"What if we saturated our people with the sound of holy words upon our ears, and let them sink deep within us to evoke spiritual growth?"
Over the years I've come to observe the interesting relationship that exists among Evangelicals (myself among them) between worship services and God's word. Historically, commitment to believing God's word has been at the core of who we are. Yet, much like corporate prayer, the actual use of scripture in, and to help form, services seems to have taken a back seat to the dual pillars of music and preaching (even though both are still very necessary). In fact, I attended a mega-church in Atlanta where we were 45 minutes into the service before the Bible was even mentioned, let alone read from or used to form the core of the preached message.
Yet, there remains, as far as I have experienced, a fundamental appreciation of having Scripture in our services. I applaud the worship leaders who are seeking to include the "public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13). Yet, even in many cases the word is subject to the song. For example, one worship leader online was informing other leaders through a blog how to 'fit in' a verse that supports a song choice. I think that their recommendation can definitely give much more strength to the message of said song, but what if... (gasp) the song choices were actually determined by the Scriptures that were going to be publicly read? What if what was read actually dictated the selection of our music? What if songs served the Word, rather than the other way around?
It's not a new idea at all. Historic liturgy was (and is) built on the biblio-centric nature of gathered worship. It hearkens back to a deep appreciation and respect for God's word, not just because it is his, but because of what is actually happening when we read it aloud - God is speaking to us!! The story in Nehemiah 8:5-6 illustrates the deep reverence the people of God held for the public reading of God's word. A people who had been in exile for 70 years finally returned to Jerusalem, and when the Temple and walls were rebuilt, they held a tremendous re-gathering of the people!
"And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground," (ESV).
Their physical and vocal responses of worship were prompted BY the hearing of God's word! Why? For one, Scripture tells us that Scripture is 'God-breathed' (2 Tim. 3:16), and that it is "living and active" in forming Christ in us (Heb. 4:12).
Secondly, we need to remember that Spirit-led worship is not just referring to spontaneity. It is describing how the Spirit helps us respond to the Truth of God's word about Christ. It is praise welling up from within, prompted by God the Spirit, borne by God the Son, and received by God the Father! We are caught up in the dance (perichoresis) of worship that God himself initiates!
If, as we see in Exodus 24 or Revelation 4/5, worship is a holy dialogue between God and his people - of his self-revelation and our response, then that should form how we approach planning our services. What is God wanting to say to us, and what shall we say in response? The implication is that we don't have to wait for the Spirit to deliver a new prophetic word - God has already spoken, and his word is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Luke 21:33).
What is planned in our contemporary services is often much more of a program than such a holy dialogue. What if we opened up the word of God and filled our services with it, beyond just the preaching?? What if we saturated our people with the sound of holy words upon our ears, and let them sink deep within us to evoke spiritual growth? Might we dare to let God be the worship leader?
I think it's worth the risk.
Dr. Johnny Markin
Director, Worship Leader Institute
Resource recommendation: F. Russell Mitman, Worship in the Shape of Scripture (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2001).