Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | April 29, 2009

Worship Really is “Purpose” Driven

We spend a lot of time discussing worship.  How to do it?  Why to do it?  When to do it?  Why do we do it?  How often will we do it?  What will we sing?  What’s right?  What’s wrong?

As in everything, we seek our guidance from God where He offers that guidance — His Holy Word.  And one of the first questions we have to deal with is — “What is the purpose of worship?”

This is a reprint of an article from the latest issue of Worship the Lord (No. 36, May 2009), a worship newsletter sent to pastors in the Wisconsin Synod.  The article is the beginning of a series studying worship words to wrestle with, and begins with the word, “purpose.”

The author is Pastor Aaron Christie, parish pastor and organist at Faith, Antioch, Illinois.  Pastor Christie is also the district worship coordinator for the Southeastern Wisconsin District.

This article is reprinted here with permission and can be found (along with other issues of Worship the Lord) at

What does Christian worship look like? The answer varies according to time, place, culture, and custom. Some worship variety flows from gospel freedom expressed in its cultural context.  Other differences in worship practice spring directly from differences in doctrine.  Understanding worship’s purpose will shed light on worship’s various practices.

A Plethora of Purposes

A basic principle of architecture is “form follows function.” There is a reason why my home has two bathrooms and three bedrooms. It is living space. There is a reason why Wrigley Field looks the way it does. It is spectator space. The purpose of a building can make for extreme differences in the way the bricks are put together.

Think of public worship as a building. We need a clear purpose. Otherwise, we might find ourselves building a Wrigley when we really needed a family room.

Ask your Bible classes or confirmation students what the purpose of worship is. The answers are almost always along the lines of “praising God, giving thanks, singing and praying together.”

It is very true that these things happen in worship. Are they the purpose of worship?  Confessional Lutherans can be thankful that we already have an agreed upon purpose for our worship.

Lutherans know that “they cannot by their own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ their Lord or come to him.” Faith, forgiveness, the sacraments – all are received. This is most certainly true: worship is primarily God serving his people with Word and Sacrament. God gives.  His people receive. The Apology states: “This is how God wants to become known and worshiped, namely, that we receive blessings from him, and indeed, that we receive them on account of his mercy and not on account of our merits. This is the richest consolation in all afflictions, which the opponents destroy when they trivialize and disparage faith and only teach people to deal with God through works and merits.”1 Simply put: Christian worship enables people to receive the riches of Christ, and the riches of Christ are proclaimed and delivered through the gospel in Word and Sacrament.

A biblical view of sin and grace, faith and works, Word and Sacrament, Spirit and his Means leads us to view worship as a receiving from God. This is not to say, however, that the singular direction of Lutheran worship is from God to us. If it were, prayers and hymns of praise would be out of place. Instead, what we receive from God is expressed by several different dimensions in worship. Timothy Maschke in Gathered Guests provides this helpful summary:2

There is a dimension of ENCOUNTER in worship. The transcendent Creator of heaven and earth comes to his creatures through Word and Sacrament. God graciously approaches his wayward sons and daughters through the work of his perfect Son.

There is a dimension of EXPRESSION in worship. We who have received God’s grace in Christ yearn to praise God for his grace in Christ. Distinctively Christian expression pulses with Christ.  “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

There is an EVANGELISM dimension to worship. Baptizing and teaching – Word and Sacrament – are the heart of the Great Commission. They are precisely the things that we receive in worship. Lutheran worship is just as much a fulfilling of the Great Commission as presenting the “great exchange” at a prospect’s kitchen table.

Finally, there is an EDUCATIONAL dimension in worship.  The Word is taught through lessons and creeds, sermon and song.  These worship treasures are imparted through learning’s mother: repetition.

Confessional Lutherans appreciate each of these dimensions in worship. We strive to remain in the biblical center, keeping them in balance. Purpose-driven problems begin when any one of these dimensions of worship replace GOSPEL PROCLAMATION as the central purpose of worship. Consider the following.

If worship is all about an encounter with the transcendent God, we have just purchased a plane ticket to Constantinople and Eastern Orthodoxy.  If worship is all about our personal expression, we have purchased a bus ticket to Azusa Street, Los Angeles, the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism. If worship is all about evangelism, we are driving in our BMW towards the megachurch model, large churches with names that often end in -creek or -back.  If worship is all about education, we are flirting with the Reformed or the rationalists.

There is little danger of WELS taking a hard right towards Eastern Orthodoxy, and, unlike some of the Reformed, we certainly understand that worship is more than mere instruction. Could it be, however, that we are tempted at times to overplay the cards of evangelism and expression in worship? These two are in the very air we breathe as American Christians.

Two quotes illustrate the point:

  • “They need to understand the contagious nature of worship and the critical role it plays in missional renewal of the church. There is hardly anything more evangelistically powerful than a group of worshiping believers.”3
  • “People generally find it easier to decide for Christ when there are multiple relationships supporting that decision…. For this reason, the larger your seeker service grows, the greater an evangelistic tool it will become.”4

It goes without saying that a packed parking lot can lead to some curiosity about what’s going on inside. This could lead to an opportunity for a curious non-Christian to hear the Gospel in the future. (In the interest of clarity, it is common in our circles to label this as pre-evangelism.) But one needs to be careful about unintentionally and unconsciously crossing a confessional line in our hearts! Worship demographics, statistics, style, and ambiance really don’t help the Spirit’s working – not even in the least.  In true evangelism, we are instruments of the Gospel. Nothing more.  Nothing less.

The Gospel proclamation in Lutheran worship is the same Gospel that the unbeliever needs for conversion and the saint needs for sustenance. Prof. David Valleskey’s contention is apropos: the best worship for the seeker is also worship that is best for the saints.5

In a word: if the unbeliever sets the objectives and agenda for public worship, what eventually happens to the worship of the saints? Congregations are wise to consider what the real issue is.  Do they need a seeker service? Or do they want the seeker service because their members aren’t actively seeking and loving the lost on a daily basis?

As for the tendency to stress personal expression in worship, it is common to read that worship is awe, abandonment, and intimacy with God. (David’s dance before the Ark of the Covenant is a favorite passage to quote in this regard.) Some of these alternate purposes for worship have appeared in WELS contexts. It is true: these emotions do happen in worship. (“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder…” CW 256:1.) These human emotions, however, are not the purpose of worship. They spring from the heart of worship: the Gospel. If we want more abandonment in worship, we don’t need more dancing. We need more Jesus! (“Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all” CW 125:4.) Could it be that the omnipresence of “dancing David” references in current worship conversations flows from the  Evangelical/Pentecostal air we breathe in America? Lutheran interpreters will carefully balance David’s dance (1 Chronicles 15) with David’s decency and order (1 Chronicles 6:31 ff.), Solomon’s dedication of the temple (2 Chronicles 5:2-6:42), Hezekiah’s purification of the temple (2 Chronicles 29), and Josiah’s celebration of the Passover (2 Chronicles 35:1-19).

Throughout the Church’s history, it has been difficult to find the middle road between the cerebral and the emotional. In the quest for orthodox doctrine, it is easy to forget the emotional component of God’s human creatures. In the quest for more expressive worship, it becomes easy to downplay the need for correct teaching. Here the law of love must rule! If worship is my primary opportunity to express myself emotionally, then prepare for an eventual journey into Pentecostalism. But if worship is my primary opportunity to receive the riches of Christ and to proclaim the Gospel to my neighbor, then I must rid myself of self-interest and look to my neighbor’s interest. Saint Paul says it best: “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified” (1 Corinthians 14:17). Preach the boundless riches of Christ!  Emotions will follow!

Why the Fuss over Purpose?

Why the sudden shift in worship’s purpose in the last few decades? Marva Dawn gives three probable answers: “One, is the panic about declining numbers…. Another is the intensifying passivity of our cultural milieu, which causes some Christians to want to be entertained, rather than to do the work of worship. A third is related, for worship services are turned into a congregation’s primary evangelistic tool because the people are not engaged in the practice of witnessing to their neighbors or in the difficulties of loving them.”6

Satan knows that if he can confuse the purpose of worship, he has a good chance of obscuring the Gospel in worship. And then Satan wins. He wins by taking the focus off of Christ and placing it on man’s reaction to Christ. He wins by driving a devilish wedge between the Great Commission’s “go” and the very thing that we are to go with. May we – all together – tell the devil to take his worship wedge and go play elsewhere! Instead of a purpose-driven church, or a mission-minded church, or a high/low church, let us strive to be a Christ-centered church. Everything else flows from there!

We gather in worship for a very specific purpose: to receive the riches of Christ. That is confessional Lutheran “function.” We will discuss Lutheran “form” in future issues.

Putting It into Practice

Spend some time this summer doing an “exegesis” of the orders of service in Christian Worship. How do their texts promote a confessional understanding of worship as receiving gospel blessings from Christ?

Read a good book on worship. Christian Worship: Manual (NPH), Timothy Maschke’s Gathered Guests (CPH) or Marva Dawn’s How Shall We Worship? (Tyndale) are all good candidates.

How do you think music, architecture, ambiance, and people’s attitudes might change if the purpose of worship shifts from receiving the riches of Christ to encounter, expression, evangelism, or education?

Finally, if you are considering some changes to your parish’s worship life, make certain you are clear on the difference between the different dimensions of worship and the central purpose of worship.  Does that understanding influence any of the changes you propose?


1 Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 60. Kolb-Wengert edition, p. 130.

2 Maschke, Timothy H. Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran

Church. CPH, 2003. p. 20.

3 McNeal, Reggie. The Present Future. Jossey-Bass, 2003. p. 81.

4 Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. Zondervan, 1995. p. 246.

5 Valleskey, David. We Believe-Therefore We Speak. NPH, 1995. p. 187ff.

6 Dawn, Marva. How Shall We Worship? Tyndale, 2003. p.39.



  1. Hi, interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll certainly be coming back to your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: