At the church I planted in Portland, OR, we generally sing two songs before the sermon and at least three songs after the sermon. For many people, this is odd, as they are accustomed to singing every song before the sermon. This has often prompted visitors to ask me, "Why?" In this blog I do my best to answer the question with five reasons why we save the bulk of our worship songs for after the preaching of God's Word, and why you might consider doing the same.
1. Jesus, not music, mediates between God and men.
In Ephesians 3:12 we are told that it is through Jesus and Jesus alone that we can approach God with freedom and confidence. Christians, of course, universally affirm this. Which is why I find the contemporary evangelical tradition to do the entire music set before the sermon a little odd. One of the primary reasons given for doing so is to "take the congregation into the presence of God" or "bring the presence of God into the church." Yet this is a pagan idea, not a Christian idea. Pagans believe that our offerings of worship, including music, are what draws us near to God or God near to us. This is contrary to the Bible's testimony that we are able to draw near to God through Jesus, not through our musical offerings, as he is the "one Mediator between God and mankind" (1 Tim 2:15).
This is not to say that churches who do all of their music up front are offering pagan worship. It is to say that the most common reason given for doing so is a pagan, not a Christian, reason. If we believe we have perpetual access to God's presence through Jesus, we believe we are already in His presence when the service begins. So, in this sense, it doesn't matter what we do first.
2. Worship is our response to God's revelation.
The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so it doesn't tell you a one sentence definition of "worship." Instead, it shows you its definition of worship in every part of its storyline. As you follow the thread of the biblical story, you find that worship is our human response to God's divine revelation. God reveals Himself to the Israelites through the Exodus, and they respond to His magnificent work with a song of worship (Exodus 15). God reveals himself to Job through a conversation, and Job responds with worshipful repentance (Job 42). Jesus reveals Himself as the crucified and risen Lord, and Thomas responds with the worshipful declaration, "My Lord and my God." We could go on forever, because the pattern is everywhere. This is simply what worship is: our response to God's revelation.
For this reason, there is advantage to saving the bulk of our church's worshipful response until after we have heard God's revelation through the preached Word. This makes our singing far more meaningful. We are not singing a song just because it's time to sing a song. We are singing a song because we are moved by what God revealed about Himself in the sermon, and we can't wait to sing to Him and about Him in response.
3. It allows us to model the appropriate response to God's Word.
Because every sermon is different, the appropriate response to every sermon is different. The appropriate response to one sermon might be humble repentance; to another, joyful celebration. And the appropriate response to a third sermon might be a prayer for God's help and power. Saving most of our songs until the end allows us to intentionally choose songs that match the appropriate response, so together we can model the proper response to what God has revealed about Himself on a given day.
4. We allow the congregation time to reflect.
Each week's sermon is a potentially life-changing experience. But this will only happen if you take the time to process what you have heard and carefully apply it to your life. Unfortunately, the standard evangelical service structure does not allow for that opportunity. Instead, almost immediately after the most powerful part of the sermon, church is "dismissed" and you have to go pick up your kids, or stop by the visitor table, or greet the people around you, or drive to your next engagement. You are never given the time to reflect on the 40 minute self-revelation God just spoke through the pastor. Saving most of our songs until the end protects us from this, and allows us at least 15 minutes to reflect on what God had just spoken before having to re-enter the busyness of life.
5. We tell a compelling story to visitors and members alike.
Our worship services are attended by religious people, irreligious people, and gospel people alike. Though these three groups of people have a lot of differences, they also have one thing in common: they all need the same thing from our worship service. Each group needs to hear the story of the gospel and its relevance to their present life. Placing the bulk of our songs at the end allows us to tell that story, not only through the sermon, but through the flow of the entire service. It ensures that the gathered church is not just singing, but knows both what we're singing and why we're singing.
This is something we believe we would miss by putting all of our songs up front. Our non-Christian attendees would not know why we "Bless the Lord, O My Soul." Our religious attendees would not know what we mean by "love" when we sing "How He Loves Us." Our gospel people may not remember why it's so important that we have an advocate "Before the Throne of God Above." Placing these songs after the sermon, in a strategic order, allows everyone to at least understand why we're singing what we're singing because they are part of the whole story being told that morning, rather than just a collection of fun songs to sing.
I have no problems with churches who choose to arrange their worship service a different way. For the most part, the Bible gives us the freedom to structure our services however we please. This is just the model I encourage you to consider for the above five reasons.
What do you think?