theatre at Wheaton College, expressed the frustration many pastors must feel when he said, "You've got to wow the audience." This lays a grave burden on the pastor to perform rather than lead the congregation in worship.

I think there is another problem related to an audience mentality. It seems that many of our services shift from true worship to what Henry Jauhiainen, pastor of the Crystal Valley Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois, refers to as "serving up the secrets of the good life." With all the complexities of our world today, the temptation to turn worship into a giant psychiatric couch or pep rally for human potential is great. I agree with Pastor Jauhiainen when he says, "I don't know of anything that could hinder proper corporate worship more than that." Christian pep rallies and success services may fulfill the needs of some, but a congregation that wants to be led in worship is not an audience to be entertained by persuasive speeches or show business gimmicks.

Third, I began to sense that "free worship" is not necessarily free. I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of "free worship." Originally, it was a reaction against cold, dead, and fixed liturgical forms. The intention of its proponents was to introduce congregational participation and involvement into the church and create an atmosphere that was conducive to an inner and spontaneous response to God in worship. But I feel that somehow the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. In many of our churches, what was once free has now become a fixed form with little life and spontaneity.

I agree with Peter Robb, an active layman and former worship director in the Open Door Fellowship Church of Phoenix. He says, "There is a myth that if [worship] is spontaneous, it is more holy than if it were planned." I've worshiped in Plymouth Brethren churches where the people wait on the Spirit of God to lead their worship. In these churches I have always found more planning (in the sense of an order of worship that tells a story) than I have in the average evangelical church. They seem to follow the sequence of Preparation, comments on the Word, celebration of the Communion Table, and Dismissal in a very thoughtful way. In the worship of Plymouth Brethren churches I'm carried into the presence of God. I hear him speak, I respond to him, I commune with him at his Table, and I'm sent forth.

In some evangelical churches, there is little sense of a deliberately planned sequence. I sometimes get the feeling that hymns, prayers, Scripture, and testimony are simply thrown together without much thought about anything other than the need to have something to do to get to the main reason for being in church-the sermon. The service might start with a dismissal hymn like "Onward Christian Soldiers" and end with a preparation hymn like "Holy, Holy, Holy." Prayer, which should be a response to God's Word, will often come before the reading of the Scripture. It's surprising to note how often services include very little Scripture.

I also think lack of planning contributes to the dull and sterile sense of sameness that characterizes so many of our services Sunday after Sunday. Many evangelical churches do virtually the same thing in Advent that they do in Lent or during Epiphany or in the Easter season. So, there is little variety, other than that provided by the changing secular calendar, not only in the week-to-week Sunday service, but also throughout the church year.

I believe that this almost hypnotic sameness and dedication to a particular brand of "free form" worship is robbing us of a richness in worship that is desperately needed. As I reflected on my needs, I realized that I desired an order of worship through which God is working to communicate his message of saving grace. I need to experience and participate personally in the biblical events as God reaches down to me and in worship brings me the benefit of what he did for me through his Son on the cross. Then, I am quickened spiritually and made alive through worship.

Fourth, for me, the mystery was gone. I can remember times in my life when I've experienced the mystery-the awe and reverence-of the woods, or of the desert, or of a snowcapped mountain far above the timber line, a sense of the creation "telling the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1). But, unfortunately, we so seldom experience awe and reverence in our churches. All too often the atmosphere seems to work against reverence. Our churches are characterized by a feeling of overfamiliarity, an inappropriateness in the approach to God. The sense of transcendence and the otherness and holiness of God seems to be missing. A kind of secularization has taken place.

One very obvious form of secularization may be found in most evangelical church calendars. We are organized around the academic calendar, the seasonal calendar, the national calendar, and the secular calendar of special days. We celebrate Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and the like. But when it comes to the sacred seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, we have reduced our celebrations to Christmas Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. We don't seem to have that sense of spiritual time-a sense of the mystery of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, unfolding in time throughout the year. However, I'm beginning to sense a change. More and more pastors feel what Neil Garrabrant, pastor of the Countryside Chapel in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, expressed to me: "One weakness I've sensed in my approach to worship is that I have given very little consideration to the church year." Personally, in both corporate and personal worship, I have found the church year to be a guide to my spiritual life.

Another way in which secularization has permeated the church is in our music. Many of our contemporary popular songs are not directed to God, nor do they glory in the cross of Christ. Rather, they concentrate on personal experience and self-realization. They participate in the narcissism of our culture, in what writer Tom Wolf has called the "megeneration." Our religion has followed the curvature of a self-centered culture.

Dan Sharp, the music and worship minister at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, feels that much contemporary Christian music feeds into this self-centered mentality. "In music," he says, "anything that is cutesy, where you notice the cleverness of the music more than the message that is being communicated, is inappropriate."

The mystery also seems to be gone from the Communion Table. Many of my students express bewilderment about the bread and wine. What does it mean? What is supposed to happen? How I am to feel? All these questions unveil a failure to grasp the transcendent nature of this sign.

In fact, we pay little attention to how God communicates to us through signs and symbols that reach down into the very depths of our being and touch us where words cannot go. As we have worshiped at the altar of "realism," we have reduced human persons to a thing-a mind-and have neglected the power of our God-given imaginations and the role of the senses as vehicles through which God can communicate to us and we with him.


As I wrestled with the four concerns we've just looked at, there were times when I thought I couldn't make it through another service. However, even while I was reacting negatively, new insights and a fresh approach to worship were beginning to take shape in my thinking.

First, I began to see that the primary work of the church is worship. I grew up on the fundamentalist side of the evangelical tradition. For as long as I can remember, it was impressed upon me that the most important part of being a Christian was being a witness. For example, as a nine-year-old boy, I attended Camp Shadowbrook in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, which was sponsored by Percy Crawford. There I became so inspired by my calling to be a soul winner that, after camp, I went home and for a week or two I spent every day going door-to-door witnessing. Later, as a college student, I was told again that my single calling in life was to be soul winner. It was all right if we Christians were called to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers, as long as we were soul winners first.

Evangelism is an exceedingly important work of the church as are teaching, fellowship, servanthood, missions, and the healing of broken lives. But it is worship, I gradually discovered, that really stands behind all these activities. The church is first a worshiping community. Evangelism and other functions of ministry flow from the worship of the church.

I found general agreement with this insight among those pastors and lay people I interviewed for this book. Layman Peter Robb said, "Worship should be the central activity of the church." Pastor Loren McLean feels that "the worship service is the key barometer of where the church is." David Mains, pastor of the Chapel of the Air in Wheaton and former pastor of Circle Church in Chicago, said, "There is an overwhelming hunger for God. The current concern for worship derives from that deeper sense of hunger." And Dan Sharp said, "I want people to leave the Sunday service with a conscious awareness of God." Indeed, I have discovered in my own life that corporate worship is the taproot of my life. It is the source of my spiritual life and growth.

Second, I rediscovered that worship is a source for spiritual renewal. In my background I always saw worship in terms of evangelism or education. The sermon was, in my mind, the central thing. That's why I went to church. But the sermon's effect on me depended on its intent. Sometimes the sermon would be geared toward the unsaved. On those occasions I felt it was meant for somebody else, and not for me. On other occasions the sermons were educational in content. I felt like I was back in school, being lectured to again.

More recently, however, I have discovered a whole new dimension in worship. I have experienced what I call "worship from above." In worship God is speaking and acting, bringing to me the benefits of redemption. Through worship, God works on my behalf. He repairs and renews my relationship with him. Just as he has always sought people out to bring them to himself, so he now seeks me out in worship to bring healing into my life.

Consequently, worship for me is no longer something I do because of social or peer pressure. It's not a requirement that I endure for legalistic reasons, or a painful process in which my sensitivities are offended. Rather, worship is an experience I long to have, a necessary part of my spiritual diet, a central source of my spiritual formation.

I have come to see that, in reality, worship is a celebration. It is the celebration of the event of Christ-his death and resurrection. To celebrate Christ, not my devotion to him, frees me from having to create or invent my worship. Both preaching and the Lord's Supper celebrated Christ and through them Christ is given to me. Consequently, I am spiritually nourished by what God is doing for me through the Scriptures and the Communion Table.

Third, worship became an active experience for me. When I began to experience God at work in worship, speaking to me and moving toward me through the symbols and the preaching, I broke through the passivity I had previously known and responded to.

I learned that the God who spoke, speaks. He who spoke in times past through the prophets and apostles was now speaking to me through them. Scripture reading in worship is no mere recital of past events. Rather, it is part of the immediate experience of God bringing the power and effect of that passage into my present experience and applying it to my life.

Scripture that is imbued with this kind of power cannot be passively received. It deserves a response, a hearty "Thanks be to God," a statement of faith affirmation, a sharing of its power in my life.



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