God intentionally designed diversity to be an integral component of the church. The various gifts given in the church are to be used for the “common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Each member of the church is to use his/her gifts in a spirit of love for others (1 Corinthians 13). Love should be the guiding motivation in worship so that Christians act in a way that “builds up” and not in a way that “tears down.” In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives specific instructions to help guide the worship assembly in the Corinthian congregation. In this chapter, Christians are instructed to make sure that worship is both understandable and orderly.
Christians with an elitist attitude in Corinth had apparently argued that tongue-speaking was the greatest spiritual gift (cf. 14:13-19). Paul shows that prophecy is more beneficial for the assembly. It is a “greater gift” because the one who prophesies is able to “build up” the church by clearly communicating God’s message to others (14:4). One who speaks in a tongue needs an interpreter (14:5). Like a harp that is out of tune or a random note played on a bugle, speaking in tongues is worthless noise in the air if the meaning of the sounds are not interpreted (14:6-12). Likewise, prayers and songs in worship are useless if those assembled cannot understand what is said (14:13-19). Visitors to the assembly will think Christians are crazy if the worship is not understandable. But if they can understand the meaning, they will fall on their face and worship God also (14:20-25). The point is that everything done in the worship assembly must be understandable.
There are several applications of this principle for contemporary worship assemblies. Most basic is that everyone must be able to hear what is said in the worship assembly. Worship leaders must speak loudly enough to be heard (and properly use public address equipment) using understandable language. When prayers are filled with advanced vocabulary and complicated theological terminology, it becomes increasingly difficult for worshippers to say “Amen” when they don’t understand what is said (14:16). It is impossible to join in the “Amen” when worshippers cannot hear clearly because of a soft tone taken by the leader or because of a malfunctioning microphone. Worshippers must be able to pray with the spirit and the understanding (14:15). Also, Paul mentions singing with the spirit and understanding. When worship leaders choose songs with antiquated language or highly symbolic poetry, it becomes extremely difficult for worshippers to worship with the “understanding.” Thankfully, the contemporary church has a storehouse of worship songs that express praise utilizing current English and phrases that resonate with today’s worshiper. Many older hymns have powerful and needed messages, but usually outdated language needs to be explained by the leader prior to singing the song so that all can sing with understanding.
The worship at Corinth was highly participatory and spontaneous. The worshipers were encouraged to come to the assembly prepared with something to offer: hymns, lessons, revelations, tongues and interpretations (14:26). Apparently there was a natural and somewhat fluid order to their worship that was always fresh and engaging. Everything was to be done in the worship to spiritually inspire and build up the worshippers (14:26b). But apparently, the spontaneity of their worship had become somewhat chaotic and confusing. Therefore, Paul gives some rules for ordering the tongue speakers (14:27-28), those who prophesy (14:29-33a), and women in the assembly (14:33b-35). So that everyone can understand and participate in the worship, it was important that “everything be done decently and in order” (14:40).
An important principle emerges from Paul’s direction to this congregation: we must balance spontaneity with order in worship. In the worship wars among us, some people prefer a predictable worship order that they can anticipate. The “traditional order” gives comfort and assurance to some worshippers. For others, a predictable order feels stuffy, inauthentic, regimented and stagnant. These worshippers want something fresh, unexpected and creative. The worship at Corinth was highly spontaneous needing some orderly instruction. Conversely, many modern worship assemblies among us appear highly programmed, needing some fresh spontaneity. Surely, modern worshippers can love one another and be willing to balance both spontaneity and predictability.
A fifth principle for worship assemblies is:
“Worship should be guided by what is understandable and orderly while balancing spontaneity with predictability that will draw the entire assembly to participate.”
© 2014, Jonathan Jones II. All rights reserved.