The Hymnal, the IPod, and the Crystal Ball

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The Hymnal, the IPod and the Crystal Ball:

What Comes Next In Public Worship?

That Was Then/This Is Now
In the last century (that is the 20th century!) we were all safely nestled within our denominational and traditional walls. We used the hymnals of our choice. Without too much questioning, we sang the songs our parents taught us and employed the orders of service handed down to us. We wondered about those “other” Christians and thought their songs and services strange and foreign to our well-trained eyes and ears.

That was then. This is now. Today Pentecostals are doing ancient liturgy and Southern Baptists are raising their hands when they sing. Evangelical Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists are having “contemporary” worship services. Pentecostals are doing social justice ministry, starring on Broadway, making mainstream movies and running for public office— each ministry a stark departure from the “come out from among them” holiness teaching of the 20th century.

Pray tell—what comes next?
I believe the seeds of the next generation’s”reforms” (good or bad) are sown in their lives as children, so, the harvest they yield should not be a complete surprise. Two cases in point:

  • The Cult of Personality. We have seen pop culture produce the cult of personality. “Celebrities” are truly the objects of celebration and worship in our society. It is easy to see reflections of this in Christian pop culture. The cult of personality which has long plagued Pentecostal/Charismatic life has now gone church wide.
  • Culture-driven Worship. We have raised a generation that is used to being served by the worship service. They had children’s worship when they were children, youth worship in their teens, and young adult worship in college.

Two things resulted from this segregation:

  1. they were seldom integrated into “whole family” worship, and
  2. the “whole family” failed to benefit from their creativity and fresh insights.

Now these young adults are coming into power in our churches, sometimes with little sense of history and minus a theology of the church as a family. We have taught them to be served by the worship service (to expect their music and their methods) and now they are shaping our churches in their image.

In these two ways, –cult of personality and culture-driven worship services–the church is a reflection of the world it is trying to reach with the gospel. The seeds of these phenomena were sown into our young leaders when they were children.

Searching for Clues
So, what is next? Examine the curricula of the schools and of our own church classes. Watch the films and TV shows and listen to the music. The seeds of the next harvest of change are being sown today into the lives of our children through the schools and the media.

Are you depressed yet? Well, let me offer unfailing hope. We have an arsenal of weapons to fight this battle and win. They are not cultural, they are spiritual. We all know the words of Paul to which I refer. Let me chance an exercise in synonyms:

For though we walk in the (culture) we do not war according to the (culture.) For the weapons of our warfare are not (cultural) but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every (artifact of culture) that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. (Parenthesis and synonyms mine)

Now, don’t go out and punish professors or burn down movie theaters. Leave the punishing to God. In fact, that is the whole point of the passage—we must leave the whole thing to God! “’Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts’.” This verse is one of the most important passages in my Pentecostal tradition it is still so true. We worship and God does the work! Only God can change hearts. Only Jesus can tear down the walls of hostility between the generations or the ethnic groups within a congregation. The church must speak in the languages (textual and artistic) of the congregation and the community we are trying to reach. But we must remain, in the words of my mentor, Dr. Robert E. Webber, “a holy counter-culture.”

Principles and Directives
How do we determine from a biblical standpoint what should and should not be done in public worship? While many forms of cultural expression may be offered to the church as she sinks her roots deep into the different nations of the world, there have to be biblical, and therefore trans-cultural, truths that guide everyone. An important key is to properly apply scriptural truth is to know the differences between principles and directives.  I believe the New Covenant calls for public worship based on at least three non-negotiable, unchanging, trans-cultural principles.  Since these three things are presented as the ways of the Holy Spirit, they are always true, for everyone, everywhere.  These are the absolute truths of worship; in Francis Schaeffer’s language, they are the universals.

At the same time, the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) and the New Testament provide us with many directives.  These are either direct commands (“Sing to the Lord,” “Present your bodies as living sacrifices…” etc) or they are inspired accounts of someone whose worship pleased the Lord.  These are the relative truths. Sometimes the Spirit wants us to cry and other times He wants us to rejoice.  Other contradictory directives include:

  • fall down/rise up;
  • be still/move out;
  • be silent/cry aloud, etc.

In contrast to the universals (the principles), Francis Schaeffer would call these the particulars.

Three Principles
If all of these ways of worshiping are “scriptural,” how do we know when and where to do what?  Leaders and congregations need to be so thoroughly schooled in and sensitive to the ways of the Holy Spirit that we know when He is leading us to do something and when He is not. What are the three principles?

  1. True Worship is centered on Jesus, exalting him, not the worshiper.
  2. True Worship Edifies the whole church (“Edifies,” meaning the worship improves, moves forward, builds up, corrects, informs, inspires the Body of Christ.)
  3. True Worship is done decently and in order. It makes sense to the senses. It avoids emotionalism while moving the emotions. It challenges the intellect, rests the body and honors the Lord Jesus.

I believe these three ways of the Spirit are always true for every worship service anywhere, anytime. They become the tests of all potential modes of public worship whether they are directives from Scripture or cultural expressions without a biblical reference. Let’s practice this method of theological reflection.

A Practice Test
Problem: “I want to know if we should __________________in worship?” (Fill in the blank with anything you are wondering about.) Test Questions for Biblical Modes of Worship:

  1. “Does _______________________exalt the Lord Jesus centering everyone’s minds and hearts on him because of the true heart of the presenter and the Christ-centered content of the presentation?”
  2. “Does ________________________edify the whole church that is, move the church forward, inspire devotion to the Lord Jesus, spark humility from the presenter and repentance and/or seeking of God’s face from the observer?”
  3. “Does ___________________happen in a fitting and orderly way?  Is it done with the right heart, the correct content, and the proper motivation?  Does it connect to what happened before it and lead to what happens next?”

Test Questions for Non-Biblical Modes of Worship:
To evaluate culturally-based potential modes of worship not referred to in the Bible we turn to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We should test “whatsoever” comes before us by these tests in addition to the ones above:

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.


  1. “Can this be done in the name of Jesus? Is it consistent with His character and Kingdom?”
  2. “Is this worth doing with my whole life force?”
  3. “Can this be done as unto the Lord and not unto men?”

It is difficult to find a more inclusive term that “whatsoever” (KJV) or “whatever” (NIV.)
The scriptures equip us to judge whatsoever may come next in the light of eternity not just the momentary preferences of culture.

The Final Exam
Now we have a biblical examination tool for the judgment of any suggested mode of public worship:

  • If _________________ exalts the Lord not the presenter,
  • if it edifies the church,
  • if it is done in a fitting and orderly way,
  • if it is can be done in the name of Jesus,
  • if it can be done with integrity (the whole heart; biblical content)
  • if it can be done “to the Lord” and not to men,
  • Then, as and if the Spirit leads, it is possible that this expression can be of use to the Holy Spirit.

These are stringent tests to be sure, but shouldn’t they be?  Shouldn’t leaders be passionate, open, and careful in the ways we choose to lead people in worship?

Leading Change
We all know three of the great truths of the Reformation:

  1. The Authority of Scripture,
  2. Salvation by Faith,
  3. The Priesthood of the Believer, and
  4. Semper Reformanda—always reforming.

Today we still need these transformational truths. We also need to go on to the fourth great reformation principle: Semper Reformanda

It is not our job to perfect worship and pass it on to those who come behind. It is our job to reform worship by the book in our generation while raising up a thoughtful, passionate leaders who are biblical reformers for the next generation.

Resistance is futile.
It is futile to resist change. It is our job to lead change, biblical change and culturally relevant change. We need to Hold on to the whole family concept of the church expressed in the hymnal. We should listen to the culture of today on our IPods. It is right for us to gaze into the crystal ball and try to imagine the future as we examine what today’s children are being taught. Then, let us test all things by Scripture. While we are judging all things, Let us pour tons of truth into the worship you lead. Let us teach the children and youth the ways of the Spirit of God and the truths of the Word of God. As we truly worship God, He will raise up a generation of biblical reformers.

The Psalmist asked the relevant question:

Who may ascend the hill of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and vindication from God his Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
Ps 24:3-6NIV

In artistic languages we have not learned, with unforeseeable media and methods, if we hold to Scripture, this is what is next.

For more on how to lead change go to:

and its sequel:


Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

The Hymnal, the IPod, and the Crystal Ball


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