I once paid a visit to one of the most mega of America’s megachurches. It’s a church whose pastor is well-known, a church known for its innovation, a church held up as a model for modern evangelicalism. I went in with as open a mind as I could muster. I left perplexed. I was perplexed not by what was said or done in the service as much as what was left unsaid and undone.
Since that visit I’ve had the opportunity to attend many more churches and, as often as not, they have been similar, missing a lot of the elements that used to be hallmarks of Christian worship. Here are some of the missing elements of modern worship.
That church I visited all those years ago was the first I had ever attended that was almost completely devoid of prayer. The only prayer in the entire service was a prayer of response following the sermon. “With every head bowed and every eye closed, pray these words with me…” There were no prayers of confession, of intercession, of thanksgiving. There was no pastoral prayer to bring the cares of the congregation before the Lord. This is a pattern I have seen again and again in modern worship services, with prayer becoming rare and minimal instead of common and prominent. Conspicuous by their absence are any prayers longer than 30 seconds or a minute in length.
Another element that has gone missing in modern worship is the scripture reading. There was a time when most services included a couple of lengthy readings, often one from the Old Testament and one from the New. But then it was trimmed to one and then the reading disappeared altogether in favor of mentioning individual verses as they came up in the sermon. But what of Paul’s command to Timothy that he devote himself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13)? In too many churches this element has gone missing. In too many churches the Word of God is almost an afterthought.
Already we do well to pause and ask the question: If a worship service includes no prayer and no Bible reading, can we even recognize it as Christian worship?
Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon
Traditionally, Protestant worship services included a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon. Sometimes the congregation would confess their sins by reading a text or a liturgy or by silent prayer. Other times the pastor would confess the sins of the congregation on their behalf. It was a solemn moment. But then there would be the assurance of pardon, where the pastor would bring God’s own assurance that those who confess their sins are forgiven. Solemnity was replaced by joy. This pattern of confession and assurance naturally led to thankful worship and a desire to grow in holiness by hearing from God through his Word as it was read and preached. These elements came early and set up the rest of the service. Yet it is rare to encounter them today.
When Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy he instructed him to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-5). Christians have long understood that the best way to preach the word faithfully is to preach the word expositionally—to preach in such a way that the point of the sermon matches the point of the text. That is, the pastor needs to understand not just the wording of the passage, but the author’s intent in writing it. This leads to the most faithful interpretation and application. While there has been a great revival of expositional preaching in recent years, this element is still missing in so much of modern worship, replaced by topical sermons that wander from book to book, text to text, translation to translation. I am convinced that a congregation grows best when they are fed on a steady diet of expositional sermons.
An element sadly lacking from so many churches today is singing that is truly congregational. Ironically, modern worship services focus on music more than ever before, but little of it is congregational. Congregational singing is more than a crowd singing along to a band. It is singing dominated by the voices of the people—all of the people. The purpose of the band is to serve and facilitate, not perform and dominate. You know you are experiencing congregational worship when the voices of the people rise higher than the instruments and the lead worshippers. Churches have turned away from hymnody, songs that at their best had deep truth set to simple but beautiful melodies. Instead, they have adopted modern worship which, at its worst, is shallow, repetitive, and set to difficult melodies. Not every song—not even every good and biblical song—is suitable for congregational worship. Wall-shaking, roof-lifting, band-driven worship is no substitute for the beauty of the human voice singing praise to God.
It’s not that every one of these elements has to be prominent every week (and it’s not like these are the only elements that have gone missing). There is a time and place for topical sermons. A confession of sin and assurance of pardon may not be necessary every week. There can be a time for special music that is not well-suited to congregational singing. Well and good. But there was a time when each of these elements was prominent in Christian worship. Where have they gone? Or, perhaps more importantly, why have they gone?
I am convinced that most of these elements have gone missing for pragmatic reasons—they do not accomplish something the church leaders wish to accomplish in their services. Instead of searching God’s Word to determine what elements should or must be present in a worship service, leaders are judging elements by whether or not they work (according to their own standard of what works). Yet each of these elements represents a significant loss because each in its own way expresses obedience to God and brings encouragement to his people.