One of the most influential books that I’ve read in my 20-plus years of worship ministry is Ancient Future Worship by Robert Weber. You might recognize that name. Robert Weber was a real catalyst in the worship renewal movement of the late ’90s, and there is a worship institute in Florida that bears his name. In his book, he looks at the ancient practices of worship documented in Scripture and church history and makes practical applications. But what captured me in this book was his vision of what it takes to make disciples of Jesus Christ in a worship service. This is a very important point to raise. We know from the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that the Great Commission is to “go and make disciples.” But how does our worship service obey that command? How does the planning of our worship services fulfill the mission of Jesus in the lives of our people?
Before we answer that question, we have to answer “What is worship?” To borrow from Robert Weber, “worship does God’s story.” This isn’t anything new. When you look at the Old Testament, the public practice of worship consisted of retelling God’s story of redemption. Passover is a great example of this. The Passover celebration tells of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and they tell God’s story by sacrificing a lamb. Set to music, the Psalms tell of what God has done and ask him to continue in His faithfulness. The New Testament exhorts us to the same under the New Covenant. Paul tells the church at Ephesus that they are to be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). We are to remind one another of God’s faithfulness to His people through worship—including songs of worship.
So how is the disciple made in the context of a local church? I’m going to suggest that according to the Bible, the local corporate gathering of believers is the primary vehicle by which men and women become committed followers of Jesus Christ. The worship service should shape our understanding of God and our ability to worship Him in the way He has revealed to us in Scripture.
There is no song that could be penned that could encapsulate all of who God is or all that He has done. Most songs only reflect on one, maybe two, of God’s attributes. So if you are designing your worship services around one theme (say, God’s role as our Heavenly Father), you’re only telling part of the story of God. And if you keep retelling only one part of God’s redemptive story, the rest of the story will be lost. When we plan worship services, we need to tell the whole story of God, Sunday after Sunday, to make disciples who know God and what He has done.
In the worship ministry at my church, we ensure that we tell all of God’s story by anchoring our worship service on five key components: creation, fall, redemption, ascension, and the return and final consummation of God’s Kingdom. This structure helps us to choose songs that help us retell and “do God’s story.”
The Creator God made all things. This is the foundational point of God’s redemptive story. It’s how our Christian creeds open. It’s how the Bible begins. So when we design our worship services, we should use songs and texts that talk about God being Creator and Lord overall. If this is the first song of your Sunday morning service, you connect the general revelation that your congregation has been exposed to all week to the fact that the God we worship is the one who made the beautiful sunset from their commute home on Wednesday or the snowfall on Saturday afternoon.
Songs We Sing:
“Holy, Holy, Holy”
“All Creatures of Our God and King”
“Lion and the Lamb”
“This Is Amazing Grace”
This gives us the opportunity to take a hard look at our spiritual condition. It doesn’t matter if we think we’ve had a really great week spiritually or a really bad week. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. And so at our church, we read Scripture that reflects our depravity, weakness, and inability to save ourselves. And we respond to that need by allowing time in our worship service to confess our sins in prayer. This is also an opportunity for us to say explicitly that we are all in this together. You as a worship leader are in need of a Savior as much as your brother or sister. As worship leaders, we are able to intercede together with our congregation for forgiveness and cleansing.
Songs We Sing:
“How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”
“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
“The Lord Is My Salvation”
The natural focus is then on the redemption secured in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We sing songs that are centered around the cross and Christ’s work for us. We celebrate His resurrection. We’ll celebrate His triumph over sin and death. And we celebrate His accomplishment of our redemption. This is a moment when we get to point people to the assurance of salvation that they have in Christ Jesus.
This is the time of the service where we bring comfort to our congregation and pray for us to be renewed in our vision of the cross.
Songs We Sing:
“O Praise the Name”
“The Power of the Cross”
“Worthy Is the Lamb”
“Jesus Paid It All”
Ascension and Return
Then we sing songs about Jesus reigning over all things. Despite the chaos in our world and in our country, Jesus reigns over it all, and He has ascended to the right hand of God. This is such an important part of God’s story for us, because in Revelation 1, it says that He has made us to be a kingdom of priests. And so we are on mission to make disciples of Jesus and to call others to repentance and to serve one another in a priestly way, to bring us into more obedience of Christ. And then we talk about the final consummation of all things: that Jesus is coming again, and He’s going to set everything right. He’s going to finish the story.
Songs We Sing:
“Christ Is Risen”
“Crown Him with Many Crowns”
“Build My Life”
As we are churches centered on Jesus Christ and His Word, we need to produce worship services that habitually retell the gospel of God. My conscience needs to be reminded of the ever-sufficient, total gospel that saves, sanctifies, heals, and will ultimately bring us to see the Lord face to face. We are saved in the gospel, we are nurtured at the foot of the cross, and our faith is strengthened as we look to the reigning King Jesus. Our congregations need our worship services to show them the full story of God as they are led into worship of our great God. The sermon, the Lord’s Table, and baptism then all naturally flow out of the retelling of the gospel in the experience of the worshiper. We will make disciples who know (and sing!) the whole story.
Dr. Benjamin Harding is the dean of the School of Music at the University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.