Principles of Worship Change

Volume 17, No. 1 (January 2022)

The “worship reformation” of recent years has led many churches to make changes in their worship styles and practices. That is no small matter, and the way is full of potholes and pitfalls. Therefore, how we go about it (if at all) may be more important (and say more about us) than the results.

Here are some suggested principles to help guide the process:

1. The principle of Scripture

The Bible may not give us all the details we need, but it should certainly be our starting point. It gives us the tracks to run on, and we dare not take off “cross-country” into uncharted territory, or we will most certainly end up in a train wreck.

2. The Reformation principle of semper reformanda (“always reforming”)

We should always be evaluating our worship practices in light of Scripture. That may or may not lead us to make changes in our practice of worship, but Scripture should always be the final determinant.

Along those lines, we need also to be reminded that, as R. C. Sproul has put it, the Reformers “were interested, not in innovation, but in renovation. They were reformers, not revolutionaries.” What the Reformers had in mind was not novelty, not plowing new ground; rather they stressed the need for continual mid-course corrections to bring our practice back more clearly in line with Scripture.

Let us indeed apply all the creative forces at our disposal to make our worship more interesting, exciting, inspiring—in a way which is profoundly true to Scripture.

3. The principle of purposeful change

It is so important not to undertake change simply for change’s sake. That is not a worthy goal. Any change in our worship must be motivated by a sincere desire to enhance the worship of Almighty God. As Gordon Borror and Ron Allen said in their ahead-of-its-time book Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (1982), we must be a people “more committed to God than to change.”

This is where the leadership of the church has a great responsibility to lead in a godly way. Bryan Chapell has stressed that a church’s leaders must be “sitting together and saying: ‘This is the community that God has called us to minister to. How can we best work here for the glory of God and the good of His people?’ ”

4. The principle of unity

In our age of rampant individualism and a pervasive “what’s in it for me?” mentality, there must be a deep commitment, on the part of the leadership and the congregation, to avoid pursuing a course of worship change which alienates or disenfranchises one segment of the people in the process. The point is not for one group to “win” and get what it wants; the point is for God to get what he wants. And he wants believers to love self-sacrificially and to make sublimate one’s own desires for the good of the whole. How we need that kind of Christlikeness to pervade our modern-day worship debates! It’s an issue of maturity, of a godly perspective which chooses “deference over preference.”

Worship in a congregation seething with disunity is hardly pleasing to God—in fact, it is hard to see how it can be worship at all (see Matthew 5:23-24).

5. The principle of instruction

Once the leadership has determined a course for the church to take (after much listening to the people), they should deliberately, thoughtfully and comprehensively explain the purpose behind the change(s), being especially careful to show its biblical moorings. The people must be told the why, not just the what of the anticipated change. (This assumes, of course, the kind of purposeful change described in #3 above.)

6. The principle of incrementalism

Nothing has been historically more messy than an over-enthusiastic new pastor deciding to make radical changes in a church’s worship overnight; that consistently ends in disaster for the church. A proper concern for the unity of the body will recognize the wisdom of “making haste slowly.” Gradual change gives the people time to make adjustments to new practices; going slowly honors the overriding goals of true worship and unity.

7. The principle of prevailing prayer

We cannot possibly know all the issues or foresee all the dangers in pursuing worship change. And so we need to beg God for His wisdom and guidance (Romans 8:26-27; James 1:5).

The great Reformer John Calvin himself saw the need both for purposeful change in worship, and for great care in pursuing it:

[The Master] did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages) . . . Because he has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, 10, 30)

Wise advice!

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