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Scripture & songs ‘worthy of teaching’ needed in church worship, profs say

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Each week, music ministers of all denominations face the same dilemma: trying to select the music for Sunday’s church service.

It’s a problem that requires careful attention, but one that can be solved by asking a simple question, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Tom Nettles believes.

“Is the music we’re singing worthy of teaching?” Nettles asked a group of seminary students Nov. 14 during a special discussion on corporate worship. “Is it something that you could turn to your neighbor and sing and think you’re instructing them in truth? This is something we need to look at carefully.”

Joining Nettles at the symposium was Carl Stam, associate professor of church music and worship.

Stam contended that the entire church service — including the sermon — should be viewed as a form of worship. Too often, Stam said, pastors try to split the service into two parts — worship and preaching.

“What they mean by worship is everything that happened on Sunday morning except the sermon,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘In our worship this morning, we did this.'”

Both men contended that the average church service omits certain elements that should be included, such as the reading of Scripture and the reciting of historical confessions.

“We’re specifically told [in the Bible] to read Scripture,” said Nettles, professor of historical theology. “One of the things that is so absent in so many of our services is just plain reading of Scripture. I think we should start worship services with the reading of Scripture [so that the church can] set the focus on the authority right from the beginning.”

The reading of Scripture, Nettles said, would cut down on “the necessity of [the pastor] being a talk-show host and trying to entertain people to try to gain their attention” at the beginning of the worship service.

Stam said that ministers should embrace their “faith heritage” by teaching the congregation historical confessions. This, he argued, would serve as a form of education for the church members. Stam said that ministers should not ignore all of the teachings of a particular group in church history — such as the Puritans — simply because its members went astray in one particular doctrine.

“What is it that we believe?” Stam asked. “Do we despise the work of the desert fathers, the Reformers and the early Puritans — who had so much of it right? Do we despise what our grandfathers and grandmothers were doing in worship a hundred years ago? … We should embrace it. We should embrace what is good and true.”

Nettles mentioned a few statements of belief that can be confessed, such as the Nicene Creed, the London Confessions and the Baptist Faith and Message. Too many modern churches have omitted confessions simply because they don’t view them as entertaining, he said.

“Lift out of them things that the church can confess together,” he said. “Preach on these things, and then also go into the literature of the church, get out hymns and songs and contemporary music that focus on these doctrines.”

Nettles contended that a pastor and a music minister should plan church services with the education of the congregation in mind. He said they should choose various doctrines — such as justification and glorification — and have a goal of teaching the members. The songs and the sermon should then reflect the particular doctrine.

Nettles list four goals for planning a corporate worship service, that it should be spiritual, simple, clear and Christ-centered.

By spiritual, Nettles said, “We’re not to consider our church successful if we have simply imposed the program on the church. The church [may be] functioning very well, but we have no knowledge of what is going on in the hearts of people.”

Pointing to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Nettles said simplicity also should be a goal.

“Sometimes we hear language like, ‘We have to do something to make the gospel exciting,'” he said. “There’s not anything you have to do to make the gospel exciting. Anything you try to add to the gospel is a distraction from it. The gospel is transcendently powerful and beautiful.”

Nettles added that “there’s nothing we can do to jolt [the lost] into that in which the truth itself will not do under the power of the Spirit.”

The goal of clarity in worship is one reflected in 2 Corinthians 4:1-3, Nettles said. In that passage, the apostle Paul says the focus should not be on him, but on Christ. Likewise, Nettles said, the focus of worship should never be on the music minister or on those who are singing.

“People must know exactly what we’re saying [and] why we’re saying it,” he said. “The focus must be on the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel.”

By Christ-centeredness, Nettles said he meant that “we must recognize that our knowledge of the triune God is mediated through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why I do not think it’s wrong to speak of Christ-centeredness in worship, as long as we recognize that we are not somehow thinking that there is great ambiguity about the person and work of the Father and the Spirit.”

In summarizing his view on corporate worship, Stam used a tent and its stakes as an allegory. Many elements of worship act as stakes — among them being prayers, baptisms, songs and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper — but all of them should be focused on bringing glory to God in Christ Jesus. Christ, Stam said, is the tent’s center stake.

Stam argued that any form of worship can be inappropriate if Christ is not at the center. Examples of this, Stam said, are denominations that have abandoned biblical doctrine but have put their social ministries — serving food to the poor, clothing the needy — at the center of their worship.

“I contend that the only appropriate focus for all of these is the glory of God in Christ,” he said.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: DISCUSSING CORPORATE WORSHIP and TOM NETTLES.

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  • Michael Foust