Extinguishing the Strange Fire: A Checklist for Corporate Worship by Jason Boothe

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. – Leviticus 10:1-3 (ESV)

The tragedy of the brother priests Nadab and Abihu serve to remind us of the exacting nature of God’s character. The result of offering unauthorized worship was severe and sudden as God sent fire from heaven to consume them! God’s indictment against the brother priests was sobering. Speaking through Moses, He declared, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” Clearly, the unauthorized fire was not sanctified or sanctioned by God. As a result, God’s wrath was poured out in judgment on the innovating priests as a witness for all time that God will only accept worship in accordance with His prescribed will.

While the circumstances surrounding worship have changed in light of Christ’s finished work of redemption, God’s standard for what elements are acceptable in public worship has definitely remained unchanged. Pastors and church leaders should do everything in their power to organize corporate worship around the clear teaching of the Scriptures, guarding their flocks from the constant tendency toward novelty, entertainment, and selfishness. Doing so demonstrates clear submission to the Word of God while providing the additional benefit of guarding the consciences of individual believers from the tyranny of man-centered innovation.

Pastors must evaluate each and every element of the corporate worship service to determine if each element fully accords with Scripture. Granted, the New Testament does not provide a model liturgy. But it is possible, however, to identify the elements of public worship utilized by the ancient brethren. The elements of worship clearly recorded in Scripture include congregational fellowship and singing, prayer, reading of the Scriptures, giving, teaching/preaching, and regular observance of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

I’ve prepared a checklist of sorts to encourage pastors to evaluate the elements of their corporate worship services in light of what we know the Bible clearly teaches. The genius of New Testament worship is found in its simplicity. Regular people gathering together to sing simple songs of faith with one another, read and study the Scriptures, pray, listen to the preaching of God’s Word, and participate in the ordinances: these are the elements of authorized worship to which Christians should commit ourselves with all heart, soul, mind, and strength.

1. Congregational Singing and fellowship

Each and every time a congregation meets for corporate worship, those redeemed souls ought to be given the opportunity to lift their voices corporately in musical praise to God. Sadly, this is not always the case in many churches. More often than not, organized choirs and special ensembles sing highly-rehearsed musical selections to the people, transforming the congregation from participant into the role of audience. Granted, congregations are oftentimes encouraged to sing along (words are provided in bulletins or on overhead screens). However, the congregation is expected to join in singing a song that took the skilled musicians and singers several full-length rehearsals to learn! To their credit, some in the congregation try to mumble along. Ultimately, however, the congregation ends up sitting back and listening to the pretty music.

We can guard against this tendency by intentionally utilizing music that is arranged for maximum congregational participation. In the old days, we called these hymns! There are wonderful modern worship songs that fit this bill as well. Once a song is determined to be doctrinally accurate, the next question should be whether or not the arrangement is suitable for congregational singing. Regardless if your church utilizes a hymn book, Psalter, or modern worship songs with lyrics displayed on an overhead projection system, make certain that the music offered to God in your corporate worship service provides for maximum congregational participation. Otherwise, your corporate worship service becomes a Christian music concert.

Pastors should also ensure that time is given for meaningful fellowship. Congregations should eat together on a regular basis. Ensure that ample time is provided before and after service for believers to freely enjoy one another in godly fellowship. This, coupled with prioritized congregational singing, makes for a stronger, more connected, body of believers. Truly, as we comfort one another in Christian fellowship, the Lord is glorified!

2. Prayer

Every corporate worship service should include prayer. Public prayer demonstrates not only our need for God’s presence in our lives, but also our submission to His will in all things. Public prayer is also important because, as a pastor or church leader prays publicly, he models prayer for younger believers. I first learned how to pray by listening to my pastors and Bible school teachers at church!

I pray over my congregation each Sunday, using the opportunity to remind them of God’s power to work in our world according to His sovereign purposes. Prayer must be an integral part of  the corporate worship service.

3. Reading of the Scriptures

Does your congregation sit under the reading of God’s Word each Sunday? Why do so many Bible-believing congregations read so little Scripture during worship services? Pastors, why not include the reading of select portions of the Bible in each and every worship service? Include passages from the Old as well as New Testaments. What a blessing it is to include the Scriptures in a purposeful and meaningful way!

4. Preaching/Teaching

Preaching and Teaching should be the primary act of worship during any corporate service. During the days leading up to the Reformation, preaching had taken such a back seat to pomp and pageantry, that many village churches in Europe had no preaching at all! In fact, people were so starved of preaching, that professional preachers would travel from town to town and make a good living doing what the churches failed to do!

Paul told Timothy to preach the Word! Nothing can replace the public preaching of God’s Holy Word. And yet preaching is one of the first casualties when other elements are introduced into the corporate worship service. In the interest of time, preaching is often cut short to make room for the latest worship novelty. Miming, interpretive dance, skits, comedy sketches, book reviews, poetry readings, and special musical performances all seem to take turns slicing into the preaching time.

Pastors, jealously guard the ministry of preaching and do not fail to preach each and every time you gather together as a church body.

5. The Ordinances

Does your church faithfully participate in the ordinances of the Lord? How often do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Do you have a set schedule or is it “hit and miss?”  Do you baptize new converts in a timely manner? In too many churches, “walking down an aisle” and prayer benches have replaced the public testimony of conversion in the waters of baptism.  Participating in the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism are essential elements of worship too often neglected. They are far too important to be relegated to the periphery of church life.

6. Giving

The New Testament is silent as to how much individual believers should give. However, pastors must teach their congregations the importance of giving as an act of worship. The Lord loves a cheerful giver! Whether individuals give of their time, talent, or treasure is incidental.  Many pastors can tell the story of the family that has little money to give, but faithfully shows up to clean the church every Saturday morning. More affluent believers generously donate monetarily. If everyone gives according to their means, the New Testament pattern is faithfully duplicated and God is glorified.

Conclusion

Our times of corporate worship are special, set apart by God’s own command that we “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together.” Worshiping together is our solemn duty as Christians. And the same God who commands us to worship provides for us those elements He expects us to employ during our worship time.

How tempting it is for pastors to play with the matches of unauthorized fire! Once lit, the strange fire quickly consumes the entire corporate worship experience. Congregational involvement is minimized to make room on the schedule for special performance-based music. Prayer time as well as the sermon are curtailed in order to give those few precious minutes over to the newly-formed drama team’s skit performance. Some Sundays, the sermon is skipped altogether to make room for full-blown stage plays or musical productions. Yet, we do not see examples of any of these elements employed in New Testament worship. They are elements of worship which “God has not commanded.”

So, if your church worship service is overrun with every novelty and innovation under the sun, why not take the time to honestly evaluate each element in the light of God’s Word. Your congregation will benefit greatly and your Gospel witness will shine brighter as a result.

Jason Boothe is Senior Pastor at Horizons Baptist Church of Piketon, Ohio. He is a graduate of Shawnee State University (B.A.), Grand Canyon University (M.Ed., M.A.) and Andersonville Seminary (Th.D.).

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