The Invisible Style

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Worship: Structure

The Invisible Style

Unseen, but Essential—the Reasonable Service of Spiritual Worship

Being Led in Worship vs. Leading Worship
For several years now I have been the guest speaker or simply an attendee, not the worship leader. I do my best to worship with whatever liturgy (song list) is presented to me. Much of the time, this is a rewarding experience. But once in a while, I just can’t get to the place where the worship leader seems to be. He or she seems to be enthralled by the wonders of the Holy of Holies while I am still trying get into the building from the parking lot. When I look around, I see many worshipers simply watching, not participating in a visible way. Sometimes the worship leader even fusses at us because we are not performing to his/her expectations. Where is the breakdown?

New Covenant Worship

Romans 12:1 AMP
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, and beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God,
to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and
faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and
well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent)
service and spiritual worship.

There is more to worship leading than stringing together great songs. New Covenant worship calls for a service of worship that is reasonable—one that makes sense, one with a dependable structure that facilitates any style of music as long as the music functions properly. Instead of a dependable inner structure of worship, too often I see what I call song-driven worship. Song-driven worship leading springs from a song-driven spirituality, an exaggerated emphasis on praise and worship songs themselves rather than the functionality and content of the songs. In other words, in song-driven worship, the worship service is really about the songs and how they make the worshipers feel as they sing. My mentor, Bob Webber, called this narcissistic worship. If we judge our worship leading by the response of the “audience,” we arrive at some dubious points of theology.

  • We look for songs that “get them going.”
  • We think only “contemporary songs can reach young people.”
  • We believe our job is to use “the latest and greatest songs of the hottest, newest worship leader’s newest CD.”
  • We hold to shallow formulas: “happy song, happy song, happy song; sad song, sad song, sad song.”
  • We consider congregational worship music a church growth tool.

Of course, as they always have been, new songs are an exciting part of God’s plan for worship today. However, God does not want the music, new or old, to be the driving force behind worship. He has reserved that spot for Himself. Instead of song-driven worship, New Covenant worship is Spirit-empowered and Truth-centered—in other words—worship in Spirit and Truth. Songs are gifts from the Holy Spirit to help us give thanks, praise God, love God, pray to God, and contemplate God’s glory so that we can be changed from “glory to glory” by the Holy Spirit. This brings substantive change, not just feeling good or feeling better. Song-driven worship leads to a random set of songs, great songs, perhaps, but randomly chosen and presented. This type of worship leading has no dependable inner structure to hold it up.

The Invisible Style

Seamless Storytelling: The Continuity Style
During Hollywood’s classical period, a particular type of storytelling was favored. It championed narrative economy and a seamless style. In other words, films were constructed so that the viewer was not aware of the construction. This practice of effacing a film’s construction actually depends on a complex system of visual codes, a visual syntax still taught in film schools. Though modern films frequently depart from the continuity style, this style remains a baseline standard of effective visual storytelling. (Karen Voss Copyright 2001American Film Institute)

In the classic years of Hollywood, the studios employed a strict style of narrative storytelling called “the invisible style.” Of course, it wasn’t invisible at all; it was right there on the screen. The point was to obscure the fact that the audience was watching a film. The camera never called attention to itself while the director showed you exactly what you needed to see with seamless editing, lighting and effects. Today it is difficult to find a film that doesn’t constantly remind you that it is, in fact, a movie. The camera never stops moving and computer generated images show us things that no human being could ever see. The style is far from invisible.

Romans 12:1 calls for a reasonable service of worship, one that follows a logical progression. Psalm 100 describes that reasonable service of worship.

Psalm 100 NIV
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his;we are his people,
the sheep of his pasture.Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

The psalmist’s instructions are based on the revelation of God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The tabernacle and temple worship structure was not just for the First Covenant; it was a picture of heaven itself and, as explained in Psalm 100, serves as a dependable, if invisible, structure for New Covenant worship:

  • The Gates to God’s presence are entered with thanksgiving.
  • The Outer Courts are for the proclamation of praise and for sacrifice and humility (altar of sacrifice.)
  • The Holy Place is for prayer (altar of incense) and the reading and preaching of the Word of God (table of bread of the presence) all in the light and power of the Holy Spirit (golden lamp-stand.)
  • The Holy of Holies (entered through the torn veil of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice) is the place of the exchange of our ungodliness for His holiness, our ill-health for His healing virtue; our confusion for His truth; and our weakness for His strength; it is the place of spiritual transformation.

The Outer Court-to-Inner Court sequence is the invisible structure of New Covenant worship:

  • We begin with thanksgiving. This helps us forget about our struggles to get to church and reminds us of God’s record of faithfulness in our lives.
  • We proceed to the proclamation of praise. This focuses our attention on who God is and begins our “contemplation” of His glory—the process which results in transformation in our lives. Forgetting about ourselves, we successfully make it in from the parking lot.
  • With thanksgiving and praise, we offer to the Lord our spiritual sacrifice of worship. The humility of offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, corresponds to the Old Covenant altar in the outer courts. Humility is the essence of worship. The Outer Courts are filled with praise.
  • At this point, we pass into the Inner Courts as the Lord responds to our sacrifices with the gift of His manifest presence. As believers have always done, we respond to His manifest presence with expressions of worship: adoration, commitment, awe and wonder. The Holy Place and the Holy of Holies are places of worship: prayer, reverence, adoration, pledges of commitment.

The Progression of New Covenant Worship
New Covenant worship is a progression from His general presence into His manifest presence. Worship leaders who put songs together without this structure are taking great risks. First among the risks is placing a song outside of its functional place. Not every up tempo song is a Gate or Outer Court song. Many worship leaders try to start a service with a song from the Holy Place or even the Holy of Holies—songs of prayer and adoration. This may be wonderful for the worship team but it doesn’t help the people in the pews. The worship team members got to church an hour before everyone else and have already sung through the song set a couple of times. It may even be the second or third service they have done that morning. They are already through the gates and outer courts while the rest of the people are stuck out on the parking lot. Worshipers need gate songs and outer court songs to help them focus on God and not all the distractions involved in getting to church or standing for an extended period of time.

Just as the old Hollywood style of storytelling worked for every genre from screwball comedies to westerns to war movies to musicals to highbrow comedies to adaptations of great literature, the reasonable service of worship, demanded by the New Covenant and described in the Psalms, will help you and your people “come before Him with joyful songs.” The tabernacle model supports any musical style or convergence of styles and provides worshipers the help they need to worship the Lord in Spirit and Truth. The biblical structure of praise before worship, born in an ancient vision God’s dwelling place in heaven, serves as our invisible style—a structured response to the revelation of God that does not call attention to its structure. If not the songs, or the worship leader or the band or the singers or the pastor, what will be seen? The Lord Himself, revealed in the prophetic songs that speak of Him; the King coming through the everlasting gates of thanksgiving we have lifted to Him; and The Sun of Righteousness rising with healing in His wings.

There is more to leading worship than stringing together great songs.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

The Invisible Style

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