The way that we worship informs both our view of God and our understanding of God. How we worship determines who we worship. In this interview, Ligon Duncan talks about worship that pleases God, the dangers in approaches to corporate worship, and how to combat these tendencies. As we seek to worship, we must be simultaneously Bible-filled and Bible-directed to avoid worshipping anything other than God himself. Duncan warns that true worship is not done out of preference or searching for an experience. Rather, our worship must be centered upon the very nature and character of God, so that we are able to praise him regardless of our circumstances.
- Purpose of Worship
- Threats to Corporate Worship
- Worship in the Psalms
What does the Bible say about Corporate Worship?
Good, healthy, biblical worship. First and foremost, we’re coming to bless God. God also blesses us, and, he witnesses to unbelievers as we encounter him through the word by the gospel, through Christ, by grace, through faith.
Dr. Ligon Duncan, thank you so much for joining us here at The Radical Booth, and love getting to spend some time with you talking about why we’re here and talking to about worship and those kinds of things. So thanks for taking time out.
It’s a joy to be with you.
So you said that the way you worship informs your view of God and your understanding of God, and that we don’t really get to set the terms to that, but to that worship, but that God actually sets those terms. So explain to me why is that a good thing. Can you expand on that and why is that a good thing?
Who You Worship
Sure. Well, the basic how you worship will ultimately determine who you worship. If you worship God in accordance with his word, you will end up worshiping God. If you try to worship God according to your own imagination, you will worship something that you have thought up as God.
And so it’s really important that our worship is a response to divine revelation, which means it’s a response of the word of God, because in the word of God, God is revealing himself to us. So if we want to worship that God, it would be wise to listen to his word. So that’s what I mean by that. And that’s why I say our worship needs to be Bible filled and Bible directed, because if it’s Bible filled and Bible directed, then we are sure that we’re worshiping the God of the Bible.
So with that, what would you say is one of the biggest threats or one of the biggest hindrances in regards to corporate worship in the church today that you’re seeing? What are some of those things that you’re seeing that maybe would cause you to be a little alarmed or concerned that maybe are going on in the church?
I think two things, preferences and the search for experiences. Preferences and the search for experiences. When you privilege your preferences about public worship over the word of God, disaster is sure to follow.
The Experience of Biblical Worship
So when it’s, “Hey, I’d like this done the way I like it”, as opposed to, “I want to make sure that we’re doing this the way that God says in his word”, troubles are ahead. Experiences. So many people are looking for a particular type of experience in worship. And look, in good biblical worship, there’s going to be a whole variety of experiences that attend the people of God, but it won’t be manufactured, and it won’t be uniform. I may be standing next to you. I may be weeping over my sin because the Holy Spirit has convicted me, while you are so caught up in the glory of Christ’s grace that you’re about to pop.
And true biblical worship is not just going to produce the same kind of experience in every single person who comes. You may have some people coming with broken hearts, and they need to be given hope in the worship of God, while you come so caught up in the glory of Christ grace, that you just want to praise him.
So biblical worship is going to accommodate a whole range of experiences in God’s people, but it’s never going to try and just manufacture it. And so many of our worship services, you can tell that what the people who are leading worship are trying to do is they’re trying to create a cathartic, upbeat, celebratory experience.
Well, what if I come and my child’s just died? Or I’ve lost my job, or my best friend has just betrayed me? Christians need to be able to express the whole range of human experience and emotion, not just celebration. So I’d say preferences and experiences are often a great enemy of really rich, robust biblical worship.
That’s good. So subsequently, how would you combat some of those threats? I mean, you’ve touched on that a little bit.
Worship in the Psalms
Partly, I would just say look at the range of experiences and emotions that are addressed in the Psalms. The Psalms, they address every possible range. A dear friend of mine wrote a provocative article about 15 years ago called What Can Miserable Christians Sing? And he was just pointing out that most of the stuff that gets sung in evangelical churches on Sundays is happy. And he said, “What do I sing when I’m absolutely devastated? When I’m miserable?”
Well, there’s all sorts of material in the Psalms for that. So if we have Bible directed worship, then the content of our singing is going to allow us to express the whole range of Christian experience. I like to watch my people sing on Sundays. When you’re the pastor, you get to look out at the congregation. And there are parts of songs that we sing that I make a special point to look at the faces of people in my congregation.
And there’s a famous old hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. And one of the lines in that song is, “How often in grief? Half not, he brought me relief, spreading his wings to or shade me.” And I remember looking out at a woman in our congregation whose husband had just betrayed her, and there she was, singing with the people of God. And of course, when she got to that point of the song, she remembered that her God in her grief was spreading his wings to or shade, and she wept.
Well, I made a note. I need to check on that sister. I need to check on that sister. And so the good biblical singing, being guided by the Psalms, whether we’re singing rich, robust hymns, new songs, et cetera, the teaching ought to allow for a healthy and full diverse range of human emotion and Christian experience.
The Range of Emotions from the Psalms
That’s good. If you were talking just thinking about that woman in your congregation, if you were talking to a person who maybe is not feeling the nearness of God when in their personal times of worship or even in corporate worship, what’s maybe an encouragement you would give them? And then also maybe to pastors, how would you encourage them to promote the discipline of worship in their worship gatherings without ever abandoning that mercy and grace aspect of God?
Yeah. Amen. That’s so good. Well, one thing is I would say, “I’ve got good news for you, friend. About 20% of the Psalms feel just like you feel right now. About 20% of the Psalms feel like God is far from me.” And here’s the glorious thing. God, by the Holy Spirit inspires those Psalms to be sung by the people of God. 20% of them say, “God, I don’t feel like you’re near me.” And God says, “Sing that to me. Sing that to me that you don’t feel like I’m near you. Sing that to me and sing that together so that other brothers and sisters in Christ are going through the same experience. And sooner or later, I’m going to show you that I’m the God who draws near to my people.” So that’s one way just to recognize you’re not alone.
Worship in Psalm 88
There are some Psalms where there’s just no hope in them. Psalm 88 has zero, not a glimmer of hope in it. And to think that God said, “Okay, here’s a song that has no hope in it. Get together and on my day, sing it to me that.” That’s letting everybody know God knows exactly how you feel. And one of the things he may do as you express that, “I don’t feel near to God”, is over time as that it’s expressed to God, God will even in that experience, reveal his nearness to you. And so you don’t feel alone. You realize, “Hey, a lot of other wonderful believers have felt the same way.” David felt this way sometimes. Joe felt this way sometimes. Abraham felt this way sometimes. Jesus felt this way sometimes. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And he’s quoting a Psalm when he does that.
So that that’s a real, real help to us. Now, not forgetting his mercy in grace. Boy, that, we always have to work at that, because I really think grace is the most counterintuitive idea in this world. A lot of times we just really don’t believe that God is going to deal with us by grace, partly because we know that we deserve for him to deal with us by justice.
But again, the glorious news of the Psalms and even more of the Psalms emphasize this than emphasize the sense of, “Oh no, you’re not their God.” Over and over, they are singing of God’s marvelous grace. And it’s as if God knows that we need to be re-convinced of that again. And so again, he says, “Sing it to me.” You will sing of the steadfast love of the lord of the covenant love, of the lord of the mercy of the loving kindness, of the lord forever, because my love will never end. It will never fail.
The Aim of Corporate Worship
And so the Psalms just help us do that so that we can believe what maybe when we started out to sing, we were struggling to believe. By the end of our singing it, we’re beginning to believe it again.
Amen. So should corporate worship be primarily for the body of believers or should it be more evangelistic and aimed toward unbelievers? Or is it both? It’s kind of a discussion that’s happening in a lot of churches these days.
And look, I’m thankful that people are thinking about that. And it’s both and, isn’t it? Fundamentally in worship, the people of God gather together under God’s word in order to have a word directed, word mediated encounter with the living God. And so it’s dialogical. You are coming in order to engage with God, and God is coming to bless you as you come to engage with him. But there are collateral effects of that.
Worship that Blesses God
And Paul talks about that in 1 Corinthians 14. He says, “Look, when you worship Corinthians, I want the unbelievers who are here to say, ‘Surely God is among them.’ So good, healthy, biblical worship, though first and foremost, we’re coming to bless God, god also blesses us, and he witnesses to unbelievers as we encounter him through the word by the gospel, through Christ, by grace, through faith.”
Absolutely. Oh man, it’s good. Ligon, thank you so much for just helping us think through some of these concepts of biblical worship. Thank you so much for your ministry and just for the time getting on.
Thank you dear friend. And thank you for your ministry.