Dialogue with God in Corporate Worship
Over the past several weeks I have been developing the biblical idea of the dialogical structure of corporate worship. Historically, church worship services have been designed in such a way to both display and nurture this kind of communion by being structured as a dialogue. God speaks, we respond.
God calls us to worship him
We exalt our glorious God
God calls us to confess our sins
We confess our sins to God
God declares us forgiven through Christ
We praise God for our salvation
God speaks to us through his Word
We respond to God’s Word, commune with him at his Table, and cast our burdens before him
God sends us forth to serve him
As we saw previously, this structure follows the logic of the gospel, allowing us to renew our covenant vows to the Lord, but it also follows this shape of conversing with God. And so let’s take a few moments to consider a bit more deeply the elements of our worship from this dialogical perspective.
God’s Words to Us
First, it is important that in our services, God initiates worship—he begins the conversation. Again, God is seeking worshipers, and so our services should always begin with a call to worship from the Word of God. He is inviting us to draw near to him with true hearts in full assurance of faith; only then do we respond with our part.
Second, our corporate worship must be filled with abundant Scripture. Worship without God’s words is impossible. In each major section of a gospel-shaped worship service, we always first hear from God’s Word. God calls us to worship through his Word; God reminds us of our sinfulness and unworthiness to be in his presence through his Word; God declares us forgiven in Jesus Christ through his Word; God speaks to us, corrects us, encourages us, and teaches us through his Word; God invites us to his Table and to his throne of Grace in his Word; and God sends us out with his blessing through his Word. One of the central, if not the most central characteristics of Scripture-regulated, communion-driven, dialogical worship is abundant Scripture reading.
Even many of the song we sing are God’s words to us. We’ll talk in a moment about songs being our response to God, but many hymns are either direct quotations of God Word or clearly based on God’s Word, and often what we sing functions as God’s words to us. Sometimes the first hymn of the service, for example, might be a hymn that reveals something about God to us, or we might have a hymn that calls us to confession or proclaims to us forgiveness in Christ. Often the final hymn of commission functions as God’s words of charge and blessing as he sends us back into the world.
Fourth, attention to God’s words to us means that we will emphasize the centrality of the preached Word. God speaks to us in many times throughout the service, whenever we read or sing his Word, but the sermon is the time when we give focused attention to God’s instruction for us. This is why preaching must always be Word-centered; a sermon is not a self-help presentation or an inspirational lecture; it is not the preacher’s clever ideas or opinions. A sermon must always be exposition of God’s Word since it is the Word of God that is alive and powerful to change us.
The final element of corporate worship is also God speaking to us, in this case, his benediction to us. The service begins with God’s Word, and the service ends with God’s Word. From beginning to end, dialogical worship must be thoroughly permeated with God’s Word.
Our Words to God
And then, dialogical worship contains elements that are responsive—our words back to God as expressions of our spirits. Again, in each major section of a gospel-shaped worship service, we always respond to God after we hear from him. We respond with praise and adoration after God calls us to worship; we respond with individual and corporate confession after God reminds us of our sin; we respond with thanksgiving and praise after God declares us forgiven in Christ; we respond with dedication and giving after God instructs us; and we respond with fellowship and supplication after God invites us into his presence. As we will explore more thoroughly next week, corporate worship is not a spectator sport where we simply watch as other things go on, and it is not even only a time in which we listen to God; Scripture-regulated, communion-driven, dialogical worship contains ample opportunities for us to respond to God’s Word.
This is why in our church we don’t just have a short opening prayer and closing prayer in our services, as is often typical in modern evangelical worship; our services should be filled with prayers. In fact, again, in each major section of the gospel-shaped service, we have prayers: prayers of praise, prayers of confession, prayers of dedication, and prayers of supplication. These are the responses of our spirits voiced verbally toward God in response to his Word to us.
And while many songs are God’s Word to us, most are more often our responses back to God. In each service, we have a hymn of praise, a hymn of confession, a hymn of thanksgiving, and a hymn of dedication. Really, songs are often simply sung prayers; Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.” Singing is often praying, but by adding music, we give voice to the responses of our spirits in ways that words alone cannot.
But even when we pray or when our songs help us to voice the responses of our hearts, it is still important to remember that the purpose of what we are doing is not merely to express what is already in our hearts; the purpose of corporate worship is to form our hearts, to shape our responses toward God, to mature our expressions. And so this is why the best prayers and songs to God are filled with Scripture; God’s Word gives us language and models for the kinds of responses that are best pleasing to God, give him most glory, and sanctify us most effectively.
We also always respond to the preached Word. Again, the sermon is a central time in which we focus on God’s instruction to us, and since corporate worship is not a monologue, we must always respond in some way when the Word is preached. If you grew up in certain traditions, you might find it unusual if a church does not have an altar call in a service. The altar call is actually a nineteenth century innovation, and there are several reasons we don’t have them in our services, but one reason we don’t is that an altar call can give the impression that only those who “feel convicted” and who “come forward” are responding to the preached Word. On the contrary, in dialogical worship, all worshipers respond to God’s Word every time it is preached. And so prayer allows us to respond, and a hymn following the sermon allows us to respond. Those responses will be different depending on the sermon and depending on the person; sometimes we respond with conviction, sometimes with commitment, sometimes with thanksgiving, but we always respond to God’s Word.
And then finally, another way we respond to God’s Word is through giving. Giving of our personal money is a way that we respond in worship to the Lord, acknowledging that all good gifts come from him, and giving back to him in support of the ministry of his church. This is why we don’t have online giving—giving is an act of dialogical worship. This is also why, even though I am paid bi-weekly, I divide my offerings up so that I give every time we gather. Giving in corporate worship is an important act of dialogical worship.
The structure of our services, the songs we sing, the Scriptures we read, the prayers we pray—everything about our services shapes our minds and our hearts to be the kind of people who will commune in dialogue with God like this, hearing from him in his Word, and responding with our hearts and lives.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.