As pastors and music directors, we have the responsibility of planning and leading the congregational worship services in our churches. Does it matter how those services are ordered? Some church leaders favor spontaneity and freedom in their worship. If someone has a testimony or favorite hymn they’d like to offer at the spur of the moment, then they should be permitted to do so. On the other extreme are those who favor highly prescribed liturgy that never alters from service to service. Which view is right? What does the Bible say?
The New Testament passage that most applies to this question is 1 Corinthians 14.26-40. In context, this passage deals most specifically with tongues and prophesy and how they should be used in corporate gatherings of the Church. Clearly, then, two of the primary issues discussed in this passage do not apply to us today. However, two more elements under consideration in this passage have direct application to our service planning, and they represent other similar elements in congregational worship. These are “hymns” and “lessons.”
Evidently at this time the Corinthian Church favored a kind of free, spontaneous worship where any individual could offer a favorite hymn, a lesson, a prophesy, or a message in tongues. Most of the instructions in this passage provide guidelines for tongues and prophesy, but the general principles here help us determine how we should order our congregational worship. Paul lists four general principles that apply to our service planning today, and these principles are summarized by his statement at the end of verse 40: “All things should be done decently and in order.” Paul argues that a corporate gathering of the Church should be orderly – worship services should be deliberately planned. This orderliness has a purpose, however, and Paul’s four principles reveal such purposes.
Worship services should be edifying. Paul first says in verse 26, “Let all things be done for building up.” Evidently Paul’s opinion of the disorderliness of Corinthian worship was that it was not beneficial to the Body at large. When planning a service, one consideration that must be at the forefront is whether or not the service is beneficial for the entire congregation. What kinds of things should be considered?
First, our order of service should help the congregation deliberately focus on worshiping the Lord. There is certainly much flexibility in service orders because the New Testament does not prescribe an order. But however we do order our service, we should take into consideration whether our service order distracts from truly worshiping the Lord in spirit and truth, or whether it actually helps individuals deliberately focus on God.
Second, our order of service should include the entire congregation. Two problems exists here. On the one hand are churches (contemporary or traditional) that are very performance oriented. Most of what happens in such services is performed by professionals on a stage. On the other hand are churches that orient their services toward a narrow demographic such as 18-30 year olds or those with certain musical preferences. In order to be edifying in our services, we should be sure that what we plan invites every individual in the congregation to participate.
Worship services should be intentional. Paul argues in verses 29-33 that each service element should be done “one by one” because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Elements within a services should not be haphazardly thrown together with no order or deliberateness. Rather, there should be intentional, thorough planning of elements within a service so that they flow “one by one.” Again, there is much flexibility as to how this looks from one service to another. But we who plan services must be intentional in what we include and how we order it.
Worship services should be lead by rightful authority. Paul highlights the need for respect of church authority in corporate church gatherings in verses 34-35. Evidently Corinthian women had been questioning church leadership in a disrespectful way. Paul’s principle of prohibiting women from questioning their leadership applies to all the leadership structure within the church, especially as it relates to the worship service.
Corporate services should be planned and led by church leaders, and others within the church should respect their authority regarding the service.
Worship services should be Bible-centered. In verses 36-38 Paul directs our attention to the authority of God’s revelation. How can we know how to order our services or even what to include in them? We must go to the Word of God. The Bible doesn’t give us a prescribed service order, but it does prescribe what elements we may have in our services: preaching, singing, Bible reading, prayer, ordinances, and giving. We must be sure, as those who are charged with planning worship services, that we include only those elements that God has prescribed. And then as we order that worship, we must still apply principles such as those found in this passage to order our worship.
Does it matter how we order our congregational worship services? According to Paul, it does. There is much flexibility from one church to the next or ever among services within one church. But however we plan our services, we must be certain that they are edifying, intentional, rightly led, and Bible-centered. In other words, “all things should be done decently and in order.”